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Mr Epidemiology

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Grad school life

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!

Now You Feel Old: 17 Facts about the Class of 2017!

Fall is in the air. The frosh are back on campus, chanting, screaming, causing general havoc and every so often it’s like you’re crossing the Bruinen, and next thing you know, you’ve been swept up and now you’re suddenly climbing up a football upright covered in grease and surrounded by engineers when you just were trying to head home.

Note: This is a factual representation of how frosh groups move.

In the spirit of Frosh week, I thought I’d share some facts with you. Since this will be the Class of 2017, here are 17 things that happened the year the frosh were born – 1995!

1. The Prime Minister of Canada was Jean Chrétien

2. TLC released their most successful single: Waterfalls. It spent seven weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and was their second #1 hit following 1994’s Creep. It still remains very sound advice for life, especially if you’re a salmon.

3. Daniel Alfredsson played his first season with the Ottawa Senators, winning the Calder for the 95-96 season and scoring 61 points in 82 games. He went on to play 1178 games with Ottawa over 17 seasons, 14 of those as Captain, making him the longest serving European captain in NHL history. He then retired. Yes. He didn’t sign with another team in the same division. He retired.

*sobs uncontrollably*

4. Deep Blue Something release “Breakfast at Tiffany’s!” The song is now known as the thing everyone says when asked “What do you want to do for breakfast?”

5. Oasis releases their most recognizable hit, Wonderwall in 1995. By 1996, every guy ever has learnt how to play it on guitar, and now if you’re ever in a group of more than 4 guys and a guitar, The Oasis Law ™ states that at least one will try and play Wonderwall and encourage you all to join in.

See facts 6 through 17 on Gradifying!

Heading to #CPHA13

Ottawa is a beautiful city in the summer - hopefully we'll be able to enjoy it! | Photo credit: Atif Kukaswadia
Ottawa is a beautiful city in the summer – hopefully we’ll be able to enjoy it! | Photo credit: Atif Kukaswadia

Just a short note today – I (Atif) will be heading to the Canadian Public Health Association Conference next week, which is being held in my home town of Ottawa, Ontario. I’ve never been to the CPHA Conference, so I’m looking forward to it.

I’ll be tweeting findings from the conference using the #CPHA13 hashtag, and I’m hoping others will be too. There are a wide range of presentations this year, and I’m excited to hear about all the research that people are doing, as well as the vision that CPHA has for themselves and for their role in promoting public health in Canada.

I’m going to presenting a poster on one of the studies from my PhD titled “A Cross-sectional Analysis of Immigrant Status and Its Relation to Physical Activity Among Canadian Youth.” I’ll be by my poster for the breaks, so drop by Canada Hall 2 to learn all about it.

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 PLOS Blogs Public Health Perspectives

#overlyhonestmethods – Reaching out with humour

For a week and a half, I was a minor internet celebrity!

Science has an awkward relationship with the public. There’s a perception that we exist in an ivory tower, and the common media perception (as is evident by shows like The Big Bang Theory) is that we’re somewhat socially inept, with a lack of people skills and an inability to talk about our work in a way that others can understand.

So I was thrilled when #overlyhonestmethods became a thing. There have been many little science in-jokes floating around the twittersphere; one of my favourite was the hashtag #middleearthpublichealth which came out right before The Hobbit released in theatres. Tweets like “Craving the ‘Precious’: Gollum, a case study of the public health impact of severe ring addiction, Lancet 2010” abounded, and they illustrated public health rather nicely (for more, check out Brett Keller’s blogpost). However, they only catered to a niche audience: public health professionals, and public health professionals who got the Lord of the Rings references.

Click here to continue reading!

Science and Storytelling

A short post today, as I know everyone is busy, and the time you spend reading could be better spent listening to me in the YouTube video above 🙂

I was fortunate enough to speak at TEDxQueensu last semester. For those of you familiar with the TED format, it’s a short (< 18 minute) talk about an idea or concept. Some famous ones are by Sir Ken Robinson (Schools Kill Creativity), Candy Chang (Before I die, I want to) and this talk by Simon Sinek (How great leaders inspire action). The latter is the one that inspired me to do this talk.

In a nutshell, I think science is awesome. But I also think that science is suffering a public relations crisis at the moment, with people having a hard time understanding what it is we do, and more important why scientific research matters. That idea is what fuelled my TEDx talk above.

For those wondering, TEDxQueens was a great experience. There were a range of people there, including fellow PhD candidate Heidi Penning, who spoke about her experiences raising a child with autism in her talk entitled “Discovering what lies beyond the bend.” I’d definitely recommend attending next year if this is the kind of thing you enjoy – and definitely audition if you have an idea worth spreading!

Thanks again to the TEDxQueensu team for such a great opportunity and for putting on such an awesome event.

This piece was simulblogged on Gradifying

New Post on PLOS Public Health: Public Health 2.0: Electric Boogaloo

Session: Public E-Health

I love conferences and seminars. Having someone who is passionate about an issue get up and present is one of the best ways to learn about something new, and can really bring something to life. But what’s perhaps most interesting is not how effectively someone can communicate an issue, but it’s in the break immediately afterwards. Do people leave to discuss the topic that was just presented? Do they leave thinking about what you said? In my mind, that’s one mark of a good presenter: they make you think about the issue so deeply that it dominates the conference lunch immediately afterwards.

I had this experience last week. As part of an introductory epidemiology course, the students were allocated to a side and had to “debate” an issue. One of the topics was “Vaccination campaigns can be helped by social media,” with the two teams arguing accordingly. That got me to thinking: How is social media used by public health professionals? And can it be used effectively?

Click here to continue reading!

New Post on Gradifying: Letters from the Half Way Point: Or, Three Things I’ve Learnt So Far.

Friend of the blog Travis has done regular thesis updates, and I think that updates from those in their PhD can be helpful for those considering or starting out with their graduate education. It gives you a a bit of a roadmap of what to expect, and potential pitfalls you might encounter. Some of you will be half way through a Masters/PhD right now, and I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments – anything you wish you knew before, or even things that went well that you would recommend others do as well.

And, to inject a little class into the proceedings, I’m going to highlight these points with famous quotes from books. I’m sure my English major readers will have a field day with this.

Click here to continue reading!

New Post on Gradifying: Higher Education Humour!

While the tradition of oral storytelling has been replaced by the email forward or Facebook message, the idea remains the same. We pass down stories from generation to generation, from postdocs to PhDs to Masters students and onwards. And now those stories take the form of websites, blogposts and cats doing silly things.

I’m going to end the year with some of my favourite funny reads. It’s a stressful time of the semester, and most people have exams and assignments and projects to finish. If you’re really lucky, you also have a bunch to mark before you can leave too! Yay!

And so, in the spirit of the season, I’m going to share some of my favourite links with you to try and lighten that load.

Click here to continue reading!!

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