Making Research More Social

In the past several months, I’ve read a few books that are loosely connected by a theme of writing, thinking, and productivity. A couple of these books have been focused specifically on academia, a couple are not (I’m including a references list at the end of this post, if you want to take a closer look!). The authors have taken vastly different approaches to discussing these topics, but after a while, I began to see some overarching themes emerge. One in particular stood out to me: the idea of being social in our research. Whether discussing dealing with writer’s block, being productive researchers, or how we develop ideas for new projects, these authors overwhelmingly advocated for being more socially connected with others. The importance of having a strong social network and developing an emotional support system stood out as, arguably, the most consistent recommendation from these different readings.

The authors suggest a variety of different approaches for making our research time more social. Some were more general, such as having a broad network of family and friends who can encourage you during your research process, while some strategies focused on direct collaborations with colleagues. In Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write, Helen Sword recommends organizing writing groups or writing retreats, being open to giving and receiving feedback, and strategies for coauthoring on projects. One idea that stood out to me was collaborative writing, in which she discusses literally sitting in a room with a coauthor as you go line by line, testing out how sentences sound with one another. This type of model was pretty new to me—I am not sure I’ve heard of many people who work like this. So much of the time, our writing seems like a very solitary event. However, the idea of having someone to suggest a new way of framing or phrasing a topic that I feel stuck on—as opposed to me sitting alone at my computer, feeling frustrated that the words just aren’t flowing today—feels pretty appealing.

Beyond the nitty-gritty of writing and editing, the authors also talk about how collaboration can offer benefits as we develop the big-picture ideas for our research. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman writes what I’m pretty sure is the most beautiful description of coauthorship that I’ve ever seen.  Describing the work he did with his long-time collaborator, Amos Tversky, he states:

“[O]ne of the great joys I found in the collaboration was that Amos frequently saw the point of my vague ideas much more clearly than I did. Amos was the more logical thinker, with an orientation to theory and an unfailing sense of direction. I was more intuitive and rooted in the psychology of perception, from which we borrowed many ideas. We were sufficiently similar to understand each other easily, and sufficiently different to surprise each other. We developed a routine in which we spent much of our working days together, often on long walks. For the next fourteen years our collaboration was the focus of our lives, and the work we did together during those years was the best either of us ever did.” (p. 6)

To me, this passage exemplifies the best of what collaboration in our research can be: the capacity to be more than the sum of our parts, developing a relationship that can help us achieve a depth of research that would not have occurred if working in isolation. But even beyond the quality of the research, it offers something we could argue is just as important: the potential to make our time at work more pleasant. By spending time talking through our ideas with others and encouraging one another—being more social—we can make the research process enjoyable.

Plus, finding these aspects of enjoyment in our work (in addition to all the mental health and personal fulfilment benefits) has positives for our research, as well. In The Slow Professor, Barbara Seeber and Maggie Berg argue for the importance of incorporating elements of fun into our creative process. When we are enjoying our work, this has a positive impact on our capacity to draw connections, develop new directions for a project, and deal effectively with any roadblocks that come up. Overall, it seems that structuring our research time around these positive social interactions offers a host of benefits. Not only can collaboration result in research that might not have been possible if working alone, it can also make our work more fun, which in turn helps our own thinking.

Following these recommendations, I’ve been working on incorporating more social strategies into my research. This past semester, I’ve been meeting up with other graduate students for a weekly writing session. I’ve been encouraged by not just the fact that I’ve found these sessions to be enjoyable, but also by the other participants’ reports that this has been a productive space to work! Also, when recently working on some revisions on a paper, a coauthor and I sat down together while going through the feedback. We made edits by sounding off ideas for rewriting sentences with one another, combining our suggestions in real time. And finally, I recently reached out to some friends who very generously read over some writing with which I was struggling. I am starting to see ways that these strategies have helped increase my confidence and enjoyment with the research/writing process. Research can definitely be an isolating process, and I'm seeing how these opportunities to write with others and receive feedback is helping me make progress with my work.

What are some ways that you try to make your research and writing process more social? Have you met with any challenges in this regard, or had to adjust any of your strategies?  Email me ( or tweet your thoughts (@ellenmwhitehead).


Here are the references for the books I’ve been reading!

Berg, M., & Seeber, B. (2016). The slow professor: Challenging the culture of speed in the academy. University of Toronto Press.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.

Rettig, H. (2011). The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer's Block. Infinite Art.

Sword, H. (2017). Air & light & time & space: How successful academics write. Harvard University Press.



ICPSR Summer Program: Thoughts and Reflections

This past week, the ICPSR Summer Program released the dates for the 2018 four-week sessions (check out their announcement here).  Having spent most of this past summer at ICPSR, I began wondering what reflections I have from my time there, and what I wish I had known before attending.  I received some amazing training at the four-week sessions, and had a lot of fun, too—getting to meet new friends there was definitely one of my favorite parts of the experience.  It is a really unique space for methods training, with some awesome instructors.  I think a little bit of preparation beforehand and a few extra considerations, however, could have made my time there even more productive.

