Bunch your obligations-earn yourself a “Big Idea Day”

October 19, 2007

OklahomaSunsetWe are big here on the notion that there are some activities, like reading and writing, you want to do every day. This kind of repeated attention builds good habits, allows you to get big projects done by breaking them down into little chunks, and keeps those projects in the forebrain, where you can cogitate about them.

But there is a case to be made that certain more mind-numbing activities should be allowed to accrue until you have a day’s worth of emails to return, forms to fill out, and papers to grade. This is the argument made by Cal Newport in a nifty discussion of “best practices” by professors and graduate students.

The gem here is the notion of carving out one day a week (or one more likely, one morning or afternoon) for “Administrative Nonsense Day“. This can be anything from doing your monthly bills to updating your web pages. The point is you want to maximize your creative time, uninterrupted by the (oft seductive) siren call of the piddly stuff. If you know that stuff will get done soon, it’s off your radar screen and allows you to concentrate on the stuff that matters long-term.

This leads to the doppleganger of “Administrative Nonsense Day” your “Big Idea Day” (sound of harp glissandos and angels singing). This is the day that you don’t answer your phone, hide at home and give yourself the luxury of a 15 hours of reading and sketching out the next paper, grant, or project. Nothing replaces large chunks of time to think. Nothing. You deserve them.

There is one more tactic that you may want to consider if you are one of the many grad students paying your way by being a Teaching Assistant. Say you are required to teach two (or, three) lab sections a week. Try to schedule them all on the same day. That’s right, the 9:00-12:00, the 1:00-4:00, and the 6:00-9:00 night lab. There is a good chance you will teach better (and be damned relaxed by the night lab) if you focus all your attentions on a subject in one day. If you maintain your proper balance of caffeine, water, Gatorade, and Cliff Bars, you will sail through.

Having done this myself at the ole UofA, the bonus comes with that gorgeous feeling of walking out into the cool desert air at 9:30PM, knowing that you have Big Idea Day waiting for you tomorrow and no teaching for six whole days.


Five sensible steps to increase your productivity

September 13, 2007

Steven Covey’s Four QuadratsI’ve got a date with a tropical rain forest for the next 12 days or so, so posting will be light. What follows is my basic system for deciding what to do, day by day. It is accrued, accreted, and amalgamated from GTD, 7 Habits, and lots of trial and error.

The basic idea: combine strategic planning with a simple rule that guarantees you do stuff daily that promotes your long-term academic fitness. Its simple and professor-proof. Here’s the gist:

Read the rest of this entry »

How much is enough? On climbing the reprint pile

September 8, 2007

paper-stack.jpgClass the other night was led by a top comparative physiologist. As it wound down (due to low glucose levels, or perhaps a high titer of corticosteroids…maybe both?) I asked her “How do you find time to read?”.

She frowned, and said “I don’t find enough. And it’s frustrating.”

Over the next few minutes she nuanced this a bit, acknowledging that 1) we all have different roles to play in our lives, and only so much time, and 2) by definition, scientists are infinitely curious, the literature is vast, and so frustration is not a bug, as our techie friends would say, but a feature. Our impatience with the literature signals why we are scientists.

I scribbled down that little nugget, thinking about what I’d write today, generating a pleasing little dribble of epinephrine in the process. Just then, another member of the class spoke up. “How much is enough?” she said. “My major advisor says read ten papers a day! Ten papers! Every day!”

My adrenals belched out another aliquot, I scribbled again. “How much reading is enough?”. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »