Let’s Simplify Our Language, Shall We?

Let’s Simplify Our Language, Shall We?

There are these things called “policies”. This is a term that loosely means “the rules we should follow”.

If you’re a nurse, you should wash your hands after working with a patient. If you’re a teacher, you will do X-Y-Z for tests when you have a student who is dyslexic in your class. If you wish to build a bridge, you must get an environmental assessment done to measure the impact of your project on the surrounding ecosystem. These are “policies”. Sometimes they are formally written up in legal documents. Sometimes, as in “clean up your dishes when you are done with them”, they are evidenced only by a note on the fridge in the staff lounge.

There is movement in the research world to ensure that more formalized policies are not only developed, but also dynamically evaluated, leading to such models as this one, the classic policy cycle:

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I have a bit of a beef with the presentation of models like this one. I find it too dense, all nouns and academic-y jargon, which I have talked about in a previous post fittingly titled Reading Academic-y Jargon.

And I am presumably an academic yet still find this dense. I need a second to process the words and phrases, analyze their meaning, and create examples or definitions in more common language in my head as I read.

Why do we add this degree of obtrusion?

I would like to appeal to the academic masses to please label models and flow charts such as this one with more digestible language and a clear point to each stage.

I have adapted the above to something that makes more sense to me:

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Is it too unofficial? It is certainly a slight simplification but do we not need to read further into the assigned labels anyway for clarification? Does the de-abstraction cause it to lose some of its officious academic appeal?

I prefer to think not but feel free to judge for yourself.


Image from http://xboxaddict.com/Article/297/Tablo—A-solution-for-an-OTA-DVR-for-Xbox-One.html


The Poetic Sequel: Jobs Where You Can ‘Get Your Research On’ as a Clinician

The Poetic Sequel: Jobs Where You Can ‘Get Your Research On’ as a Clinician

Once your PhD reaches completion, sights set on employment

A place to produce, to collaborate, to earn

Is academia the sole destination for your research enjoyment?

Why no, no indeed, there’s so much you did learn!


As a researcher, it’s clear, study design becomes easy

Your sharp mind can envision, can ensure data’s collected

You can arrange data points in a way that is pleasing

To analyze, report, present, publish as expected


But there is so much more, like your ability to organize

To lead and train others, solve problems, no sweat!

Your ability to communicate, collaborate and advise


You can write, write, write, write!


So the jobs you could get:


Of course there’s Professor, which gives much flexibility

To break new theoretical ground with the utmost agility!


Be a Clinical Researcher and start your own business

See your own clients, run studies, you must be ambitious


Or step up and be Head Scientist in a hospital

Daily inspiration surrounds you, knowledge translation is critical



Prefer to not be the boss? Clinical Associate might suit you

Be the star clinician you are, with a flair for peer review


How do you feel about Clinical Research Coordinator?

Stay behind the scenes, mastermind, like a knowledge creator


Perhaps Clinical Services Manager is your future role

Clinicians appreciate evidence-based protocol


Finally, you may work in Industry with a PhD

Make your skill set work for you in a career externally


Wherever you choose to go with your PhD, your vocation

I hope it is worth every darn grant application!


Image credit: Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss


4 Tips for Getting Through Your Comprehensive Exams

4 Tips for Getting Through Your Comprehensive Exams

Early this week, I completed the written portion of my comprehensive exams. In the PhD in Health at Dalhousie University, this process involved taking exactly 6 weeks to write three 15-20 page essays (plus references) on three questions that are directly relevant to my proposed study. In about two weeks, I will meet with my comps committee for the oral defence of my essays.

Before starting my comps, I found pretty much zero tips to guide me in getting through it. So I fumbled around and, guess what?, I made it happen. As will you! But, in case you like to have ideas in advance, below are four tips that I figured out along the way.

Tip 1. Get a reference manager and fill it

Collect articles in a reference manager that will let you cite in-text and automatically generate a reference list. I used zotero because I really like the Chrome extension that lets me easily clip any article I find online directly to zotero. I know that other PhDers are using Mendeley and loving it. Some labs use RefWorks with Write-n-Cite.

