Better Grad Student

Be the best grad student you can be!

Archive for March 2011

40 Days of Tips, Tricks, and Links: Day 20

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Productivity in graduate school can be a difficult parameter to measure. Inevitably we all look to some external gauge to tell us that we’ve been productive and haven’t been wasting our time. Most often, this gauge winds up being the other grad students and post-docs in your lab or department. Comparing yourself to other students isn’t always a good thing though, as it can set you up to be disappointed and frustrated more often than not.

Imagine you just joined a lab and one of the students in this lab seems to be the most uber-productive person you’ve ever met. They get to work early, stay late, and are always busy doing something. Every time you walk past their desk you glance at their screen and see them working on something important looking. Whenever you overhear a conversation between that student and the PI, it always seems like they’re on the verge of making some earth-shattering discovery right there in the hallway. You then start comparing yourself to this student and forming all these very negative ideas about your own productivity and self-worth. This leads to a form of mini-depression and you wind up fulfilling your own prophecy and wasting half the day. This person has done nothing intentional to affect your progress or productivity, and yet the simple act of comparing yourself to them has caused you to move further away from your goal of ‘being productive’. So how do you get away from this behavior?

The first step is to stop comparing yourself to other people. Just stop. This ‘the grass is greener on the other side’ mentality is dragging you down. Realize that you are your own individual person with their own set of metrics to measure success in life. The problem with comparing yuorself to other people is that you don’t get the whole story. When you look at another person’s life, you only see the parts that occur in your presence. Maybe when they’re around people they do a ton of work to make themselves look really busy. Perhaps that snippet of conversation that you just heard was only a very small part of a larger exchange covering everything from the latest standings in the March Madness brackets to the existence of fungus-infected zombie ants. You mainly see only the ‘bright spots’ of a persons activities and you don’t get the full picture. You do, however, get the full picture of your life. You know when you’ve taken a break or slacked off, and when you take the full view of your life and compare it to a partial view of someone else’s, then you’re bound to fall short.

Realize that nobody is perfect, no matter how much it might seem like they are. Take the time to recognize the positives in other people’s lives and try to incorporate them into your own life, if that’s something you desire. Otherwise, focus on your own productivity and success and don’t worry so much about what other people are doing. You’ll stay happier and saner in the long run.

Please tell me what you think in the comments! Also, if you like what you’ve been reading here, sign up at the top of the page to receive emails every time I make a new post. Thank you for reading!

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Written by Taylor M.

March 31, 2011 at 3:48 pm

40 Days of Tips, Tricks, and Links: Day 19

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Photo by subcircle

Security while at  school is probably one thing that students don’t think too much about. You may have a key or access card to get into your building and your lab, and you might have passwords to access shared computers, but how many of you have given much thought to security on your personal computer or in your office? How easy is it for somebody to get access to your data or personal information just by sitting down at your desk? What about physically stealing your computer or personal items at your desk? Sadly, theft is a real problem on college campuses and many workplaces. Many institutions already have policies in place to protect people from this crime, but I would guess that many more don’t. For those of you that are in a security lax environment, what is the minimum amount of effort that you should put into securing your data and valuables?

I believe that at a minimum you should ensure two things: the first is that your office or lab is locked when nobody is in there. If everybody is going to seminar during the day, then close and lock the door. An open office with nobody around is just begging to have something unknowingly removed. The second action you should take  is to password protect your computer. I have my computer require a password every time it turns on and comes back from screen saver mode. This simple step makes it significantly harder for a would-be thief to have access to your data and personal information. These two measures represent a bare-bones security setup that everybody should have.

Further security protection may be necessary depending on your working environment. Physically locking your computer to your desk is one option, another is requiring a key/access card anytime somebody wants to enter your lab/office. Whether you are extra secure or not, take some simple steps now to avoid heartache later. These tips may seem obvious to some, but I’ve been surprised at the lackadaisical attitude towards security from many people. Protect yourself now, and hopefully you’ll never have to be on the receiving end of computer or data theft.

