#5: Academic Overwhelm

Dear Story Nurse,

My question is regarding writing peer reviewed journal articles. I really struggle with the theory section of the paper—as two panels of reviewers on two separate papers have been pretty blunt about. (I mean, my advisor had told me before more politely, but it hadn’t sunk in.) I’m still a graduate student, so I feel like I just don’t know the literature well enough to even know where to start with strengthening the theory section. On one paper the reviewers were nice enough to mention a few authors to look at, and sometimes my advisor does that, but more often they don’t and they all just say “you need to say why this is important,” or “you need to reference Theory X” (which is so broad there’s hundreds of papers on it).

The thing is, even if I were a full-time graduate student, I wouldn’t have enough time to read all of those hundreds of papers. But I’m also working on another really important project for my PhD, and preparing to teach a class in the Fall that I haven’t taught in more than 5 years, plus other classes I teach every year but need to revise, plus struggling with motivation due to some jerky stuff an ex-advisor did to me. Even when people suggest “well, just read a few random papers and see who they all cite,” even “just” seems like an insurmountable hurdle, when each individual paper can take me more than a day to understand. And even if I don’t read each one all the way through but jump straight to their references section, it still takes time to decide on which papers to even look at in the first place, and it’s also time consuming to get ahold of the papers.

Help! It’s just so overwhelming. This feels like something that in 10 years will be a non-issue, but how do I get from here to there?

—Writing Grad (they/them)

Dear Writing Grad,

The key word in your letter is “overwhelming.” The straw of needing to read up on theory in your field has sent the proverbial camel to the proverbial chiropractor. I do have some suggestions on that front, but first, take a few slow deep breaths and sit with your feelings of overwhelmedness. You are doing a lot right now, and anticipating a lot more to do in the fall semester, which may be starting in just a week or two. All of those obligations and responsibilities feel even bigger than they are when you look at them collectively, and thinking of one just leads to the next—look at how a letter asking for help with a relatively specific writing concern turned into a litany of everything that’s on your plate. I am very glad to be someone you can recite that litany to, but there’s more going on in your life than an advice columnist can help you with, and it sounds like you’re really struggling. So please seek support from what Captain Awkward calls “Team You”: friends, family, partners, your advisor (who is hopefully less of a jerk than the ex-advisor was), mentors in your field, a counselor or therapist, whoever will be kind and useful when you ask for help. Your school may be able to help you access counseling resources. As far as I can tell, anyone doing a PhD should be getting significant professional mental health support; my first attempt at undergrad study sent me into a massive depressive tailspin to the point where I had to drop out, and I can only imagine how much more emotionally and psychologically challenging graduate-level work is. So please do reach out for what you need.

You’re completely correct that in a few years this will be a non-issue. Until then, my first reaction was “Isn’t this what your advisor is for?” but I recognize that advisors vary and fields vary; it’s nice that your advisor politely said “I think you could work on this a bit” but clearly you need a little more support and help than that. If it’s at all possible for you to ask for more specific assistance from your advisor and/or a mentor or two in the field, I think that’s the best way to go. “Read random papers” is, as you recognize, useless advice. But people who know your field much better could, for example, give you a targeted top 10 list of important theory-grounding papers to read, and it sounds like that would be a really useful thing.

Failing that, here are a few approaches to creating theory sections that will either satisfy peer reviewers or encourage them to send you more useful feedback.

  1. See who your peers are citing in their theory sections. Let’s say you’re researching pain management for infants receiving vaccination injections. (If this is actually what you’re researching, thank you.) Pull up Google Scholar or PubMed and search on “acetaminophen infant pain vaccine” and you will find a number of relevant works. If you get too many results, make your search term more specific until you’ve found a dozen or so recent papers in your exact field. Then look specifically at their theory sections—don’t attempt to wade through their overwhelming lists of all citations or fully comprehend the complete paper! See which works those papers cited as being foundational, and you’ll have a good list of works that warrant further attention from you. Start with any that are referenced more than once. Remember that those theory sections all passed peer review, so learn from them and model your own work on the success of others.
  2. Do reverse-cite lookups on older classic works. Even if you’re not up on the very latest hippest research, presumably you have some sense of what that research is grounded on, or the names of the most prominent researchers in your field. If not, maybe your advisor can give you a list of greatest hits. Put those articles or authors into Google Scholar and then click the “cited by” link. Check “search within citing articles” and add a search term to narrow them down to those specifically in your subfield; for example, over 60 articles cite “Mercury emissions from Mount St Helens during September 1980,” but only six of those contain the phrase “peat bog.” Iterate as needed. Much as following citations takes you further into the past, following reverse citations brings you closer to the present, and soon you’ll be finding articles on recent discoveries in your field that you can cite to prove that you’ve been keeping up (even if you don’t actually have the time to properly keep up).
  3. Rephrase the question so you can provide a better answer. “Why is this important?” is frustratingly general, so try answering a different question: In what context is your research important? To whom is it important? What changed such that it became important (or became possible to do at all)? Why is this research so important to you personally that you spent a lot of time and effort on it? Another approach is to replace “important” with “exciting.” What makes the stuff you’re doing really cool? How would you explain it to one of your students, in a way that communicates your enthusiasm as well as your knowledge?

These practices will take some time, so build the expectation of that time into your plan for writing papers. It’s not “additional” time—it’s part of the process. And having the expectation of spending a few hours or even a few days on research will help to mitigate the feeling that this obligation is huge and will take forever and you have no time at all to spare for it.

Regarding it taking some time to get hold of the papers, talk with your institution’s research librarians about ways to access papers online. I don’t know what discipline you’re in, but I would be very surprised if your school didn’t have instant online access to at least some of the major journals in your field. (If it doesn’t have all of them, that at least saves you some time, in that you’ll only have to look through the journals that are there.)

Finally, remember that peer review is all part of the process, and that lots and lots of excellent papers describing excellent work by excellent researchers are kicked back by peer reviewers because they need clarification in one area or another. Getting critical peer review comments is absolutely not a slight on you personally. When I was working on a peer-reviewed journal it was extremely rare to see a paper just be accepted the first time around, and many authors had to send papers to multiple journals before finding a place to publish. It’s great that you’re learning from that feedback and identifying your own weaker areas; stay focused on improving, and look for ways to bolster your confidence in yourself and your work so you can take the peer reviewers’ comments as sources of useful knowledge rather than criticism of you as a person or a researcher.

I suspect that your difficulties with motivation are really at the heart of this. The theory section of the paper is in many ways the place where you sell your work, explaining why it matters to your colleagues and is worth reading. If you’re feeling unmotivated or down on yourself, you’re going to have a much harder time with that. Whenever possible, return to the part of your work that makes you feel the happiest and reminds you why you chose to go into this field in the first place, whether it’s burying yourself in the lab or helping a struggling student to succeed. You need that boost, and it will help you in all areas of your work.

Caveats on all of this: I’m not and never have been an academic, but one of my past editing jobs was helping medical researchers write papers about their findings, and I also worked as an editorial assistant on a peer-reviewed medical journal. So take this with the appropriate quantity of salt, and I hope readers who are more familiar with the writing side of peer-reviewed articles will chime in with useful discussion in the comments.


Story Nurse

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