The only downfall I’ve seen with using a reference manager to automatically generate your reference list is that you really need to make sure that your references are properly entered into the ref manager in the first place. The biggest issue that I had to keep fussing with was the title needing to be all in lower case except the very first word, the first word after the colon, and proper nouns (APA style).

Another issue was that the author’s full name needs to be consistently entered. For example, you couldn’t enter my name as Squires, B.J. and Squires, Bonita for two separate publications, or it will cite the author in text with the first name or initials to show that it thinks they are two different people.

Tip 2. Use a time tracker app

I knew that I needed something to motivate me to write every day. I also knew that I love looking at pretty data (what researcher doesn’t!). So I realized that I wanted a visual representation showing me how much time I spent on my comps every day.

I ended up using a simple, free online time tracker called Toggl. It’s designed for businesses to have employees track the time they spend on different projects but it was perfect for my purposes.

Toggl_bar graph.jpg

So motivating! I even did some of my own calculations and figured out my mean number of hours per day and the standard deviation…

It also spits out how much time I spent on different tasks if I’ve been diligent about identifying them (I was). So now I can look at how much time I spent on each essay doing the readings versus writing the paper itself and compare across all three essays! Doesn’t that sound exciting! Below you can see my breakdown for the last week of my comps:

Toggl_task breakdown.png

Maybe you don’t want to use a time tracker app? Fine, but find something that motivates you that taps into the tried-and-true motivators that game theorists have known for decades: we like to see progress. We love it. Even the littlest accomplishment can be motivating. Maybe you would prefer to stick a star on your wall for each half hour you spend working on your writing. Or perhaps you plan to report to a friend every day on what you’ve accomplished. Whatever it is, commit to it.

Tip 3. Give yourself time to think

On my first day after I received my comps questions, I hacked out a simple outline for each paper based on what I knew already. In the end, I didn’t use any of those outlines.

As I delved into readings and tried to write, I would constantly realize how certain ideas tied in to other ideas, or how the literature lent itself to a certain storyline that I hadn’t thought about.

Sometimes I would pace my apartment, thinking, “Does that argument really make sense?“. Or wake up and lie there, thinking, “How come no one’s studied that yet? How will I argue my point now?”. Or walk my dog, thinking, “Somehow I need to tie in that other idea, where should it go?”.

The important thing that I realized was that I couldn’t stress out while I was thinking. I couldn’t let anxiety build up over not being in the midst of adding words to the page. I can’t even tell you how much I wrote that I ended up erasing… it was probably equivalent to the amount of writing that I ended up submitting. Some of that could have been avoided if I had let myself think more first.

4. Own your writing time

Find the best and most productive times for you to write and stick to them. I happen to be most lucid and productive late at night. By the time 10:30pm rolls around, suddenly I get a razor-sharp focus and tappity-tap goes my keyboard. But of course, that means I’m writing until at least 2am. Clearly, I was not getting up at 7:30am to be ready to write again at 9am.

I found it really hard to try to justify to people why I wasn’t getting up early in the morning (edit: in the morning, period) to “be productive” because “that’s the best time of the day to get things done” and “by the afternoon you already have so much under your belt“… No.

I won’t be shamed. There are plenty of personal and brain-based reasons as to why I go to bed so late and would really prefer to get up late too. Early mornings are just not how my brain or my life works. I finally decided to just own it.

If you’re an early morning person then kudos to you. Own that. If that’s when you’re most productive and that means people try to shame you about why you need to go to bed so early (“but the night is young!“, “live a little!“), don’t listen. Find your sweet writing time and own it.

All in all, I managed to submit my essays on time without undue stress and I feel proud of what I pulled together. I also learned a lot. My writing improved, my writing process became more efficient, and I feel so much more comfortable with the literature in my field.

It was a dynamic and rewarding process and I can honestly say that (assuming I pass the written portion…) I truly am looking forward to the oral defence!


Open Access Conundrums

Open Access Conundrums

I have been thinking a lot about open access lately (note the brief discussion in a recent post of mine). Who hasn’t? It is a hot topic, with all sorts of organizations popping up that advocate for it (e.g., Open Access Button, OOO Canada Research Network) and entire conferences devoted to it (e.g., OpenCon).

