On Academic Talks

I am beginning to suspect that most academics do not want to be heard. This is a paradox, given the number and regularity of academic talks. Indeed, some experts estimate that at least eighty thousand academic talks occur at any given moment, and that some three quarters of these are designed to fill up a time slot during the week which simply must be filled, lest we begin to think about what we used to do before meetings were invented. Most of the remainder are to distract the attendees from distressing events such as grant rejections, increases in conference fees, or foreign armies parachuting onto campus. Academic talks, like most variations of committee work, are becoming a polite form of debauch.

No matter. Regardless of how many talks they give, I still think these students, these professors, these men and women, do not want to be heard. Which is too bad. A talk, for me at least, is a chance to see, hear, and possibly smell the person behind the research. A talk injects red-blooded humanity into an enterprise which would rapidly become sterile without it. Journal articles and book chapters at best radiate a kind of cool elegance. Academic writing only tells me about what they think; I want to know more about what they feel. Where their passions lie. And when someone is talking to me in the same room they can't help but show some of those emotions, giving me a sense of why they are doing what they do in the first place.

Yet some of them would deny me even that pleasure. They talk to their laptop, or to the slides, but not to me. They use small font I can't read; complicated diagrams I can't follow; color schemes and animations that are in bad taste. I would be willing to forgive most of this if I could actually hear what they were saying. Usually I can't.

That has led me to outline six simple ways to improve a talk, any of which can be used profitably:

1. Suspense! If it is to have any worth at all, if it is to function as a stimulant and not a narcotic, a talk needs to have that essential ingredient of any effective story, which is suspense. When hearing a good story, the listener always wants to know what happens next: Who is this character, and what are his motivations? Why is there a note on the table and what does it say? What's the deal with those last two or three pages at the end of a book that are intentionally blank? So it is with good talks.

2. Dress well! A well-dressed speaker is a confident speaker, and a confident speaker is an engaging speaker. When in doubt, follow these "quick tips" on how to dress:

  • For Men:
    • Right way: Sport coat, open collar dress shirt, loafers, good pair of jeans.
    • Wrong way: Graphic tee with the words, "Legalize It."
  • For Ladies:
    • Right way: Pantsuit
    • Wrong way: Jeggings

3. Take notes! To be specific, have a friend take notes about you during your talk. Ideally, this should be a friend who is "brutally honest," also known as "being insufferable and pretentious when pointing out your flaws, and having it hurt even more because, deep down, you know he's right." Some people also refer to this person as "Dan."* No matter how much it hurts, remember that if you want to improve, you need to learn how to take criticism graciously! Also remember that when it's all over you can cut "Dan" out of your life completely.

4. Practice! The speaker putting together his slides at the last minute is guaranteed to embarrass himself and waste the audience's time. Since one of the major goals in life is to not be that one person everybody hates, avoid this by having your slides ready days in advance and doing at least two or three run-throughs ahead of time - preferably, in front of a live audience that includes Dan.

5. Eye contact! Try making eye contact with different people during your talk, but be careful of making eye contact for too little or too long. When in doubt, consult the following chart to make sure you hit the "sweet spot":

  • 1-2 seconds: Too little!
  • 2-5 seconds: Just right!
  • 5-10 seconds: Too much!
  • 10-15 seconds: Restraining order!
  • More than 15 seconds: This might be normal for, say, a serial killer

6. Lastly, find speakers you admire - and then imitate them. Really. Nothing helps your style more. Note their posture, the cadence of their voice, the way they carry themselves. Some rely more on humor, others have more of a quiet confidence; some tell stories that move the talk along, others tell you the point of the talk right away and never let you lose focus of it. But they all keep you wanting to know what happens next. They keep you in suspense.

Do not mistake this as recommending the substitution of humor for substance, of histrionics for actual thought. (The results are usually awful.) All I ask is that a speaker think about how he would want to be talked to, and then think about how seriously he has to prepare to meet that standard. Only then he begins to realize the gravity of his situation, no matter how small the talk or how low the stakes. In fact the stakes, when he thinks about it, are quite high. A typical one-hour talk attended by twenty of his colleagues can be either satisfyingly filled or grossly wasted, and a few simple calculations reveals a spread of forty attention-hours - a tremendous responsibility - all hinging on one man's decision about whether he actually wants to tell something and be heard. His choice is one between a successful talk and a crashing bore.

