Friday, September 30, 2011

Writing an Acknowledgement Page in the Dissertation

One thing you'll have to do near the end of your dissertation writing days is to come up with an acknowledgement page.  This can be a tough thing to write, but it's your chance to put some real personality into your writing.

Even though you might feel
like this near the end of the
dissertation process, try to
refrain from thanking your
dissertation directly as if it
were a human being.  Save
the crazy for after tenure.
If you haven't really thought about writing the acknowledgement page yet, but it's getting close, I'd recommend checking out a few recent dissertations and seeing what THEY wrote.  You'll likely read some that you think are horrible/boring/sterile, and some that are really touching/interesting/funny.  It's really up to you whether you want to go with the standard business-like thank yous or make it more personal, though I recommend the latter.

So, once you decide the type of page you want to write, you have to come up with a list of people to thank.
Here's some ideas that might help you remember everyone who helped you along the way.

1. Your dissertation advisor/committee -- Obviously these are the people that worked with you to get your dissertation finished, and in my opinion they should be either the first people you thank in the acknowledgments, or the last people you thank.  I went with first, saving the last thank yous for my family.  You should single out your dissertation advisor (DA) from the other committee members (CMs), as the DA likely put the most effort into your dissertation compared with the other CMs.

2. Your other 'advisors' in the program.  You may have been assigned an advisor early on in your Ph.D. program that ended up not becoming your DA, or even a CM, but provided a lot of early advice and encouragement.  If so, they should be included in your acknowledgements.  If they are one of your CMs, then single them out in addition to your DA, and if they are you DA, then be sure to mention the non-dissertation support they provided for you.

3. The other faculty you frequently bugged for help.  When I was in the Ph.D. program, there were a few faculty that I frequently bothered for advice on a number of topics, despite having no formal mentor/mentee relationship with them.  The advice ranged from detailed methodological/statistical advice to inform career advice.  I'm sure by the time I was ready to graduate, they had developed an inadvertent eye-twitch whenever they heard me knocked on their door and/or start a conversation with the phrase: "So I've got a quick question for you..."  Even though they may not have directly helped on my dissertation, they still helped me navigate life as a Ph.D. student, and so they deserve to be thanked.

4. The staff you bugged for help.  There is likely at least one staff member who not only knew you by name, but did things above and beyond the call of duty to help you out.  This might have involved helping you file all of the misc. paperwork for a grant application at the last minute, helping find you a last-minute assistantship position to keep your health insurance in tact, or even printing on their fancy high-quality laser printer 20 sheets of stick-on beer labels for your newly brewed batch of Maple Ale.  If anything like this applies to a staff member know you, then you should thank them.

There's a reason the show wasn't
just called Garfield. Dude needed
help filling the other 15 minutes.
5. Your friends.  The Ph.D. program can be very isolating and lonely.  If you're lucky, you will find a tight-knit group of friends to commiserate with, whether they are part of the program or not.  Even if they don't know the first thing about your research and never read a draft, they had a small part in helping you get through the program and finish the dissertation.  You should thank them in your acknowledgement page (by name for at least some, with a catch all 'all others who I haven't yet thanked').

6. The people who got you to grad school.  I know that if it weren't for the people who wrote my recommendation letters, I wouldn't have been accepted to the grad program that I graduated from. Therefore, I felt I should thank them for the time they put into me both as an undergrad student of theirs, as well as for the letter writing that they did for my application packet.

8. Other support networks.  If you have other support networks, like a grad student forum that you've used for advice over the years, writing support, etc. don't forget to include them if it makes sense to.

8. Your family.  This is an obvious one, and who you specifically mention will vary based on your own circumstances.  In my own acknowledgement page, I put my family (parents, sibling) next to last, and put my wife last, as I felt the first and last positions held the most importance.

Final thoughts: Finally, just a couple words of wisdom regarding the acknowledgement page.

First, I don't personally believe this is something that your dissertation committee needs to see.  It is personal and doesn't affect the merit of your dissertation work in terms of defensible or not.  So, if you don't feel you want the committee to see this page until after the dissertation is bound and printed, then I see no concerns with slipping it into the dissertation after the final defense and before the final product is sent to the university's graduate office for final approval and publication.  (Your mileage may vary, however).

Second, you should spell check your acknowledgement page very, very, very carefully.  This is because the rest of the dissertation has probably been read dozens of times by various people, but this is something that, probably, very few people will have a chance to read before it's in print.

