Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The ebb and flow of the academic year

Today, Genevieve is sharing her academic schedule with us. Genevieve is a physicist in Melbourne, Australia. She works in an area of medical physics, primarily looking at the lungs and brain. She’s on twitter, too: @LuminescentFish.

I’m a research assistant, paid out of a research grant awarded to a particular project. That means all of my time goes towards research. I don’t have to carve out time for research from other commitments, a luxury of sorts in academia. This is a big contrast to the way my supervisors spend their time, with lots of meetings, supervision and grant writing to take care of.

Arriving at work, I dump my coat on the spare chair, make myself a mug of tea and fire up my email. That’s how most mornings go. For me, there’s no shortage of time for focused research work. Typically I will work on one or two major tasks for a project that day, but will have three or four things going at any one time. Keeping a running list of priorities (like Adam’s list) is necessary so I don’t get sucked into just the problem I’ve been working on for the last three hours.

Day to day, I have a lot of freedom and flexibility in choosing what to work on when. I do a lot of writing code and image analysis. Occasionally I make computer simulations to confirm theoretical approaches, and to test the stability of the algorithm (by adding noise, etc.) before putting it to the test with real data.

I will often re-do an analysis two or three times. Because there’s another complicating factor we hadn’t thought of, or because we need to rule out the possibility of a mistake in the code, or one of a hundred other good reasons. Or I will repeat the same analysis many times, but varying the parameters slightly each time, so we can see how stable it is as a practical solution when someone else tries it. You have to be good with frustration. Things don’t work, and don’t work, and don’t work some more sometimes.

There's also churning through the tedious tasks that need to be done before I can look for signs in the data to back up a shiny, exciting new idea. And because I’m an assistant, that means I do all the data crunching that I haven’t yet figured out how to automate. Bit by bit, I am trying to put in the time to automate these tasks. It gets tricky though, trying to balance the potential long term gain against a short term time sink when there are other pressing things to do.

Finally, there is the ever-growing digital pile of papers I mean to read in more detail but haven’t yet. I am good at keeping tabs on what is coming out in new journal issues, but not so good about following through with a close, detailed read of all the papers that seemed valuable on the first skim through. This is perhaps the single common thread among all academic schedules: there are always more papers to read than time available!

But there are larger rhythms to my academic schedule. We are ramping up to our busy season now, in fact, and this yearly ebb and flow governs everything else. Our research group is a large multidisciplinary collaboration, including physicists, engineers, biologists and medical doctors. While there are a few labs on campus where we sometimes do experiments, the bulk of our experimental data comes from synchrotron X-ray sources, which we travel to once or twice a year.

When it’s on, it’s on! Long hours, crappy cafeteria food, you name it. Having a good research group where people get along well with one another is critical for making this work. You love it or hate it, really. I must be one of the nuttier ones, because I keep coming back. The data you take now will be what you have to work with for the next six or so months, so you have to make it count. The beamlines are on 24/7 and so, more or less, we are too.

Then, once we have schlepped home several terabytes of experimental data, there’s a flurry of activity making sure it’s backed up on the network, beginning to pre-process the data, and settling back into the usual rhythm of things. Arriving at work, dumping my coat on the chair, making a mug of tea, and firing up my email...

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Writing with Music - When Spotify doesn't work

It's not a secret that I like listening to music while writing. I have a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, that I swear by. nothing distracts me as much as people who are talking around me, so often, my headphones are a lifesaver. Plus having some music while I am writing makes it all a little more enjoyable.

When I'm not listening to new CD releases while I am working (which I review later on for Grave Concerns E-Zine), I typically listen to music on Spotify. I've written previously about how I improve my Spotify experience with some additional apps and programs, and how nowadays I am using EZBlocker to mute adverts. Seriously, if they thought I'd pay for streaming music just to get rid of ads, they'd better come up with something slightly more sophisticated.

