Thursday, July 28, 2016

Q&A: Proposal and literature review

I've been slacking a bit in replying your questions that you sent me - sorry folks! Between running the defenses series and the "how I work" series and regular work, things have been a bit hectic.

But here I am to reply another question from a reader:

Hello,

I enjoyed reading your articles.
Would you kindly suggest any useful books on how to write a good proposal?
Also, would you be able to advise anything on literature review? Which sites are best and what technique are you using?

Thank you in advance.


Let's break this question down into different parts.

1. Information on how to write a good proposal

My PhD program did not require a proposal. Essentially, in the Netherlands, you get four years to do research and produce a thesis. No coursework, no comprehensive exams, no proposal, nothing at all.

I've replied a question on how to make your presentation for a proposal in the past. An excellent overview of the elements you should discuss in your proposal is this source from Columbia.

But let's break it down into the components you need into your proposal:
- literature review: more about that in a minute, but you should show in your proposal that you have gained an understanding of your field, so that you can pinpoint the lack of knowledge on the topic you want to work on.
- problem description: what problem are going to study? Why is it important? What do we know so far (form your literature review), and where is your work going to take us?
- research question: This topic is actually the core of your proposal, and will be the core of your research. Always know very well what your research question is, so that you can return to the question regularly and check if you still are carrying out research related to your question, or if you got off on tangents.
- methods: How are you going to tackle the problem? Experiments? Computer modeling? Theoretical derivations? Again, show that you know the existing literature, and how you get hints from there on what would be the way to go.
- backup plan: if your methods give bad results, what are you going to change? Do you have a plan B?
- planning: How are you going to make sure you graduate on time? Do you have a planning? Do you have sufficient buffer in your planning in case something goes wrong?

2. Literature review

Love it or hate it, the literature review is an essential element of scholarship. I really like and recommend you to take the Literature Review Bootcamp - I've gone through the material and I think it covers everything you need to know about the literature review from A to Z.

On this blog, you can also find some posts of myself about the literature review. There is a guest post with three super important tips for your literature review, my method on how to grind through a large amount of literature , and a question from a reader about the literature review that I answered. If you're interested in my method of archiving, you can find a post here. Nowadays, I do mostly use Endnote, and I still have a lot of the paper copies of my PhD days in a box in my mom's house on the other side of the Atlantic.

My main advice for the literature review is: follow your instinct and read a lot. You'll find that point when you know the field, when you read a paper, and suddenly you are nodding in agreement, because you've seen similar things a number of times before. Or you might be shaking your head in disapproval, thinking that the authors missed out some information from a paper you read before. When you reach this level of interaction with the literature, you have internalized the information. At that point, you don't need to do a major reading effort anymore.

I'm framing this as "not having to do a major reading effort", as in: not having to sit down for days on end with endless files on your digital reader or piles of papers in front of you. You do still need to follow up with the literature. Here you can find a post I wrote about keeping up with the output. You can also start to read at different levels. Through ResearchGate and Academia.edu you might want to follow people who publish in your field, so you get notifications about their new publications.

A helpful trick to learn as well is speed reading. For us non-native English speakers that requires a certain level of the language before you can dive into speed-reading. It took me quite some years to get to that point - so don't panic if it doesn't come to you naturally.

I hope this gives you some ideas for your proposal.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Q&A: How to apply for a PhD program with a disappointing MSc thesis grade

Pasha says thank you for following my adventures
I recently received the following email from a reader (edited to preserve the anonimity of the reader):

Hi Dr. Eva

I am a huge fan of your blog. I also follow you (and your cat) on twitter. Keep up the good work.

If you don't mind, I really need your advise on an issue that has continued to hamper my PhD applications.

I had a C grade on my master's thesis work. This was highly unexpected and unacceptable. During the final writing of my thesis I had technical issues with the storage drive for my data and literature reviews. This delayed my work, and as such I had to apply for an extension on my thesis submission date.