For those who are wondering, the ICPSR Summer Program is a quantitative methods training that is put on every year at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.  The program is made up of two four-week sessions and consists of methods courses that cover a wide variety of topics and skill levels, as well as lectures and social events.  (There are also numerous 3-5 day sessions, which are held in Ann Arbor as well as multiple other cities.)  During my time there, I took Multilevel Modeling I and II, Maximum Likelihood Estimation, Longitudinal Analysis, and the Intro to R lecture.  Generally, the organizers of the summer program recommend that students take two courses and a lecture.  I met some students who took more than that, but the recommended course load will keep you plenty busy.

Here are a few thoughts and overall takeaways from my time at ICPSR:

·      Look closely at the syllabi when making your course selections for the summer, and take a brief glance at the textbooks the instructors will be using.  The syllabi for each course, and some video introductions from the instructors, are available in the class descriptions on the ICPSR website.  Viewing this material will help so much in determining whether the class will work for you!  Even if it is a topic you are interested in, it’s so important to get a sense of where the instructor is starting from.  If the class jumps straight into some complex modeling that feels overwhelming, you might want to check out another course that feels more manageable.  Which leads me to…

·      Consider classes that, at first glance, you might think your method skills too advanced to make it worth attending.  When I decided on courses, my thought was that I needed to select courses with all new, advanced material in order to make my summer in Ann Arbor worthwhile.  In retrospect, I think it may have been just as good a use of time if I had selected courses that built more closely on my prior knowledge, or were even repeats of classes I had previously taken.  Everyone’s previous training and research practices differ, of course, but re-exposing yourself to some material might add a lot of insight into the math and mechanics behind methods you already use.  This kind of foundation makes it a lot easier to learn the more complex methods later on, even if you are self-teaching.  Plus, you can try attending a few different courses during the first week, and then choose which ones you want to stick with.  If a class feels like it’s moving fast the first couple of days, I would try switching—it will only speed up.

·      Go to the social events!  The summer program organizes a ton of these, and they are a great way to meet other participants.  It is a relatively easy place to introduce yourself and meet people—recognize someone from your class?  Conversation starter right there.  And being graduate students, you’ll meet plenty of people who want to talk about their research .  If you don’t have a prior network in Ann Arbor, this is a great way to make sure you don’t spend your whole time there doing statistics and watching Netflix (which is also a valid option, depending on your preferences).  Four weeks and especially eight weeks, if you are staying for both sessions, is a long time to not interact with friends. 

·      Know that this is a super, super immersive program.  If possible, try to have as few research/writing/program commitments as you can while you are there.  Each class is everyday for two hours, and there are plenty of assignments and reading outside of class time.  Plus, the program offers several lectures (on math topics, programming software, and computing) that you can attend to supplement your courses, as well as the Blalock Lecture Series, which covers a variety of useful topics.  Setting aside a good portion of a summer to not do any research is hard, I know—maybe impossible for you.  When I attended, I had two R&Rs that I had to be working on.  Those deadlines couldn’t wait! Try to figure out what year during your program would be best for you to attend.  Maybe early on, while your major obligation is still coursework?  The year you’re writing your proposal, if you have a more flexible schedule?  I met one student while I was there who was simultaneously studying for his comprehensive exams, which I cannot imagine doing.  Truly, the more you are able to focus only on your classes there, the more you will get out of it. 

·      Start looking for housing early.  There are co-op houses near the university where ICPSR participants can apply to stay, and I met several students who went this route.  However, if you think a co-op house wouldn’t be for you, there are subleases and other options available.  I was lucky enough to hear about a friend of a friend who had a sublease available, which is where I ended up staying for the summer.  Airbnb might also be an option for you.  Even if an Airbnb host is only offering a short-term stay, you might be able to ask them about a longer term arrangement—I had one Airbnb host that I discussed this with.  Overall, housing appeared to be the most difficult logistical arrangement that we had to figure out as participants.  My best advice would be to start early, use your networks if you have any contacts in the area, and don’t spring for a situation that you don’t think you will be happy living in for several weeks.

·      Apply for funding.  I was only able to go for the four-week sessions because I was funded through the Clifford C. Clogg scholarship.  ICPSR offers several funding opportunities for many different disciplines, or you might be able to get funding for a training like this through a grant or through resources at your school.  Even if you are completely certain that a bunch of statistical geniuses are all applying for the same scholarship as you and there’s no way you could get it (this might be from personal experience), apply anyway. 

