Success breeds success

Success breeds success

Now that I’m back from a conference and the semester is winding down, I have a little more time to spend with my graduate students. One of the things that I’ve tried to get them to understand is the importance of getting results [quickly, if possible]. Now, I’m not one for uppity, self motivating, happy-go-lucky theories like the seven habits of highly effective people or market research mumbo-jumbo (although I did steal their picture). However, I am a true believer that, in research, success breeds success. One of the most motivating times for me is when I’ve just had a paper published. I feel a sense of accomplishment and, like any drug, I want more.

To come full circle back to grad student mentoring, I’m trying to get my students to understand that if they get some positive results [hopefully quickly], then they will be motivated to get more. And when graduate students are motivated, then that makes my job easier and more fulfilling because I can focus more on creating ideas and concepts with the student rather than mentoring a student to get to that point.

There are two things that I’ve been stressing lately to compliment this theme: 1) produce work that looks professional and 2) establish an experimental work plan to get qualitative results which can be improved to get quantitative results easily. I’ll give you the rundown of each below.

Creating professional looking results is one thing that I feel is not stressed enough at universities. Every graduate student or student thinking of going in to grad school should have to take a seminar course on this topic. It’s probably one of the most important things a student can learn which can improve their confidence in their own work, help with job prospects, make oral presentations easier, and help them disseminate information. One of the ways that I’ve mentioned this is to make Matlab figure templates, PowerPoint figure templates, and use LaTeX if possible. Over the past week during group meetings, I’ve gone over, step by step, the procedure of making a template in Matlab to give my students some tutoring on the subject. In addition, I’ve showed my students before and after results and comments from manuscript submissions where the figures weren’t descriptive and when they were descriptive. I’ve done that to give them context to how other people (reviewers) may see things differently. I also think, when a student does professional work, it’s viewed at a higher level because appearances are the first thing that a person uses to judge work. When a student learns to do this on a regular basis, it’s setting them up for a successful academic career.

Think qualitative, then quantitative. This is something that I have been stressing more, now that I’m on the mentor side of the equation. In the past, I viewed experiment planning from the perspective of the grand experiment. And by grand experiment, I mean the one setup/system that will prove everything is perfect in the world, makes a mean cup of coffee, and folds the laundry. As I progressed to an autonomous researcher, I realized that a few baby steps are crucial in the overall plan before taking the giant leap. These baby steps can be crucial for proving concepts and may end up saving time in the long run. If you plan a grandiose experiment around one fundamental concept, you better know that concept works. If not, you may be spending time and money in the wrong area. In my world, that generally means finding answers to basic questions like “can you see fringes?” or “can you get an interference signal on a scope?”. And just like I said about getting papers published, if you get a small qualitative success in the lab, then it will motivate you to those qualitative results into quantitative results. Plus, when you get a results like that, it gives you some backbone to submit a conference abstract which will give you a deadline to get results (and give you external motivation/pressure).

How to you plan experiments or go about preparing results? Do you shoot for the moon or take a few warm-up swings first? How do you know your data is presented in the right manner? If you’ve taken a seminar course on presenting results, I’d love to hear your take on what they taught (or didn’t teach).


I can’t agree enough with your views on creating a professional looking result. This unfortunately was one of the only useful things I learned from my Ph.D. advisor, but it has been critical. Of course even on my own, I felt terrible giving them shoddy looking graphs and poorly written papers given that one of the goals of the Ph.D. is showing your advisor that you are awesome and ready to graduate. I’m flabbergasted at the crappy figures that my own students give me now.

EProf, are you actively trying to train your students for this, letting them find this out on their own, or are you telling them it needs to be professional but not tutoring them?

I find that most profs want their students to show professional quality work but don’t understand themselves what it takes to do that, nor are they willing to take the time to train their students.

I’m just curious because I think new faculty may be teaching their students this but other faculty may be ignoring it.

I’m going to one of Edward Tufte’s seminars next Monday. I’ve been a fan of his books for years, but never attended one of his day-long workshops. There are at least 10 going from my department, a mix of grad students, staff, and faculty. (We got together a group of 10 so that the staff could get discounts—the faculty and students already get pretty steep discounts).

I certainly teach professional presentation both to new grad students and to seniors in senior design projects.

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