As an an unwritten rule in my department, any student who extends the department approved submission date automatically loses some points in the final grading (e.g. a thesis that was supposed to receive an A gets a B grade instead).

The quality of my work was definitely above average, at least. It is presently a manuscript in preparation. The rest of my academic grades is [edited] pretty good, but the thesis counts for half of all credits [edited]. This greatly affected my grade point average.

Since then I have found it difficult to successfully apply for PhD positions as most schools are reluctant to take a student with a C grade on the masters thesis.

My question is this: How would you advise I go about explaining this in my application letter, for e.g? Do you think it is important to mention it in the application at all? Do you have any other advise that can help me out? I would eternally be grateful.

This singular event is greatly derailing my ambitions to pursue a career in academic research.

Thank you for your help and time.


I replied as follows, and hope it might help someone else in a similar situation to prepare for his/her application:

Dear Reader,

Thanks for reaching out to me through my blog, and thank you for your kind words on my blog.

I’m sorry to hear about the troubles you are having with your PhD applications. Unfortunately, professors are people, and not all of them treat all students equally (I have had my share of horror in that regard, because of my gender). With that said, I think it is difficult to use your application letter to explain the situation – depending on who reads it, they might think you are just making excuses for not having worked hard enough (old boys club of academia, anyone?).

What I see as an opportunity for you to stand out in your application is to highlight your successes. How’s that paper coming along that you mentioned? Try to have it in revision as soon as you can, so you can say that your MSc research has led to a paper that is currently under revision. From my experience of sending my BSc students out in the world, the ones that I have published with, whose BSc thesis led to a conference paper, seem to get really good opportunities for an MSc, even though they might not have a GPA of 3.5 or higher.

How is your relationship with your thesis advisor? How is his/her “weight” in the academic field? Do you think a recommendation letter from him/her could be a big plus for your application? Or did you work with other professors who are heavy weights in their fields, that could endorse you as a candidate? Or outside of your institution – people from the industry, if you did an internship or worked for a while? See if you can get a “big name” behind you.

Another point that tends to work well for applications: do you have any extracurricular activities that you can highlight? Can you show how you’ve combined for example competitive sports with studies? Or how you’ve managed to develop other interests and learn extra skills outside of your MSc program?

If all else fails: do you have the chance to meet with a possible future PhD advisor? Do you have a chance to attend conferences to meet some senior academics and see if they might have an opportunity for you?

Hope that helps,

Eva

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Graduate Study in the USA

Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Christopher McMaster (Ph.D., University of Canterbury). Christopher has taught for over 15 years as a regular and special educator in the United Kingdom, United States, Nicaragua and New Zealand. He co-edited and contributed to Postgraduate Study in Aotearoa/New Zealand: Surviving and Succeeding (2014) and is currently lead editor for the "Survive and Succeed" series in the UK, US, Australia and South Africa. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Education at Augsburg College, Minneapolis. Christopher can be reached at drchrismcmaster@gmail.com.

Slightly over a year ago I asked popular blogs and graduate associations from around the country to circulate a call for abstracts for a book by and for graduate students. I asked students to contribute to this book, an edited volume, based on the premise: If you could go back in time to when you started your studies, what advice would you give yourself?

The response was encouraging. Submissions were received from all over the United States, and a leading educational publisher, Peter Lang, quickly signed it on. The end result was a collection of 20 chapters full of useful advice to those currently studying, as well as those thinking of embarking on the graduate path. It is titled Graduate Study in the USA: Surviving and Succeeding, and is now happily in print.

This book is to be part of an international series that includes similar efforts from students or recent graduates in New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and the United Kingdom (the latter three are due out later this year). The concept was simple: graduate students writing for graduate students. After the publication of the New Zealand edition in late 2014, my co-editor (Caterina Murphy) and myself were soon asked by students in those countries, “Hey, can we have one too?”

Each edition in the "Survive and Succeed" series are written by graduate students (and sometimes recent graduates) in each country, reflecting the specific concerns or issues of that place. The books are not tomes of advice by the learned professor, but rather, students “doin’ it for themselves”, as the Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin sang in the mid-1980s.

