Thursday, September 17, 2020

Q&A: How to stay focused while reading scholarly articles

Here's a long overdue Q&A question.

A reader sent me the following question:

Hello Eva!
You have jotted all essential ingredients in a simplest way.I have a question how can we enhance our concentration for long term while reviewing a paper?
If you share some more tips I would be grateful towards you.
With Regards

First of all, I need you to understand that staying focused while reading technical papers is HARD. Papers are typically very condensed forms of information, requiring quite some effort from the reader to get through.

When I find it hard to stay focused, I do the following:

Walk while reading: sitting for a long time can make me feel a bit drowsy. Sometimes it helps me to pace around while reading.

Read from a print: I'm behind my computer for most of the time of the day. Getting up and getting a printed version, and reading this hard copy at a table instead of at my desk helps me change my focus (and stay away from the temptations of the internet).

Block time for reading: I don't think anybody can sit and read technical papers for 8 hours a day. Plan your time instead. For example: 2 hours for reading a paper, followed by 1 hour for typing out a summary of the paper, and then maybe 2 hours to do some exploratory calculations based on the paper. Or 2 hours of reading and then something different.

Meditate: exercise your mind through meditation. It's hard work and it requires constant practice, but it's so worth it.

Identify what you want to get out of a paper
: Why are you reading this paper? What do you want to learn? Understand why you are reading this, and get out the information you need for your research.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

I am Rasha Shanaz, and This is How I Work

Today, I have the pleasure of interviewing Rasha Shanaz in the "How I Work" series. Rasha Shanaz is a PhD student of Theoretical Physics at Bharathidasan University, India. She works on Chaos Theory and uses Machine Learning to predict patterns in chaos. She is passionate about art and languages, and hopes to bring science to a larger audience using them. When she is not coding away on her computer, she reads, paints, sketches, edits photographs, stargazes or writes a to-do list!  

Current Job: PhD student 
Current Location: At home, due to the Pandemic 
Current mobile device: Redmi Note 5 pro 
Current computer: Acer Swift 3 
Can you briefly explain your current situation and research to us? 
I am a first-year Physics PhD student at Bharathidasan University, Trichy, India. I started my PhD just two weeks before the lockdowns started but since I am continuing in the same lab and project from my M.Phil, I did not have much of a disorientation. My research is in theoretical physics, specifically Chaos Theory, Complex Systems and Machine Learning. I study complex chaotic systems, their dynamics and how to predict or make sense of the chaos in them. For this, I am trying to build ML algorithms based on other chaotic systems. I use a method called “reservoir computing”, which allows one to use any dynamical system (ranging from a bucket of water to bacteria to electronic circuits) in place of an artificial neural network. Metaphorically and literally, I am fighting chaos with chaos. 
What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow? 
Since I use a Linux OS, I turn to open source tools for all my needs. I code all my experiments in Python 3 and use the Jupyter Notebook IDE for that. 
For writing, I use Google Docs and typeset using LaTeX on TeXstudio and Overleaf (when collaborating). 
For presentations and figures: Google Slides and PicsArt (on phone) and for project planning and consolidating lists: Google Sheets. For other notes and to-do lists, I use Tusk (Linux alternative for Evernote). I rely majorly on Mendeley for managing all my journal articles and references and also use it for annotating PDFs. As for the version control of my codes and other files, I am beginning to use Github. 
One of my favourite tools to keep up my flow is the Digital Wellbeing feature on my phone. It lets me focus on work by scheduling “focus modes”, which pauses all the distracting apps. While working I use a modified version of the Pomodoro technique (longer work time with longer breaks) and for that, I use the Goodtime app. It also keeps track of my work sessions. I am still exploring better options to improve my workflow. 
What does your workspace setup look like? 
In general, my workspace is my lab at the university. I live in the campus hostel, so I don’t have a “home office” except for a desk and chair in my room. Since I am a theoretical physicist, I do not have an ‘experimental lab’. So my work spot and lab are the same: a desk with my workstation in our “lab”. And also as I can carry anywhere my primary “equipment”, which is my laptop, I can do the experiments from my hostel room too. I mostly work at my lab and tend to keep my things there. For writing or making presentations, I choose to work in the library or my hostel room. 
But now, due to the lockdown, I am at home, in a different town 6 hours from my university. So my primary workspace for the past 5 months has been different corners of my home. I do have a separate room with a desk (picture 1) but I don’t always use it. I enjoy sitting on the floor and working. So I shift around random places around the house with all my stuff in a tiny table. 

