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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: Day 24

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Picture is sort of related.

Photo by owenbooth

Have you ever had one of those emails that, after you read it, made you want to reply back with the nastiest and snarkiest think you could possibly write? I got one of those emails the other day and actually started to compose a reply that I would’ve regretted sending. This email was actually from my homeowners association, so it had nothing to do with grad school, but I’ve had similar reactions to emails from people within the department and in the academic setting. I wanted to share some advice on how to properly respond to these emails so that you don’t start an unnecessary argument or burn any bridges.

The first thing to do when you get a message like this is to just walk away. Literally, step away from your computer and go do something else for a little bit. Take a chance to reflect about what the person sent you and think about what really ticked you off. Then think about what you know about this person and what was not sent in the email. The nice thing about talking to someone face to face is that you get to see their body language and hear the inflections in their voice. A lot of people don’t realize that what they send in an email can be taken the wrong way. When you’ve had a chance to calm down, reread the email and see if the message might not be as bad if there had been other social cues to accompany the words.

The next step is to start crafting your reply. Each situation is different, and some situations may not dictate a reply. For those that don’t, just brush it off and go on with your life. It’s not worth expending energy on and you’ll feel better by getting on with your life. If the situation does require a reply, then start slowly and thoughtfully. Gather your thoughts and try to control your emotions in the face of what seems like a rude or mean-spirited email. Even if you know the other individual was being deliberately rude, you should try to be the better person and not retaliate. It can really disarm people when you respond to rudeness with civility, so form your response on the assumption that the other person wasn’t being rude. I tried to take this approach when I replied to my HOA and I was pleasantly surprised. It turns out that the tone of the previous email came off wrong and by being respectful in my reply, it yielded a much kinder email that clarified the situation. The first email definitely could have been worded better, but by taking a moment to reflect and clarify, I was able to defuse a potentially rude and unnecessary exchange.

The key thing to keep in mind is that, in general, most people aren’t trying to be rude when it comes to email. Some messages are sent so quick that the author doesn’t even take the time to read what they wrote. Try to be optimistic and assume that the intent was not to be rude and you’ll save yourself a lot of anger and frustration.

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 5, 2011 at 10:37 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 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: 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