This book is a survival guide to help US graduate students at each stage of their studies. As editors we gave each contributor a simple task: “If you could go back in time to when you started your graduate studies, what would you tell your younger, less experienced self? What advice could you give to prospective or current graduate students now, with the wisdom of your hindsight?”

Each chapter is written in an accessible manner, developing a relationship between writer and reader. I encouraged the contributors to imagine that younger self, or keen reader, sitting in front of them to hear useful advice. Not personal anecdote and smug survival story, but something each reader can take away and be stronger and more successful in their own studies.

The book is divided into five parts, each covering key elements for surviving and succeeding in graduate study. The first part examines the mechanics of graduate study and covers essentials such as advisory relationships, scholarships, conferencing, and building support networks. The second part concentrates on succeeding as an academic and includes writing, editing, and publishing, as well as the responsibility of being an academic. The third part considers understanding and navigating difference in academia. Part four focuses on maintaining health, well-being, and balance when working for long, concentrated periods of study, including chapters on the long neglected issue of study and disability and mental health. The final section is about studying from and in another culture, whether that be an American abroad, or a student new to America.

Graduate Study in the USA can be read cover to cover, or it can be treated like a guide book to a city you have not visited before, where you dip in and out of sections or chapters that are especially pertinent to you at the time. The point of the book is to show what is on offer, what may be expected, how to prepare for the unexpected, and how to make your travels through graduate study in the USA a rewarding experience.

Graduate Study in the USA: Surviving and Succeeding
is available through most online book sellers, such as Amazon, and from the publisher.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Development of a guideline for load testing in The Netherlands

At the ACI spring convention in Milwaukee, I gave a presentation on the work we are doing in Delft with regard to load testing.

The abstract of the presentation is the following:

As the bridge stock in The Netherlands and Europe is ageing, various methods to analyze existing bridges are being studied. Load testing of bridges is an option to study the capacity when crucial information about the structure is lacking. This information could be related to the material (for example, the effect of ASR on the capacity) as well as to the structural system (for example, the effect of restraints at the supports or transverse redistribution capacity).

When it is decided to load test a bridge, the question arises which maximum load should be attained during the experiment to approve the capacity of the bridge, and which criteria, based on the measurements during the test, would indicate that the test needs to be aborted before reaching the maximum desired load (the “stop criteria”).

After proof loading and testing to failure of two spans of the Ruytenschildt bridge, beams sawn from another span were tested in a controlled way in the laboratory. The results of these beams have been analyzed with regard to the stop criteria as defined by the currently used codes and guidelines.

As a result of the analysis and experiments, recommendations are given for proof loading of bridges with respect to the stop criteria. These recommendations are important, since they will form the basis of a guideline for proof loading of existing concrete bridges that is under development in The Netherlands.


You can find the slides of the presentation here:

Thursday, July 14, 2016

I am Quinex Chiluwe and This is How I Work

Today, I am inviting Quinex W. Chiluw to the "How I Work" series. Quinex is PhD candidate at University of Pretoria and Agriculture Engineer at AECOM SA Ltd in Pretoria, South Africa. His research is focused on building resilience of water security as social-ecological system in a river basin context. His research interests include water governance and policy, institutional analysis, social-ecological systems analysis, and water policy.
Quinex graduated from the University of Malawi in 2007 with a Bachelor of Science in Irrigation Engineering. Upon graduating, he worked both in the private as well as public sector. He worked within the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Development coordinating water users associations at local water management level and irrigation design in a World Bank funded project. Shortly after that, Quinex joined Self Help Africa, an international non-governmental organisation with a specific focus on integrated rural development. Here, he led and participated in the development of various community-based natural resources management programs, irrigation development, climate change resilience interventions, and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). The experiences above ignited some passion for water resources management and Quinex eventually pursued and graduated with a Master’s degree in Integrated Water Management at Monash University in 2014.


