More than Friendship: The Importance of Student Peers

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Time and time again, you hear students talk about how lonely graduate school can be. To fight the loneliness, graduate students often befriend each other, play board games together, go to trivia nights together, or yes even party together—only on weekends and always responsibly of course. Even though this makes graduate school less lonely, the research itself may remain a lonely enterprise.

Yet it doesn’t have to be: future professors, inventors, and intellectual powerhouses are residing on the desk across from you, why not take advantage of that?

On day one of graduate school I wished someone would have told me so many things (e.g. difference between theory-application, how run certain models) but most of all I wish someone would simply have told me: “Student peers are fundamentally important to your academic life.” 

Of course, everyone knows you want to befriend and get along with the students in your department. However, unlike during your undergraduate studies where friendship is the ultimate goal, in graduate school so much more can occur. Graduate students are not just potential friends, they are potential colleagues, co-authors, discussion partners, support networks, and walking encyclopaedias of various literatures. Fellow students are the one of the biggest and most powerful resources in graduate school, yet we often overlook this fact.

No matter who your advisor is, he or she will not be around as much as your fellow students who are almost always there. They hear your ideas in class and lab, attend your conference presentations, talk at length with you over coffee and lunches, and see your ideas develop from day one. In many ways your peers often know your ideas, thought processes, passions, and weaknesses better than anyone else. This is especially true for students working with multiple advisors or switching between advisors.

Yet, often we simply don’t take advantage of our friendly fellow students. We don’t follow the example of the Psych Your Mind students who spend one lunch a week talking about ideas just amongst themselves. We don’t take the time to kick ideas back and forth, or just be someone’s sounding board. Instead, we stumble into advisor meetings will ill-prepared pitches, when a pre-conversation with a peer could have drastically improved them.

Recently, a group of students at a conference agreed to start a purposefully small and private online message board group, so they could communicate about important topics and questions. With this message board system, these students can get insight on complicated questions, methods, cites, and theories within an hour. A network of graduate students supporting each other can be at times more powerful than any individual meeting with a faculty member.

Lastly, even if we talk together or form networks, we don’t tend to co-author with each other. Remember last time you just couldn’t figure out the right stimuli, couldn’t handle the stress of a revision, and got writers block? Or remember that time you needed feedback from your advisor, but the advisor was in a conference in Spain? That’s when a student co-author would have saved you.

Professor Gavan Fitzsimons at Duke University often gets praised for one interesting talent: he’s good at putting graduate students together and building research teams. He knows how powerful a network of graduate students, senior professors, and often also young professors can be and his CV is a testimony of that.

There’s a belief in Improv Comedy that when two performers get on stage and make up a scene together, the performers create something that is greater than either performer would have created own their own. Improv performers believe that putting two passionate people together creates true greatness as they positively build upon one another’s ideas. Whether it is as co-authors, giving feedback on manuscripts, or just chatting about research over lunch, togetherness is a path to greater things.


Viewpoint: Video Advice from Mike Norton, Leif Nelson, and Simona Botti

This spring, we took our shaky camera around the Conference for the Society for Consumer Psychology. We asked a few professors to give us some ‘bite sized’ words of wisdom. They talked about hope, presentation style, and how to think like a researcher.

A couple of months later, here are the results (finally)…

Michael Norton

…on “simple presentations” and “asking questions.”


 The Doctoral Consortium organizers Leif Nelson and Simona Botti

…on going to conferences, how grad school is actually manageable, and how there are more helping hands out there than we normally think. 


Four Academic Writing Lessons From Man of Steel (Spoiler Free)

Despite a fewman of steel yo original and cool looking moments, the Man of Steel was a lesson in poor storytelling. Given that Professor Jim Bettman often lectures about how writing an academic paper is like writing a story, there’s a lot to be gleaned from the failures of the Man of Steel.

Here are four ways in which Man of Steel failed, and four pieces of advice from esteemed professors that can help your next paper so you don’t make the same mistakes.

#4 Stick With One Theme

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Jim Bettman advises students that academic writers should tell a consistent straightforward story. Importantly, academic papers should be focused on a clear theme and make the theoretical contribution explicit and clear.

Man of Steel chose a different direction. Instead of choosing one theme, it tried to cram in truth, faith, the (un)willingness to take a life, fate, genetics, sacrifice, and family and ultimately failed to say anything valuable about any of them.

Similarly, Mike Norton tells students that when giving a presentation, audience members will tend to remember one image or idea. Accordingly, he proposes that presenters should try to repeatedly make their central picture the focus of the presentation. He often says, “leave them with one image.”

Bettman further advised that, when writing a paper, you should tell readers what you are going to tell them, then tell them it, and then tell them what you’ve told them.