Now, I've witnessed more crashing bores than I would like to remember, and I've delivered more than I would like to admit. The fact is that there are far, far too many, and each one inflicts a serious loss on the audience - the loss of an hour they won't get back. (Were we not so complacent about what to expect out of a talk, we might feel more indignation.) Would they have wasted that hour anyway? Maybe. But a bad talk guarantees it.

*I specifically refer here to my labmate.

An Interview with Reviewer #2

Peer review, the cherished academic tradition of having your work criticized by anonymous angry people, is an excellent chance for you to see your prose violated in public. According to one publisher, peer review also helps "increase networking opportunities," in that after having your paper reviewed you will become very, very interested in finding out the names and addresses of all your reviewers.

The reviewing panel consists of two or three reviewers, known by their pseudonyms "Reviewer #1," "Reviewer #2," "Johnny Two-Knuckles," "Icepick Willie," and so on. As everyone knows, the review process tends to be a "good-cop, bad-cop" routine, with Reviewer #1 being nice and lenient - pointing out you shouldn't use Comic Sans font, for instance - while Reviewer #2 is so offended to read your paper that he thinks you should, in so many words, die.

Reviewer #2 is in fact a man named Gary who owns a hardware store in Winnipeg. Although no longer in academia, Gary is still the man who can be counted on, when the chips are down, to write a scathing review of whatever he's reading. Editors scramble to recruit Gary when confronted with a paper they may have to accept, and he is regularly solicited for freelance reviewing. This week we caught up with Gary at his summer home on the banks of Lake Manitoba.


Andy's Brain Blog: How did you become interested in reviewing?

Gary: I took a psychology class in college where we critiqued each other's class projects that were written like scientific articles. Then we anonymously reviewed each other's papers. The professor was impressed that I managed to reject every single paper that I read, and that I also managed to make unnecessary remarks about the author's intelligence and work ethic. At the time I didn't even know what rejecting a paper meant. It just came naturally to me. He put in a good word for me at Elsevier.

ABB: And what happened then?

Gary: Well, I began reviewing everything I read. One time I got so into it that I ended up reviewing the back of a cereal box. It was an accident, but the review was accepted anyway. Two employees at General Mills got fired because of it.

ABB: Wow.

Gary: Yeah. There were grammatical mistakes on there like you wouldn't believe. I couldn't follow the logic of how solving a word game would help Buzz escape from a bank vault full of honey. And the figures were atrocious.

ABB: What was the most memorable review you ever did?

Gary: It's funny you ask, because just last week I returned from the annual Reviewer's Gala in Manhattan. It's a private party for those who have the highest rate of rejecting manuscripts, with awards given for achievements like Most Papers Rejected, Most Brutal Review, Most Irrelevant Comment, and so on. This year I won the prize for Most Hurtful Comment, which went something like: "Writing this paper didn't make you a terrible scientist - you were born one." When the emcee read that line, the audience went wild.

ABB: What is the most ridiculous comment you've ever gotten someone to address?

Gary: I'm not that good at making crazy requests, but one of my fellow reviewers - Carl - can get people to do almost anything. One of his comments was, and I quote: "This is a strong paper, but I think it would be even stronger if, for some reason, all of the authors did the gallon challenge, and uploaded a video of it to YouTube. Now obviously you don't have to do this, but you should, because I am a reviewer."

ABB: They actually did that?

Gary: Yeah. One of them had to go to the hospital. Carl felt pretty bad about that one.

ABB: What advice would you give to a first-time reviewer?

Gary: Rejecting a paper takes a tremendous amount of courage. We've all had the temptation to accept a paper because the science was "solid," or because the logic was "air-tight," or because one of the authors secretly gave us "money." Be firm! I find that I write my best reviews when I'm pissed off about something that has nothing to do with the paper, such as getting something in the mail about taxes.

ABB: You owe a lot of taxes?

Gary: No, I just found out about them, as a concept. They're ridiculous. That's the kind of thing I'm talking about that will get you in the right mood to review a paper.

ABB: Have you ever accepted a paper?

Gary: No.

ABB: Never?

Gary: Never-ever.

ABB: Never even come close?

Gary: Well, there have been a few times. Maybe if one of the authors had the same last name as a celebrity I like, such as Barry Manilow or Kenny G. But other than that, no.

ABB: How long does it take you to write a review?

Gary: Not long. I have a template that I follow, which is a lot like Mad-Libs. For example, "This is an interesting [study / review / prophecy], but I find the [results / figures / theology] unconvincing because I am [an expert / a skeptic / a nun]." Things like that.

