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Tips and tricks: How do you deal with academic literature??

Reading new and old journal articles, staying on top of new research in your field, managing your personal library and citations, and managing citations in your writing can be a daunting and overwhelming task! We asked some grad student veterans in different fields how they stay on top of things and avoid drowning in literature

Patty Standring

Grad Student, Geoscience, University of Texas at Austin, Air Force veteran

1. How do you stay up to date on the latest literature in your field?

I receive Google Scholar alerts on keywords related to my research field. I study paleoceanography using stable isotope geochemistry from marine organisms called foraminifera, so I have general alerts for “paleoceanography” and “foraminifera” to stay up to date on general advancements in those fields, and a more specific keyword alert for the geologic time period I am studying to keep track of other research disciplines on that time period that may contribute to our understanding of how the earth changed. I also have alerts for papers related to my advisor’s research by following his profile, so I recommend doing that if you are interested in working with an advisor and want to learn more about the work they are involved in. I also follow a lot of scientists, journals, and scientific societies on Twitter, and people frequently tweet about new publications and/or pre-prints of their work. Social media can be really useful as a way to stay up to date on your discipline. Note: While preprints can be really useful in getting research out to the field quickly, it’s important to remember that it has not yet been peer-reviewed. Although you can cite pre-prints, it is best to check later on if the paper has been published in a peer-reviewed journal and updated, so you are not citing potentially outdated/inaccurate information.

2. When you come across an interesting paper, how do you approach it?  Do you start at the beginning and read through to the end? I imagine not!

It honestly depends on the paper and what I need it for. When I download a paper, I make sure to save it with a standard file name (e.g., AuthorLastName_Year_PaperTitle) so that I can find the paper easily. I always read at least the abstract when I download to make sure it’s worth my time and determine any important topics that I might want to tag it with. I will then look at figures, and depending on how much time I have, I will save the paper for later or look at other parts of it. It is rare that I will only look at portions of a paper if I decide to read through it, but some parts of papers can be more important than others depending on the information they provide. If the paper is useful for background literature on what I am studying, I read the entire paper, but pay attention to the introduction and the papers cited to develop more references for background information. Sometimes I find a paper that outlines methodologies that could be applicable to my project, in which case it gets tagged for methods and I focus my attention on that portion of the paper and any supplemental data/analyses that comes with it. If there is an aspect of my project that has controversial or conflicting interpretations, it can be really useful to focus on the results/discussion/conclusion portion of the paper. This can help provide you with different perspectives as you collect, analyze, and interpret your own data.

3. How do you manage your library?

I primarily use Zotero to manage my citations, but I don’t rely solely on that for managing my papers and reading priorities. When I started my PhD, I built an excel file using slicers to list all of the papers I needed to read. Developing this excel file helped me keep track of what each paper about (summary of abstract and important points), tags for topics and subtopics, the type of paper (review, methods, or research article), and whether or not I had read the paper. The slicers allowed me to filter papers by topic or priority or whether it had been read. It was time consuming, but it helped me to organize the mountain of literature I needed to read for my project so I didn’t feel overwhelmed, and it was invaluable for preparing and studying for my PhD qualifying exam. I don’t think everyone needs to do this, but if you feel overwhelmed by the papers you have downloaded, make a list of them, and organize them by reading priority. (If anyone wants help in building a spreadsheet like this, I’m happy to provide an example and/or instructions on making slicers.)

4. Do you have an app for library management?  If so, what do you like about it?  Are there features you’d like to have but don’t?

As I said before, I use Zotero to manage my citations. It has a really cool web browser extension that allows the program to extract all citation information from an online article automatically. There is also a Microsoft Word add-on that will auto-fill citation and bibliographical information into your manuscript. No need to type up your own citations, just use the add-on and then quality-control the citation information in your bibliography. You can also select which citation style to use based on what you are writing. In addition, Zotero has a functional note-taking feature, but I don’t use it very much. I prefer to take notes in a word doc while I read a paper, but you can just as easily use Zotero notes and it will save it with the paper you took notes from. I like Zotero because it can be used offline and I’ve never had a problem with it generating references.