Dr. Seuss had many friends.
Dr. Seuss liked to use pens.
Those who mattered minded not.
Those who did he f*cking shot.
Third, I think there's nothing wrong with adding some humor to this page.  To crudely paraphrase Bernard Baruch and/or Dr. Seuss, "those who matter won't mind and the rest can go f*ck themselves."  I would much rather have someone read my acknowledgement page and laugh (or cry, if you're my wife -- yes, it was that good/touching/etc.), than have someone read it, shrug, and go "eh, pretty good."

Finally, you should be proud of your acknowledgement page when you're done.  My acknowledgement page, I think, is pretty damn good, as well as interesting, funny, and touching.  Plus, where else in my dissertation could I have used phrases such as "hobo salary," "purchase the 'good' beer that individuals of stature and sophistication drink," "ridiculously strong back muscles," "totally-should-be-subject-to-freedom-of-information-laws-but-it-is-not," "slow-but-steady financial support (one poker game at a time),"  "squeezing the bejesus out of him," "defend myself from an onslaught of up to four enemy samurai," and "zombie apocalypse."
...See, don't you feel at least a little interested in reading my acknowledgement page now?  That's what I was going for.
Image credits: Hugging_Words, GarfieldDr. Seuss,

Saturday, September 10, 2011

How to respond to an R&R

[Note: Some of the follow suggestions I picked up from my faculty advisors and colleagues while in grad school, others I came up with on my own, and still others came from Wendy Belcher's excellent book: Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks]

So, you submitted a manuscript to a journal, and the editor liked it enough to give you an R&R... now what?

First, congrats! An R&R is about as good as you can expect for a regular journal, since very few manuscripts are accepted 'as is.'

Depending on the editor's letter and reviewers' comments, it might be an easy R&R that won't take much time, or a very hard R&R that will take weeks or months to address. Also, depending on the journal, an R&R might mean the manuscript is basically accepted, pending a little polishing, or alternatively that there's a good chance you'll still get rejected later on in the process. In any case, your goal should be to address as many of the recommended changes as is reasonably possible in the revision to make the paper better, without accidentally 'messing up' your paper (or your main points) in the process. Hopefully this post helps guide you there.

So the first thing you should do is read the editor's letter in its entirely (you probably opened the letter/email and just skimmed the page(s) until you saw 'revise and resubmit'...).  The editor's job is to read the reviews, make a decision on your manuscript (in this case, R&R), and then (in my opinion) give you guidance on what are the most important things to address in the revised manuscript. If the editor didn't do that, or gave you a generic 'please address the reviewers' comments in your revised submission,' then your job will be a little harder than it probably should be.

Anyhow, read the editor's letter and see if s/he gave you specific instructions as to what to address. The editor might note the important of a missing variable in your model, as mentioned by reviewer 2, or that your treatment of the prior literature was lacking in X area, as noted by reviewers 1 and 3. Whatever the editor says in their letter regarding potential changes should be your first priority in the revision. What I like to do is open a new word document and make a bulleted list of the changes the editor specifically mentioned in the letter (these bullets go under an 'Editor' heading). This will become part of your 'potential revision' list/spreadsheet that you will continue building in the future. (More about this in a bit).

Next, read through all of your reviewers' comments, without taking any notes. Make sure you have your submitted manuscript draft in front of you, so you can reference it when a reviewer mentions something on page X or in Table Y. Keep an eye out for comments that come up from more than one reviewer, such as the suggestion to use robust standard errors in your model, to provide a correlation matrix table, or to cite the work of authors A and B.

Chances are, you won't agree with everything the reviewers recommend, and you'll form the following opinions about the reviewers [note: for ease of comparisons, all three reviewers are assumed to be male in this example]:

Reviewer 1: Even my
bowel movements are
high impact.

Reviewer 1: You'll probably think this reviewer is a genius, particularly since he gave you the most useful recommendations, and other than a couple minor suggestions, loved your entire manuscript. His suggestions are relevant, fairly easy to implement, and will really help boost the quality of your manuscript. This reviewer, while rarely seen in the wild, is the best you can hope for.

Reviewer 2: "Derp?"

