Mr Epidemiology

No, I'm not a skin doctor


Grad school life

Level up! Mr Epid is now Dr Epid!

My old lab got me a cake to celebrate!
My old lab got me a cake to celebrate!

I’m back! I took an extended hiatus from the blog while I finished up my PhD, but, at the end of March, I successfully defended my PhD, and after making the changes suggested by the examining committee I submitted in the middle of April and started working. Those of you following along on Twitter will recognize the change in my Twitter handle from @MrEpid to @DrEpid; those of you who know me in real life will have heard me go on about it for the last few months as I prepare. For those wondering, I will eventually change the URL of my blog as well so they all match :)

For those unaware of the process, the PhD defence is an oral exam. At Queen’s (the process may differ at other universities), you submit your thesis, and then have to wait (a minimum) of 25 business days for the exam. The exam consists of 4 examiners; an examiner external to your university, one external to your department, one from your department, and the final examiner is your department head (or a department head delegate). You also have a chair from another department from your institution, as well as your supervisors there. After you give a 15-20 minute presentation, the examiners ask their questions. Typically, there are two rounds of questions, after which you leave, and the examiners deliberate. You’re then called back in, and they let you know their decision, and any changes you have to make before submitting your final thesis. My examiners were amazing, and while the questions were tough, they were fair. I actually really enjoyed the discussion I had with my examiners during my defence, and they ranged from the details of my analysis, to the concept of “ethnic identity” and what it actually means in terms of my research.

I want to thank everyone for their support over the past 4 and a bit years. As per prior precedents (Janiszewski, 2010; Saunders, 2013), I will be copy-pasting the acknowledgements section from my thesis below. I’d also like to thank the PLOS Blogs network, especially Victoria Costello for giving me the opportunity to join the network, and Travis and Peter for their support and encouragement when I started blogging. In addition, thank you to my co-authors Beth and Lindsay here who picked up the slack when I took a hiatus this year to focus on finishing up.

Finally, a special thank you to all the readers of the blog. It’s been a privilege to write for you, and it means a lot when you tell me how much you enjoy my work. Thank you, and I’m looking forward to getting back into writing more regularly.


I would like to start by thanking my supervisors, Dr. Will Pickett and Dr. Ian Janssen. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from you both, and appreciate your support through my PhD journey. Your honesty, integrity, and willingness to always provide me feedback and support was always appreciated. Will, I look forward to our teams meeting in the playoffs again (hopefully with better results for me this time!)

I would also like to thank those in the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology/Public Health Sciences and the Clinical Research Centre for their support, with a special thank you to Lee Watkins and Deb Emerton for their help. Thank you also to the Clinical Research Centre Student Group. Your antics, customized t-shirts, snack breaks, and random dance parties always kept me entertained, and it’s been a pleasure working with all of you. The Thought Tub is richer for having you.

This work would not have been possible without the financial support of Queen’s University, the Ministry of Colleges, Training and Universities Ontario Graduate Scholarship, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Frederick Banting and Charles Best Canada Graduate Scholarships Doctoral Award.

I would also like to thank my friends and colleagues, especially Anne, Kim, Raymond, Sarah, Alison, Hidé and Marion who have been unwavering in their support over the years. I also owe a special debt of gratitude to Rim, Lydia, Liam, Hoefel, Brian and the Gong Show/Danger Zone family for ensuring that I always get some physical activity, and that yes, I do even lift.

Finally, thank you to my family. Your love, support, guidance, and willingness to listen to me at all times of the day have allowed me to complete this project. Thank you.

What to do in Kingston this summer…. Part 4

I’m now in the midst of my sixth Kingston summer. Between the Masters and PhD, I’ve been here for a few years, and every year I find myself looking forward to the same things every time the campus clears out and the summer starts up (I’m a creature of habit, what can I say). But Kingston still surprises every year, and new things show up every year that keep things interesting. Amanda, Sharday and Rachel have all weighed in, and now it’s my turn! :)


The chocolate raspberry smoothie from Sipps is crazy delicious.
The chocolate raspberry smoothie from Sipps is crazy delicious.

1) Best summer eats

This is a toughie. Rule 1: Everything is better on a patio. Woodenheads, Atomica, The Toucan, their food is just better when you’re sitting outside enjoying it. I’m a big fan of the Pomegranate Italian Soda at Atomica, but this year I “discovered” the raspberry chocolate smoothie at Sipps. It was delicious, and I highly recommend it.