Typically, when I am writing, I prefer to listen to music that does not have clear vocals or lyrics - which tends to distract me. My favorite writing music alternates between classical music (or instrumental music, at times), post-rock and shoegaze playlists and melodic death metal (large large chunks of my dissertation have been written to The Gallery by Dark Tranquillity, and it's still one of my go-to records for writing).

When I'm crunching numbers, and doing work that does not take up very much brain space, but that is just tedious, then I tend to go for futurepop or 60s rock, just something that puts me in the flow of copying and pasting numbers and dragging columns from one place to another.

Now, it can happen that Spotify is not working - for example, when I'm traveling and it starts to give errors because my location is not matching my profile. When that happens, I simply turn to YouTube. Since I have an absolute dislike for adverts when I am listening to music while working (if ads come through, I get so scared/distracted that I almost jump out of my chair), I finally have found a way to listen to music on YouTube without getting bothered every 5 minutes by a random ad for something I would never even consider buying: I now browse for DJ mixes that are over an hour in length. As such, I can crank out 2 pomodoros in deep concentration without getting bothered by ads (and without needing to catch any of the noise of my surroundings).

Do you listen to music while you study and write? What type of music do you prefer? Which programs do you use for listening?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Social media for teaching

I recently came across the results of a survey by Pearson on the use of social media by faculty members, for teaching and learning.

You can find the full report here.

Since the report is heavy on graphs and data (as well has a great selection of quotes by faculty members towards the end) I recommend you just click the link and check it out.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Finding Structure in Academic Schedules

Today I have the pleasure of inviting Nivedita to discuss her daily schedule with us. Nivedita is a PhD student at Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, India. Her research is on automated forensic analysis of handwriting. She received a bachelor degree in biological science from University of Delhi. After that she did masters in forensic science from National institute of criminology and forensic sciences. She has a master degree in computer applications also. Currently, she is a Postdoctoral scholar in University of Joseph Fourier, Grenoble, France.

I was a very disorganized person when I started my doctoral degree. Like any other first year graduate student I was also lost in the fascinating disneylandish world of social networks. I was not able to maintain my routine. Then I joined twitter, which proved to be the only helpful social media. After reading about fellow PhD students and their strict working schedule I was so amazed that the people are also flooded with deadlines and yet they were able to find time for their hobbies, family time, a daily jog, holidays etc. I also decided to include some of tried and tested methods of others in my daily routine. During that time I was aware of Pomodoro technique, leech block and other productivity tools. I had a serious concentration problem so I started using pomodoro for my important tasks.

Maintaining a time table made my life easier. I used to jot down my weekly schedule on a macro level a week ahead and used to add micro level detailing a day ahead. It took me some 20 min on average to plan for a day. So, I had a rough map of my daily activities in mind. I was not clueless about the stuff to manage , when I switched on my computer every morning.

I observed my work patterns for a week and noticed that morning hours are best for my creativity as there were less people in the lab and I could concentrate without any distraction. I had to block my entertainment zone i.e., the few sites and notifications which distracted me a lot.
I grabbed those golden hours in the morning when I was most productive. For me, morning 8:30 to 12:00 were best. If I had to start anything new I used to do that in the morning. And afternoons were mostly dedicated to reviewing work, meetings or discussions with fellow lab mates about my work over a cup of coffee.

Apart from serious research work, you should always include something in the schedule which makes you feel alive. I had included my evening walks for that. It made me feel energetic all over again so that during the night from 9pm -11pm I could devote some time to reading some paper or a book and do some planning for the next day.

I included Silva method of mind relaxation in my schedule. There is no need of a special time or place for that you can do the meditation right from your workstation whenever you feel exhausted. Read about other things of your interest that may or may not be related with your research. Seek inspiration from others. Celebrate each small success because happy people are more productive.

It is okay to be mean to devote specific hours for your difficult targets when you will not oblige any discussion or distraction by anyone. Go into no internet zone and put your phone on silent mode. Don't let any task or other distraction snatch these block timings from you. Believe me at the end of doctoral degree you wont regret it.