Current Job
: Agriculture Engineer
Current Location: AECOM, Water Governance and Planning, Pretoria, South Africa
Current mobile device: Samsung Android Device
Current computer: Acer Aspire E15

Can you briefly explain your current situation and research to us?
I am a busy person with three responsibilities – husband and father, employee and student.
Firstly, let me say that I am husband to my wife and together we have two lovely daughters (one is six and the other one is 4 years old). I work as an Agricultural Engineer at a busy Engineering Consulting firm – AECOM in South Africa. The company I work for has a very diverse work stream and therefore teams. Although the title of my position is Agricultural Engineer, I normally do work within the water governance space.

I started my career as an Irrigation Engineer in Malawi where I am originally from after graduating from the University of Malawi with a BSc Irrigation Engineering degree in the year 2007. After working for a couple of years both in government and private sector, I became interested in pursuing further studies in water resources Management. By then, my main interest was to further my understanding on how water can be shared amongst farmers in the wake of the impending climate change in a river basin. I thus attended Monash University at its South African campus for an MPhil degree in Integrated Water Management.

Upon finishing my studies early 2014, I became interested in doing a PhD in the same field. Before starting the PhD studies, I was offered a job at my current workplace and decided that I would do my studies part time.

So I eventually started my PhD in January 2015 on part time basis at the University of Pretoria, in the Faculty of Agriculture and Natural Sciences while keeping my full time job. I am currently continuing with my passion to understand water sharing in a river basin – but now building on systems thinking and social-ecological system theories applying them on water security.

What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow?
I am not sure if I have specific tools that I carry with me, but there are a few things that I think make part of my life. On computer applications, I use Endnote as my referencing software. I am not an advanced user though, would love to learn some more tricks. I have tried Zotero and Evernote – both incredible apps but I didn’t want to use too many apps. So I had to stick to Endnote and MS office.

I would be doing some injustice if I don’t mention my cup of coffee (and accessories) as these keep me awake when I become an owl.

And of course, I am still old school. So I carry with me a hardcover notebook where I write any new thoughts in whichever form they come. This notebook contains my unstructured thoughts some of which I find very useless but later become so useful.

Finally, there is a small calendar app on my Android device where I keep my entire to-do list. It synchronises all my daily work and study routines and helps me manage my time better.

What does your workspace setup look like?
I obviously have three workspaces – one at the office, a tiny one at school and another even more tiny one at home. So I normally try to separate my life. I make sure I do what my job demands of me at office workspace – then I go to school after 16hrs (luckily, a 15km distance from my office) except some family days and weekends where I use my home workspace.



What is your best advice for productive academic work?
Wow, on this one I am not sure. I have been looking for one myself. Any advice from seasoned academicians and fellow strugglers like me would be welcome.

How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks?
So, certainly I am not the best planner. But I normally keep my planning horizons short because of the nature of my short academic days. My academic day starts at 17hrs CAT and I need to ensure that I use it wisely.

Besides phone and computer, do you use other technological tools in work and daily life?
I have a simple Tablet, but my computer and my phone are my basic instruments.

Which skill makes you stand out as an academic?

So far, I have not yet established myself as an academic. I hope to be one someday. But I can say that networking has been key to my journey as a PhD student. I have made important networks that have kept me afloat when I feel like giving up.

What do you listen to when you work?

I must say that I work better in a place where there is consistent noise which is not linked to visuals. As such, I normally (almost every time) plug in to music in my ears. Sometimes I listen to fast music or slow music depending on the level of anxiety.

What are you currently reading? How do you find time for reading?

This, I think is a difficult question. I previously used to say reading is one of my hobbies – I am sorry it is no longer. I can’t remember when last I read something as a hobby rather than obligation. So I have a number of books that I have just started but cannot find the time to actually finish them. Other books are part of my research while some are just out of mere interest. The following books have been on the must complete list for quite some time;
  1. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants
  2. Thinking in Systems
  3. The Art of Systems Thinking: Essential skills for Creativity and Problem Solving
  4. Complexity: A guided Tour
  5. The War Room

Are you more of an introvert or extrovert? How does this influence your working habits?
I am an extrovert and this has assisted me to network much easily at the school faculty and library especially being a part time student.