ABB: So, how long does it take to get back to the authors? A couple of days? A week?

Gary: No, no, nothing like that. The review takes a couple of days at the most, but you can't let the editor think that you're just blowing through it. I sit on it for at least a few months.

ABB: What are your strategies for writing a review? Is it to always go negative, or what?

Gary: Well, you have to be careful about that. Writing only negative comments raises suspicions that you're taking out your own frustrations and lack of success on the authors instead of addressing their arguments. I aim for a mix of negative comments, nitpicking, and vague sentences. Vague sentences are great, because the authors aren't going to admit that they don't understand what you're saying. Asking an academic to be clear is like asking him to take his clothes off - it's a rude request, almost obscene. So instead they reply as though they understood perfectly what you were saying. It's amazing to see how they try to interpret what is in fact nonsense.

ABB: Can you give an example?

Gary: Sure. Let me see - here's one: "Among the considerations that arise at this stage are the likelihood that the manuscript would seem of considerable interest to those working in the same area of science and the degree to which the results will stimulate new thinking in the field, although we cannot be persuaded of the justifiability, synergy, or translatability of how these results integrate with the conclusions and narrative of Fensterwhacker et al, 2009. Are you professional. Also, you spelled 'their' wrong (should be 'they're': p. 19)."

ABB: I have no idea what that means.

Gary: Exactly.

ABB: How do they respond?

Gary: Usually they begin with something like "We thank the reviewer for their insightful comment," or "We are just thrilled by this excellent suggestion," or "I simply cannot wait to meet this reviewer in person and show him how incredibly, insanely grateful I am, which in no way would include kidnapping his dog." It's interesting how far someone will bend over backwards to address a comment that could've been written by a complete space loon.

ABB: Why do you keep doing this? You're not in academia anymore.

Gary: I try to focus on the big picture. I think that by irritating so many people, everybody will have something in common to talk about. Then they can bond over their shared frustrations and challenges. It makes academia more like a family, except in the sense of being related to or liking or caring about one another.

ABB: Gary, thanks for your time.

Gary: You spelled "your" wrong.

Important Announcement from Andy's Brain Blog

Even though I assume that the readers of this blog are a small circle of loyal fanatics willing to keep checking in on this site even after I haven't posted for months, and although I have generally treated them with the same degree of interest I would give a Tupperware container filled with armpit hair, even they are entitled to a video update that features me sitting smugly with a cheesy rictus pasted on my face as I list off several of my undeserved accomplishments, as well as giving a thorough explanation for my long absence, and why I haven't posted any truly useful information in about a year. (Hint: It starts with a "d", and rhymes with "missertation.")

Well, the wait is over! Here it is, complete with a new logo and piano music looping softly in the background that kind of sounds like Coldplay!

For those of you who don't have the patience to sit through the video (although you might learn a thing or two about drawing ROIs with fslmaths, which I may or may not have covered a while back), here are the bullet points:

  • After several long months, I have finished my dissertation. It has been proofread, edited, converted into a PDF, and sent out to my committee where it will be promptly filed away and only skimmed through furiously on the day of my defense, where I will be grilled on tough issues such as why my Acknowledgements section includes names like Jake & Amir.
  • A few months ago I was offered, and I accepted, a postdoctoral position at Haskins Laboratories at Yale. (Although technically an independent, private research institution, it includes the name Yale in its web address, so whenever anybody asks where I will be working, I just say "Yale." This has the double effect of being deliberately misleading and making me seem far more intelligent than I am.) I recently traveled out there to meet the people I would be working with, took a tour of the lab, walked around New Haven, sang karaoke, and purchased a shotgun and a Rottweiler for personal safety reasons. Well, the Rottweiler more because I'll be pretty lonely once I get out there, and I need someone to talk to.
  • When I looked at the amount of money I would be paid for this new position, I couldn't believe it. Then when I looked at the amount of money I would be paying for rent, transportation, excess nosehair taxes (only in a state like Connecticut), shotgun ammunition, and dog food, I also couldn't believe it. Bottom line is, my finances will not change considerably once I move.
  • A new logo for the site has been designed by loyal fanatic reader Kyle Dunovan who made it out of the goodness of his heart, and possibly because he is banking on bigtime royalties once we set up an online shop with coffee mugs and t-shirts. In any case, I think it perfectly captures the vibe of the blog - stylish, cool, sleek, sophisticated, red, blue, green, and Greek.
  • Lastly, I promise - for real, this time, unlike all of those other times - to be posting some cool new techniques and tools you can use, such as slice analysis, leave-one-out analysis, and k-means clustering (as soon as I figure that last one out). Once I move to Connecticut the focus will probably shift to more big data techniques, with a renewed emphasis on online databases, similar to previous posts using the ABIDE dataset.
  • I hope to catch up on some major backlogging with emails, both on the blog and on the Youtube channel. However, I can't promise that I will get to all of them (and there are a LOT). One heartening development is that more readers are commenting on other questions and posts, and helping each other out. I hope that the community continues to grow like this, which will be further bonded through coffee mugs and t-shirts with the brain blog logo on it.