Please tell me what you think in the comments! Also, if you like what you’ve been reading here, sign up at the top of the page to receive emails every time I make a new post. Thank you for reading!

Written by Taylor M.

March 30, 2011 at 5:55 pm

40 Days of Tips, Tricks, and Links: Day 18

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Photo by matt hutchinson

Do you ever feel like you’re the only one who sees the logic behind a situation? Or do you ever wonder how everyone else can be so irrational and stupid? Well guess what: you’re deluding yourself.

Now before you get too offended, let me be the first to tell you: it’s OK. It really is. It means you’re human and it’s how you keep your sanity. But being aware of this fact can be beneficial to you and learning about it even more so. This leads me to today’s link: You Are Not So Smart.

You Are Not So Smart is a blog which focuses on the self delusion and irrational thinking in which everyone partakes. Each post handles a different topic and picks apart the fallacies that exist in that particular belief or behavior. All of them are well-written and researched, but they read like a good story that never gets too confusing or data heavy.

Take some time to read a few of the articles and I expect you’ll come away as impressed as I was. Some particularly good ones are Self Serving Bias, Learned Helplessness, and Procrastination. Hopefully you can learn something from his blog and eventually realize that you are… well, you know.

Please tell me what you think in the comments! Also, if you like what you’ve been reading here, sign up at the top of the page to receive emails every time I make a new post. Thank you for reading!

Written by Taylor M.

March 29, 2011 at 9:58 pm

40 Days of Tips, Tricks, and Links: Day 17

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When you first start learning about a new topic, and particularly when you’re learning about your research field, you should spending a large portion of your time reading. The challenge with reading several scientific papers in a row is that it can become monotonous. At some point, you may find yourself reading the words on the page, but not comprehending the meaning. This isn’t an unexpected phenomenon, but if you don’t adjust your behavior when you recognize this happening, then you’re doing yourself a disservice by wasting time and energy attempting to read something from which you will gain nothing.

One cool trick I found to make reading a bit more interesting is to read the article backwards. By backwards I don’t mean read sentences and words in the reverse order. Instead, I mean that you should switch up the flow of the paper. Most journal articles are written in several sections: Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results, and Discussion/Conclusion. Starting from the beginning every time can be a slow going because of the necessary review of the topic that every paper does. In some cases, it might be more interesting to start with the discussion, the go back to the results to see how they got there. If something piques your curiosity about how they obtained a set of data, then go check it out in the methods. Then, if the paper has given you some really good ideas to think about, it’s probably worth it to read the intro. This active form of reading will encourage you to be more engaged in the manuscript and it will definitely keep your interest longer than just reading straight through from the beginning to the end. Give this method a shot and if you notice a difference, let me know about it in the comments.

Please tell me what you think in the comments! Also, if you like what you’ve been reading here, sign up at the top of the page to receive emails every time I make a new post. Thank you for reading!

Written by Taylor M.

March 28, 2011 at 9:28 pm

40 Days of Tips, Tricks, and Links: Days 15 & 16

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Photo by crsan

Once again, you get twice the goodness in a single post. So, hold onto your top hats and get ready because it’s going to be awesome!

Today’s double-post is about ergonomics. In this computerized world, a majority of the work-force sits in front of a computer for many hours a day, grad students included. This fact brings about its own set of hazards that  can cause serious health problems. Long days of data analysis / internet surfing can have your back and neck killing you. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be like this as long as you take a couple of simple steps to help yourself. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Taylor M.

March 26, 2011 at 5:54 pm

40 Days of Tips, Tricks, and Links: Day 14

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Photo by suchitra prints

Today, for me, has been one of those days that dragged. Motivation was through the floor, the yawns kept coming, and I just couldn’t find the energy to do a ton of work. To be sure, I did accomplish several things today, but my heart just wasn’t in it and I wasn’t as energetic as I normally am. On the bright side, however, I can pinpoint exactly why I’ve been feeling this way and I know how to counteract it in the future.

