river rocks partly submerged in still water

Revise and resubmit the paper... again??

One morning, in my second year of grad school, I opened my email to find a note from Sidney, a professor I'd worked for a while back:

"Reopening this old thread ... Someone requested the paper ... looking through it again I thought it was a damn good paper. We should definitely resubmit. What do you think?"

What did I think? After rejections from several journals two years prior, and over 30 revisions (I lost count), thinking about that particular unpublished paper made me feel tired. I'd finally given up on it as a lost cause. Its fate was to forever be one of those learning experiences that was probably valuable, but ultimately showed no tangible result and felt like a waste of time.

I tried ignoring the email while I drank a cup of tea and tended to the rest of my inbox. It nagged.

Really? A damn good paper? Maybe revising it again and resubmitting wouldn't be so bad. Sure, every round of reviewers had their own ideas of where any given paper should go and would nitpick different things, but we had already fixed so many minor errors and clarified potential points of confusionā€¦ I liked the idea of having something to show for all my effort on the paper so far. Or was this line of reasoning an instance of the sunk costs fallacy? (That is: I'd put so much work in so far, I should put in more work instead of cutting my losses.)

The First Draft

I had gotten a year-long job as a research intern straight out of college. I'd enjoyed my undergrad research experiences and liked the idea of getting more experience while applying to grad school. So I joined Sidney's lab. I shadowed his grad students, worked on odd bits of many different projects, ran participants through experimental studies, and learned about research at the intersection of psychology and computer science.

One day, Sidney handed me the project that became the damn good paper. He and a colleague had an algorithm and some software that their labs had used to track human body motion in a couple studies. He wanted to verify that the software worked as intended—i.e., that it tracked body motion from video in a way comparable to some other sensors. So, the plan was to collect some clean data with a camera and those other sensors. Compare the output. Run the software on a couple existing datasets that had captured body motion in video and with other sensors. Write it up, cite the paper whenever he used the software in future projects, open source the software so other folks could use it, too.

Sidney was a powerhouse writer. This was my first proper academic paper. He gave me the reins of the project and said he'd check in later.

In retrospect, having supervised a number of undergrad research assistants during my PhD, the project was a classic "give it to the student who wants experience, I don't have time for it, but like the idea of it being finished someday" project. (I have a growing list of theseā€¦) It was a good bet on Sidney's part—I took ownership. I wanted to learn how to put together a good paper.

I collected the data. We talked over an outline, and I started writing. We went back and forth on drafts a dozen times. Sidney picked a journal to submit to and sent me a couple cover letters as examples. When we got reviews back, he explained how they weren't so bad (they looked bad), and gave me some example revision response letters for when I revised the paper and drafted a reply.

But it took a while. The reviewers weren't happy. Ultimately, they rejected it. The next journal was a desk reject. And so on. Eventually, when I left Sidney's lab and started my PhD program at MIT, I left the paper, too.

The Words Aren't Right Yet

Thanks to Twitter, around the time I got Sidney's email asking about resubmission, I found myself reading the blog of science fiction and fantasy author Kameron Hurley. I enjoy her books in large part because of the gruesome realism about life and survival: characters who make it to the end of a book alive are the ones who are winning.

In one post, Kameron Hurley wrote about her experiences as a professional copywriter. She wrote words for other people for a living. She talked about a manager trying to "gently" give her feedback from a client, to which she replied: Don't mince words. Give it to me. If the words are wrong, write them until they are the right words. It was literally her job to make the words right for that client. If they weren't right, they needed revision. She needed the client's hard-hitting feedback.

Her attitude toward writing was inspirational. Her post reminded me that the words on the page aren't me. They're just one attempt at communicating an idea through the imperfect and difficult medium of language. If that communication attempt fails, we are given the opportunity to try again. As Hurley put it, "You write until the words are the right ones."

If we care about communicating our ideas, then the revision process can be a conversation. The goal is to make the writing better. The goal is to improve the presentation of ideas. The goal is to make the words right.

Writing isn't a one-time action. It's not like baking a cake—mix the ingredients, pop it in the oven, and it's done. Writing is a process. Editing is part of that process.

Reviewer feedback, like any other feedback, is aimed at making the writing better—and like any other feedback, it may need to be taken with a grain of salt. There are myriad ways to present ideas. People encounter ideas from where they are at; they may need different amounts of detail or supporting information to understand your words. And that's okay. Learning to judge your audience is a skill that takes practice, too.

Revision and Resubmission

I revised the paper for what felt like the millionth time. This time, though, it wasn't as bad as I had feared. In fact, the two years that had passed had lent me much-needed distance from the paper. As I re-read the reviewer comments from our last rejection, all the comments felt addressable. I could see where the words weren't right.