5. How do you manage bibliographies and references when writing?

(See above answer for my rave review of Zotero)

Logan Pearce

Grad Student, Astronomy, University of Arizona/ Steward Observatory, US Navy veteran

1. How do you stay up to date on the latest literature in your field?

My field (astronomy) heavily relies on the Arxiv preprint server ( Authors post their journal articles to Arxiv typically once they’ve been accepted to be published in a journal, and the articles are open access (can be read without paying journal fees). Arxiv serves as a kind of bulletin board for new research. I signed up for the Arxiv daily digest email for two of the astronomy subfields most relevant to me (planets and stars), and every weeknight I get an email with the papers posted to Arxiv that day. I usually scan the email and see if anything stands out to me as relevant or interesting and worth reading further.

Additionally, as silly as it might seem, twitter has been nice for keeping up with research. I follow a lot of colleagues and folks doing interesting research in my field, and this helps me stay in contact with them and what they’re doing. Frequently people post tweet thread summaries when they release a new paper, or comment on new results. Twitter has been great for me for networking and keeping up on whats going on.

2. When you come across an interesting paper, how do you approach it?  Do you start at the beginning and read through to the end? I imagine not! 

When scanning the Arxiv email, for example, I’ll scan the title and the authors as a first triage to see if a paper is relevant or interesting. If so, I’ll skim the abstract (a paragraph-long summary of 1. what the main science question is, 2. what this paper seeks to address, 3. what the authors did, 4. what they found, 5. why it’s important or what the main takeaway is). If the abstract seems like the paper is relevant, I’ll usually then move to looking at figures and reading figure captions. This gives me a sense of what they found and why it’s significant. I’ll often also read the conclusion. If it’s particularly relevant to my work, that’s when I’ll dig into the methods and results section to see how they did their analysis and more detail on what they found.

So it’s really a process of bouncing around trying to digest the info and efficiently use my time, and at every stage deciding if I need to invest more time in the paper or not. Reading from beginning to end isn’t an efficient use of my time unless the paper is extremely relevant and ground-breaking. If I read every paper end to end I’d never finish!

3. How do you manage your library?  

I will second Patty in wholeheartedly singing the praises of Zotero. Let me count the ways.

  1. Zotero has a browser plug in, so if I find a relevant paper I can just click the plug in and it automatically saves the paper and the citation information directly to my library with just a click.
  2. Zotero saves a local copy of the article, so I can highlight and make comments directly on the PDF and it saves and I can see my notes at any time.
  3. It syncs to the cloud so I can see my library (and notes and comments) from a browser or another computer with the Zotero app.
  4. They just released an iPad app so I can now markup and draw all over article PDFs with my stylus and sync it to all my devices. I also can export my handwritten notes I make on my iPad to my Zotero library so I can read my notes on any device.
  5. I can organize articles into any number of folders, including putting one article into many folders so I can keep track of what science cases it speaks to.
  6. I can export the citation information directly from Zotero and plug it into whatever article I’m writing (I write in LaTeX so I can export my library or folder to BibTex) and make citations easily and quickly.
  7. The browser plug in also will save website snapshots to my library too, so if I want to keep a local copy of a site I reference often it’s easy to do and easy to find.

It’s so much nicer than having a folder of downloaded PDFs on my hard drive. There are other library management apps out there. I tried Mendeley but didn’t like it much, there’s also Papers which is not free. Overall Zotero hit all the functionality I was looking for (and price point – free), and is perfect for me.

4. Do you have an app for library management?  If so, what do you like about it?  Are there features you’d like to have but don’t?

Haha oops! Just answered that. I will say the biggest feature I was missing when I first started with Zotero was the iOS app, and they recently came out with one! (In fact I was part of the beta test for it because I wanted it so bad). So now there is not really any features I wish it had.

