Translating Research Beyond Academic Journals — Potential Wins and Pitfalls

Since I left TED and returned to Grad school, I have been navigating the world of research writing and regularly asking “who is the audience here?” I care very deeply about making research accessible to a wide audience, not just other academics. I remember grimacing my way through some TEDtalks, cringing when statements were made with too much certainty or an exaggerated finding. But I also find myself grimacing through lectures that run for hours without clear definition. Writing for a book or an article is a very different practice than writing for video or radio. Since media has taken may different forms, media literacy — and expectations — need to be clearer. So, how do we approach all the cool tools that exist in our Media ecosystem?

For precision and peer review, academic journals are unparalleled. It is easy to follow conversations between them and see where someone was coming from because there is a clear code of conduct with citations. Debates are also public, so when something is uncertain, there will likely be notes nearby. The community is good about critiquing work and bringing to light inconsistencies. That said, academic journals are inaccessible to most people (paywalls) and so full of dense, clunky writing that requires training to unpack successfully that it cannot reach some of the communities who need it the most. There are some debates where nothing seems certain and selecting a direction forward seems difficult and dangerous. But these are the best places to go for truly in-depth research and understanding its limits. These articles require a lot of time and attention to unpack.

Nonfiction, wider audience books try to turn this clunkier writing into a format for a wider audience who is still excited to read 350 pages on a specific topic. Editors will shape stories with the researchers to help the book “flow” a little better, and some of the precision is lost in the sculpting of the story line. Books are not always fact checked, though books written in an academic press/setting may be subjected to similar peer pressures for rigorous methods that academics writing for journals may experience. Non-fiction books are written by academics but also by journalists and other writers who may have different or more limited training. The best way to gauge what kind of writing it is is to read about the author and consider some of their previous work. These books require commitment and attention to reading. It is also to important who the author is and what claims they make about their research methods in the book: what is disclosed? What is omitted?

Daily Newspaper articles — This media is produced more quickly than books and peer reviewed journal articles and has a different goal for its readers. These are shorter articles — geared towards informing busy people who are unlikely to interact with the nuts and bolts of the research behind the story. They want to know how it will affect them and they want the writing to be clear and quickly digestible. How you design sentences and storylines matter. This means skimming off another layer of precision. This is not necessarily a bad thing — quick exposure to many topics allows for individuals to be better informed about all the diverse activity taking place in research. But the limits of the research may be more difficult to understand immediately. “It kind of works sometimes” doesn’t really sell stories. It means you should continue digging, asking what the sources are, and following stories over time before determining what is “true.”

Radio and Video — Writing for Radio and Video presents different challenges. Listeners cannot easily go back and make a section go really slowly so they can comprehend it. Especially if it’s live. Sometimes you can pause it and replay it, but the ideal is to explain something with enough clarity and the right pacing that keeps the audience interested before they get bored. If radio/video speakers spoke the Methods Section of a peer reviewed paper aloud, the majority of their audience would tune out. Both are faster paced and require some elements of drama to make their elements engaging in ways that academic papers may not need to. Does it shave off some precision? Yes. But what is the goal with these elements? For a TED Talk, it is to present a window into a new world of research that may have previously been intimidating before. It is not meant to be cited necessarily, but hopefully it can guide you towards research that you can cite and engage with more deeply. Radio and Video are excellent for the “so what?” elements of your written work. Why should non-academic people go through the trouble of tracking down your article? How does it serve the community outside of universities?

Perhaps one mistake I see most often with research presented through Radio/Video is the certainty demanded from these kinds of performances. We all know politicians are lying when they say “we will do X AND Y AND Z AND A AND B AND C!” but it’s required from this public performance. I think that pressure translates into these mediums sometimes as well. In my ideal world, researchers would have a cool, intriguing question AND a clear “so what?” that was accessible to a wider audience. Then they could take you on a journey of discovery — what have you been trying along the way to answer your question? Not promising a result and immediate application. The TEDTalks and podcasts I’ve heard about the discovery journey are among my very favorites — and they serve to inspire new generations of young researchers.

