Creative Writing and Academic Writing

I’ve spent a sizable amount of time in the last year and half writing. This is
par for the course for any graduate student—if you want to share your
research with the world, you’ll need to write about it. Since ~May of 2017,
however, I’ve also gotten into creative writing by way of writing screenplays
and stage plays. This has doubled the amount of writing I find myself doing.
I’ve noticed that there’s a really interesting structural connection between
academic writing and creative writing, at least in the context of writing for
the screen.

One of the most important rules in storytelling is making it very clear what
each character’s intention is. In other words, what is it that the character
wants? You need to be very clear about this up front, or you’ll have a hard
time getting any viewer or reader excited about what the character does next.
In the same sense, with technical writing, you need to be very explicit about a
problem that exists, and how your research addresses that problem. I’ve read
tons of papers in the last year, and while you can write a good paper without
being incredibly explicit about the problem up front, you won’t write a great
paper this way. The best papers are the ones that give me a fantastic sense for
the problem up front, and are very clear about how the research will solve that
problem. The researchers will present the challenges associated with doing said
research (i.e., obstacles to the character as they try to achieve their goals),
and culminates with results of the research (a character experiences growth as
a result of their journey). I think this is an interesting way to approach
writing academic work, and conversely, a nice structural way to analyze
screenplays. It’s definitely started helping me in my work.

Writing a graduate school application

It’s almost December, so it’s about that time that people kick
it into high gear to apply to graduate school. I’ve had a few of my
close friends reach out to me and ask me to review their statements of
purpose, to which I told them they were crazy for trusting me to know
such a thing. But then again, that’s what I did two years ago to my
2nd year PhD friends, so maybe it’s not so crazy. I’m writing this to
compile a list of thoughts I had on writing statement for graduate school
applications.

  1. The “Statement of Purpose” is aptly named - it is a statement of
    your purpose. What is it that you want to do? And implicit to
    that question, why is it that you want to do it? Consider this
    as your thesis statement for your argument. For example, “I want to do a PhD
    so I can become a professor that does research in X”. Alternatively,
    “I want to do an MS to position myself better for Y job”. Every sentence
    you write afterwards needs to build to that point.

  2. Don’t tell people that you’ve been in love with your subject since you were
    a young lassie (really, I’ve read something like this). It’s cliche and
    people will instantly throw your statement away. Get right to the point
    and state your purpose in the first sentence.

  3. Be aware that most statements get looked at for maybe 3 minutes, max.
    There are a lot of great applicants, and professors have fairly limited
    time. You want to make sure that if someone is skimming your statement
    quickly, they can pull out the important points fairly easily. I like
    to do this by having the first sentence of each paragraph immediately say
    what the point of that paragraph will be, without forcing the reader to tease
    out the details.

  4. Mostly for Research Statements: Make sure it is clear what you want to
    do research in. Level 1 is simply saying you want to do research. Level 2 is
    putting in some work to ask a few questions about the research that you’d like to
    do. Level 3 is when you have done a deep literature dive and found a problem
    area specifically that you want to tackle. That is awesome, but by no means required
    (I got barely to Level 2 in my statements).

Overall, these are some guidelines for writing a good SoP. I’m attaching the SoP I
wrote for graduate school here, primarily because I found that there was a lack of
SoPs available when I was applying to graduate school in CS. I have tons of other
thoughts that I don’t have time to write down here, so I’ll just leave it at that.
If you have questions, feel free to email me at dkumar11@illinois.edu.

The Value of Professional Upkeep

I have been working a lot on my professional profile the last few weeks, primarily
because I’m gearing up to submit an NSF GRFP application.
Since the beginning of graduate school, I’ve been a bit wary of “professionalism” and
“doing professional things”, mostly because I think it makes you take yourself too seriously,
which I believe is bad for actually getting work done. That being said, being forced to do
so has been somewhat of a blessing in disguise, as it’s made me focus a lot on what exactly
I want to do.

Two things are required for the NSF application. There’s a research proposal and a personal
statement. I’ll talk about how each has helped me in the last few weeks.

The research proposal:

This piece is simple in theory—write a proposal on some research you’re planning on doing.
In practice, this is much harder to do. It’s easy to get bogged down with 10 million ideas, but
NSF isn’t asking for 10 million, they’re asking for one. It’s helped me really narrow my focus,
and think critically about one problem I’d like to tackle and how I plan to tackle that one problem.
For me, this was awesome. I love thinking of tons of problems and hackney solutions to those problems
, but rarely spend time to focus on how to solve just one thing really techincally, let alone write it
on a piece of paper. Even if my ideas don’t pan out, it’s definitely a skill that a grad student should
get better at, and I feel I’ve gotten better at is in the last few weeks. Yay, personal growth. In addition,
the prompts mandate that you pull out both the Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts of your work, which
I believe are the cornerstone to any scientific endeavor (Pasteur agrees with me).
You should start thinking about how your research fits into these categories broadly, as they
will help shape the end results of your research. At least, I think so.

The personal statement

I hate writing about myself. A lot of my friends in academia also hate writing about themselves. That
makes the personal statement a special kind of hellish request. 3 pages of “I’m awesome” is enough to really
bring me down. That being said, I think there’s a way to write about yourself in a way that doesn’t
come off as totally boorish. At least, I hope so, since I employed that technique to write my
personal statement!

Annoying Writing

My advisor told me yesterday my academic writing was annoying. In a quest to
be a better writer, I am mostly documenting this as a set of notes for me.

  1. Don’t try too hard. I am a mega culprit of this, and often use words that,
    while they sound cool, offer little meaning to the sentence.
  2. Never overstate. Science is about just presenting what you’ve done.
  3. Verb choice is really important.
  4. Stop using passive voice. I use lots of passive voice in my first drafts of
    things, and it just leads to bad writing. Utilize the “by zombies” trick when you
    are in doubt. (http://auwritingcenter.blogspot.com/2012/10/identify-passive-voice-with-zombies.html)
  5. Avoid statements that don’t add anything. In the context of a paper about social media being used to
    identify disinformation campsigns, a sentence like “Social media is the new frontier for disinformation campaigns”
    is a terrible sentence. It doesn’t add anything to the writing.

Being a First Year CS PhD student

I just submitted the last paper that I started during my first year, so I am
officially deeming my first year as done. Now that it’s over, I’m writing
this down to reflect on how the year has gone, and hope that my musings may
help you (the reader) as you navigate your first year as well.

  1. Imposter syndrome is real. It takes a long time to get used to being “in charge”
    of research and being an academic peer that professors will listen to. Don’t let it
    hamper your curiosity.
  2. Find an advisor that you can be friends with. Some people prefer
    “professional relationships with their advisor”—but I can’t imagine what my first
    year would be like if my advisor didn’t act like a friend to me from day 1.
  3. Make friends with your labmates. If they are shy, force them to be your friend.
    A good group culture leads to better discussions which leads to better ideas and
    as a result, better research. It’s only been one year, but I’m happy to call my lab
    mates my close friends.
  4. Show up in the lab, even if you aren’t doing anything valuable. You learn a lot
    from others in your lab by just being there, and it sets up a good habit for
    when you are going to be doing this all the time in future years.
  5. Tell your advisor you want to start on research immediately. You never know
    what projects are just sitting around waiting for people to do things on them.
  6. (Controversial, I think) Pay attention only in the classes that matter to your
    research, and do the minimum for everything else. More time on task for research
    is the most important thing.
  7. Jump on as many things as you can. Failure is okay, especially in your first
    year. Find your breaking point, then adjust.
  8. Have fun. Research is supposed to be fun, and so is grad school.