What's your sleep routine like?

I am not good with working up early in the morning. So I make sure that whatever work I have is done before going to bed. I normally maintain an average sleeping time of 5 to 6.5 hours every day. I wake up at 6am so that I can take my daughters to school before I get to work.

What's your work routine like?
My work routine is a little bit tight. I start work at 8am and knock off at 4pm. I then drive to school where I do study until 9pm on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Wednesdays and Friday are family days – so I go straight home from work and play with my kids and watch a movie with my wife from 6 to around 8pm. I then start my studies until 23:30pm. I work on studies full time on Saturdays and Sunday is family day. I should mention though that sometimes this schedule does not work.

What's the best advice you ever received?
I have indeed received a number of advices regarding doing a PhD. But one that I think has helped me quite a lot is “to learn to say no to some stuff”. Whether at work or at the faculty, people would want you help with something or short term assignments. People will be hurt when you have not helped out, but by looking at the time I have – no is a good answer. It clears my desk and creates time to work on most important and pressing things.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Australian PhD completion: Not with a bang, but a whimper

Today, I am hosting Dr. Deborah Netolicky for the "PhD defenses around the world." Deborah is an educator, school leader, cognitive coach and researcher with 16 years of experience in teaching and school leadership roles in Australia and the UK. Her PhD explored the ways in which professional identities and school cultures can be transformed by professional learning and effective leading of teacher learning. You can find her tweeting as @debsnet and blogging at the édu flâneuse.

My great land Down Under suffers and benefits from the tyranny of distance. For PhD candidates, this means that, despite the modern-day wonders of air travel and Skype, there is no viva or oral defense. No public moment of defending the PhD. No nail-biting preparation for answering questions while pouring wine and pouring over viva cards. No way to look deep into your examiners’ faces to see their response to your work. Somehow, our neighbouring New Zealand manages to fly examiners in for an oral examination, but we do not.

As an Australian candidate, once my PhD thesis was ready for submission for examination, it was printed, spiral-bound and posted to one Australian examiner (at a different university to my own) and two international examiners. I had not met any of my examiners, although I knew them through their work. A pdf copy was also emailed. These people would never meet to discuss my dissertation, but would examine it in their own time and place, write an examiner’s report with commentary and a recommendation, and email the report back. The three reports would come from their various destinations and converge back at my university.

The options of examiners in the Australian system are to recommend:
  1. the PhD be awarded with no revisions to the thesis;
  2. the PhD be awarded subject to the insertion of minor revisions;
  3. the PhD be awarded subject to the insertion of major revisions;
  4. the thesis be heavily revised for re-examination, which might include rewriting or collection of new data;
  5. the PhD degree not be awarded, but the thesis be revised and re-submitted for an MPhil; or
  6. no degree be awarded.

Category 1 means that the thesis can go straight to the university library, and the university can then go through appropriate processes to award the PhD. Categories 2 and 3 mean that the thesis needs revision, with all examiners’ recommendations addressed. This does not mean that all recommendations need to be made, but all need to be considered and responded to. Like the peer-review process, the author may choose to articulate why a particular change has not been made. Category 2 and 3 changes are signed off by the primary supervisor. Then, a report outlining the revisions is sent to a Dean for sighting and sign-off, before the candidate is ready to be moved through to degree conferral. Category 4 means the revisions are more cumbersome, and the thesis goes for examination again. Again, the wait of many months for the reports to return. More uncertainty about the result (although apparently few candidates fail on their second attempt at examination). Categories 5 and 6 are every candidate’s worst nightmare: a fail with either a Masters or nothing to show for years of work.

And the wait is both liberating and excruciating. Liberating because control is out of the candidate’s hands, and nothing can be done until the result is known. Excruciating because so much is riding on the interpretations of three individuals.