I’ll also add in the Kingston Olive Oil Company. It’s got lots of gourmet olive oils and vinaigrettes available, and is a great way to spice up a meal with some fancy olive oils accompanied by fresh bread from Pan Chancho. I recommend the fig vinaigrette and garlic olive oil, but you can try them all out in the store and see if one strikes your fancy!

2) Best ice cream place

Ice cream!! Is there a more summery meal? I think not. My favourite place by a mile is White Mountain – mainly because you can get ice cream, then wander down to Confederation Basin and watch the boats come in. It’s a great way to spend an evening. As Rachel pointed out though, they only accept cash, so come prepared!

3) Best spot for drinks

I’m a big fan of the patio at the Brew Pub – it’s got a nice, secret garden-esque vibe going on. Plus the food there is delicious! Try the salted pretzels with a beverage of your choice. It’s a great post-work-pre-dinner snack (thanks to Kim for showing me the light on that!)

4) Best summer locations

I love Confederation Basin. Sitting out, watching the water and the boats, and chatting with friends is one of my favourite ways to spend lazy summer days. People are milling around, some have blankets out, there are families walking their dogs and children playing. It’s just a really nice atmosphere. And it’s super close to the aforementioned ice cream.

5) Best summer festivals

Two of my favourite events are Movies In the Square and the Kingston Buskers Festival (July 10 – 13). The former is a great outdoor experience (bring your own chair though!) and they show the classics. This year, they’re showing Jurassic Park, Princess Bride and Space Jam (among others)!

The Buskers Festival is another fun one to watch – especially the fire show. The Buskers are incredibly skilled and really entertaining for the whole family, and they really bring the city to life. It culminates with a final show at Confederation Basin with the best Buskers pulling out all the stops to really blow you away. I highly recommend it!


This marks my final post on Gradifying, and so I’d like to thank all my co-authors – Sharday, Megan, Rachel, Amanda – for their input and support, as well as Colette Steer for her guidance with this position. I’m looking forward to seeing what you guys do next!

Going to #CPHA2014

The 2014 CPHA conference will be held in Toronto, ON | Picture courtesy Wikimedia

Next week, I (Atif) will be heading to the Canadian Public Health Association Conference, where I’ll be presenting at two different points.

I’ll be chairing a session titled “Youth Injury Prevention in Canada – Where should we direct our intervention resources.” It promises to be an interesting presentation, where we’ll be discussing injury in Canada, and where to start tackling the problem of injury. This session is scheduled for Wednesday, May 28th from 1:30pm – 3:00pm.

Injury represents one of the most important negative health outcomes experienced by young people in Canada today. Injuries inflict a large burden on children and adolescents and their
families and communities. Injury events are costly in so many ways, whether measured in premature mortality, or the pain, disability, lost productivity and emotional consequence of non-fatal events.

This panel will be made up of child injury researchers and advocates who will make their case for different forms of injury prevention intervention. At the end of this panel, delegates will: understand more about the burden of youth injury in Canada; be aware of at least four different avenues for injury prevention intervention (primordial intervention, context-level interventions, safe sport and peer-influence interventions); have identified the rationale, strengths and limitations of each intervention approach; and have learned more about ways to undertake and gain support for youth injury prevention (from the CPHA conference program).

Click to go to the conference website

My second presentation is one of the studies from my PhD, titled “The influence of location of birth and ethnicity on BMI among Canadian youth.” This is a study that’s in press (woo!), and represents my own research focus. This one will be in the Kenora Room, on Thursday May 29th 2014, from 11:00am to 12:30pm.

Body mass indices (BMI) of youth change when they immigrate to a new country. This occurs by the adoption of new behaviors and skills, a process called acculturation.

We investigated whether differences existed in BMI by location of birth (Canadian vs foreign born) across 7 ethnic groups, both individually and together. We also examined whether time since immigration and health behaviors explained any observed BMI differences.

Data sources were the Canadian Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children Study and the Canada Census of Population. Participants were youth in grades 6-10 (weighted n = 19,272). Sociodemographic characteristics, height, weight, and health behaviors were assessed by questionnaire. WHO growth references were used to determine BMI percentiles.

Foreign-born youth had lower BMI than peers born in Canada, a relationship that did not decrease with increased time since immigration. Similarly, East and South East Asian youth had lower BMI than Canadian host culture peers. Finally, Arab/West Asian and East Indian/South Asian youth born abroad had lower BMI than peers of the same ethnicity born in Canada. These differences remained after controlling for eating and physical activity behaviors.