My co-authors commented and gave feedback. I revised the paper more. We submitted it to a new journal. Major revisions. We resubmitted. Major revisions. We resubmitted. Finally, the words were almost right: Minor revisions. And then it was published.

It's not the paper I'm most proud of, but it is a paper that taught me more than most. When I look at work I have in progress now—like a paper that's now on its 15th+ version, second journal, fifth year of work—I try to remember that academic publishing is often a long process. I try to remember that if the words aren't right yet, then with more time, effort, practice, and feedback, I can get a little closer to making the words right. Even a paper I'd initially given up on could be vanquished.

This article originally appeared on the Resilience in Academic Writing Blog, March 29, 2020


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close up of a hand wearing a silver and black MIT ring

I've officially finished at MIT!

I've even got a ring to prove it. And some cool letters to tack on to my name.

I defended my dissertation in December. I finished all the revisions my committee had requested in February. The official graduation was in June.

My grad school admissions essay started off with the line, "I'm going to grad school because it'll be fun." I was right. At the MIT Media Lab, I worked on fluffy robots that helped young kids learn language skills through storytelling and play, an endeavor that included forays into art, robot voice acting, philosophy and ethics, psychology, child development, cognitive science, programming, electronics, statistics, and not a small amount of writing. It was a wonderful opportunity to both dabble and dive deeply.

Reaching this milestone wouldn't have been possible without the help and support of a great many people, most of whom I hope I remembered to add to the acknowledgements section of my dissertation. (If I forgot someone, there is written in the final document a promise of compensatory cupcakes.) You can find a pdf copy of my dissertation here.

As for what's next...


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Why is having kids, moving out of the city, and following an unusual path a waste?

Randy, Elian at 8 months (sporting his lab t-shirt!, and I

"She's worried you'll waste your degree."

My friend (let's call her Anna) relays this message to me as coming from another friend, but I can tell from her tone of voice that she's clearly worrying about the same potential waste. That makes the question doubly irritating. As if pretending to be merely the messenger could disguise the passive-aggressive way of questioning my life decisions. Decisions which, I might add, I'm pretty darn happy with.

The primary decisions in question are these:

First, I had a baby in grad school. I'm growing another tiny human now, in fact—I gave my defense talk while 6 month pregnant! Evidently, instead of seeing this as a badass feat of time management and life balance, Anna took it as ultra-clear proof that childbearing, not science, is my ultimate goal in life, since the two clearly aren't compatible. As if there aren't amazing examples to the contrary, like two of my committee members, who are inspiring women with three kids apiece.

Second, while finishing my last semester of writing, I moved to a town that Anna has frequently referred to as "the middle of nowhere," despite it having a regional population in the 200,000's, as well as a branch of a state university. Maybe she thinks "middle of nowhere" really refers to how far you are from a large number of appropriately ethnic restaurants? Being out west, up in the skinny part of Idaho with the abundance of beautiful clear lakes, pine-filled mountainsides, and a peaceful pace of life has been wonderful. Less stressful. It's a nice place for writing, and a nice place for families.

And then, there's the somewhat non-traditional plan for my post-MIT life. It's not perfectly mapped out, but it will certainly involve my husband and I homeschooling/unschooling our kids, coming up with flexible work arrangements so we can travel more and spend more time with family, and having a high degree of independence. My husband's current software-as-a-service company is a good start. We have some other ideas, too—after all, leaving MIT and Boston doesn't mean I'm leaving research or a creative, intellectual life.

Given those decisions, well, of course! Getting a degree is a waste! If my life plan does not follow the norm, if it does not include seeking out a high-paying industry job in a big city or a prestigious professorship at an R1 school while placing my kids in daycare and coercive schooling for upwards of 14000 hours, then of course, I'm wasting my degree.

But isn't a big part of the point of grad school learning? Learning about project management. Developing writing skills. Doing independent research. Asking interesting questions. Pursuing ideas. Managing time, balancing multiple commitments, and being involved in many activities I care about. Whether or not I then use those skills to pursue any of the most common paths out of grad school isn't the point. What I learned will still serve me well in future endeavors—writing papers and essays, consulting, hiking in the mountains, self-funding our startups, blogging, gardening, reading philosophy, advocating for self-directed education, or spending time with the people who really matter to me.

The implicit assumption Anna had that "wasting my degree" is even possible is, frankly, an insult. She identifies as a feminist. Isn't feminism supposed to be about empowering and supporting women in making life choices that are right for them?

Grad school was one step that was right for me. Having kids I actually spent time with, moving out of the city, pursuing whatever creative, intellectual, maternal, or domestic activities I happen to want to do next...? Also right for me. Sorry to disappoint, Anna.