Don't devoid yourself from simple pleasures of life just do some management to accommodate them in your time table. Planning, planning and more planning is all what is required for a successful completion of your degree. Don't become isolated, learn to do networking and show interest in other peoples work. It's your PhD, you have to take control of it. If you can manage to do that you will enjoy this journey.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

What the President of the United States can teach Graduate Students on Academic Schedules

Today, I am inviting Laura Shum (@lauracshum) to write about her academic schedule. Laura is a graduate student in the Translational Biomedical Sciences PhD program at the University of Rochester. She works on translating bench science to clinicians, the value of research to politicians, and the importance of getting a flu shot to her mother. In the lab, Laura works on elucidating how stem cells make and use energy. Outside of the lab, she has interests in science policy, outreach, and communication. Her personal blog can be found at http://shumstuff.blogspot.com/.

The President of the United States doesn't decide what to wear or eat every day. Humans have a limited capacity to make decisions. Once the quota is reached, there has to be a rest period before being able to make more decisions or it starts to feel physically draining. The POTUS spends his day making important, far-reaching decisions. There's no point in waste precious energy making small ones.

I keep this in mind when devising my daily and weekly schedules. Having a routine keeps my mind free for the things that matter, and still ensures that everything gets done. I optimized my morning routine by writing down everything I wanted to accomplish before leaving the house, then put those things in an order that made sense. A few key points: I don't look at my phone before getting out of bed. I'm a graduate student. No email is so important that it can't wait a few hours. Looking at my phone makes me laze about too long. Secondly, I do a small amount of physical activity as soon as I roll out of bed. This might be a few yoga poses or a set of pushups. Something short and fast to get blood flowing and let me body know I'm up.

Mornings are my golden time. I can get more quality work done before 9am than the rest of the day combined. I recently started harnessing this by going to school later. Once I'm ready for the day, I spend about an hour (7:30-8:30am) writing, or working on one of my side projects. If I go into the lab this early, there's almost always something to distract me. Staying home, I have a comfortable setup, with no one to interrupt me.

My morning hour of productivity is broken up by day. The night before when I'm setting my to-do list, I decide what will be the priority the next morning. It's usually one of the following:
  • writing: blog post, homework, abstract, manuscript, whatever is in the pipeline
  • policy work: I'm starting a student science policy group. This is when I research speakers, write emails, plan meetings, etc
  • networking: send emails, research people I want to meet, career paths I'm considering, etc
  • GSS: another student group I'm part of at school. During this time I plan events, write emails, read over meeting minutes
  • reading/lit search: I have a never end list of papers I'm trying to read. I try to get through a few during this time.
These categories get attended to once a week, or less if nothing is needed. The default is always writing. Even if I have no deadlines, I always have a handful of blog posts or writing exercises I'm working on to improve my writing.

I live and die by my calendar and a master to-do list. I carry a notebook everywhere and continually jot down ideas, and things I need to do. I have 30 minutes blocked off at the end of each day where I go through that notebook and transfer things to my to-do list and calendar. I don't necessarily get to everything on my calendar, but if it's not on the calendar, then it definitely doesn't get done.

Let's start with the long-view and work backwards:

Five Year Plan
I have a five year plan. It's hilariously optimistic. I would like to graduate quickly. If there's any chance of that happening, there are many things needed to stay on track. These miles stones are set on this five year plan. They get reviewed and revised about once a month to make sure I'm not missing any big deadlines.

Monthly
Near the end of every month, I set goals for the upcoming month. I look at my five-year plan and my previous month's goals and think about what I need to accomplish to move forward. These might be academic (narrow topic for review article), social (host a dinner party), health-related (do 10 pushups every day) or something else entirely. I then set time aside in my calendar to accomplish these.

Weekly
Every Friday afternoon, I set my schedule for the following week. I look at my to-do list, and block time out for each item. To-do lists are great, but without setting aside actual time to finish things, I never seem to get around to them. This also gives me a chance to be aware of any upcoming meetings I need to prepare for, exams coming up, or similar obligations.