There are overwhelmingly fantastic arguments for it, as are convincingly laid out by high-profile proponents such as the passionate and fearless Erin McKiernan. For the full run-down by an expert, check out an excellent talk of McKiernan’s on the issue here; I remained enthralled throughout its entire 45 minutes.

In response, I have been taking note of open access journals for my own future submissions. In fact, I even went so far as to tweet my relief upon realizing that the journal of our own national organization, Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology Canada (the journal is CJSLPA) is entirely open access.

But the issue does not seem so straightforward as to say that all journals should become open access.

I am and have always been a law-abiding, authority-respecting person, to a fault. I was raised to assume that the police and government were doing everything in the best interest of the public and have only in recent years begun to question this logic. This has also lead me to assume that the journal authorities who set prices for their product may have good reason for doing so. I continue to have this niggling concern: people need to be paid for their time and companies need to be paid for the resources that they provide. Everything can’t be free in this world.

This was highlighted for me recently when I contacted a small journal asking about open access. I wanted a potential submission to be accessible to teachers, clients, and people in several different fields but a paywall would have likely prevented that. The journal editor replied that, no, it is not open access because there are costs to running a journal and they cannot afford to do it for free. So who pays?

A part of the issue may be that journals have not traditionally expected individuals to pay. Institutions pay and if you’re not affiliated with an institution then too bad.

However, this model may need to change with the increasing uproar for accessible research output and knowledge translation directly to those who may apply the knowledge, the “end user”. If open access is not a financially feasible option then at the very least prices need to be reduced for individuals. Do we not bemoan the fact that policymakers and professionals don’t refer enough to evidence during decision-making and practice?  Currently, if one of these individuals actually chose to seek out interesting, current and relevant articles to support decision-making and practice, this is what they may be faced with:

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One article for US$40, which translates to a hefty CAD$52.34! Or how about this for the right to download the PDF of one article in a small Canadian journal:

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Let’s be honest. We really don’t think too hard about spending a few dollars online. Look at the recent Pokémon Go craze. The game is making $1.6 million a day through in-app purchases that start at $0.99. The low prices are made up for by the large numbers of people all around the world doing the purchasing. This is how these free games make money (not to mention the advertising revenue). I will admit that I have spent a few dollars here, a few dollars there, on mindless games. It gets me nowhere in my life but it provides a bit of entertainment. The same applies to music. I occasionally spend a whopping $1.49 to download a song that I enjoy and I don’t think too much of it.

This does not only apply to entertainment. There are countless free websites and apps out there that we can use to be more productive, organize our documents, and collaborate more efficiently. The way many developers earn money is by offering limited functionality for free and charging small monthly or yearly fees for more features. If I really like an app, I will certainly cough up the $5/month to upgrade to better features. However, when the cost of something goes above $10 the purchase becomes harder to justify. Why aren’t academic journals getting on board with this high volume, low cost payment model? 

The latest great idea offered by journals is that if authors would like their article to be available open access, they pay an exorbitant $1000+ fee. In other words, the onus is on the researcher to pay for the accessibility of their article to non-academics. Just because some people or departments can afford it doesn’t mean that it is the right model.

Software developers have figured out that the end users of their products will not pay the prices set for institutions. In fact, this high volume, low cost model has proven to be quite lucrative. If our goal is truly to have research be accessible to the end users, the public and professionals who may apply the research, then maybe we should be marketing directly to them at a reduced cost. I wonder what potential market is out there for journals if the price is right? And would reaching this market make our research even more accessible to the people who need it the most?

Would this low-fee, high-traffic payment model work for academic publishing houses? Perhaps there is a place where the financial needs of journals and greater access meet.


Is publishing a policy analysis article worth it?

Is publishing a policy analysis article worth it?

I am constantly hearing frustrated declarations that research evidence rarely impacts policy. Although researchers work hard to create and make sense of evidence in the hopes that it may shift the gears that run our society, that little seed of doubt constantly surfaces… will anything I do truly have an impact beyond the academic sphere? 