The time between submitting an Australian thesis and getting the examiners’ reports back is about four to six months, even though examiners are asked to return their reports within six weeks (and some do). For my own PhD, I submitted in October and received the examiners’ reports in February.
My thesis required amendments without re-examination. While in some ways I had hoped for a Category 1 pass (no revisions! what a perfect specimen of a thesis!), on reflection I realised that having the opportunity to make corrections made my final product better. While it took some time to tease out the three somewhat differing reports, the feedback of three experienced and generous academics allowed me to strengthen and clarify my thesis before it found its final form for posterity.

My corrections took me about two weeks of obsessing over, dreaming about, and working hard at them (in between my almost-full-time job and parenting my young children). There were two supervisory meetings in this time; one to clarify and agree upon my approach to the corrections, and one to tweak and sign off the work done. Microsoft Word’s ‘Compare’ feature was invaluable for checking where and what corrections had been made between the submitted and the amended copies.

After supervisory sign-off, the amendments report was sent to a Dean on a Friday. The Dean signed off my amendments on the Monday. That was a lovely moment, when I knew that the work was done, and what was left to do was just process and waiting.

I was then told that I could print my final copies of the thesis for hard binding, with buckram cloth and gold lettering, and submit an electronic copy to library. I did so, and the thesis was soon online, a reference with my name on it and a downloadable document.

The official conferral happened at a university council meeting in April, and I have already received information about graduation in September.

My Australian experience shows how the PhD here sputters to its fuzzy conclusion with a whimper, rather than ends with a bang. I submitted in October, three years after enrolling. Yet that was not near the end of the doctoral journey. In February I received the examiners’ reports and made my amendments. In March the final copy was signed off and submitted. In April the degree was  conferred, after which I was able to call myself ‘Doctor’. And the graduation ceremony, complete with Tudor bonnet, will not be until September.

So, while my Australian geography has saved me from the stress of an oral defense, part of me longed for the opportunity to hear my examiners articulate their thoughts and ask their questions, to discuss and defend my work. As an Australian candidate there are many small milestones which can be celebrated, but no one glorious moment when the doctorate seems complete.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: How to deal with admin and e-mail in academia

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better - and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!


Let's talk about that is part of our academic lives, from the category urgent/not important and sometimes even not urgent/ not important: e-mail and administration (review the urgent-important matrix in this post and this post if you need a reminder). If you want to, you can technically spend your entire day playing e-mail ping-pong, or running errands and filing forms.

If you spend all your time waiting for e-mails and administration requests to come your way, you won't be able to move your chore tasks forward. I don't really "hate" e-mail (some administration stuff, I do hate though), I'm just neutral towards it. Certainly sifting through e-mails does not give me the intellectual satisfaction of research, but reading an update from a colleague living far away is quite nice.

So how do I deal with e-mail and administrative tasks? You might remember from 1,5 years ago that I swear by using a weekly template to fit all my activities. In that template, however, I only have 1 hour a day of e-mail, and some days of the week that hour was combined with my office hour. Prior to that, I already yelped in a post about the incredible amounts of time that go into processing e-mail.

Since then, I've still been swamped with e-mail, but I seem to deal with it in a better way. I'll be explaining you all here what works well for me in terms of dealing with e-mail and administration.

1. Inbox zero
Is your mailbox an archive of all your conversations of the last 7 years? It's an inbox, a place where things come in; it's not a place where they are supposed to stay. Imagine having all these messages on a pile on your desk - that wouldn't make you very happy, would it?

One of the best productivity choices I made about 2 years ago was to move towards Inbox Zero. As the name suggests, this means having an empty inbox. If you currently have a large number of messages in your mailbox, why don't you take that number, divide it by 30 and decide to archive n/30 e-mails every day over the next month. At the end of the month, you'll have an Inbox Zero. Easy peasy. If the mailservers of your institution are not fully reliable, you risk losing an important message if you don't have it saved somewhere.