Daily
Before bed I review the next day's schedule. I change or prepare things as needed.

Everything I do goes on the calendar, including exercise, grocery shopping, cleaning, studying, and time with friends. I use one color for social activities, one for lab work, and one for school work. When I'm planning experiments in the lab, I block out time to prepare and set up, time to actually run the experiment, and time to analyze the data. I block out time for classwork, and time to review lectures. I even have a daily reminder to leave time for lunch every day.

I have a super-packed, color-coded, scheduled-to-the15-minute-increment calendar.

Here's an important note: My precise schedule doesn't always go as planned. I'm still horrible at estimating how much time something will take. However, I find it invaluable for making sure I get the important things done. It's hard to tell how much you've taken on until you start planning out the specifics. My calendar had been a valuable tool for letting me know when to say no to new obligations.

Sleep, nutrition, and exercise are all very high on my priority list. They might slip for a week before a deadline, but being healthy and happy are more important to me than anything else. My calendar helps me to not take on too much, and to lead a happy and productive life.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: Finding an Academic Schedule that Works

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!


For young faculty members, the large number of tasks you need to juggle might feel overwhelming. You might want to postpone writing your papers until you "have time for it."

You might be thinking: "This semester I am teaching new courses, so I'm going to postpone writing that article until next semester." And then, your next semester is there, and you have yet another challenge that takes up all your time so that you need to postpone your writing again.

As a new professor, and teaching 3 courses per semester, I need quite some time to prepare all my new material. I learned as well that there is not only the time it takes to prepare courses (4 hours of preparation per hour of lecture seems to be quite the golden rule), but there is also the time it takes to grade homework and exams, the visits of students with questions, and the extra volume of emails associated with streamlining the course. In short, once you start teaching, you have way, way less time for research left.

With a faculty position also come additional tasks. You might be managing a laboratory or responsible for revising the curriculum of your department's program to meet new government requirements. This work too needs to move forward, and takes time.

To keep your many tasks and responsibilities all moving forward at a steady pace, I am quite a fan of using a weekly template, as suggested by Dr. Golash-Boza and Dr. Pacheco-Vega.

Last semester, I followed Dr. Pacheco-Vega's approach, but I found this "scheduling everything to the very minute" rather depressing - I never got done what I planned to do, because over the course of the day, random extra things always seem to creep up. I need more air or buffer time in my schedule, and I need to foresee more time for email. By now, my golden rule is not to plan more than 75% of my time. If you look at my schedule, my "boxes" for my different tasks seem to be back-to-back, but in reality I only put tasks in these boxes that take 75% of the allotted time.

Boxes? Tasks? Let me explain that by introducing you to the weekly template that I have for this semester:



As you can see, I'm using color coding for my different tasks:
- Green = workouts: Very important, I can't be focused on my work if I'm not giving some priority to movement. Time ago I wrote about exercise taking the backseat, but since then, I've been consistently making time for sports. Lots of work is not an excuse to sacrifice your health. Currently, I'm combining hot yoga classes in a yoga studio, with group workouts in the gym (body pump, spinning, yoga) and cardio and weight lifting in the gym. After trying out a number of different options, I've found that morning workouts work best for me here.
- Light blue = research. This category has different tasks: time for moving research projects forward (calculations, mostly), time for writing papers, and time for reading papers. This semester is the first time that I am actually blocking a few hours each week for reading papers to keep updated on the advances in my field. I especially like reading the recent issues of the ACI Structural Journal and the Magazine of Concrete Research.
- Yellow = personal time. A researcher's got to eat, and cook to get to eat said food. I plan sessions of batch-cooking to have food that lasts a couple of days. I schedule time to play music (singing or playing the cello), because that really rejuvenates me, and I have too little time for it. Groceries - ah, hate it, but it needs to happen. If you make your weekly template, think of all these personal errands that you need to run on a weekly basis, and safe time for them.
- Blue = Class preparation. For the course that I have taught before, I am not scheduling much time anymore. For my new course, I am scheduling 4 hours of preparation per hour of class. Luckily, I am teaching 2 parallels of the same course, so that saves me some time. The boxes of class preparation time can be moved around on a weekly basis, as I like to grade homeworks and exams right after receiving them - I like being punctual about returning work to my students, as a fair exchange for my being rather strict about the deadlines of their work (you respect my time, and I respect your time, and we all move forward).
- Indigo = Class. These are the hours that I am actually teaching. This semester, I am teaching in the afternoon (works well with my personal energy),
, I do not have gaps in between hours of teaching (last semester I had a Lost Hour on MWF in between two hours of class, and I never got any work done during that hour), and I am not teaching on Friday (research time!).
- Pink = Blog scheduling. Because writing these posts takes time, and if I don't schedule time, I can't find it.
- Orange = Office Hours. I only have 2 hours a week officially in my schedule as office hours, but my students can make an appointment and I'll gladly schedule them in. They know that I am in my office most of the time (I do not run a practice next to my academic position, I am more than busy with 2 academic positions), and that they can drop by if needed.
- Red = email and appointments. Also, my former "work" category (everything work-related used to show up red in my Google Calendar, but that has changed now). Appointments come in this category, and an hour on a daily basis goes in this category for plowing through my mailbox.