5. How do you manage bibliographies and references when writing?

I write in LaTeX, which is a typesetting language. LaTeX uses a bibliography file (Bibtex) with relevant information which you call from within the main document. Then there is a style file that automatically renders the reference in the correct format for you! It’s great. So I just keep a running bibtex file that I use in all my papers so I have all my references ready to go and easily grab.

Zotero also can export your library or parts of the library to bibtex automatically which is very handy, but I wish I had a bit more control over how the bibtex entries look.

Got your own answers to these questions? Send us an email and we’ll feature them in our next blog post!


Member Spotlight: Ana Vidal!

What did you do in the military and where did you serve?

Naval Air Station Pensacola, 2014

I was a Ground Support Equipment Technician in the Marine Corps. We basically worked on and maintained the gear you see around the airplanes at the airport, like tugs and weapons loaders. I served for one enlistment in Yuma, AZ, but I got to take a break from the heat when I took a cruise with the 15th MEU about 3/4ths into my enlistment.

Tell us about your decision to pursue undergraduate and/or graduate degrees following your military service.

I knew I wanted to go back to school and finish my bachelors degree, but I didn’t have a clear idea as to what I wanted to study. I’ve always had many interests, and it becomes difficult to pick only one. Because of this, I switched majors and ended up having to drop my double major for Physics (for now, I plan to finish it one day) to graduate in May from Communication. I think I missed the environment with a focus was on learning and experimenting, and I wanted to go back to it after service.

Deployment 2017. I’m the super cool one in the middle.

What are your plans for the future?

My plans are to start grad school (Masters degree) this fall. Beyond that, I have several options and I am hoping that my time in grad school helps me decide. The one thing I know beyond a doubt is that I am going to spend a few years in Communication before returning to school for Physics, and that I want to use my time in Communication to help and engage with veterans. I am not sure if I am going to do this through research, community engagement/outreach, or teaching (or maybe all), and so that’s what these next two years are about.

What research opportunities did you pursue in undergrad?

I was fortunate to connect with a professor early in my undergraduate career who provided me with several different kinds of opportunities for research. I was able to be a part of a group of professors who worked and are in the process of publishing research concerning the dynamics of communication for spouses after a servicemember’s return from deployment. I also presented twice at research conferences, which was a great opportunity. The other opportunity I had was to intern for a museum’s photography program for veterans and then conduct an assessment of the program with a Communication professor and graduate student.

Art Basel, Miami Beach, 2021. I work at a museum on campus – first as an intern for veteran’s photography course, now as the Event Coordinator. I was able to go on this trip to Art Basel, an international art fair, because of it.

How did your military experience help you succeed in UG or in research?

It helped in two major ways. First, it gave me the topic I wanted to focus on in my research, not just for veterans, but for the public as well. I am a proponent for  believing we can reduce or eliminate the military-civilian divide. Second, it gave me to fortitude and qualities to finish my degree and take advantage of every opportunity that was presented to me. Undergrad was rough for me, especially when I was doing a double major of Communication and Physics (minor in Astronomy) and trying to also do an internship at the same time. I somehow made it through and although I did drop Physics, I felt grateful that I at least had tried it out.

Warrior-Scholar Project at the University of Arizona, 2021. I was a STEM fellow for the summer, and it is one of the most fulfilling programs I’ve had the chance to be a part of as a veteran.

What are your thoughts about having been a “non-traditional” student in undergrad?

I view it as a positive mostly. My perspective is different than when I first tried college before serving, and the life experience has only made me stronger. When school got rough, I was able to continue going because I knew I could get through it.

What advice would you give to veterans interested in doing research or going to grad school?

Be open to opportunities that come up. I have gotten all my research opportunities by being ready when an opportunity presented itself, and they were opportunities I never would have imagined getting when I first reentered college. Luck is part of the equation, at least for me, but the other half is putting in the work and energy when the opportunity presented itself.

How can we get in touch with you?

My email is Feel free to email me whenever!

SVRN at SVA NatCon: Day 3 recap!

This recap is coming quite late due to travel and post-conference exhaustion!