Reviewer 2: You'll probably think the second reviewer is an idiot, but a fairly harmless one. He probably doesn't really know anything about either your analytical methods or the literature related to your topic, but tried to fake it so the editor didn't get angry. Most of the suggestions he offered aren't very useful and/or make no sense given your model, argument, and findings. Still, you can easily address his main concerns, and easily dismiss his unhelpful and misguided recommendations.

Reviewer 3: My comb-over
is horrible, I can't eat sweets
due to my diabeetus, and I'm
going to take my anger out
on you and your manuscript.

Reviewer 3: Upon reading reviewer 3's comments, your first thought will probably be "what a f*cking d*ckhead." You'll probably think that every suggestion by reviewer 3 is complete garbage, that he misunderstood your entire argument, knows nothing of the methods you used, and decided to use his "anonymous" review as an outlet for his deep-seated inner frustrations concerning sexual impotency and male pattern baldness. You'll likely question his academic and genetic pedigree, and wonder how the editor could have chosen such an arrogant jerk. This reaction is completely normal, and has a long historical precedent.

In fact, Einstein even developed a theory related to reviewer comments that largely supports these three general categories, as previously noted in my post on how to get over manuscript rejections:
More useful than relativity.
However, these categories are not exhaustive, nor are they exclusive. You may, for instance, get a review from a reviewer that combines traits of 2 (idiot) and 3 (jerk).

 Regardless of the types of reviewers you get, or the content of their reviews, the fact that you received an R&R meant the editor saw some promise in your manuscript. Therefore, now that you've surveyed all of the reviews, you need to get to work addressing the specific suggestions and critiques, and revising your manuscript for resubmission.

So the next step is to go back through the reviews and add to an excel spreadsheet (or equivalent) every specific suggestion or critique, from each reviewer, that requires you to change something (or might require you to say why you didn't change something.) Each suggestion/comment should be its own entry on a separate line. I recommend five columns in the spreadsheet: ID # (increments up), Reviewer (who made the comment), Comment (what was the change/critique), Importance (How important does this seem to your overall revised manuscript, or to the editor/reviewer?), and Ease (How long and/or how much work is this going to take to address). I also like to color code the importance and ease cells using the an easy to distinguish color scheme - red for important/hard, yellow for medium/moderate, and green for low/easy. If you set it up like this, your spreadsheet should look something like the following (excluding the earlier comments from the editor):

Once you've finished adding the reviewers' comments to your spreadsheet, add the editor comments you previously listed out if they're not already covered by a reviewer, and mark anything the editor said to do as high importance. If the editor says something a reviewer already said, then add 'editor' to the reviewer cell as a reminder, and mark it as high importance regardless of your original importance rank. If the editor specifically says something is not important to address, then mark it as low importance, and if they say not to do it at all, then change the font style for the associated entry to strikeout.

After everything is down on your spreadsheet, you can get a sense of the overall work that's ahead of you by looking at the importance/ease categories for each entry. A roadmap to these combinations, and what they mean for your revision, is below:

High/Hard: These are the changes that will give you the most headaches. You need to do them (high importance), but they're going to take a long time and generally be a P.I.T.A. (hard to do).  Doing these first will make your life much easier later on, and if they're major changes, some of the less important changes may be obsolete once you do these. If you decide not to do one of these, you need a very good reason why not.

High/Moderate: These are changes that will be a little easier than the High/Hard changes. You still need to do them, and they're going to take you some time, but they won't be absolutely horrible to address.

High/Easy: These are the changes that will make you feel most productive, since you can address these important 'need to do' changes very quickly and without much work.

Medium/Moderate: You should probably do these changes, especially if you have the time.  If you don't do one of these change requests, then you should definitely address why you didn't in your cover letter (more about the cover letter in a minute).

Medium/Easy or Low/Easy: Since these are easy to do, you might as well do them, especially for the ones of medium importance. If you choose not to do these, you should at least acknowledge why you're not doing the medium importance ones, if not the low importance ones as well (since not doing the latter will make you look lazy).

Low/Moderate or Low/High: These might be changes you decide not to do, given their relatively low importance compared to the moderate-to-high amount of work they'd require of you. Again, you may want to address why you didn't do these in your cover letter, but given their low importance, if you miss discussing some of these it probably won't be the end of the world.

Ok, so you have your potential changes all in order, you've ranked their importance and ease, you know which ones you need to address, which you should address, which you can easily address, and which you're not wasting your time with. Now comes the hard part: Make these changes in the manuscript. That's about as specific as I can get for this step, but this is what will take the longest.