·      Know that you will not 100% understand everything that is covered (at least if you’re me).  It took me a little while to realized this seems to be part of the point of these classes.  The courses are short, and the instructors pack so much into the four-week session.  The recommended reading lists are long, and the material moves so quickly.  Rather than stressing that I was not fully comprehending everything covered, I began to realize that I was learning a broad perspective on these methods, while being given the resources to fill in any holes later on.  Now that I’m back at my home institution, I know where to look if I want more information about a method, or learn how to apply something to my own research problem.  You’ll have the instructor’s slides, your notes, and the books/articles that these experts decided were the best for learning these methods—plan on going back to all of these for a long time after.  For me, the most useful thing about ICPSR was that I began to have some confidence that I could learn these methods, and could continue working on these skills long after the summer session ended.

Have you attended ICPSR in the past?  What are other suggestions for future attendees that you have?  Do you have any questions that I didn’t speak to?  Email me ( or tweet your thoughts (@ellenmwhitehead).

Networking in Academia: Beyond a One-Size-Fits-All Approach

Academics view networking as a necessary and vital component of establishing a career in this field, but figuring out how to network (at least for me) has seemed like quite a black box.  How can we make sure our interactions with other scholars produce a well-developed network?  Especially during graduate school, we have a relatively short period of time to develop a network before we begin conducting independent research and go on the job market.  How can we ensure that our time at conferences, talks, and within our graduate program results in us knowing others who do research within our subfield (and, ideally, that they know us)? 

Some common strategies that I have heard of/seen in progress/tried myself consist of cold emailing professors to ask to meet at conferences, approaching speakers after a talk, going to a reception at a conference and striking up a conversation, and meeting with faculty that are visiting your institution.  While I think a lot of these interactions can be helpful and can provide a pathway to future communication, I have found them to have some limitations.  Most notably, they give us little time to develop a meaningful professional dialog.  Most of these may last up to an hour (if having lunch with a visiting scholar) or as little as five minutes (if chatting at a reception).  This limited amount of time often makes it feel difficult to meet the other scholar, discuss research interests, and especially ask for feedback on a project I am working on.  To be fair, all of the professors I have talked to in this manner have been more than friendly and very helpful.  But along the way, I have tried to seek other strategies to develop these professional connections.

With the limitations of some of these other strategies in mind, I’ve thought about some of my main goals of networking and what strategies could be better suited to meeting these ends.  For me, the key aims include fostering future collaborations and receiving feedback on projects from others knowledgeable in an area.  Even if you are not actively looking for a coauthor or trying to figure out an issue with a project, developing a solid network with a diverse skill set and research interests can still be beneficial for the future.  A well-established network can help you keep up with current research, develop new ideas for future projects, and ensure that you can find out the best data/literature/methods if embarking on a new line of research.  These networking objectives indicate one major necessity of networking strategies—they should produce long-lasting, meaningful professional connections.  With this in mind, I’ve tried to be more creative in thinking about how to network and who to network with.

I’ve seen outgoing colleagues start up conversations with ease upon meeting new acquaintances, making this seem like a skill that gives the naturally extroverted an advantage.  This doesn’t have to be the case!  One strategy that I have found particularly effective is seeking out workshops or trainings at other universities.  Many of these opportunities are funded, and have been a helpful and enjoyable way to get to know other scholars.  For example, I was able to spend a whole quarter at UC Davis, participating in a fellowship at their Center for Poverty Research, where I was able to meet students and faculty in the sociology department and other students participating in the fellowship.  I have also participated in several data training and methods workshops, such as the ICPSR Sumer Program, the PSID data training, the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing data training, the UT Austin Summer Statistics Institute, and the New York City Longitudinal Survey of Well-being data training.  Many of these trainings last for at least a couple of days or up to a week, giving the participants ample time to meet one another. I’ve found these workshops to be particularly helpful for meeting other scholars who are interested in your subfield, which is great for understanding who is well-versed on certain topics and who might be interested in coauthoring on a project.  Academia is a small world, and it is likely that many people will begin becoming familiar faces, as you see them at more than one workshop or at a conference.

Further, it seems like much of the time “networking” is interpreted as “networking with professors.”  I don’t think this is the only approach, or even the most productive, and isn’t even what our advisors often mean when they encourage us to reach out!  Developing connections with graduate students, researchers or project coordinators for datasets, or industry contacts can be valuable sources of support and information.  Particularly when starting out as a graduate student and just beginning to attend conferences, introducing yourself to other students can feel much less intimidating.  For me, talking to other graduate students about their classes and conference presentations was a great way to share common experiences and get comfortable discussing research.  Further, getting to know other graduate students or postdocs, even with your own department, can mean that you automatically know professors at several institutions when they graduate and move on. 

In all, I’ve found it useful to realize that networking doesn’t have to mean becoming the most outgoing person in the room.  For me, the most successful networking has come when I sought out workshops and trainings, in which I had enough time to develop genuine connections over research and other academic experiences.  Also, I’ve found that developing a variety of ties—with faculty, graduate students, and staff members at various institutions—is crucial to forming a rich and diverse network.  Have you found other networking strategies that have worked for you?  Can we think outside the box to make networking more accessible for everyone? Tweet any thoughts you have to me at @EllenMWhitehead or email at