I (Logan) spent the day attending a few breakout sessions that seemed relevant to SVRN’s mission.

Session 1: Designing Higher Education Programs to Enhance Career Readiness of Student Veterans

This session was focused on transition from higher ed to careers, but I pulled out some parts that seemed to coincide with transition from undergrad to grad programs and academia.

This slide discussed challenges faced in each phase of transition. I personally identified with having difficulty explaining, or even recognizing, my KSAs (knowledge, skills, and abilities) from my military experience in grad school application essays, and how it translates to making me a good candidate for the program. Also resumes! How to write all that on my resume or CV?? A never ending struggle.

A page from my notes with annotations of the presentation slide show

I also related to having to figure out how to adapt from military culture/norms/values into academic culture/norms/values. One admittedly silly but illustrative example that is still an ongoing problem for me, 15 years after separating, is professional email. How do I address and sign off an email?? In astronomy, the norm is to use everyone’s first name. But what if I’m emailing a faculty I have never met? Do I use their first name (not likely), or address them as Dr Soandso, or what? Do I start with “Hello Dr soandso”, or “Greetings”, or something else? And how do I sign off? I often use “Best” or “Cheers”, but sometimes that doesn’t feel right… I miss the rigid email etiquette of the Navy that was never unclear how to address and sign off your emails. Gimme and “R” or “VR” any day.

Loss of identity was something we talked about a lot in our small group discussion in this session. And it vibes with a finding from the recent American Institute of Physics report on retention of minority groups in physics – that establishing the identity of being a physicist was crucial for retaining that talent pool in the field. It’s something we lost when we left the military, we no longer identified as “Soldier” or “Sailor” or whatever. So what can we align ourselves with now? We talked about local SVAs getting involved in campus wide activities to help foster the identity of student first, veteran second. I did a lot of personal work deciding when I could call myself an “Astronomer”, and decided to once I was heavily involved in research and producing results I was sharing at conferences.

The presenters talked about this as a need for a period of “unlearning”, breaking down the old socialization to the military and building up a new one. For me, having folks of similar culture around via SVA was very helpful in this. It’s also something I envision SVRN being a tool for for transition to graduate programs.

They highlighted that mentoring programs seem to have the most impact in this! This is why I’m keen to get both grads and undergrad students of all kinds of disciplines involved in SVRN, so that hopefully folks at different career stages in the same field can meet and chat and help each other down the career path.

One final idea: the presenter mentioned they had done a “reverse career fair”, student groups host tables and the potential employers circulate and work to convince the students why they should come work there. An interesting idea! They said it had worked very well for them.

Session 2: Enhancing Veteran’s Sense of Belonging in Colleges and Universities

This session presented results of a qualitative study of student veterans and their sense of belonging. Thematically there is some overlap with the last sessions, and tbh I might be confusing some discussions we had between the two! But anyway.

They identified four factors that influenced a diminished sense of belonging:

  • Need for increased peer support as non-traditional aged students
  • Need for differentiated instruction as adult learners
  • Need for campus understanding of knowledge and skills gained through military service
  • Need for additional institutional acknowledgement and inclusion efforts

Factors influencing a sense of belonging:

  • Institutional acknowledgement and inclusion efforts
  • Veteran peer support and established veterans’ programs
  • Engagement with program faculty
  • Perception of higher education as a pathway for continued service

These speak directly to what we want to develop with SVRN I think. We aren’t being paid, we don’t have a non-profit, we started this network because we felt this was a hole in vet education services that needed to be filled, and so it is a pathway for continued service for us and anyone else involved, as we get to pass on what we’ve learned building our academic careers. It is designed to be peer support, we’re supporting each other and learning and growing. And we want to serve as a conduit for faculty to learn about veterans and why they should hire them in their labs and research groups!

Session 3: Managing Your Personal Brand

I don’t have quite as much to say about this one as it didn’t hit me too much. So I’ll share my notes here, and point out a few things I took away from it.