I think it’s easy to say “X MEDIA HAS RUINED EVERYTHING” but harder to say, what is this medium doing well? How can I use it to make my research more accessible and engaging? How can we work together to improve the ways that research is presented in media? THESE are interesting and challenging conversations. It’s worth thinking about how your research would look in each of these formats — and how/why it changes.

Why I decided to go to grad school

I am recently getting a questions in my inbox from people considering Ph.D studies and/or professional lives devoted to research. Many of these questions can be boiled down to, How did you get to where you are? Here’s one version of my answer.

I had a strong suspicion beginning my second year of college that I wanted to pursue a Ph.D., but I still had many lingering doubts. I applied to a fellowship program that would groom me for the GRE, independent research, and a life time in academia. I made it through to the final round, excited during the interviews and a nervous wreck about “signing away my life” during the breaks. I ultimately did not receive the fellowship, which felt devastating for 24 hours and then, a relief. I wasn’t sure at 20. I knew I wanted to be a researcher. I knew I loved numbers and surveys and reading endlessly and asking questions and investigating things. But I had trouble finding the right field for myself and I wanted to see what working life was like in the “real world.” Surely, I told myself, they still need researchers out there. So I put my Ph.D. dreams aside and decided to work for what I determined was a “respectable amount of time.”

In my head, this was meant to be a 2 year research job. But the job market is interesting and opaque and full of strange and unexpected results. I learned that job descriptions are rarely accurate, that I did not need to work anywhere near as hard as I did in college to still have excellent results and a social life(?!) and “research” in industry is sometimes a scary and terrifying Frankenstein version of what I wanted to do. It’s amazing what becomes “fact” when someone in a hierarchical organization determines it must be so. I worked in research in a financial company, a media company, and a tech start up. Each version of my job was interesting and had a lot of space for me to design what I was working on, but I was keenly aware of the holes in my skill set and the distance between what made me light up when I talked about it… and the research I did during my working hours.

I had a moment while fact checking where I was increasingly frustrated by the original research I was doing to patch up holes in an argument… knowing I would never get credit for the work… when I realized I wanted to do independent research. The questions and notes I had been scrawling away in notebooks and Evernote were haunting my dreams and making it very difficult to ignore any longer. I knew I needed more training to answer some of these questions and I knew I needed to work on them in a formal setting for people to take me seriously. So I approached my college advisors.

Absolutely no one in my life was even a little surprised when I told them. The scariest conversation (in my anticipation) was with my boss who did not bat an eyelash. She instead beamed at me and said she was thrilled and when did she need to turn in my recommendation letter?

See, I have always been a nerd. I obsess over things I am reading or decide to investigate for a long period of time not because it had a specific “end goal” but because it fascinated me and captured my imagination. My questions really do haunt me. Some kept me up all night. I would read for hours trying to answer my questions, even when I knew I had work the next day. I carried around a “field journal” for observations on communities I found interesting. I liked experiment design and talked about it long past the point of everyone else beginning to play with their phones. I break into a giant smile when I talk about theories I am playing with and successful days in the field.

Making money was nice, but it wasn’t enough. I realized the price of working on questions that didn’t interest me felt much more costly to me than I had understood. I was willing to take that pay cut — and sign up to be in grad school until I am at least 31 — because this time to read and study and design experiments and live my questions was what I needed to do to feel alive. It was worth leaving behind the experience I had built up over time, my comfortable salary and life style, and the networks of friends and colleagues I had built up because my questions called so loudly.

As one advisor told me when I told him about my plans, “I would not recommend this life style to anyone who could happily live a different life.” He told me, “you will spend the next few years becoming an expert on what feels like the handle of a single type of hammer in a tool shed. It drives most people insane. You need to be slightly insane to do this.” And I am. I tried and I cannot leave my questions behind. I returned to grad school because I know what I need to explore and answer with my life and I know what it will cost me to do so.