Once you're done making (or not making) the various changes, you need to reread your manuscript from start to finish to make sure things still make sense. This is especially true if you had to do some serious changing of text. Edit as necessary.

"Dear Editor: Thank you for
the opportunity to revise
my manuscript. Unfortunately,
as I am not fluent in dumbass, I
have been unable to interpret
Reviewer 3's critiques."
After your revised manuscript is re-polished into a final version, you need to draft your cover letter to the editor. I recommend starting the letter with a brief paragraph thanking the editor for the opportunity to revise and resubmit your manuscript for their journal. You should also thank the editor and reviewers for their helpful suggestions and critiques (if even you think most of the suggestions were garbage). Then I recommend stating something along the lines of "I've provided specific responses to each of the suggestions and critiques below. I look forward to hearing your final decision." This will provide a transition between your formal paragraph and the subsequent list of changes that's about to follow, as well as obviate the need to write a closing paragraph after your list.

Skip a line or two, and then list out each change you want to address (all of the high importance ones, most/all of the ones of medium importance, some/most of the low importance ones). Briefly summarize the suggestion or critique, identify who said it, its location in the manuscript, and what you did to address it (or, alternatively, why you did not address it). Examples of wording for this section are provided below:

Reviewers 1 and 2 recommended adding r^2 values to Table 3 (p. 21). This has been done for all three models.
 Reviewer 2 recommended revising the paper to focus on racial threat theory. While this is a valid alternative theoretical focus, I feel that racial threat is not appropriate for the current study given the current focus on non-racial factors, as well as the comments of Reviewer 1 regarding the appropriateness of the current theoretical model. Further, using racial threat would generate the problem of..."
 Reviewer 2 questioned the need for spatial lag measurements in the final model. I have expanded the justification for this measurement on page 4, but believe that the inclusion of this measurement is essential in order to control for the spatial autocorrelation of the observations that was indicated by the Moran's I tests discussed on page 12, footnote 3. As such, this measurement has been left in the final model.
Reviewer 3 recommended deleting the third paragraph on page 2, as it was considered unnecessary. On the contrary, I believe the key points of that paragraph are essential to understanding why the study includes measurements for different types of vehicles as well as the differences in operator characteristics. Without it, the subsequent three paragraphs appear disjointed from the rest of the literature review. As such, this paragraph was left in the article as was originally written.
 Make sure you come across as respectful in your comments, especially when discussing suggestions that you didn't implement, and certainly don't word your responses as attacks on the reviewers' or editor's suggestions. If it's clear that one of the reviewers is clearly confused on a certain point, model, or statistic, spin the wording of your response in such a way so that it seems like it was your fault for not being clear, and then justify your original point/method:

Reviewer 2 seemed confused by my use of the term "spatial proximity" on pages 3 and 6. In order to address this potential point of confusion for readers, I have added footnote 2 on page 3 so as to clarify what this term precisely means for this study. 

When you're done, reread your cover letter to make sure, one more time, that you come across as respectful, attentive, and appreciative of all of the suggestions. When you're satisfied that everything sounds good, send the revised manuscript and cover letter to the editor (or upload them to the journal website, as appropriate), and cross your fingers. With any luck, you'll hear back in a few weeks (or a few months) with good news! If not, then see if you can revise the manuscript any further, and then submit it to a different journal to start the process over again.

Image Credits: The Most Interesting Man in the WorldMr. Bean, Reviewer 3Einstein, Letter Writer

Thursday, September 1, 2011

How to handle a journal rejection

In one of my prior posts I discussed how to write reviews for journals. Sometimes those reviews result in good news from the editor, like a revise and resubmit (R&R) decision. The majority of reviews, though, will probably result in a rejection letter. This is the result of basic math, given that top-tier journals have acceptance rates well below 50%. Having recently experienced two back-to-back article rejections myself (same journal, I might add), I figured it might be useful to talk about how I, personally, handle having my manuscript rejected, as well as some thoughts on how to effectively deal with it.

One of Einstein's more relevant theories

First off, this is typically the timeframe I go through with my rejections, and my actions/thoughts along the way:

Day 1: The editor and reviewers at journal X are complete idiots!! Efffffffff Yooooooooooo reviewers!!!

Day 2: Ugh, I can't read this review again without getting angry.  Efff Yoooo!