Location of birth and ethnicity were associated with BMI among Canadian youth both independently and together.

Our findings stress the importance of considering both ethnicity and location of birth when designing and implementing interventions. While currently either one or the other is addressed, our study shows there is heterogeneity in BMI by specific ethnic groups depending on whether they were born in Canada or not.

As always I’ll be trying to livetweet the conference. I’ll be using the #CPHA2014 hashtag, so feel free to follow along online! As always, there are a wide range of presentations and workshops, so I’m excited to attend.

If you’re attending the conference, leave a comment with details of your own presentation so that other readers can attend your talks. And if you see me at the conference, be sure to say hi!

This was posted simultaneously on my blog PLOS Blogs Public Health Perspectives

So you want to be an Epidemiologist…

Last week, my Gradifying co-author Amanda highlighted how her degree is structured. Today, I’ll be talking about the degrees offered by the Department of Public Health Sciences.

There are six factors that differentiate programs: the degree structure, courses, comps, research project requirements, teaching and timelines.


The degree itself

In my program, research projects are wildly different in terms of substantive research area, and students come in with very different backgrounds. My lab buddy in my Masters had a degree in engineering, I had a background in Psychology, another colleague had a degree in political science. With these different interests comes different theses. I’ve seen students do molecular projects that are most similar to biochem/bio projects, students who have either obtained or are in the process of obtaining their MD that are clinical in scope (note: clinical research projects are also performed by non-clinicians), and then there are projects like mine that draw heavily from psychology and sociology. The intricacies are driven by the interests of the student and the supervisor. There is also the Master’s of Public Health program that is a course-based, professional degree offered within the Department of Public Health Sciences.


Courses requirements

For the MSc in Epidemiology program, students have to take 4 core courses, and 3 elective courses. Usually, students will complete all but one elective in their first year, and will take one elective in their second year. Core courses include biostatistics and research methods, both of which become vital to your career as an epidemiologist. In addition to this, they are expected to complete a Masters Research Thesis.

The Masters of Public Health program is structured as a professional program where students get a broad background in public health. Students in this program take seven core courses and three electives, as well as a skills class (that I have guest lectured). Finally, they complete a 16 week practicum over the summer after their first year.

The PhD is completely different. We have one full-year seminar course, and one advanced biostatistics course. The course requirement is relatively light in that regard – if you want further, specific, training, you can seek that out yourself.



As I walk through the valley of the shadow of comps, I will fear no evil …

In the PhD Epi program, comps are scheduled to occur in the summer of your first year. They consist of a 4 hour open-book written exam that covers basic epidemiology principles. Following this, you are given a paper in your substantive area, and given two weeks to prepare two presentations. This forms the oral exam portion of the comps process, and is given to three professors in the department. For the first, the candidate is expected to present a 20 minute presentation where they summarize and critically evaluate the paper. Following this, they are asked questions about the paper and how the authors evaluated core epidemiology concepts. The second part of the exam requires the student to design and present an appropriate follow up study, addressing the shortcomings of the previous paper. The process takes between 90 minutes and 2.5 hours.

Typically, comps occur in late-June to early-July. The cohort of PhD students will typically study together from around April onwards, and there’s a certain solidarity that develops from going through this process together.


Research Project Requirements

For the MSc Epidemiology program, students are required to submit a 2 page outline of their project. Upon approval of the outline, they then prepare and submit a 20 page proposal. The proposal forms the basis of an open oral defence, where peers can ask questions. There is also a designated faculty member who acts as a reviewer for the project. Once the student passes their oral proposal defence, they can then continue with their project. Finally, they have a Masters thesis defence, where they present their work to an examining committee, consisting of 1) a professor external to the department, 2) one internal to the department, and 3) the department head (or someone in their stead).

The PhD in Epidemiology follows a very similar process, except everything is bigger. Students submit a 5-6 page outline, followed by a 20 page proposal of the project. Again, the proposal is followed by an oral exam, with two faculty members acting as reviewers as opposed to one in the Masters program. Once approval has been granted, the candidate now proceeds with their project, culminating in a PhD dissertation. This is defended to a committee consisting of a professor external to Queen’s in addition to the members of the Masters defence committee.