#3 Keep It Linear

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Bettman also argues that academic papers need to be kept in a linear format. He explains that an academic paper is not a mystery story and not a story with many subplots.

Man of Steel explored a nonlinear story line. It’s a format that has benefitted a few movies (and maybe a research paper or two), but in general it only works for special cases (e.g. Momento).

Most of the time nonlinear storytelling can distract from the main thrust of the papers, put cognitive load on viewers, and lose the emotional impact of each moment. Bettman’s advice won’t make your paper into the best drama ever, but it give your paper clear communication, and that’s the goal of science writing.

#2 Keep the Immediate Introduction Short

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Peter McGraw recently challenged Daryl Bem’s “hour glass style” in a blog post about how papers should start with a straightforward explanation of the research puzzle and findings.

Unlike Peter McGraw’s papers, Man of Steel started with a lengthy introduction that was completely detached from the main plot. The movie spent 20 minutes on Krypton before getting to the main story on earth. Though enjoyable, the introduction did not serve the core story of Clark Kent.

Many academic introductions often linger on points and citations that are completely irrelevant to the main point of the paper. This wastes readers’ time, distracts from the paper, and may make the findings look weak compared to the promise of the introduction.

Robert Cialdini suggests that young researchers should write papers that test against a competing conceptual hypothesis. Peter McGraw suggests something very similar in that the intro should first explain what has not been shown or a puzzle that needs be answered.

Peter McGraw argues that this brief overview of the puzzle is the best way to begin. Anyone following this strategy will be in good company—for instance these researchers and this paper you might have heard of used Peter McGraw’s “explain the puzzle” intro strategy.

Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica, 47, 263-291.

Expected utility theory has dominated the analysis of decision making under risk. It has been generally accepted as a normative model of rational choice [24], and widely applied as a descriptive model of economic behavior, e.g. [15, 4]. Thus, it is assumed that all reasonable people would wish to obey the axioms of the theory [47, 36], and that most people actually do, most of the time. The present paper describes several classes of choice problems in which preferences systematically violate the axioms of expected utility theory. In the light of these observations we argue that utility theory, as it is commonly interpreted and applied, is not an adequate descriptive model and we propose an alternative account of choice under risk.

For more on Peter McGraw’s puzzle method visit his blog post here.

#1 End With Substance

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Dan Ariely advises students to make the conclusion offer something substantial.

Many people use the general discussion section to hand wave counter explanations, awkwardly propose real world implications, or mention limitations that are obvious but provide no insight on how to deal with those limitations. The sentence, “We only ran these experiments on college students, so our findings remain limited” wastes a reader’s time. If included, the sentence should be followed by hypotheses about how and why other populations might differ.

Man of Steel offered a completely unsubstantial conclusion. It comprised 30 minutes of senseless punches without any real progression in the plot or in the main characters. Compare that to the The Avengers in which the ending features the characters finally working together, the revelation of Hulk’s angry secret, Tony Stark finally behaving selflessly, and a great look at the future directions of Marvel’s “phase two” with the revelation of the supervillain Thanos and the hypothesis that the Avengers will reunite.

Papers can adopt The Avengers’ strategy and talk about a few (not more than three) future directions in depth, comment on how the findings illuminates or synthesizes theory, or try to build toward future theoretical advances rather than simply saying “if it were applied in this different setting it would probably also work.”


Man of Steel had some great lines and some flashy “effects” (pun intended) but that is not enough to tell a great story. Academic writers can learn from this. And if someone passes these professors’ advice on to the crew of Man of Steel 2, maybe they can learn from it too.

Viewpoint: Raised on TED – The Inspirations

Last week Troy talked about the dangers of young researchers being raised on TED. However, it’s not all doom and gloom: there are a lot of good and inspiring elements that come out of TED, too. 

Inspiration #1: Do Stuff that Matters


TED inspires us to do things that matter. Every talk is proof that the ivory tower can make big changes far from campuses. If you have any doubts just watch TED talks by science advocates like Rory Sutherland and Daniel Pink.

Researchers have a tendency to think esoterically or on too small a scale. TED helps to remind us that even if we never reach that TED podium, our research can contribute to solutions on a worldwide stage.

New people to the field may not realize that before the days of TED, Malcolm Gladwell, and the Internet, the public and private organizations did not care as much about behavioral science or arguably about science in general. Behavioral scientists were fighting to matter – just ask Richard Thaler. Today we have the opportunity to see our work go global but it does not mean we should abandon basic science or only do micro-applied work. It means young researchers should keep an eye open for where research can matter and be consumed by the public and mangers.

Inspiration #2: Communication is Important

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Science should be a service to others. Some science can serve others without ever being communicated on a wide scale. However, much behavioral science can serve others through mass communication. TED reminds us of the importance of communicating research beyond a 101 introductory class.

