Eight reality checks for new grad students

September 1, 2007

GSMGraduate school is not your undergraduate education on steroids. It is a transformative journey in which you spend most of your waking moments training yourself to think and act like a scientist. Along the way you have many mentors and guides, not least of which are your fellow graduate students, the vast literature, and fussy, know-it-all blogs.

But your advisor is undoubtedly the partner most responsible to help guide your way, protect you from egregious political crap, steer you from some mistakes (you will find ways to make enough the way it is) and basically give you the time and space to transform yourself. The advisor’s role is complex and may best be described as your academic parent.

This realization is hard for some, particularly those who just spent some pretty harrowing years discovering both the joys of puberty and that their parents were batshit crazy. But just as every set of parents is different, advisors come in every stripe. The problem is, it is often not clear at the outset what you are getting yourself into. The more considerate, literate, (and, by definition, not batshit crazy) professors go out of their way to lay out their expectations early on. These vary, obviously, but the most basic advice is timeless.

Toward exploring these issues, I present below just such a “Manifesto of Expectations” (repeat to yourself, “It’s all about M.E.”). The author is a colleague who wishes to remain anonymous. I will respect his wishes, save to say that his short-lived career as a left tackle for the Golden Buffaloes was plagued by scandal, not all of which was his responsibility. What follows is some pretty frank (and dead-on) advice. It is lightly edited (MK: and annotated) toward removing the author’s frequent and rather strained metaphors to offensive line play. Read the rest of this entry »


5 steps to capturing and storing your ideas

February 4, 2007

5 parts to an academics system for capturing and storing ideas

An an academic, you need a system to effectively capture and curate your ideas. Such systems are infinitely flexible–part of the fun is playing around with different components until you find a set that fits you. That said, I suspect that the following components are pretty much universal in any such system:

you need a means of capturing an idea anywhere,

you need centralized, temporary storage,

you need an arena for right-brain and left-brain play,

you need long-term storage.

We’ll spend time over the next couple of weeks examining each of these in more detail; consider this the opening chapter.

OK, here’s my system in, of course, 5 parts: Read the rest of this entry »


What worked and what didn’t in GTD (one scientist’s perspective)

January 21, 2007

Life of Brian, Crowd Scene, The goal of time management is to implement a set of tools and practices that let you achieve you’re life goals. That said, we are all different, a mosaic of strengths and weaknesses that makes a “one-size fits all” approach downright loony.

This is why posts like this one from Fumbling towards Geekdom are so valuable. It reviews the productivity tools that worked in  2006 for this academic with a parrot fixation. A short summary: Read the rest of this entry »


Five ways to read broadly (and why you should)

January 12, 2007

Not my office.

We already know that among the uberskills of Academia, being a scholar ranks near the top. We need to be broadly read so we can make connections, talk to our colleagues, and teach. Furthermore, one of the fundamental ways to make a creative leap is to connect the tool of one discipline with the practice of another (more on this down the road). Finally, there is nothing quite so quaint as a first year grad student who is convinced that all he needs to do is master his little corner of the universe. Wait until his Orals.

That said, it gets harder and harder for new grad students to scale the impressive mountain of manuscripts due to the increasing number of journals, and ease of electronic access. It used to be (codger-alert!, insert whiney voice here) that the number of reprints you could read was limited to the hours you had to thumb through Biological abstracts (paper version) and the number of quarters you had in your pocket for xeroxing. Now the limit is set by the number of times you can hit return.

But read you must–its probably the most important time investment you can make in your first two years, and the ability to teach yourself is a key skill to develop. So, here’s what you do: Read the rest of this entry »


30 minutes a day you can’t afford to miss

January 7, 2007

LeonardoOne of the struggles in grad school is the 30 minute conundrum.  Think of all the activities you have to choose from that, if you just invested 30 minutes a day, would improve your productivity, foster your self image, and win with war for the allies.