What is your best advice for productive academic work? 
Don’t force yourself to work in routines that don’t fit you. Find your style and your time, go with it. Also, ride the waves of productivity and don’t expect yourself to be always productive! 
How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks? 
I am pretty much analogue when it comes to planning. I use my Planner Notebook for planning projects, daily tasks and to keep track of my progress. I make weekly to-do lists on Evernote (for the ease of editing and moving around tasks), then copy the next day’s tasks to my Planner Notebook the previous night and also update them on Google Calendar. Sounds meticulous but that helps me stay organized. To create work plans for my research projects, I create Gantt Charts in Google Sheets. 
Besides phone and computer, do you use other technological tools in work and daily life? 
Which skill makes you stand out as an academic? 
Outside academia, I am an artist. I take photos, edit them, create watercolour paintings and sketches, dance and learn new languages. And I always try to incorporate those artistic elements into my academic work. I try to introduce principles of design in my posters, include intuitive artistic examples and I try to make science as appealing as art to a layperson. I believe that has always made my works stand out. I try to see scientific ideas and arguments from different perspectives, including that of a common person. So, that makes my presentations and talks reach a larger audience. 
What do you listen to when you work? 
I listen to music only when I am working with a nearing deadline. I’d play one song on loop or maybe a small playlist on loop because that robs me of the sense of time and hence I’m less pressurised. Peppy Tamil/Hindi songs or Taylor Swift when I need the rush and soft instrumental music while reading. 
What are you currently reading? How do you find time for reading? 
I recently received Lynda Barry’s “Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor” as a gift and I am so obsessively reading it. I am an avid reader but I don’t read regularly. But if I start a book, I won’t put it down without finishing. So whenever I don’t have much on my schedule, I’d start a book. Sometimes, having more things to do increases my productivity and I’d choose reading to be one of the tasks. For example, recently while I was writing my very first journal article, I was reading Robert Galbraith’s
Lethal White. I’d try to finish more writing within a certain time so that I could go back to the book. It’s kind of my reward system. 
Are you more of an introvert or extrovert? How does this influence your working habits? 
I consider myself an ambivert. I enjoy socializing and chatting with friends as much as the alone times. I prefer solitude mostly, which is abundant in the academic workplaces. But I also go to different labs and chat with my friends. I have always had a big circle of friends and it has helped me at the stressful, lonely times. When it comes to meetings or conferences, I unleash my extrovert self and it has helped me make so much valuable connections and opportunities. 
What's your sleep routine like? 
Pre-pandemic: Sleep routine is very much dependent on my daily work schedule. So I go to bed by 11 pm and wake up by 8 am. Exceptions when there are nearing deadlines. 
During pandemic: It varies every week. Sometimes it is 11 pm-8 pm, then it is 1 am-10 am or even 4 am-12 pm. But I try to get 8 hours of sleep everyday, else I can’t function. 
What's your work routine like? 
My daily working hours at university starts at 10 am and ends at 5 pm. My peak productivity hours are from 4 pm to 12 am. So I try to schedule all my coding, writing and other creative works to that time. I allocate journal readings and other stuff to the mornings. 
What's the best advice you ever received? 
One advice I tell myself often is from my mentor, which goes “Take one step at a time and play your cards wisely”. 
Another one of my favourite academic advice is to have an unofficial “board” of mentors with seniors and other professors whose advice you can rely on. This has been very helpful to me.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Ten years of PhD Talk

Today marks ten years since I started this blog as a budding PhD student. In the past then years, I got my PhD, did three post-docs, got tenure in Ecuador, got tenure in the Netherlands, married, became a parent, and did a fair amount of traveling.

I'll analyze further what I've learned from ten years of blogging, but for now, just celebrate with me on this blog birthday!

Thank you all for reading, and let's see what the future has in store for us!