Now this weekly template is the basis for my week-to-week planning. I keep track of my tasks in ToDoist, and every Friday evening (as you can see in my template), I sit down to review what work I accomplished in the past week, and what needs to be done, per category, on a weekly basis. I fill in the boxes with the specific tasks that await me (using up only 75% of my allotted time, so I have enough buffer to catch up whichever fireball gets thrown at me during the day). An example of a recent week looks like this then:



As you can see, I moved some tasks around, added in some extra appointments, and generally filled in the specific tasks within their respective categories that I needed to accomplish.

For PhD students, you might like to implement a simpler version of this approach - you can find an example of what my schedule looked like when I was a PhD student in a different post.

With this system, I am able to move a number of projects forward at the same time, and I ensure I am not neglecting a specific category of work while favoring another category.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

53 interesting ways to communicate your research

Some weeks ago, I laid my hands on my copy of "53 interesting ways to communicate your research". This book is a collection of essays on communicating your research, covering a wide range of strategies for science communication.

"53 interesting ways to communicate your research" is not only a very interesting book to browse through and discover some new tips you can implement in communicating your research - it also features an essay by yours truly on sharing your research process through social media.





In total, 37 contributors all provided material for this book, which was edited by Aiofe Brophy Haney and Irenee Daily. The publisher, The Professional and Higher Partnership Ltd, gives a short description as follows:

To maximise the value of your research, you need to communicate it to others. There are many ways to do so: examples include applications and bids, conference presentations, gray literature, journal papers, media (old and new), public talks, and teaching.

This book provides fresh, creative, ways of making the most of these and other opportunities. It provides 53 practical suggestions, each based on ideas tried and tested by the contributors.


Abstract: To be an effective researcher one needs both to conduct high quality research and to communicate it. Research may be communicated to a variety of stakeholders including specialists, researchers in other fields, business, government, the third sector, and the public. A range of methods is available, including presentation, publication, and new and traditional forms of media. 53 practical ideas, rooted in experience, are provided. Overall, the text is designed to help reflective practitioners in professional, scholarly, or scientific research prosper.

Publishers’ foreword:


Until now, our Professional and Higher Education series has focused entirely on teaching and learning. 53 interesting ways to communicate your research signals our decision to extend the series to cover other aspects of work in post-compulsory education.

While broadening the series, our intention is to preserve its original values. Each book in the series provides constructive ideas that are rooted in practice and readily applicable.

Overall this book is designed as a supportive resource for researchers working in professional, academic, or scientific settings.

If you want to get a peek at the tips and hints covered in the book, you can check out the (quite positive) review over at the Thesis Whisperer, with a Top 10 of things she learned from reading this book.

Besides the book, there is also a follow-up project Researchology, a blog in which the different techniques from the book will be put into practice.
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