I ended this rather productive day today with a supervision meeting. In this case, it concerned a PhD candidate I co-supervise, together with a colleague in the UK. This particular project is almost coming to an end. Around the new year, the three-year contract will run out. Having said that, the candidate is in a good position. Two very successful experiments were performed over the past two years, led by her, and in collaboration with another PhD candidate at another institute. A third chapter will involve some form of meta-analysis, and that should make for three good chapters, to complete a PhD Dissertation. Overall, the experimental data look very good, and we are confident that we can publish them in decent journals.
Of course, not even the best experimental data in the world will publish themselves! And therefore, we are now firmly in the write-up phase. A write-up phase is tough in any PhD, but coming from the luxurious four-year PhDs that are common in the Netherlands, I can personally understand that the German three-year programs are a bit tight on time. In fact, hardly anyone ever submits or defends within the three years. Three years are not enough. But hey, we’re trying the best we can to help the candidates reach their goal within three years. To this end, we are organizing regular meetings, in which we discuss the data, analyses, and at this stage, the writing.
These meetings are difficult. It doesn’t matter how you bend it, giving feedback on other people’s work – especially when you are critical – can feel like giving a slap in the face. I generally adopt a friendly but critical approach. I try to point out the good things in paragraphs that flow well, so that the candidate can use similar structure and flow in others that do not work so well. It’s hard sometimes to do this without creating a sense of overwhelm. For instance, today we discussed the introduction for the candidate’s first experimental chapter. It was clear from the refencing and much of the writing that the candidate knew what they were talking about. All information was there, and many relevant references were used to support the story. For me, that is already a great place to start, because this lays a solid base for a good introduction (and generally easy editing). However, something was off. It needed polishing. A good round of edits would be needed to solve the issue.
Editing is a concept that most PhD candidates, I believe, are not familiar with. They want to write things, and be done with it. But that is hardly ever how it works. For me the process goes write, rest, edit, rest, edit, rest, edit. I often go through several iterations of the manuscript, before I even send it to co-authors. It is never done in one sitting. Writing, perhaps, could be. But the editing? Hell no! Editing is vital. It is vital to edit your own work structurally. It will help you clear your brain, separate clutter from clarity, and structure your writing properly. If all the information is there, editing can be fairly quick. Structuring the arrangement and order of paragraphs is the quickest and easiest, but quite often changes when I edit in my first round. More detailed, often second round editing involves looking at every single sentence individually. Does the sentence introduce something that is important for my study? Is it really needed? Can I shorten it? Or delete it entirely? At the very last stage of the editing, maybe in a round three or four, I try to look for flow. Does each sentence flow naturally into the next? How can I improve that? By editing, and I truly believe that this is only possible by editing in various rounds, you polish up your rough diamond draft into a shiny manuscript that is ready for submission.
Today’s meeting was all about editing. I tried to explain the difference between starting from a blank sheet of paper, and editing a piece of written text that has all the info needed to build the story (or likely more than that). It is an important distinction to make, and I think an important paradigm shift to try to make in your brain, especially as an early-career researcher. A shift towards taking in feedback as a series of editorial suggestions that may guide your editing process, rather than as a series of ALL CAPS COMMENTS by supervisors screaming at you how much they hate your work.
You are probably doing a fine job, but all you need to do is edit! And then submit!