How to Secure a Job in Academia

Ending graduate school and going on the job market is a terrifying prospect, especially for those nursing at the teat of a graduate student stipend. Sure, it's not an especially large amount of money, but it gets you by, pays for rent, pays for the food, and possibly pays for Netflix. The only reason you would leave it is for the more attractive teat of a professor's salary, which, if you hit the jackpot and receive tenure, you will get for the rest of your life. That is, unless you screw up bigtime by neglecting your teaching and research duties, have destructive affairs with your students, and in general completely abuse the purpose of tenure.

I am, of course, joking. There's no way you would ever lose tenure. That's why it's so popular: You can act however you want and nobody can do anything to stop you. Seriously. The U.S. military is currently experimenting with granting soldiers tenure, complete with sabbaticals every three years, and finding that they become invincible on the battlefield.

Obviously, then, securing a tenure-track job is important. If nothing else, you will need something to do for the next few decades of your life before you begin to decay and die. The rest of your friends have jobs, some of them on Wall Street. You're never quite sure what it is that they do, since most of the pictures you see of them, from what you can make out, involve cocaine-fueled orgies with celebrities. Still, they have jobs. They have purpose. The purpose of life, actually - and this is what everyone, deep down, believes in their core - is to have a secure job that pays well and that everyone else admires, even envies. The best jobs (and this is especially true in modern democracies) will dole out prizes regularly, and, ideally, you will get those prizes. 

This is the meaning of life. Anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong. I am right. The notion that there could be anything more to life is pernicious, even hateful, and you will remove it from your mind. I permit you to find the leisure time to read books, go to the opera, appreciate art, take up yoga, become politically involved, choose to become religious or to become an atheist, determine what your values are, form meaningful relationships. These activities will make you feel like a swell person, like an authentic human being, and you will derive much pleasure from comparing how well-rounded and how thoughtful you are to others. But one must never lose sight of what matters.

That is why I recommend using the website theprofessorisin.com to build your job application. The website is managed by Dr. Karen Kelsky, who has had literally oodles of experience reviewing job applications and has a nose for what works and what does not work. Everybody uses her site. Everybody. If you do not use her site, you will fail. Failure means not getting the job, which means you will not have purpose in your life.

You should be terrified at this prospect. You may think there are alternatives. There are no alternatives. The most successful tyranny does not suppress alternatives, it removes awareness of alternatives. This is me establishing a tyranny over you. You will obey. This is easy, since you have already been conditioned to feel this way by graduate school. You love jobs, prizes, and the acclaim of your peers; you are horrified by poverty, debt, shame. It is natural. Everyone feels it, no matter what they do. I have known scores of individuals desperately trying to lead bohemian existences, but in the end they all came back to the importance of a good job. Even those who most fervently preach the ideal of nonconformity, sincerity, and independence of mind, are those who, underneath their outrageous behavior and wild external adornments, lead the most traditional and safest of lives. For all of the exotic places they travel to, for all the louche connections they boast about, their internal lives are flat, their sexual lives withered. It is not the divine madness Socrates praised, nor is it the direct, immediate, nonintellectual perception of reality so highly prized by Lawrence. It is a stopgap, a rearguard action; merely something to fill up the vile lacuna in the middle of their existence.

But I digress. What I mean to say is that you should follow my orders for getting a job. Following my orders is not weakness. It is rational. You will want to get the job, so you will go to the website I just gave you. You will follow its instructions. You will both smile and cringe at the anecdotes which hit close to home for you. You will compare its examples with what you have written, and find out where you are wrong and she is right.