At both the outline and proposal stage, students are given feedback that they can consider with their supervisors as they move forward. Due to the variability in projects, there are no expectations around the number of manuscripts that you should produce, although I’ve seen Masters students produce 1-2 from their thesis work, and more if they did RA work. Doctoral candidates aim for 3-4 core manuscripts, and again, produce more if they work as an RA. These can be written while in the program, which results in a “manuscript-style” thesis (see mine here), or a “traditional” thesis, where, after defending, the student will prepare manuscripts for publication. My Masters was a manuscript based thesis, and my PhD will be as well, but this really varies on the project and whether this is feasible for you. My PhD fits nicely into four self-contained projects, and so publishing as I go was the best way to approach my PhD (you can read more about the first study from my PhD here, and the Queen’s press release here).


Teaching and Supervising

There’s no undergraduate program in epidemiology, and so teaching opportunities are limited. That being said, there are lots of opportunities to be a TA for graduate courses, and there are undergraduate courses that are offered. Many of the TA positions include opportunities to lecture and lead small group tutorials, which makes them a lot of fun and rewarding. Perhaps the most fun is the ability to really tailor your tutorials and classes to your own style and interests – I’ve taught several classes using data from the NHL to illustrate basic statistical concepts (what are the average number of goals scored, what’s the modal number of goals scored, why are they different).



This is really left up to the student and supervisor – the department asks for progress reports by semester, but the onus is on the student and the supervisor to stick to the timelines set out in the proposal. I meet with my supervisors as required, and so we have gone 2-3 months without meeting in person if I’ve been working on a specific aspect of the project, and more often if I need feedback from them as I’m working through something. However, we touch base by email often, and this works well for us. Your mileage may vary – other students and supervisors work best with regularly scheduled meetings.


So while this is my experience in graduate school, I would suggest meeting with the department and potential supervisors if you are interested in joining the Department of Public Health Sciences. These are some of the core requirements and expectations, but these do change over time, and so if you’re finding this a year or more from now, be sure to check what the current requirements are.


This post was originally published on Gradifying

Life in Grad School: A day in the life of Atif

The editorial staff at Gradifying decided that this month we would describe our experience in graduate school, especially given how different our experiences are. Last week, Amanda discussed her experiences as a graduate student, describing her “field season” and “the outdoors” and “early mornings.” My life is completely different. While Amanda spends her days knee deep in mud, I spend mine exploring databases. While Amanda is taking an ATV through abadoned fields and forests, I’m traversing the internet for PDFs and programming code. While Amanda is worried about mosquitos and horseflies, my biggest health concern is bad posture from being hunched over a keyboard all day.

My desk: Where the science happens!
My desk: Where the science happens!

So lets talk about a regular day for me. Three of my projects use data housed at KGH that I can access 24/7, and so my schedule is completely up to me. There are no external forces at work – I can work all day and all night if I want to, or I can leave for weeks at a time. The only limitation is that I can’t take my data off site, and so I need to work in my office. As you can imagine, this means I have to be SUPER DISCIPLINED. When nothing mandates I be in the office, I have to be that force. While many people would hate working with data all day every day, I love it. Trance/techno/dubstep (courtesy, a large double-double and a database? That’s a pretty awesome day in my books.

In addition to my main database, this year I started working with another database housed at the Research Data Centre (RDC) at Stauffer Library. The RDC is an excellent resource for those interested in using Statistics Canada data, and provides you access to very detailed data about the health and behaviours of the Canadian population. However, this level of information comes with serious security. Since the data available have individually identifying information available, you need Government of Canada Security Clearances to access these data. The Centre is not connected to the outside world through the internet, so if you don’t know something, you have to leave the facility to check or Google it. Finally, no electronics are allowed inside the RDC, which includes MP3 players. So if you’re one of those people who likes to listen to music while they work (see trance music comment above), you can’t unless you can get your hands on a Walkman or Discman somehow. In addition to these levels of security, the Centre is only open from 10am to 4:45pm Tuesday through Thursday. So when it’s open, you need to maximise your time there.

Simba and the Happy Hack(ey sack) give me company while I'm analyzing data.
Simba and the Happy Hack(ey sack) give me company while I’m working.

One thing I decided when I started my PhD was that I never wanted to bring work home. I’ll work late in the office, but, to paraphrase the great urban poet Kei$ha, once “I leave for the night, I ain’t coming back.” So I settled into a pattern of working from 9am to 5/6pm in the office every day, then hitting the gym and heading home, thus leaving my evening free for writing, watching sports (Go Sens! Go Texans!), whatever I want. I’m fortunate in that I can treat my PhD like a job, and can work those hours. The only time I’ll bring work home is if I have a presentation, and then it’ll just be practising it once or twice in the evening in my living room to see how it flows. One suggestion for those who need motivation to go to the gym: Purchase “greys” from the ARC. For around $18 /month, you get your own locker, as well as clean socks, shorts, t-shirt and a towel from the gym every time you go. If you leave shoes there, then there’s really no excuse to not go to the gym. You just show up and it’s all there. I highly recommend it.