Well, here’s an interesting study by Charles Emery and colleagues that went like this.  When older, sedentary folks were given a small skin injury, half were assigned an exercise regime of 1 hour, 3 times a week.  The couch potato controls healed, on average, in 39 days; the new exercizers healed 10 days earlier.

You have only one body. Exercise and good diet is the way you take care of it.

Just do it.

ht trizle


Then, there’s always caffeine…

December 28, 2006

coffeeThen there’s another take on beating procrastination.
Take a swig and let’er rip.

Tasty Research summarizes an interesting study in Psychological Science (PDF) that suggests folks tend to build in their own procrastinating tendencies when setting deadlines. To thine ownself be true, I suppose.


5 ways of breaking the procrastination habit

December 27, 2006

Sinking ShipProcrastination is a one of the most odious behaviors simply because we watch ourselves do it. Like a bad dream, we watch ourselves piddle at something that is at best marginally useful even as something we know is useful (Covey’s Type II tasks) languishes. And the oddest thing is that we tend to procrastinate most about the things most important to us.

In fact, think about the activity that you most procrastinate about. Often times, that is the very thing you most want to do, that you know will help you achieve a major life goal.

How crazy is that?

Everybody procrastinates. But the most productive of the creative types learn to manage it. Here’s how.

Understand the psychology of procrastination.
Procrastination is bound up in some of our most negative emotions.

  1. Perfectionism. Academics want to do well in the eyes of their peers. And making a mistake in a manuscript, or in front of a group of people, especially when it is pointed out by a peer, can be almost physically painful. But if you are productive, no matter how careful you are, mistakes are going to creep into your work. It’s inevitable. Perfectionism is even more pernicious if it creeps into our conceptual work. If we chose projects that are guaranteed with success, we will do very…normal…science.
  2. Anger. If you have an unresolved issue with a prickly colleague or committee member, it feels natural to put off dealing with it. But would you rather get it over with, or feel that regular pang of guilt/remorse?
  3. Frustration. Good science is hard work, and, if you’re doing it right, will frequently lead down dark alleys, some of which are dead ends. If you really loathe being frustrated, perhaps research science isn’t your bag. Remember, almost any truly creative endeavor is like washing that roasting pan that gave you that holiday turkey (hhmmmm…..turkey…….). That pan is going to look a lot worse before it looks better.
  4. Self-loathing. There is a common script among creative people that turns every success into an opportunity to beat yourself up. It’s the “OK, I’ve fooled them this far, but the next project, well, they’ll figure out what a fraud I am.” This must, IMO, be limbically hard-wired so that our ancestors never rested on their laurels, always strived to crank out one….more….offspring. Regardless, it’s out there.

Well, this has gotten a bit morose for the holidays, hasn’t it? Luckily, there is hope for the procrastinator in all of us.

Read the rest of this entry »


Getting Things Done–getting started

December 26, 2006

turkeyAhh. I love this time of year. The turkey is digesting and will be a part of breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the next few days. So cooking is not a distraction. Its grazing time.

That week-ish period between Christmas and New Years is also a good time for taking stock and seeing where we’re going, and perhaps making some mid-course corrections. Toward that goal, we’ll be spending some time the next couple of weeks reviewing aspects of Getting Things Done–part philosophy, part lifehacks–toward the goal of increasing your effectiveness and decreasing anxiety. This is targeted at the graduate student in the sciences but the principles apply to almost anybody who is creative, semi-autonomously, for a living. If you want to jump ahead, and already know a fair bit about GTD, the 43 Folders forum is an excellent place to jump in the deep end of the pool of everything lifehackery. We’ll be taking it a bit more slowly.

As we discussed before, there are four basic skills to being an academic.

1) Creativity–the generation of lots of good ideas and then culling them down to the best ones.

2) Scholarship–becoming an expert in your chosen field and maintaining an up-to-date knowledge of your general field.

3) Communication–expressing complex ideas in writing and through presentations (i.e., teaching)

4) Time Management–making continuous progress toward all three while still nurturing your health and personal relationships.