The presenter was Lide Citroen, a professional career counselor who specializes in helping military folks transition to and navigate the civilian workforce. She has many books on the subject if you want more information, shown here.

I’ve done a lot of work as a writing consultant for undergrad and grad students on all kinds of writing, but especially scholarship and internship applications and resumes. Self-promotion is by far one of the hardest things people struggle with, because we’ve all been socialized not to brag. But she is right here, that for these type of applications you *must* brag. You have to present yourself as the perfect person for this internship and that this internship is perfect for you. It’s the game.

I like that she recommended explicitly defining your values and making sure your actions are aligned with them. If I want to be an astronomer, and someone scrolls my twitter feed, do they see me following astronomers and sharing posts about findings and liking astronomy things? (Yes, but also they’ll find silly things too because I am always going to be who I am in all contexts, that’s my value).

One piece of feedback I give on nearly every application essay I read is the need for NARRATIVE. This is not the time to exercise your creative writing, but you do need to tell a story, and that story is of a strong and capable student who is actively pursuing goals and producing results, and will be an asset to your program (or a safe bet for their money if it’s funding). Tell people what to think about you! Explicitly draw connections between things. Tell the narrative arc of you, where you’ve been, what you’re doing now, and where you’re going.

And I liked this, beware your self-talk. It leaks out in your writing. So tell yourself this narrative too.

The end.

So that was all the sessions I went to. There was another general session with closing remarks following, but tbh I went to my room and laid down for a bit and missed!

The conference ended with a military ball (much to Rebecca’s chagrin). There was good food and drinks, and some dancing. I dipped out early and went to the lake bar with some friends, then collapsed in a puddle in my bed. Then hopped on a plane back to Austin TX, then drove from Austin back home to Tucson the next two days. I’m slowly recovering!

Overall this conference was GREAT. We made so many contacts, got so much positive feedback and suggestions on what we’re doing here, met so many fun and great people. I had a great time, and I could not have asked for a better event to get our network out there. Looking forward to the next one.

SVRN at SVA NatCon: Day 2 recap!

NatCon2022 Day 2 was so great! We generally missed the first few sessions, so our day started off at the SVA Honors Luncheon, where many awards were presented.

Secretary of the VA Denis McDonough addressed the luncheon and talked about many initiatives at VA improving veterans education. He also gave a shout out to SVRN’s own Nick Mararac! He told a story about meeting Nick and being inspired by his work supporting and resettling Afghan allies, and noted that the continuing service of Nick and others isn’t unique among the student veteran population, that vets are driven to continue to serve after leaving the military.

We also heard from Michael  “Rod” Rodriguez, president of global war on terrorism memorial foundation, charged with making memorial on the DC mall.  He announced that two weeks ago president Biden signed their bill and this memorial will be built among the other DC war memorials. He was also awarded the first ever SVA Senator Bob Dole Continuing Service Award for his work on the memorial, marking Bob Dole’s work getting the WWII memorial established.

Nick Mararac again stood out in the luncheon as the SVA Chapter he runs at Georgetown University won the SVA Chapter of the Year Award! A big day for Nick, nice work!!

Nick, in absentia, learns about his shoutouts!

But most importantly today was the day of our session! We had a GREAT turn out, there weren’t enough chairs for everyone. We spoke for ~20 minutes about the mission and vision of the network we’re trying to build and where we want to see it grow, then opened the floor to the audience for comments and suggestions.

The response was overwhelming encouragement! So many people expressed the need for something like this and were grateful we had created it. It was really validating of our feeling that this was meeting an important need in the student veteran community. We also had a ton of good suggestions for the audience, and several offers for volunteer help and support! I am overwhelmed with support and need time to really sit and process all the suggestions and ideas and new network contacts. But we’ve got some new direction for improvement for the future.

I ended the day with more mickey snacks and vendor booths, then headed off the resort grounds to a rock and roll themed bar and grill with the Arizona SVA, Pima Community College SVA, and some folks from Florida A&M SVA, where we sang too loud to the music videos playing at the bar.

A great day. Tomorrow’s the last day.