Lego Batman reminds me that EVERYTHING IS AWESOME!
Lego Batman reminds me that EVERYTHING IS AWESOME! (except for the angle of this photo, which I can’t figure out how to rotate) (Thanks Kim!)

Outside of grad school, I keep myself busy with various other activities. As you know, I write for Gradifying, but I also am the Editor for PLOS Blogs Public Health Perspectives as well as a Science Writer for PLOS Blogs Sci-Ed. The former focuses on Public Health and issues related to the health of societies, while the latter is focused mainly on science communication – how do we, as scientists, communicate to the public and explain complex ideas in ways that resonate with them. When I’m not writing, I’m usually playing ultimate frisbee through Kingston Ultimate, which takes up most of my free time through the spring/summer, between practice, training and games. If you’re ever walking through City Park on a Sunday morning and see a bunch of people doing laps, wind sprints and various other crosstraining activities, that would be us.

If you have any questions, let me know!


This piece was originally published on Gradifying!

Planning for the summer

This post may sounds a little premature to some of you. After all, it’s only March, we *just* changed the clocks and there’s still snow on the ground. However, before you know it summer will be on us and things will be happening! Things! Exciting things! But in order to ensure you get said “things” done, you need to take a critical look at your life and prepare.

“It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Gandalf is right!

To start, get a calendar. I’m a big fan of Google Calendar because I use multiple devices – my phone, desktop(s), a laptop and an iPad, and this automagically sync’s everything between them. As a result no matter what I’m using, I can check my schedule. However, I know others prefer a planner or agenda made of dead trees. Each their own. I find the latter too easy to lose. I’m assuming most of you have some sort of time management system, but if not, there’s no time like the present to start.

After this, start planning our your summer. Think of conferences you’re going to, events you know you have to attend (weddings, parties, concerts, whatever), and write all of those down. If there was one thing that changed between undergrad and graduate school for me, it’s that everyone got married and started having kids. Suddenly, hanging out with people became scheduled between naptime and bathtime. Granted, that sounds a lot like first year, but lets stay on track here.

Now the tricky part. Start thinking about how long everything will take to prepare. Say you’ve got a conference starting Monday May 26th where you’re presenting a poster? Great. First off, you want to make sure your poster is printed by the Friday beforehand – May 23rd. In order to ensure this happens, you want to give the print shop at least 3 days, to account for any unforseen delays on their end. This brings you back to May 20th. Now, you want to make sure your supervisors have approved the poster. Lets assume it’ll take them a week to do that – May 13th. Great. So you need a (close to) final copy of your poster sent to your supervisors by May 13th. But you have to do some analysis before then, and then create the poster. That can take another 2 weeks or so, which means you have to start this process on April 29th, in order to be able to present on May 26th.

Ah! But if you have a plan Bilbo, you can run off off into the blue!

So that example is an “ideal” case, where you have lots of time to prepare, and things go off without a hitch. Many of you might be reading this and thinking that there’s no way you’d spend that much time on a poster. But very rarely will things occur in isolation – while you’re working on that poster, you’ll also be writing up manuscripts, collecting data and possibly teaching or supervising summer students. In that case, you want to make sure that you know what is due when, and that you don’t miss important milestones to avoid last minute panic.

But what if it’s not a poster? What if it is your thesis defence? If your supervisor is away for the entire month of August, then you either defend in July, or September. You need to plan for that. This becomes exponentially more difficult if you have multiple supervisors (especially if they travel a lot in the summer), and at the PhD level is a nightmare because you are at the mercy of your supervisor, your secondary supervisor, your examining committee and anyone else who has to be there. As a result, you have to start planning this well in advance if you hope to defend by a certain date.

The advantages of planning your summer now are numerous. For one, you can start looking into flights, transportation and accommodation for any conferences you’re going to. In addition, it can give you a concrete idea of what you need to do, and when you need to do it. As a result, you set a series of “microgoals” that you can use to gauge your progress through your project(s), which has the dual benefit of keeping you on track and keeping you motivated through small victories.

In addition, being on top of tasks will mean you can deal with things as they come up both good and bad. If the weather is nice and people want to go to Sandbanks for the day? Sure! Go for it! You know you have time.


Have a great rest of the semester, and happy Spring!