Day 3-14: [Do something else]

Day 15: [After rereading the manuscript and making comments on the draft]  Hmmm, maybe my submission wasn't as strong as I thought, and maybe the editor and reviewers are only mildly stupid (Eff Yoo!). Still, they might have brought up a couple things that I might be able to fix.  ...And maybe the manuscript was a little long and did have a few too many appendices.  I'll work on the revision tomorrow.

Day 16-???: [Revise manuscript]

Day ??? + 1: Ok, the manuscript has been revised, it's much better than the previous submission, so now where should I send it?  Obviously I can't resubmit to journal X (eff u), so lemme look into journal X...


Does this above sound like a good timeline/plan that might help you get over a manuscript rejection?  Did you just get a rejection and are still stewing with righteous anger?  If so, then read my step-by-step instructions below!

First, when you initially get the rejection email or letter, you'll likely feel like this:

'Generalizability Concerns?'
Well Effff Yoooooo!!! least, I typically do.  I bet there are few people who can receive a rejection letter and feel fine about it.

I recommend the very first thing you do is print and read the rejection comments (from the editor and the reviewers, if included) as soon as possible, preferably that same day.  

Next, do one (or more) of the following to the pages you just read:

  • Burn them (watch out for smoke detectors)
  • Smash them into a ball and punch it with your fist
  • Shred it in the paper shredder.  Throw in a blank CD-R at the same time for a feel-good crunching sound
  • Tear it to bits and toss it in the air like confetti (make sure to do this in a common area that you don't have to clean up)
  • Stomp on it (works better if you first crunch it into a ball), and then kick the smushed ball across the room.
  • Use them for gun/archery/whatever target practice (this one is probably the most satisfying)

Tony recently had his manuscript rejected from
the Journal of Drug Control Policy...
They didn't like his theoretical model I guess.
...feel better?  Only a little?  Ok, good enough for now.

Now that you're hopefully feeling a little better, reward yourself with a treat.  You've earned it, so treat yourself to a box of cookies (or a drink, or a steak, whatever).  You might be asking: "But my manuscript just got rejected?!? What did I do to earn a reward?"  Ahh, it's what you didn't do that earned you the reward.  Specifically you (probably) didn't:
  • Fire off a snarky email to the editor telling them off
  • Punch a hole in your LCD monitor
  • Throw your laptop across the room and/or into the face of a coworker
  • Curl into a little ball and cry (though it's ok if you did this one... you can still have a cookie)
So, treat yourself with cookies or something.
C is also for Craptastic Reviewers
Ok, now that you're hopefully a little calmer and feeling a little better, this next part is very, very important.  If you're not under an extreme deadline to get the paper published (e.g., you're racing against a competing academic so you don't get scooped), then take a week or two without looking at either the paper, the associated data, or (ESPECIALLY) the rejection email/reviews.  Just work on something else for a week or two.

After a couple weeks, you should be feeling a little more like this:
A little less pissed off... that's good!, still a little hurt, and a little pissed off, but you're getting there.  Now, read through your original submission (the one that got rejected), and try and read it as if you're a reviewer and that is not your own writing.  As soon as you're done reading what you submitted, then read the rejection letter and reviews again.

Having read what you submitted, do the reviews seem a little more legitimate in their critiques? Oh really, your submission was perfect?  THEN READ IT AGAIN.  Ok, did you find something that might be worthy of revising a little?  Good.  So, how do you feel towards the reviewers/editor now?

Notice the smile?  That's the spirit!

Ok, that's good!  So, you probably noticed that your masterpiece of a manuscript had a few places that you could improve.  If so, great!  Get to work revising the manuscript, trying to incorporate into the revised version as many of the valid critiques from the reviewers and/or editor as you feel comfortable with.  Eventually, you'll have a finished revision that you can submit to a different journal, hopefully with a better outcome this time (if not, start back at the beginning of this post).

Regardless of whether your coping strategies are similar or different (or the advice above works for you), you should at least be willing to revise the manuscript and send it somewhere else.  Don't let a single rejection result in tossing the manuscript in the garbage (maybe after 3 rejections, but not after the first...).  Also, you have to keep in mind that any decent journal is going to reject more manuscripts than they accept, so chances are if you send them something else, they won't hold your prior rejection against you, and so you shouldn't hold the prior rejection against them (eventually... give yourself some time to be pissed with them).

Image Credits: Finger Old_Finger Young_Finger Tony Cookie_Monster Einstein