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40 Days of Tips, Tricks, and Links: Days 26 & 27

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The past few days I’ve felt like I was beating my head against a wall trying to solve this research problem. Some of my data wasn’t coming out right and for the life of me I could not figure out why. I checked all my spreadsheets, recalculated formulas, traced the units so that they all made sense and I was getting nowhere. I wound up getting distracted with other unimportant tasks because I was struggling so much with this problem.

Finally I’d had enough and decided to go for a walk to clear my head for a bit. I just had to get out of there and let my mind wander for a minute. As I was walking, my mind wandered back to the problem and what I could possibly be doing wrong. All of a sudden, I made the realization that something I had assumed to be correct, was in fact wrong! I had this Aha! moment without even trying. I finished my walk and got back to the problem, and sure enough, I solved it in no time flat.

In a separate, but similar situation, I was working with one of our the instruments in my lab. This machine measures glucose and lactate from any sample presented to it. It’s been working pretty well, but it spontaneously decided that it didn’t want to function normally. It’s not that complicated of an instrument, but aside from a few basic maintenance tasks I knew about, there’s not much that can be done to it when it’s broken. But for whatever reason, it just wasn’t working. I went through the troubleshooting manual a couple of times and did various things to see if I could get it to work, but, again, it was all for naught. Eventually I decided to call the company’s support and see if they had any suggestions. Turns out, they weren’t that helpful.

Oh wait, they were actually extremely helpful. Within a few minutes, they were able to offer some suggestions as to why the machine wasn’t working, and they sent me some more supplies to replace what was potentially busted. As I found out, the company support line knows what they’re doing, and they certainly knew more about the machine than me. Implementing their suggestions got the machine up and running and helped to get the backlog of samples going. I fixed the machine, learned a few things in the process, and hopefully next time I can figure out any problems myself.

I share these two stories to really drive home my tips of the day(s). The first is to take a real break when you’re struggling with something. This means go do something that’s not a normal part of your routine. For most people, going on a walk is pretty out of the ordinary and so I highly recommend taking the time to do this, even if it’s just outside around your building. You may be surprised at how you feel when you come back.

The second point is that you shouldn’t wait to ask for help. In my situation, help came in the form of the company’s support line, but help can come in other forms. Take some time to see if you can figure something out yourself, but don’t wait forever to ask for help. Other people will either know more than you about something, or they can offer a contrasting point of view that what you have.

Break out of your normal habits and you will be surprised at the good things that will happen!

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.

April 8, 2011 at 9:59 pm

40 Days of Tips, Tricks, and Links: Day 25

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A common occurrence among people in my field (chemical engineering in case you forgot) is that we are quite capable of doing high level math, but are terrible at simple computations. Things like 4th order runge-kutta and modified bessel function actually make some sense to us but trying to figure out the tip for a restaurant bill can be an onerous task. As our ability to do more complex analysis has increased, our simple math skills fall by the wayside. Fortunately, I have a way to fix this ‘un-education’ in math and many other disciplines.

I found Khan Academy the other day and have absolutely loved it. This non-profit’s goal is to provide a world-class education to anyone anywhere. And from what I’ve seen, I believe it! They have thousands of videos on topics ranging from basic biology to advanced math, personal finance to venture capital. It really is astounding the information they have and, from what I’ve seen, all the videos seem to be of very good quality.

For graduate students, this site may be useful as a refresher for a specific topic. It can also be very useful if you’re considering a teaching career. Watching some of these videos and critiquing them for what you found to be interesting and useful, can be a handy tool for you in the future. Take some time today and check out this site. You’ll definitely learn something in the process! Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go relearn arithmetic.

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.

