Anatomy of a Scientific Research Paper (Part 2): The Dreaded Introduction

The best place to start writing is the introduction.  Many people dread writing the introduction though — it is the first place that reviewers will decide to reject your paper, so you have to get it right.  It takes three things.  One is a strong understanding of your research project: what problem are you solving and why.  Your advisor should help your with this, and I will write another post on how to best understand your own research.  Another “thing” is a strong understanding of your audience, so you know what you need to explain and what you can skip.  This understanding comes in time after reading many papers in your field.

The last “thing” it takes to write a good introduction is to organize your thoughts in the way a reader is expecting.  This organization is rather mysterious in the sciences, so I am going to explain it now.

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Anatomy of a Scientific Research Paper (Part 1)

I was in school for 23 years.  And the hardest thing I ever learned to do was write a measly 10 page research paper.  I had my research results.  I had built my tools.  I had conducted all the necessary experiments.  And yet the writing seemed impossible.  Sentences came slowly, if ever.  Every word was painful.  I would do anything else, and chores became a blessing: clean my apartment, scrub the dishes, go to the dentist, anything but write.

I thought I might not be cut out for research.  Maybe all this school was not for me after all.  It’s fashionable to quit nowadays.

Nonsense.  What was wrong was that I didn’t know the anatomy of a scientific research paper.  I didn’t even know where to begin.  If this sounds familiar to you, read on.  Over the next few posts I will spell it out for you one \section{} at a time.

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How to write a personal statement

About a year ago, I served on the graduate admissions committee for my department.  I have two memories of the process.  First are the weekly Jimmy Johns roast beef sandwiches provided by our committee chair.  Second are the “personal statements.”  I must have read hundreds of personal statements.  But I enjoyed every one.  After months adrift in a sea of GRE scores and GPAs, reaching the personal statements was as welcome as reaching an inhabited island.  Finally, human conversation.

I heard many anecdotes from childhood:

When I was seven years old, I disassembled a VCR.  That’s when I knew I had to get a Ph.D. in computer science.

And many admirable goals:

I am applying because I want to save the world, and also the rain forest.

And even compliments:

Your graduate program is an unparalleled fount of scholarship unmatchable in its innate intellectual beauty.  Your professors: supreme exemplars of learning and enlightenment!

By and large the essays were fun to read, if occasionally bizarre.  But there was a problem.  They rarely ever told us why we should extend an offer of admission.  They were even less likely to explain why we should offer funding.  Almost all of the essays painted a good picture of the applicant.  Almost none told us what we needed to know.

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