This was also published on Gradifying

On overcoming writer’s block

This is a cinder block.
This is a cinder block.

The setting is your office. You’re bathed in the dull glow of your computer screen, staring at a blank page in Word, trying to write a paper.



The cursor is watching you, mocking you, laughing at your inability to get words out.



Your mind locks up as you wonder “what do I have to say?” The more you try to force out words, the harder it becomes, and eventually the frustration leads to you sitting there, at your desk with your head in your hands, wondering how you’ll ever finish.


You then Google “how to overcome writers block” and end up on this post.

The official name for this is the "? block"
The official name for this is the “? block”

Writer’s block is a tough thing to deal with, but one we’ll all have to tackle at some point – either at the start of our training while we’re writing outlines and proposals, at the end when we’re writing up manuscripts and theses, or afterwards, as we’re working on papers and other documents. So the question becomes, how do you deal with it?

Now, I’m going to state the obvious here, but it’s a necessary point: The hardest part of writing is starting to write. Once you start though, it becomes infinitely easier to get content out onto the page. To help you kick start your writing process, I’m going to give you a few tips, and as always, I’d love to hear what you do to overcome writers block when it hits in the comments.

1) Isolate yourself. Remove all distractions – phone, coworkers, cats, get rid of it all. You want to be able to focus exclusively on writing. The fact is that if you have an easy out, you’re more likely to take it, i.e. “I’m stuck, I wonder if anything has changed on Facebook in the past 3 minutes? And this Buzzfeed article seems great, and look at what this cat is doing…” It’s tough to start writing, and removing distractions means you’ll struggle through those tough parts rather than put it off and do something else. You need to power through this part.

2) Talk it out. This one sounds strange, but is one of my favourites and has been hugely effective for me. Occasionally, I’ll close my office door, stand up, and pretend I’m giving a talk about whatever it is I’m writing about. Now only does this get you thinking about the topic at hand, but without the intimidation of the cursor and blank word document staring at you, it is easier to just get your ideas out. Be organic: stand up, pace back and forth, talk like you normally would, and don’t focus on the minutia of your project. Talk about the broad strokes and the flow of your arguments, and see if they helps you over the initial hurdle.

Alternative: Grab a coworker, go for coffee, and outline your paper/idea to them. Tell them their job is not to have a conversation with you – their job is to ask questions and prod you when you get stuck, and help you jump start your writing. Obviously, you owe them coffee/donut(s) for listening to you :)

Tupac Shakur released a song called “My Block” (click to listen)

3) Write an outline. For those who don’t like talking things out, this is an effective alternative. Sketch down the key points you want to make in each paragraph, and write as much information about each paragraph as you can without losing momentum. Even if you do talk it out, this is a good way to conceptualize your work. By the end, you should have something like this:

Paragraph 1: Open with a scene about writers block
Paragraph 2: Describe writers block, transition into list
Paragraph 3: Start outlining key points

This is an engine block.
This is an engine block.

4) Start writing. Don’t think about grammar, phrasing, punctuation or language rules. Just get words out. Ignore word choices, ignore making things sound “professional.” Just get those ideas out and onto the page. At this point you want to have something out there to look at and critique, and hopefully, if you followed steps 1 through 3, you’ve got a few ideas up your sleeve now. Remember: the ideas don’t have to flow. You can write two distinct paragraphs, making two very different points, and that’s fine. You can go back later and fine tune things. Again, all you’re trying to do here is get something out onto the page that you can work with.

5) Do something else. Up until this point, I’ve talked about isolating yourself and focusing on writing. Here, I’m going to suggest leaving it, but with one caveat. Go and do something else that gets you moving, but not something that engages you entirely – something like cooking, cleaning, going for a run, lifting weights etc. Something that allows you to get yourself up, but without taking your full attention. There’s a reason why we have our best ideas in the shower, and turns out it’s because of the combination of 1) the release of dopamine, 2) being relaxed, and 3) being distracted enough that your subconscious can engage and work on a problem, results in you being more creative (science here)

Dikembe Mutumbo was famous for his ability to block

Before you know it, you’ve got an outline, some body text and a fleshed out idea of what you want to say, and that’s half the battle right there. After you’ve got a skeleton to work with, it becomes a lot easier to start writing, and begin building your arguments.

How do you deal with writer’s block?

This piece was published simultaneously on Gradifying.

