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Writing a research paper is like training for a marathon

Priya Narasimhan
Priya Narasimhan
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Writing a research paper is like training for a marathon

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Priya Narasimhan
Priya Narasimhan

You can’t cram all of your training mileage in at the end.

The publication deadline looms. You open up your laptop, create a blank new document, but you don’t know where to start.

I’ve been there. As a first-year Ph.D. student. I was paralyzed with anxiety the first few times I had to write a conference publication from scratch. Should I be wordy? Should I write everything I can think of? Where do I start? Should I write the Abstract first? Should I write the Introduction first? Will my Ph.D. advisor like it? Will it get accepted? What if I have nothing new to offer?

When a publication deadline loomed, I would treat it as a time to stop doing all research and just write, write, write. I would treat it as a 3–4 week period where I had to stare a document every day, and will the words to jump into it. I would spend easily a week writing, re-writing, wordsmithing the Introduction section, to realize that I had only two weeks left to finish the rest of the paper. The whole paper. In two weeks. How on earth was I going to write an entire paper in two weeks when a paltry Introduction section alone took me a week to finish?

I was like a runner training for a marathon deciding to cram all the training mileage into the end because I just didn’t train when I should have. It didn’t work. There was no way it could.

I started a different system in the third year of my Ph.D., and it has worked for me ever since.

Treat each day as training mileage towards your next publication. Train daily, and track your training.

As a Ph.D. student, you’re always working on some research problem, or maybe multiple research problems at once. This means that, pretty much every day, you’re working on a publication or multiple publications. Why not just document that journey, daily, as it’s happening? Why not keep a running commentary (pun intended) on your research, just like a marathoner-in-training tracks their miles daily?

Image by MabelAmber from Pixabay.

Start a training journal

When you train for a marathon, you get a training plan, and you start a training journal. There’s no difference with research. Start a digital research journal, and start tracking your research mileage.

Create a skeleton document for each research problem. Don’t worry about which conference you’re targeting. It’s too early for that. Start this document, regardless of whether you have a research result in hand or not, whether you have solved the research problem or not. You always need to have a draft of a publication that is in progress. Use a publication template for a conference in your field, if you find it helpful.

Call each skeleton “My Next Paper, Title TBD” and write in a few section titles. It might be too early to write a paper title. Or it might not. That’s your call. Write the author list with your name as the first author. The list of sections in the paper varies with the field. Here are a few sample section titles in the field of computer science/engineering.
Introduction.
Motivating Scenarios.
The Problem Statement.
Goals/Non-Goals/Assumptions.
Related Work.
Approach.
Experimental Validation.
Lessons Learned.
Future Work.
Conclusion.
Acknowledgments.
References.

Track your daily research mileage

Do your research every single day. Focus on whichever research problem you need to that day. Doing your research may involve a range of things, depending on the field and the research problem at hand: reading the literature, writing a summary, reviewing a manuscript, running an experiment, writing code, building a prototype, calibrating a piece of equipment, testing a piece of equipment, observing a phenomenon, debating an idea, designing a system, designing an algorithm, applying an algorithm, identifying workflows, interviewing human subjects, gathering data, analyzing data, creating graphs, creating diagrams, and more.

Drop a few sentences into one of the sections of one of the skeletons at the end of the day. Just like a marathoner puts in a few miles every day to condition their body to be ready for the big day, write a few sentences every day. Summarize your day’s research and your reflections on one or two key things that happened that day with a few sentences. You know what you started, you know what you undertook, you know what you finished, you know what you learned. Even if that day’s research concluded that something didn’t work out, write about it. Just 3–5 sentences is all you need. Don’t edit these, don’t worry about the language, don’t worry about how it fits into the rest. Here are some examples.
Paper XYZ by author ABC is interesting because the authors tested their system on a real-world application, …..
The graph of variable M vs. variable N today was linear, as I expected it to be. I ran experiments for 10 data points …..
The algorithm XYZ has 4 variables, and I determined how each of these variables map to my research problem ….

Treat “My Next Paper, Title TBD” as your daily research journal. You might keep a research journal (many students do), but the good thing about making yourself write a few sentences daily into this next paper draft, is that each day’s research thoughts make it into a document that matters for your next publication.

Review “My Next Paper, Title TBD” periodically. Review the document to see where the gaps are, perhaps once every 2 weeks. See which sections are still empty. Those empty sections mean that you might need to start thinking about them. For example, if you see that your Related Work section has been empty for 4 weeks, perhaps it’s time to pick up a paper in the field and read it.

Don’t forget to taper

Every marathoner loves and dreads the taper. The taper is the week or two before race-day when you intentionally cut back on your mileage and let your body recover, in anticipation of race-day. You still keep running to keep your conditioning, but you cut back on mileage, and you start to focus. The bulk of the training is done, and it’s now time to prepare your body for race-day. This is when you make decisions about your race-day gear, routine, what to keep, what to lose, when to arrive, what your race-day game-plan is.

In the lifecycle of your research paper, this is the week or two before paper submission. Your research mileage is behind you, you’ve written down raw sentences on paper, your mind feels ready. It’s time to play editor.

Instead of a blank sheet of paper, you’ve got a skeleton to play with, words to play with, and what you need to do is to edit those words into the semblance of a publication. You’ve got sections, words inside sections, sentences, and ideas. You’ve already captured what your research progress was, and now, all that remains is be focused about what to keep and what to lose. It’s far better to stare at a pile of words than at a blank sheet of paper.

“You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”
― Jodi Picoult

All marathoners have butterflies on race-day, but are confident if they’ve done the training, if they’ve put in the miles. The race is never won on race-day, but on the many, many training days before it — cold days when runners didn’t feel like getting out of bed, brutally humid days when every step felt like lead, days when you could be sleeping in but you do the training, anyway.

When you approach paper-submission day, butterflies are normal, but you’ve done the work, you’ve been writing this paper a long time. It’s ready to submit. You’re ready to race. Submit the thing already.

By writing a bit of your publication every day, by getting the words down on paper every day, you’re moving your publication forward. You’re moving your Ph.D. forward.

You run a marathon one training day at a time.
You write your publication one research day at a time.

Everything you write moves you forward.
— David Koepp