Thursday, September 10, 2020

I am Marcus Christiansen, and This is How I Work as a Parent

Today, I have the pleasure of interviewing coach Marcus Christiansen. Marcus is a coach living in Bangkok, Thailand, who helps professionals find work-life balance, inner peace and happiness by helping them grow to be their authentic self, achieve their goals and become better versions of themselves. He does this through a combination of diverse coaching skills supported by two (2) decades of management and executive experience, personal and professional experience in finding balance, inner peace and happiness and the experience of transitioning between jobs, companies, countries and continents. Marcus The Coach was founded in 2020 from the desire to coach and help people and organizations align with their purpose and achieve their goals. Expanding on what has been a significant part of his journey the past decade. His journey started in hospitality where he has done everything from making pizzas and cleaning tables to leading teams at world-class resorts and ensuring consistent improvement in the guest experience for one of the top 10 hotel companies in the world. His journey has so far taken him to live and work in more than 8 countries and he has at the same time worked closely with teams all across Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Marcus is certified by the International Coaching Federation (ICF) as a Coach, the American Board of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) as an NLP Coach and NLP Practitioner and the Time Line Therapy Association as a Time Line Therapist. Marcus mentions that "my passion for coaching and helping you achieve your goals is unparallel and I look forward to sharing it with you." You can read more about Marcus on his website or find him on LinkedIn.

Current Job: Professional Coach
Current Location: Bangkok, Thailand
Current mobile device: iPhone 11 Pro Max 
Current computer: MacBook Pro 

What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow?

Tools: iPhone, iPad, MacBook 
Apps: Notability, Mail, Canva, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter, TikTok, HeadSpace, Starbucks, WhatsApp, Grab, Zoom, Positive intelligence, Google Chrome, BigVu 

What does your workspace setup look like? 

Home office (MacBook, wireless keyboard and mouse, large screen) 

What is your best advice for productive academic work? 

Focus on topics that aligns with your value and life purpose. Schedule your week in advance, not only appointments, but tasks needed to be done. 

How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks? 

Trello, Calendar 

Besides phone and computer, do you use other technological tools in work and daily life? 

 iPad Pro, screen 

Which skill makes you stand out as an academic? 

Organization skills

What do you listen to when you work? 

Podcasts, music 

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

Reading The Prosperous Coach, schedule the time 

Are you more of an introvert or extrovert? How does this influence your working habits? 

Introvert. Prefer to work in quiet environment, but also great at team work. 

What's your sleep routine like? Has it changed significantly since becoming a parent? 

Sleep 10/11pm - 6/7am. Since becoming a parent, go to bed earlier. 

What's your work routine like? 

Work 6/7am - 7pm (since I have home office I take 3 breaks during the day to spend with my family) 

How is it like to be a parent where you work? Are your colleagues supportive and understanding? 

My own business work from home. 

How much maternity or paternity leave (if any) did you get and was it paid leave? 

In my previous company I got 1 week paternal leave, my wife got 5 month maternity leave from her company 

Which childcare services are you using? Does university provide support in finding and funding childcare? 

We have a live in nanny, weekly go to English class and gymnastic classes 

How is your parenting style? 

Allowing my child to express herself within set frame work. Strict when boundaries are being pushed. 

What's the best advice you ever received? 

No matter what happens, ask yourself: “What is/could be good about this?” There is always an answer.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Q&A: Questions about The A-Z of the PhD Trajectory

I recently received the following question, which may be relevant for all readers:

Hi Eva,
I am currently done reading your wonderful book about the PhD trajectory and I have a couple of questions regarding your book; it's about the gaps in the literature...I hope you could enlighten me about this questions are the following:

Q1) where should I analyse the literature review report so that I can derive the research question from it (is it in the Research Journal or maybe within the literature review report itself)?

Q2) and how about the ideas for the subquestions? (should I create a MS Word-document for the analysis of each idea which can contribute to a subquestion or do I just analyse and document them in the Research Journal)?

Q3) What is the difference between a research diary and a research journal?...

Thank you in advance for your help and I wish you success in your future undertakings.

XX from Germany

Here's my reply:

Dear XX,

Thanks for reaching out to me through my blog, and I'm so glad to read you liked my book!
Here are my answers to your questions:

Q1) where should I analyse the literature review report so that I can derive the research question from it (is it in the Research Journal or maybe within the literature review report itself)?

You can use your research journal to develop your ideas, and then write up the gaps you;ve identified in the literature in your literature review report itself.

Q2) and how about the ideas for the subquestions? (should I create a MS Word-document for the analysis of each idea which can contribute to a subquestion or do I just analyse and document them in the Research Journal)?

You can use your research journal to flesh out ideas, but bring everything together in a document. If you need to write and defend a proposal (as in the US system), then your proposal would be the place where you outline your research question and subquestions.