The cause of my laziness today really stems from the very first choice I made this m0rning: I decided to go back to sleep for a few minutes after my alarm went off. I got to bed a little late and I was feeling particularly tired, but I decided to close my eyes and drift off again for a few minutes. Whenever I do this, inevitably I feel like crap throughout the rest of the day. I’ve actually done some self-experimentation with this and proved to myself that this really is the cause. Days when I wake up as soon as my alarm goes off, and then actually stay awake, I feel 100x better! Even when I didn’t get enough sleep during the night, if I manage to stay awake after my alarm goes off then I feel more energetic and motivated throughout the day. The momentary pain of staying awake in the morning is outweighed by the positives that I experience because of this choice.

If you’ve been having trouble feeling motivated during the day or you just have general feelings of being tired, then do this little experiment: alternate days of sleeping in and getting up immediately and record how you feel during the day. Are you more tired or alert? Did you feel motivated or lackadaisical? Jot down a couple of notes a day and see if you notice a difference. Chances are that you will, and if you take steps to make it a habit of getting up when the alarm goes off, then you’re well on your way to feeling great the majority of your time!

Please tell me what you think in the comments! Also, if you like what you’ve been reading here, sign up at the top of the page to receive emails every time I make a new post. Thank you for reading!

Written by Taylor M.

March 24, 2011 at 7:42 pm

40 Days of Tips, Tricks, and Links: Day 12 & 13

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WordPress was misbehaving yesterday so I was unable to make an update. Worry not though, today’s post has literally twice as many tips as the last post. So brace yourselves!

I wanted to share with you two separate tools that I use very frequently to help with productivity. Productivity, and specifically productivity on the computer, can be a nebulous goal. How do you decide that you’ve been productive? You really can’t without gathering some sort of data on the issue. This is where RescueTime comes in. This small app, once it’s installed on your computer, will keep track of how much time you spend doing different tasks on your computer. At the end of the week, it will tell you how you’ve spent your time and whether or not this falls into the productive or distracting categories.

 

Red vs. Blue

 

The above picture is my efficiency summary for the previous week. I’m not 100% sure how it calculates the final value (maybe it’s just an average) but this basically says that, overall, I did more productive activities than distracting ones. They’re also kind enough to break it down by day:

 

Blue won this time... but barely.

 

Tuesday, I didn’t work at my desk much, and this is reflected in the low amount of time in both the productive or distracting category. You can also set up the time frame that RescueTime records; I have mine set to 8AM to 6 PM Monday through Friday. This way, I’m not recording what I’m doing at home to relax, and I can get a better picture of what I’m actually doing at school. There are several more settings that you can tweak and optimize, but I’ll let you explore those if you decide. Overall, RescueTime has allowed me to see just how much time I spend on distracting sites and helps me to budget my time more wisely.

Part two of today’s post is about a little program I love called Evernote. Evernote recently became quite popular when it was released on the Mac App Store, but it’s been around since 2008. The basic premise behind this program is to capture the information that you want to store, in the format of your choosing. As its name implies, Evernote allows you to keep your notes forever and it allows you to do this on pretty much any format: Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, Android, and WebOS.

 

Elephants... memory... get it??

 

A note can be any information that you want to store for later: webpages, pictures, videos, internet links, etc. All of these become searchable within the program for easy access. Personally, I use it to capture ideas and information for both research and this blog that I want to use later. It syncs up seamlessly between my phone and computer and has really enhanced my ability to keep track of ideas and to recall information for later use. If you’ve ever been in the situation of forgetting something that you really wanted to remember, which, let’s be honest, is everyone, then I highly recommend this program.

P.S. Both of these are free!

Please tell me what you think in the comments! Also, if you like what you’ve been reading here, sign up at the top of the page to receive emails every time I make a new post. Thank you for reading!

Written by Taylor M.

March 23, 2011 at 5:36 pm