Once you have Inbox Zero, it's a matter of maintaining Inbox Zero. Not necessarily 100% of the time, but perhaps at the end of every week. When you take the time to process e-mail, start from the bottom, read the first message, delete it if you can, reply it if necessary, and archive it if you'll need it in the future. Rinse and repeat until you've processed every message in your mailbox, then close your mailbox and do something else.

2. Fixed time
I try to limit the time I spend on e-mail and administration to 1 - 1,5 hours a day, on my most unproductive time of the day (because replying and archiving e-mails, or dropping forms off at the secretary's does not require that much brain power). I either take an hour after lunch to reply e-mail (when I'm a bit sleepy from eating), or at the very end of the workday (when I'll try to get through this as fast as I can so that I can go home and have dinner).

When I'm not processing e-mail, I do not have my e-mail client open (exceptions: when I am working with an .msg file on something, or in the exceptional case my colleague walks over to me and says: "hey, I sent you a document, can you do Task X with it?"). Another exception is when I am bored/tired and can't concentrate anymore, and decide to open my mailbox to see if there's something interesting in there - but on a typical writing/research/teaching/busybusy kind of day, that doesn't happen easily.

3. Focus towards the end of the week
I already mentioned that Inbox Zero does not imply that you have to guard your status of Inbox Zero 24/7. You could opt for having it cleaned up at the end of every week, for example. I work with Inbox Zero at the end of every week, which means that, if I don't have time for e-mail, I will let it slip on some of the earlier days of the week. Last time I check, replying e-mail was not one of my main tasks on my job description, and I treat it as such.

If I'm doing good progress on my writing one day, I might decide to stick with it a bit longer, and defer e-mail processing to later in the week. As the week goes to its end, I'm typically more tired and with less concentration, so those condition are good enough for sifting through my e-mail messages. Friday afternoon I might be rather tired, and not fresh anymore for tackling difficult research problems, but it's a good time slot for cleaning up my mailbox and being able to start the new week with a fresh slate.

4. Quick reviews on my phone
While I only keep my mailbox open during the time I have allotted to deal with e-mail in a day, I do check a few times a day my e-mail on my phone. I'd check it in the morning while I drink my smoothie, or at a random time during the day when I have a coffee and a snack. If there is something last minute and important, I won't miss it - I've noticed that some people send e-mails to call for meetings just 3 hours prior to the meeting, and they react all shocked when you tell them you didn't check your e-mail (the standard in this world still is to have your mailbox open all the time during work hours, and see every e-mail right when it pops up).

5. Write short messages
It's called e-mail, it's not the beautiful art of writing letters. I get a little itchy when someone writes me epic-length e-mails about work (I love getting detailed long messages from friends and family though when I'm away from home, but that's a whole different beast). Too long blabla e-mails make me want to tell the writer tl;dr... I hardly ever send e-mail longer than a paragraph, and I frequently use bullet lists when coordinating things.

Reading short e-mails that contain all the important information is a joy, replying e-mails with as little words as possible will reduce the time you actually spend typing e-mails, and, typically, short messages are less prone to confusion.

6. Unsubscribe and Unroll.me
Receiving too many promotional e-mails? Unsubscribe if you don't want to receive them. You can use the unsubscribe client Unroll.me, which will revise your subscriptions and ask you if you want to "roll up" your subscription or unsubscribe. Rolling up means that you wont receive the e-mails anymore, but that it will be compiled into one daily unroll.me e-mail with just the headings of the e-mails from companies you rolled up. You can revise this e-mail quickly to see if you missed anything, and click on the topic to read the full e-mail, if you want to.

7. Plan follow-up
If you send an "important" e-mail, you can add to your to-do list that you need to follow-up with that e-mail. Say you sent a request to your co-author to do something on your paper by the end of the week (Friday, for example). Then you can put a reminder in your to do-list for Monday to revise if your co-author did so, or if you need to give him/her a gentle nudge in the right direction.


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