April 6, 2011 at 4:27 pm

40 Days of Tips, Tricks, and Links: Days 22 & 23

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You probably won't be sleeping here....I hope some of you laughed a little at my attempt at an April Fool’s joke. Polyphasic sleep is a real thing btw, and I’d love to actually talk to somebody that has attempted it. Here’s a real post that will give you some advice that you can actually put into practice…

This past weekend was a very busy weekend for my wife and me, and it left us feeling pretty tired come Monday morning. Being tired is a common symptom among grad students. Unfortunately, you’re not at your best when you’re tired. No matter how hard you try, you can’t function well on too little sleep. Sleeping well is just as important as anything else you do to take care of yourself (think eating and breathing), yet we often don’t allow ourselves enough time to get a full nights rest. This fact got me thinking about some ways to make falling asleep better and with that in mind, I want to share two useful tips that I find help me fall asleep faster.

Quickly falling asleep is often a skill that I hear many people say they wish they had. Most people will tell you that they lie awake for hours wishing they could fall asleep. I am generally able to fall asleep very fast, but there are times when it does take me a while. When this happens, I have one fool-proof way to get back on track and get to sleep. When I feel my mind start to wander, or I feel like I’m struggling with relaxing, I start to recall my day from the very beginning. I start trying to remember every single thing that I did through out the day from the moment the alarm went off. I try to recall every action I did, every website I visited, and even what I saw on my drive in. I usually don’t get very far before I start drifting off. I don’t think I’ve actually been able to get past lunchtime before I’ve fallen asleep. It works like a charm every time I use this technique. The next time you start feeling like you’re not going to be able to fall asleep, switch gears and revisit your day. Hopefully, this technique help you fall asleep faster and gain a few precious minutes during the night.

My second tip is pretty non-specific, but it applies to everyone. It’s this: find what makes you most comfortable. If you’re not comfortable, you’re not going to sleep well. For each person it’s different, but I am positive that everybody knows what they want out of comfortable sleeping arrangments. For me, it’s a slightly firm, yet soft mattress, almost no light, and a slightly chilly with some sort of constant low-level noise in the background (preferably a fan). Put me in this environment and I’m out. I’ve met some people who love it when it’s warm in the room; some people like more light when they sleep. Whatever your preference, test out each of these variables. Find out what makes it easier for you to sleep and make it a regular part of your life. Don’t be chintzy either; if your mattress came from the 90’s, then it’s definitely time to upgrade. You know what makes you comfortable, so make your bedroom an environent that is uber-comfortable and relaxing.

Treat sleep with the respect it deserves. In the future I’ll do a more detailed post about sleep (and I’ll talk about why I’m a pretty big fan of sleep) but for now, try to help yourself by making sure that you can fall asleep quickly. You can’t function properly when you don’t get enough food or oxygen, and you need to start putting sleeping up there with these essentials. Try these tips out and see if they have a positive effect on your work and life. Let me know if you have any success!

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.

April 4, 2011 at 10:09 pm

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!

Written by Taylor M.

March 31, 2011 at 3:48 pm

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

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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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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 3

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Meetings with your advisor can be a very productive time. Some of you may not have the chance to meet with their advisor more than once a month. Others are fortunate enough to meet at least once a week. I find that these meetings can be extremely productive in terms of advancing your research rapidly. However, these meetings can start to be a drag when either one of you becomes a bit long winded. Taking 2 hours for a meeting that should only take 30 minutes is asinine. So how do you get what you need out of a meeting without spending way more time than necessary and without offending your advisor?

Set a time limit. Be upfront with your PI that you have something to do in X amount of time. I’m not telling you to lie, but arranging your day so that you have an experiment to stop, or some other meeting to go to soon after your other meeting, will give you the chance to gracefully end the meeting. This also has the advantage of forcing the two of you to communicate more effectively. If you know you only have a set amont of time to discuss something, chances are you’ll figure out a way to solve it in that amount of time. Unlimited amounts of time leads to rambling discussions. Set a time limit and you’ll keep the topics focused and efficient and you won’t spend any more time than is absolutely necessary.


Please tell me what you think in the comments! Also, if you like what you’ve been reading here, why not 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 11, 2011 at 5:50 pm