One useful way of thinking about managing our goals is from Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The four quadrats classify our daily tasks by their urgency and their importance to our goals (which presumably include the four goals of improving our creativity, scholarship, communication and time management).

Steven Covey’s Four Quadrats

  • Group I entails crises and deadline driven projects (grades are to be turned in three days after Finals)
  • Group II include your long-term incremental goals (like, for example, becoming more creative, a better scholar, and a better communicator!)
  • Group III are interruptions that you have to deal with (a colleague walks in to chat, your phone rings)
  • Group IV are all the busy work and pleasant time wasters.

Covey’s great insight is that we should maximize our time spent in Quadrat II by 1) eliminating as much as possible Quadrat IV; dealing quickly and deliberately with Quadrat III, and planning (a QII activity) so that we don’t face the urgent deadlines that throw everything out of kilter. Graduate school is all about Quadrat II–building and honing a skill set. How do we find time to do that? We continue tomorrow.


Five ways of keeping email from running your life

December 19, 2006

It happens to all of us. We’re slogging through that key paragraph in the Discussion or outlining the logic of a new experiment. Its tough going, incremental work.

Think I’ll check my email.

Now, email is good. But so is sodium, football, and a warm puppy. The fact is, its the potential utility of checking your mail that makes it so insidious. After all, we may hear from that high school buddy, lover, or ex (and maybe even hit the trifecta in a single message). And we do subscribe to Nature table of contents, we are waiting for a manuscript revision from a colleague. All of these are useful things.

But we were making….incremental….slow….progress on something that was probably more important. And its not like that mail is going to blow away. Or that Jack Bauer, typing with his tongue bouncing in the trunk of a Lincoln Continental, needs your advice at this very moment.

It just is so easy to point click, hit refresh and wait for the little spinning disk to do its thing. Funny thing, that spinning disk. Kinda like a slot machine. And Kathy Sierra reports there may just be a reason. Its called Intermittent Reinforcement, a highly effective training method in which the subject (that’s you) is rewarded not every time she hits the button, but every so often, with most rewards being small (“Great, Oecologia has a new table of contents”) or nonexistent (“Greetings dear friend…”). Casinos figured this out a long time ago, as have dog trainers.

So here are a few tips to make email work for you, not keep you from getting your stuff done.

Update 1 February 2006:   WTF?  Its gone.  The secrets to email productivity gone forever below the fold.   No idea what happened.  While I do a post-mortem, check out a similar post on the ever dependable 43 Folders.

Read the rest of this entry »


Twitter vs. Flow

December 9, 2006

A favorite Vonnegut short story depicted a super-egalitatrian world where all were equalized by enforcing the lowest common denominator. Dancers wore heavy chains and intellectuals wore headsets that, at random moments, blasted a crashing din.

As we strive for coherence and creativity it often feels like Vonnegut’s virtual headsets rest uneasily on our respective crania. I mean, how do we get anything done when we are so constantly, perniciously, interrupted?

The web, needless to say, has been a mixed blessing, getting-into-flow-wise.

Kathy Sierra at Creating Passionate Users reports on twitter the latest webmeme dedicated to break us out of productive immersion. It literally ask you to report, in real time, what you’re up to. That’s it. And in return, you get to see what thousands of procrastinators are doing. In real time.

And by linking to it, I have performed my deed as vector for today. Bwahahaha.

Sierra conveys the increasing speed and efficiency at which these webmemes operate. She does it through excellent graphical design. Imagine any part of the following graphs that could be deleted without eroding information content. And it is very informative content.

The Twitter Curve, how webmemes are increasingly combatting flow

But webmemes only work if you give them the opportunity. Turn off your email. Turn off your browser. If need be, award yourself 5 minutes of browsing for every hour of work. For, as Sierra points out (in more truly excellent graphs), we can blame others for our interruptions, but when its just you and your wifi connection, the fault, dear Brutus….

Who we blame for our lack of flow vs. the fault dear Brutus...