The reason for all of this is to be secure. There was a time where desiring this above all else was considered cowardly, pusillanimous, and shameful, but that was then. This is now. You may sneer at all of this, but you know that I am right. You may have faint stirrings of indignation that rebel against everything I have said, but you will still do what I say. Do this, and you will be happy. The notion that happiness consists in anything else is laughable. Happiness is promised by health, security, and a sound mind; not by Plato, Dickens, and Hemingway. Give men bread, and then ask of them virtue.

How to Write a Dissertation Prospectus

Before beginning work on a dissertation, one has to put together and submit a prospectus, which is from the ancient Greek pro, meaning "Stuff," and spectus, meaning "One who writes." A prospectus is, in condensed form, what you will be writing about in your dissertation. This provides your dissertation committee, over a period of roughly two presidential administrations, a chance to read a brief, concise, single-spaced 50-page report about whether they should take the trouble to read a future dissertation that, for practical purposes, is measured not in pages but metric tons. Some students, knowing that a picture is worth a thousand words, merely substitute a diagram to helpfully outline what will be covered in their dissertation:

For those of us who aren't savvy enough with Google Images to produce an informative picture, however, we will need to rely on good, old-fashioned scientific prose. But first, let's cover the basic structure of your prospectus. Remember, by following these time-tested principles and recommendations, you will at least somewhat entertain your committee before they reject your dissertation proposal as completely ridiculous and holding about as much scientific merit as a can of Cheez-Whiz.

1. The Cover Page

A strong prospectus starts out with a cover page, containing the title of your dissertation, the names of the members of your dissertation committee, and possibly a dedication to someone who has had an immense and positive influence on your life, such as your parents, your girlfriend, or Tony Soprano. Feel free to embellish your cover page with depictions of cherubs and muses.

Example cover page from Edward Grieg's dissertation prospectus.

2. Personal Photo

Even after four years of working with your adviser, you shouldn't make any rash assumptions, such as that he or she will know what you look like. In order to help out your adviser, you should attach a professionally done personal photo showing you looking as serious and scientific as possible. This can score you major points with your committee, as they will now have a mental image of you as a serious, cultured individual, unlike all the other hirsute weirdos wandering around the department:

Source: Calvin Klein

3. Body of the Prospectus

Once you have successfully completed your cover page and personal photo, you're now ready for the most important and weightiest section of your prospectus - by which I mean, of course, that you actually have to write something related to the work that you have been doing over the past several years. A good prospectus should start out with something that immediately entices and intrigues the reader, such as the following:

Most honorable, sovereign, and magnificent lords,

I herewith enclose the following enclosements; a prospectus designed to please both one's innate curiosity and satisfy his critical faculties, by expounding upon the work of my graduate career, which has definitely involved reading only scientific articles and books, and not bootlegged copies of Humungo Garbanzo BOLD Responses. It is my utmost belief, penetrating my entire being and reaching even so far as the pyloric sphincter, that this prospectus will contribute to the PUBLIC WEAL and common good of academia and the scientific committee, viz., all of you, etc., et al, ora pro nobis.

The dissertation which I hereafter propose is that, in order to determine the neural mechanisms and correlates of prospective model-free decision-making, one must bring to bear several unique methodologies, such as functional and structural connectivity, multivoxel pattern analysis, univariate mastication, seed-based cortical peristalsis, dynamic CSF segmentation and haustral movements, computational modeling region of interest corrected thresholding bread milk Astroglide tortillas refried beans.

Deign, most honourable, magnificent and sovereign lords, to receive, and with equal goodness, this respectful testimony of the interest I take in whatever it is I have been studying the past several years. And, if I have been so unhappy as to be guilty of any indiscreet transport in this glowing effusion of my heart, I beseech you to pardon me, and to attribute it to the tender affection of a true student, and to the ardent and legitimate zeal of a man, who can imagine for himself no greater felicity than to see you happy.

Also, if somehow one of you manages to come across one of my old issues of Humungo Garbanzo stuffed in the back of the lowest drawer of my filing cabinet, I know nothing about that.

Most honourable, magnificent and sovereign lords, I am, with the most profound respect,

Your most humble and obedient servant and fellow-citizen,

Don't worry if you have a difficult time coming up with anything that sounds remotely plausible or scientific; if you've written a prospectus like the one above, odds are that your committee, satisfied that you are fluent in academic bullshit, will stop reading somewhere around the second paragraph, and fail to note that once you ran out of buzzwords you started supplying items from your grocery shopping list.