This past spring, I took a fantastic course called “Health Care Policy” with Christopher Simms at Dalhousie University. The course involved learning about the policy implementation process, how policy agenda is set, etc. We discussed current events and engaged in animated debates about how policy can possibly be influenced by non-policymakers such as ourselves. As a final project, we wrote a policy analysis paper and presented our findings to the class. I was interested in classroom acoustics policy in Canada as it is a topic that received much public attention in 2009, yet unfortunately resulted in zero movement onto the policy agenda. The issue has not been revisited in Canada since.

I met with my professor to discuss the idea that my paper could be revised into a manuscript for submission to a Canadian journal. This was a logical next step since the topic seemed to be of interest to the Speech-Language & Audiology Canada association, as determined through some email exchanges.

At this point, I am looking around for other articles on policy analysis to see how others have organized their ideas. As I search, I wonder…

Were any of these articles ever read?

Were they ever read specifically by policymakers?

Did any of these articles have an actual impact on the policies that they discussed?

Who might potentially read my article?

Should I even try to publish an article such as this one?

This made me stop and consider what the purpose of writing such an article might be. It would appear at first glance that the purpose of a policy analysis article is to make a recommendation as to the most viable and feasible policy option that should be implemented by policymakers. Technically, this is true. However, given what we know about policy implementation, I hardly think that my little article would ever achieve this purpose if that were the sole obective.

Then I thought, well, how does an issue get onto the policy agenda in the first place if not through the publication of research evidence? As we discussed in our course and as I hear all around me in discussions on the decisions made by our public servants, it is ultimately public awareness and pressure that seem to drive policymaking. Therefore, my little article should be geared to the public, that is, stakeholders not policymakers.

Stakeholders would be those who would be affected by a new policy designed to improve classroom acoustics. This includes parents of children who may benefit from improved classroom acoustics, classroom teachers, speech-language pathologists, audiologists, and school administration. Ultimately, if those individuals are better informed then they can advocate for a change in policy better than I ever could through the methods that suit them best, such as social media posts, media attention and direct interaction with policymakers.

How does this affect my decision to publish? Here is what I think:

  1. Yes, I should go ahead and publish my little policy analysis article in a small Canadian journal
  2. The journal that I choose MUST be open access (i.e., anyone can read the article without need for a subscription to the journal)
  3. I should write in an accessible and interesting style
  4. The title must be clear and enticing
  5. Once the article is published, I should share the link on social media

In other words, I cannot write this article for academics. I cannot write this article for policymakers. I must write this article to empower and educate those who can advocate for change in policy. And if it happens to reach a policymaker who can make a difference, then that would be wonderful, but I won’t be banking on it.

Image: found through Google images search at http://www.districtdispatch.org/2015/06/ala-releases-national-policy-agenda-for-libraries/

The Poetic Sequel: Writing Realizations of a Newbie

The Poetic Sequel: Writing Realizations of a Newbie

I have been writing for a long time

For many years…


I enjoyed writing poetry in junior high school

About crushes, curiosity and friendship

Essays were also not that hard for me, I excelled


During my BA in linguistics, I wrote about jobs in my field for a newsletter

I enjoyed it

I collected high marks on critical essays, reaction papers

It all came quite easily to me, I did not struggle

My honours thesis gave me more grief,

But still it did not break me


My masters was in speech-language pathology

I wrote journal entries, essays, a thesis

Writing got progressively more challenging

My masters thesis was a ride, but I got through it


I have been writing for a long time…

But it was different than writing now

Never did I have a real audience


Now, as I work towards publications

I am vulnerable

Every assertion, every word

Will be judged and pondered over

First by my supervisor

Then by reviewers

Finally by the readers

I think of those I look up to, those I admire

They could read my work…


I stress over every statement

Do I have the authority to say this?

Who has the authority to say this?

References, references, references…

My words are constantly reworded by others

Will they remain my words?


I have been writing for a long time

But not this kind of writing

In this, I am so new, so naive, so fresh

The writing realizations

Of a newbie