Though some often criticize scientists’ mad rush to the popular press, it is indisputable that a popular press filled with good behavioral science would be a good thing. Some scientific findings don’t belong in the public eye because the findings are unclear, complex, or not relevant.But every issue of a scientific journal (at least in fields like behavioral sciences) has at least one paper that deserves public attention. If that’s your paper, work on getting it out there. You’ll benefit and the world will benefit.

Inspiration #3: Scientists Should Communicate Science

Side note - has there ever been a cooler picture of scientist than this one?

Side note – has there ever been a cooler picture of scientist than this one? It’s like they hired J.J. Abrams to put the perfect lens flare on it.

Not everyone is able, should, or wants to communicate on a TED stage, but those who can should. Scientists should get a few hours of media training from their university and get in front of audiences. Journalists are wonderful, but they often mess our science up. If we want our science communicated properly, then we need to communicate it ourselves.

Many universities want professors and graduate students to write opinion pieces and articles to get science out in the public. Contact your university’s Press office and you could have an article in a respectable paper within weeks. It won’t be the New York Times, but you’ll get experience, writer credits, and you’ll be educating readers. Additionally, many local groups, departments, and meet-up clubs are always on the lookout for speakers. You can go give your own TED-like talk to these groups in your area.

Finally, many professors recommend writing blogs and popular press articles because writing constantly helps to refine one’s scientific communication skills. Writing and presenting for the public forces one to complete a full argument on regular basis—something we don’t get with academic writing. In addition, science journals (even journals like Journal of Personality and Social Psychology) are more and more looking for concisely written articles, so public writing can be good practice.

Concluding Thoughts

So is TED a danger or inspiration? Like any modern intervention it is what you draw it that matters. TED encourages us to get public and real-world with our work, but it does not  mean abandon theory for entertaining real-world results. Every TED speaker from our field is a great theoretician and that’s what that person got on that stage, keep that up but with an eye on the real world.

Viewpoint: Raised on TED – The Dangers


This week Troy reflects on his own experiences of being raised on TED and shares thoughts based on conversations he has with many professors about TED and the structure of research. 

The lights dim, the red TED logo glows and the researcher steps on stage. The researchers begins with an emotional anecdote, identifies a world problem, cracks a joke, shows a graph, and then the crowd rises in thunderous applause.  Another 18 minutes of edge-of-your-seat science ends and somewhere a graduate student clicks away from YouTube and back to her data.

We are the first generation of scientists raised on TED videos. There is no denying that TED affects our research goals and research styles. So is TED dangerous or inspirational to young researchers?

This first post looks at the dangers, and next week we’ll look at some of the inspirations.

Danger #1: Remember that 18 minute talk took 18 years of research.

One problem many students have is that they enter graduate school with TED as their blue print for research. It is important to remember that those TED speakers were neither as good at public speaking nor as prolific in research when they began their graduate careers. In their pasts, they focused on only a few topics, made mistakes, and needed to establish themselves before they became science rock stars.

This danger can be fixed by using recently placed graduate students as blueprints for success. At the next conference instead of stalking a TED speaker, choose to meet up with successful young researchers and find out what that researcher did to succeed. As an additional bonus, the chances are that young research will also have more time to spend with you.

Danger #2: The Goal of Science is not Public Entertainment

John Hodgman (pictured) is an entertaining making a point. Scientists are point makers occasionally entertaining.

John Hodgman (pictured) is an entertainer who occasionally makes a point. Scientists are point makers who occasionally entertain.

The goal of science is to create valuable information not to entertain. Entertainment is a device TED talkers and bloggers use to get their research across. One should not aim for a news headline just to get a news headline. For the most part, this tendency must be resisted for the health of science and arguably for the health of your career.

When science is entertaining it should follow the Ig Nobel standard of “research that makes people laugh and then think.” If the think does not come, then the science fails. The news media and YouTube love headlines that make people laugh and it is so tempting to try to make the public laugh and impress them. Many of us are nerds who never were popular and cool, and being popular and cool for just one moment is a huge temptation. Resist that temptation.

Danger #3:  TED is Only Chapter 1

TED talks are only the intro, TED encourages viewers to go deeper.

TED talks are only the intro, TED encourages viewers to go deeper.

TED talks always feel like the first chapter of a book. However, good science is not completed by writing just one chapter. And just as there is danger in only reading in the first chapter of Blink, there is a danger of doing chapter 1-thin research.

Some have argued that TED needs to be better at delving deeper into the topics. Regardless of whether TED internally acts correctly or not, TED does not provide the right template for how to do research. A scientist does not benefit science by just skimming the edges of a topic with a single empirical phenomenon. One benefits science by digging a deep hole or at least digging repeatedly roughly around the same hole.

Next week: the brighter side of being raised on TED!