Sometimes people ask me if they should do this because they don’t know what else they would do. Don’t do that. Don’t come back until you have something you can hold on to when you are consumed with the self doubt and overwhelmed by the isolation that is part of independent research. I had to work for 4 years and try working in 3 totally different fields until I was ready. It’s ok to take your time and try giving yourself to another job, another field. Nothing you do, work-wise or research-wise will ever be absolutely perfect. It just won’t. But start by experimenting with the different variables that you can choose in this life. Maybe it’s money, location, or the type of work that you do. Find what matters to you. Pursue that.

For me, the type of work I do (research) and the specific questions I want to answer became a priority that I could no longer ignore. And it was an expensive decision to make, but I know in my heart this is where I am supposed to be.

My graduate school (Ph.D.) application timeline

I promised a friend I would share my graduate school application timeline with him, since I just finished my successful application cycle a few months ago. This is how I scheduled my year (2016) to turn all of my applications for my Ph.D. program in by December’s deadlines.

January 2016:
— looked into programs that appealed to me, so I was inspired and had started building my lists of schools that I wanted to apply to, along with specific professors I wanted to work with at each one.
— Reached out to professors from my alma mater to meet with them in February to talk about applications/ask for letters of recommendation.

— signed up for the GRE (for a June date), bought a practice book
— built my GRE practice schedule: worked for a few hours on Sundays and 1-2 evenings a week on practice tests, reviewed material I didn’t quite remember so I could do the tests without open notes
— Met with some of my professors from undergrad, gave them a timeline for when I needed their letters and when I would send them my research statement + personal statement, also offered to email them a reminder of what we had worked on together

— GRE practice continued
— reached out to professors in the schools I was interested in applying to, went to do some visits and tell them about my research goals (this is not an option for all programs. For example: Sociologists want to meet you, economists do not. The best way to get a sense of what works/doesn’t is to talk to graduate students in the programs you want to apply to or someone in the field. The second best option for me was reading through the forums for graduate students on Quora).

— GRE practice continued
— kept building and refining my list of schools/programs to apply to and specific things I could say about each professor I wanted to work with. Reached out to professors I hadn’t reached out to yet.

— GRE practice
— started a draft of my 2 page personal statement: how did I become a researcher, why grad school, why did my questions matter now

— took the GRE, decided to take it again in August to get a few more points
— completed a few more drafts of my personal statement by writing every morning, sent to close friends/colleagues for comments
— began a draft of my research statement

— Focused on research statement drafts, gathered some early feedback on clarity with friends who had read my work before
— focused my GRE studying on the section I wanted to improve + continued memorizing vocab so I didn’t forget it
— ignored my personal statement for a month, to return with fresh eyes later

— GRE round 2
— finished a full draft of my research statement, send it to my prof/mentor for comments and advice
— returned to my personal statement, sent to a different mentor who hadn’t read it yet for comments and a few friends whose writing I admired for style comments

— had my final list of schools for applications: built a status doc with their due dates and requirements listed in each column

— wrote to my professors to remind them it was time to send recommendation letters to my escrow service (I had everything done through Interfolio. Not all schools accept it, Stanford and MIT did not, but the other ones I applied to did)
— created my Interfolio account and emailed them links for the letters with a due date for the first application to it
— prepared my personal statement for copy edits
— finished a new draft of my research statement

— finished my research statement, prepared for copy edit
— gathered final comments on all of my essays, then started cutting them down to meet each program’s word count requirements
— sent my scores from the GRE to all of my schools

— gathered all of my recommendation letters
— added all final edits to essays
— started sending in applications as they were done because I was BURNT OUT and couldn’t take anymore feedback

— took a good long nap.

My additional notes, for my own sanity:
– there were days of the week I was not allowed to think about or talk about my graduate school applications (Saturdays, Mondays)
– I made sure I went to yoga 2-3x a week, because it was scheduled and that made me take a break and turn off my brain for a few hours a week
– I made sure to prioritize sleep so I could do a good job on the practice tests
– I refused to tell people, apart from a small handful of people, where I was applying and said, “let me tell you once I’ve applied!” to take the pressure of judgment and “advice” away
– I got used to explaining my research interests in 2 mins, 5 mins, and 10 mins depending on the level of interest the other person had for what I was talking about. This was really terrible at first but made it way easier to write my research statement later, so it ended up being really helpful.