On giving constructive and helpful feedback

Last time I spoke about how to deal with negative feedback, and how you can cope with it. However, as you transition from undergrad, to graduate student, to senior graduate student (to life afterwards), you’ll be placed more and more into positions of responsibility. When that happens, it will be your responsibility to give feedback, and at this point, you realize that it’s really difficult to give good, constructive feedback that doesn’t come off as harsh.

Depending on the person, this feedback could be to a student, a colleague, or even a senior student. My research group has had a lot of success with practice run-throughs of presentations for conferences and defences, and once the person has presented, giving them useful and constructive comments is something we strive for. The easy route out is to give them “soft” feedback and avoid major problems. However, that doesn’t help them as, if you don’t point out major points they can work on, someone else will. The goal of this post is to help you frame that feedback.

And, in honour of Thor: The Dark World, coming out this week, I’ll be recruiting my good friend and gym buddy Chris Hemsworth* to help me with this post.


This just makes me laugh. I’m not even sure why.


1. Real life or email?
The first question is how to give feedback – face to face, or via e-mail. As we move more towards an electronic presence, sometimes it’s not only easier to give feedback electronically (such as when you’re in different cities), sometimes you have to (such as when you’re using track changes in word). People disagree over which is best, with this article falling on the email side, and this article falling on the face to face side. Frankly, I think both can be done well, and both can be done poorly. Finally, if you do choose to provide feedback in real life, keep it respectful, and, if necessary, private. Do not publicly shame someone.

A car is not a good place to give feedback.


2. Follow up
This relates to the point above, as one of the major benefits of face-to-face feedback is that you can provide instant feedback and clarify concerns on the spot. Email does not allow for quick clarification the way a face to face meeting does. One option is to send the email and then follow up on the phone or in-person soon afterwards, or meet first, and then provide written feedback. Similarly, once the feedback has been given, that’s not the end of the process. Improving oneself and developing skills takes time and effort, and small “course corrections” may be required, especially if the person has a hard time interpreting what you’re asking them to do. If they want more help or clarification later on, that should be available to them.

Don’t worry Thor, we’ll be specific!


3. Be specific
If you have an issue with something, say that. Don’t be vague as that can lead to further confusion. For example, some people when they present, never make eye contact. So when providing feedback, say “you need to make more eye contact.” Don’t say “you need to engage the audience.” The latter is not helpful, and can mean a number of different things, ranging from more eye contact, to more audience participation, to revamping your slide deck. Providing specific comments bypasses this concern.

We’re not attacking you Thor! We’re just providing feedback!


4. Present facts, not opinions
Avoid subjective words and emotional descriptions of events. Rather than saying “you didn’t care about this project” you want to focus on the specifics “your introduction needed more detail about X.” Continuing in the same vein, remove emotion and wait if things are too charged. Waiting for people to process their own feelings following an experience allows for everyone to think logically and productively, and at that point, feedback (may) be welcomed. This is as much for you as it is for them:

“The exception to this is if the situation involved is highly emotional. Here, wait until everyone has calmed down before you engage in feedback. You can’t risk letting yourself get worked up and risk saying something you will regret later.”


That is good, positive, specific feedback! Way to go Thor!

5. Positivity!
We often dwell on the negative, and only provide feedback about areas of improvement. However, also consider providing positive feedback! If someone does a really good job of explaining a concept, or writes a very clear article, then tell them that! One of the tricks is learning not only what you need to improve, but capitalizing on what you do well and putting that front and centre, and stating that can help boost a person’s morale, confidence and make the whole process a lot more enjoyable and positive for all involved.


Further reading:
View story at


This was published simultaneously on Gradifying

*Note: I’m not actually friends with Chris Hemsworth, and I’m not getting anything from Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures to include these GIFs.

Dealing with negative feedback

You know the feeling.

You’ve spent the last month working on a manuscript/paper, have fleshed out your ideas, spent countless late nights editing and making things sound *just* right, and you’ve finally sent it in to your supervisor. This will be the draft. This will be the one that they read and go “Wow! Good job! Submit this to Nature immediately!” And it’ll be accepted within a week, and you’ll be flown to Washington to present the paper to President Barack Obama himself, and, while you’re there, BB King will show up and you’ll jam together in the oval office, and, just when you think you’re about to finish your Epic Blues Jam Session, Bill Clinton will come by and play the saxophone.

But then, your supervisor sends you your paper back, and it’s either covered in red ink or there are 714 comments in Microsoft’s Track Changes.

This is *literally* the most appropriate GIF I could find.