This article originally appeared on the MIT Graduate Student Blog, March 2019


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me wearing a red dress holding tega, a fluffy red and blue robot

Undervaluing hard work in grad school

Wow, you're at MIT? You must be a genius!"

Um. Not sure how to answer that. Look down at my shoes. Nervous laugh.

"Uh, thanks?"

The random passerby who saw my MIT shirt and just had to comment on my presumed brilliance seems satisfied with my response. Perhaps the "awkward genius" trope played in my favor?

See, I'm no genius. And I'll let you in on a little secret: Most of us at MIT aren't inherent geniuses, gliding by on the strength of a vast, extraordinary intellect.

We're not born super smart. Instead, we do things the old-fashioned way: with copious amounts of caffeine, liberally applied elbow grease, and emphatic grunts of effort that would make a Cro-Magnon proud.

The reality on campus is not exactly the effortless, glamorous image the media likes to paint. You know, headlines like:

  • MIT physicists create unbelievable new space dimension!
  • MIT scientists discover that chocolate and coffee cure cancer!
  • MIT engineers fly to the moon in a ship they built out of carbon nanotubes and crystal lattices!
  • Look, it's MIT! Land of the Brilliant, the Inventive, the Brave!

The reality is more like the Land of the Confused, the Obstinate, and the "Let's try it again and see if maybe it works this time so we can get at least one significant result for a paper!"

Yes, I'm exaggerating a little. I have, after all, met a ton of amazing, brilliant people here -- but they're amazing and brilliant because of their effort, curiosity, tenacity, and enthusiasm. Not their inherent genius. None of them are little cartoon figures with cartoon lightbulbs flashing around them like strobe lights as they are struck with amazing idea after amazing idea.

They're people like my labmate, who routinely shows up late to group meetings because he accidentally stays up all night trying to implement some cool machine learning algorithm he found in an obscure-but-possibly-relevant paper (eventually, I'm sure, the effort will pay off!).

They're people like my professors, who set aside entire days each week just for meeting with their students, to hash out ideas and go over paper drafts.

They're people like me, who spend 260% more effort than strictly necessary on making a child-robot interaction flow right, even though the study would probably be fine with subpar dialogue (for the curious: I work on fluffy robots that help kids learn stuff).

The reality is long hours in the library—reading papers, trying to understand what other people have already done and how it relates to my research—and long hours in the lab—trying to put that understanding to use (often learning in the process that I didn't really understand something after all and should probably do more reading).

I think MIT's reputation as being full of inherent geniuses gives many of us the short stick and fails to recognize the sheer amount of hard work and failure that goes into nearly every discovery and invention that's made. Sure, sometimes people get lucky.

There are certainly a few things that someone got right the first time, but let's be honest. The last time my Python code ran on the first try, I went looking for bugs anyway because that never happens (and I was right; hours later, there were still bugs aplenty). Likewise, the last time I got a really interesting experimental result, it was after months of thinking and re-planning, months of programming and testing on the robot, and months of wrangling participants in the lab. All the amazing insights that show up in the final paper draft only come after a lot of analysis, realizing the analysis missed something, rewriting all the R code to do the analysis right, and re-analyzing.

Think of it this way, if a PhD student has signed on to work in a lab for the next indefinite-but-hopefully-only-five-or-maybe-seven years (with a small stipend if they're lucky) and have no idea what magical, impactful dissertation topic will be their ticket out, they're probably already one of those people who likes a challenge. Maybe perseverance is their middle name.

And that's what I think being at MIT is actually about: Learning to fail, struggling to succeed, and knowing the value in the struggle.

Of the real "geniuses" I know, they're people who just want to know what's going on and are okay with doing a lot of hard work to find out.

They're people who keep asking "and then what? and then what?" after they learn something, and spend months or years chasing down answers. For example: "So I find that 5-year-olds mirror the robot's phrases when playing storytelling games with it, and learn more when they do—Why? What does this say about rapport and peer learning? What modulates this effect? What are the implications for educational technology more generally?"

They're people who dive wholeheartedly into each rabbit hole to see how far it goes and what useful tidbits of scientific knowledge can be gleaned along the way.

They're people who keep probing. Sometimes, that leads to dramatic headlines. More often, it doesn't.

This article originally appeared on the MIT Graduate Student Blog, February 2018


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Northeast Conference Champions

That's right: For the first time in program history, the VC Women's Fencing team has triumphed over the other schools in our conference!

I just wanted to give us a shoutout. We've been having a great season, going 30-6 so far -- certainly the best in my time at Vassar, both personally and as a team. This was a good year for it, too. I'm going to miss the team when I graduate.

Take a look at the official Vassar Athletics story!


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