Q3) What is the difference between a research diary and a research journal?...

They are the same :)
Good luck with the PhD and greetings from Ecuador,

Thursday, September 3, 2020

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: How to manage email as a Professor

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!

Professors receive a lot of email, and professor are notorious about ignoring emails (if I recall well, a piece advice in one of Cal Newport's books is to treat email like a professor - just don't reply if it's not worth it). After a two-week holiday, I once had over 70 requests to review an article, and over 1000 messages to sieve through. It's easy to get absorbed into your mailbox the entire day. It's also easy to start feeling overwhelmed.

Dealing with email in a way that still leaves me time for my research has been one of my main challenges over the past years. I'm not at a point where I can say that I manage to keep on top of my mailbox and get everything done at the same time, but I've made some good progress.

Here's what I've learned over the past years:

1. Inbox Zero
I do a modified version of the regular Inbox Zero. I don't always have an Inbox Zero, I certainly don't end every day with an Inbox Zero, and I don't immediately archive and plan every thing. What I do, however, is to archive emails and delete them after dealing with them. I strive to get down to zero, but my backlog can go up to 600 emails to process (or more, after a holiday).

2. Track it
I want to do a better job in dealing with requests within a reasonable amount of time, so one thing I track every day in my bullet journal is the number of emails I start the day with and the number I end the day with (and unfortunately there are bad days when the latter is higher than the former), as well as the difference between end of the day and beginning of the day.

3. Block time
In my weekly template, I put time every day for dealing with email and admin. I typically schedule 1 - 1.5 hours per day, and often do some additional email-replying at the end of the day after my daughter sleeps. With this daily time block, I manage to do some progress every day.

4. List with color code
Every Friday, when I make my planning and list of priorities for the next week, I go through my mailbox and make a list of all pending items in there. I use a color code: green for service, purple for contacts and collaborations, brown for blog-related issues, orange for personal emails, black for projects, pink for papers in progress and light blue for teaching and MSc students. I try then to organize my time so that I can tackle all teaching related emails together, and address paper-related emails by setting aside writing time to edit and work on the paper that is in the email.

5. Put it on your calendar
As I mentioned in the previous part, when you divide the emails in topics, you can put these different topics on your calendar. I've found it more productive to deal with emails per theme or topic, rather than just try to reply them in order that they appear in your mailbox. If I reply in order, I will typically order them per subject of the email, rather than in chronological order.

6. Clean up time block
If all else fails, I plan in a larger time block (or even a few days), to deal with all pending items. If I recall well, I needed 6 weeks after my maternity leave to clean out everything and get back up to speed. After a holiday, I usually need the first few days to get through everything. If I've een absorbed by a project, I also usually need to schedule a few bigger time blocks to catch up with all pending emails.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Q&A: Time to study daily for the PhD

I recently received an interesting reader question(edited for anonymity):

Assalamu alaikum (Peace be upon you). Greeting from Far Away.

Thank you Dr Eva for your valuable blog. I am going to start my PhD abroad soon. I need to know the minimum amount of time must/should I study daily. Taking in consideration that I work 7 hours daily (5 days/week) and it takes me around 1 hour from my home to workplace, and another hour from workplace to home.

In this case how long should I study per day? Also taking in consideration family and other commitments.

Looking forward to receiving your advice.

Thank you again.

My reply was:

Dear XX,
Thank you for reaching out to me through my blog!
With regard to your question, I would say - it really depends on your planning. While many people who work a split shift aim for 1-2 hours of work in the evening, this may not serve the research tasks you need to carry out.

Since you are working full-time, I can imagine that you are in a longer PhD trajectory. From that perspective, I think you should more think in terms of what you want to achieve for your research every week, and plan accordingly. You can think in terms of 1-2 hours blocks in the evening, with short tasks associated to that (or, if you are so inclined, blocks in the early morning before you go to your day job). You can also set aside longer blocks of time on the weekends to get through more complex tasks.

You may also want to ask in your day job if you can work a bit longer some days, so that you can take up a few free hours another day to get a longer block of time available to work on your PhD. It all depends on the tasks you have at hand. If you need to go to a lab to do tests, you may need a full afternoon, and the lab staff may not be available on the weekend.
My recommendation would be: plan well, set clear expectations with your PhD supervisor, and see at your day job what can be arranged for you.
Good luck!