Year in Reviews

One of my New Year’s Resolutions for 2017 is to blog more, so here I am, reviving this blog from its two year silence!

So, why am I doing this, besides the obvious punny-ness? I thought it might be illuminating to share some short excerpts that I’ve received in reviews this year – sentences that have made me feel proud and also things that were hurtful and embarrassing – all to say that, hey, we all get them, and they’re a part of any academic’s life. Sometimes reviews can lift us up, but there are also times when they can feel demoralizing and painful because they are putting down a project that is close to one’s heart.

We all receive encouragement and criticism, and as academics, we should learn to treasure the positive stuff and keep that in reserve for when we’re feeling down, and listen to the criticism (when it’s constructive) without taking it too personally, since we all get it! Mixed in with my review excerpts, I share some of the highs and lows of 2016, following with my goals looking towards 2017 (gotta keep looking forward).

The Great 😍

“…[It] is a novel, interesting idea; frankly, it’s an idea that I think the community could brag about in the future (i.e., “that was invented here”).”

“Simple and powerful ideas like [X] are my favorite types of contributions…That’s magic.”

“In fact, the first half of the paper (before the evaluation) could serve as an exemplar…systems paper going forward.”

These quotes make me feel happy when I read them! If you get any reviews with gems like these, save them and take a look at them now and then when you’re feeling unsure about things.

One thing that I’m proud of from 2016 is that I gave a lot of talks this year, many of them to groups outside my research area. I gave 2 conference talks which I had done before but also 7 longer talks (30 min to 1 hr), which I had never done before. This including 1 research qualifying exam talk, 3 talks to other academic groups (including 2 computer graphics/vision groups), and 3 talks to industry groups (Wikimedia, Google, and Adobe). I found out long talks are hard to do well! I also gave a 5 minute talk at the Google PhD Fellowship summit that I think I was the most nervous for out of everything (even though it really didn’t matter for anything…)

I’m proud of this because I think I got better over the course of the year (although to be honest it never feels easy and I’m guessing it never will), and speaking is not something that comes naturally to me.

The Good 😀

“I was stuck by how self-aware the authors were of the limitations of their current approach.”

“Overall, the revised version improves substantially over the initial submission. Kudos on a great improvement!”

I was happy when I received these comments. First of all, I’m pretty uncomfortable with the idea of being a consummate salesperson even in my own papers, so I try to be balanced, which I always worry might be hurting my chances. It was nice to see someone notice and give kudos. Also, it’s a great feeling when reviews read rebuttals and revisions and change their score based on your work or at least show appreciation for the work you’ve just put in.

In good things that happened this year, I passed my quals, got 2 papers accepted at conferences, one of which may end up forming the basis of a thesis (who knows…)!

Something else I’m proud of is my level of service to the academic community, which has increased this year. Of course it’s not yet at the level of many people more senior than me but I think I did pretty well for a grad student. This year I served on a virtual PC for the first time (CHI WIP AC), reviewed ~16  conference papers (with 3 special recognitions!) and ~10 poster/WIP papers. I also spent some very stressful days as a member of an organizing committee as SV co-chair at RecSys ’16. This was incredibly hectic and stressful but I learned a lot about how a conference is organized. I realized that I would probably shrivel up and die if I were a professional event organizer because I find it so stressful.*thinks about wedding planning and dies.* Thank you to our many conference organizers – I have so much appreciation for you. 

The Bad 😩

“…the recommendation proposition is extremely naive in how it characterises [X]…”

“[X] is never a strong finding, and when it is one of the major pillars of a research paper it always raises the question that the paper may have been rushed and a full analysis and reflection on the work has not yet been completed.”

Now on to the bleurghs. Not much to say here from me except that I brush off my shoulders, find the places where I can take some lessons and improve, and get to recomputing, revising, reframing, and resubmitting! If they point out mistakes or suggest things to do to improve – that’s great advice. Maybe they misinterpreted something in the paper? That means that I should work on writing it more clearly. Or they aren’t convinced by an argument? Then at the least I should work on making the argument better, and maybe gather more data if necessary.

This year, I had 3 papers rejected – 1 that’s been on the backburner until I can pick it up again, 1 which was a 2nd-time-around submission and which is now in submission again (I’m sad about this paper because I genuinely think it’s good), 1 submitted for the first time and now currently being reworked.

Note: I think it’s important to talk about this kind of thing (and people are starting to, thanks to various transparency initiatives regarding rejection). Everyone faces rejection. Knowledge of this makes rejection just part of the process. An article I read once profiled a woman who mention that having been a competitive athlete made it so that she faced failure easier. I think there is some truth in this also as a former competitive athlete.

The Ugly 😰

“It’s not clear there are customers for this tool in this…community. The computational results are also mediocre…”

“Another drawback…is the lack of motivations in explaining what are the intellectual challenges that we need to address… In particular, the key questions from a reader’s perspective: What is the real novelty introduced by this…?”

“The paper doesn’t actually demonstrate the usefulness of this…in actual research.”

Ouch. Quotes like these hurt because they don’t just criticize a specific aspect of the paper but also cast aspersions on the entire project. With comments like these, it’s always important to remember 1) it’s one person’s opinion, 2) opinions can change, 3) framing and first impressions can make a big difference. It can also be helpful to get a second opinion from someone you trust that is knowledgeable about the community to see if research directions should actually be shifted before making any drastic decisions. Earlier in my PhD I found that my instincts were to too quickly acquiesce to any reviewer demands and defer to their opinions, while people I respected knew better when to push back.

I think the worst parts of this year did not happen to me personally (thankfully), but in some cases felt very personal. I’m talking of course about the events of the election, including the whole lead-up and aftermath, which took a hefty emotional toll and also sucked up a great deal of my time. There have been 1000’s of hot takes and I’ve probably read 3/4ths of them so I won’t repeat what’s already been said.

 

Looking forward

Receiving reviews can sometimes really suck and sometimes feel really validating. The funny thing is it’s not always the papers you think that will be received well or poorly. At the end of the day though, reviews are a rare and valuable resource, and there is always something to be learned. There is also (almost) always a place and a future for your work.

Also, guess what? As can be seen, my highest highs and lowest lows of this year ultimately had little to do with reviews. It’s easier to bounce back from bad reviews if you realize that they only reflect one of many facets of your life.

A lot of people would characterize 2016 as a terrible year overall. But 2017 is upon us, and it’s time to make plans! This coming year, besides my research projects which I’m always excited about, I’m excited about two things in particular:

  • I’m taking on a small army of new undergrad researchers starting in the new year, and I’m excited to work on my research mentoring skills. My first few years, I was pretty unstructured and perhaps overly nice to my undergrads, and I think they could actually use a bit more structure and more of a push. It can be frustrating to work with people are clearly busy elsewhere (it’s MIT after all) but I think I need to cultivate these expectations more instead of expecting people to be present and engaged outright. We’ll see how it goes! My concrete goal is to work closely enough with one or more of my students to eventually write a paper together.
  • I’m excited to TA for the very first time! I imagine that it will be a lot of work and a lot of the work will take me outside of my comfort zone but I’m curious to see how I manage and if I enjoy it.

So happy new year and may you have amazing reviews this year 🙂

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