One of the major reasons you’re in grad school is to learn from these experiences. There is a reason your supervisor is the Canada Research Chair of Awesomeness, or is internationally known for their work. It’s because they’re very good at what they do, and part of what they do is write, and write well. Your goal is to learn everything you can from them, and in that process, improve your skills. And writing is just one part of this process – your ideas will need refinement, your writing will need work, your teaching will need improvement, all of these are skills you can work on during your graduate education. However, in order to improve, you need to deal with feedback, which can come from a wide range of sources including your supervisor, your students (via TA/TF evaluations) and people at conferences.

1: Take a break.
The first thing I tell all the students I work with when they get back corrections is to read it, then leave it. Skim over the comments, get that initial “THIS IS THE WORST NEWS EVAR!” feeling out, and then go for a walk. Once that initial visceral response has passed, you can start dealing with the comments themselves. As this 99u article says:

Don’t react defensively – or aggressively – no matter how hurt, disappointed, or annoyed you feel. Start by taking a deep breath and reminding yourself of your goal.

2: Remove emotion from the equation.
As silly as it sounds, you do get emotionally attached to your writing over time. You’ve spent countless hours tweaking everything, making it sound *just right* before sending it in. You’ve read and reread sentences again and again to make sure they’re clear. Your supervisor then rewrites many of those sentences, and may suggest that some are unclear and need work. At a conference, someone might be less diplomatic, and call your work all kinds of names. You need to take emotion out of the equation as you hear those comments, and decide what comments have merit and require further thought. One thing you should not do is take criticism of you to be a personal attack. Negative feedback isn’t personal. By removing any emotional responses from the comments, you can evaluate comments on their own merit, and decide how to deal with them.

This may be extreme, but you get the idea.

3: Triage comments
In an emergency room, patients are triaged. Those with life-threatening conditions are identified as high priorities, while those who do not need immediate attention will be waiting for beds to open up. Similarly, you need to identify which comments are important, and need to be addressed immediately, and which are stylistic and you can let slide. Pick your battles.

4: Identify constructive criticism
We’re now thinking of comments outside of those that your supervisor would give you – we’re into the realm of feedback from students, audience members at presentations, and others. Listen to the comments, and understand why the feedback is being given and what you can do to improve. What you really need to do here is identify what is constructive and helpful, and where the comment is coming from so you know how to fix it. Use the comments to help you, and be objective about whether or not it is useful – even if you don’t like the comment.

5: Ignore personal attacks
One of the best pieces of advice I got as a Masters student was to listen to all comments and evaluate them all, even the ones you don’t agree with, but to always ignore personal attacks. And you will get personal attacks – students will write mean comments in TA evaluations, people will attack you at conferences, and, especially if you put your ideas out on the internet, you will get called all kinds of names. It’s very easy to dwell on those comments: don’t. You know you’re good at what you do, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

This GIF always makes me laugh. I don’t know why.

6: Don’t listen to everyone
And thus we get to the final point: don’t listen to everyone. Everyone will have advice, everyone will have an opinion. Take the points that you like, synthesize them, and use your own judgement to decide what works for you and fits your project/worldview (that includes this article). Don’t accept everything blindly. Decide what you stand for, and if someone is arguing with you about it, plant your feet firmly and don’t budge.

This was originally published on Gradifying.

Featured Interview with the Queen’s University School of Graduate Studies

Friend of the blog Sharday Mosurinjohn recently interviewed me for a profile on the Queen’s University School of Graduate Studies website. The first paragraph of her (very flattering) interview is below, and follow the link provided for the whole thing.

Atif Kukaswadia – AKA Mr. Epidemiology – is here to help you understand the science that’s important to your life. As a PhD candidate in Queen’s Department of Public Health Sciences and a science writer for the Public Library of Science (PLOS) blogs network, Kukaswadia is immersed in creating and reporting on scientific knowledge of direct relevance to the public, and he wants to share the wealth.

Kukaswadia moved to Canada in 2002 with his family from the UK. He started his undergraduate degree in Biology at Carleton University, where he focused on ecology and studied caterpillars, butterflies and mud shrimp. The thing Kukaswadia most enjoyed about ecology was how “everything was interconnected – you never study one squirrel in isolation. You study the whole environment and how elements of the environment interact.”

While he enjoyed Ecology, he realized that studying butterflies and caterpillars wasn’t for him. So he started a second degree in Health Psychology. Using his background in ecology, he began looking at humans the same way he had been trained to look at non-human animals and, specifically, at how the environment affects humans. This combination of interests led him to Queen’s, and the Department of Public Health Sciences.

Click here to continue reading!

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