Tuesday, February 27, 2007

How to Pick a Group - Part 2

In Part 1 of How to Pick a Group I described my first graduate adviser. In this part, I'll describe my second and current graduate adviser and research group.

Newbie is an apt name for him because he is not only my new adviser, he's a brand new professor. Some graduate students cringe when I even mention this and say that's my first mistake: joining a brand new, not tenured adviser. Regardless, let me continue. Newbie is hardcore. He was a stellar 70 hours a week graduate student and he's still a 70 hours a week professor. He's hands on. He comes into the lab or our offices whenever he's bored of what he's doing or stuck on writing grants, or whatever, and walks around and asks us what we're doing and talks about whatever is on his mind. When I first talked to him about joining his group, I tried to ask all the right questions (btw, the question to ask grad students in Part 1 are not necessarily questions you would ask professors). Specifically, I asked him what his management style was (I was looking for hands on but, of course, not overbearing), I asked him if he would mandate certain work hours (I had heard he worked crazy hours when he was a student), I told him my issues with the first adviser (diplomatically of course). He said he would be hands on, but would treat all students with respect - "not like slaves", he would not expect us to work certain hours - "people work on their own schedule" but that he would evaluate our performance on a task or output basis, and he told me that he would be very different from my previous adviser. "Excellent!" I thought.

So how has it been? Well this one is not cut-and-dry, it's been somewhere between excellent and terrible. Or rather, I should say, it oscillates between the two. The excellent part is that he is, indeed, hands on. He is more enthusiastic about my research project than even I am at times. That's awesome. He is incredibly accessible and helpful. There are only a couple other students in our group, so we really get to take advantage of this attention which won't last forever. The terrible part is that he can be overbearing and overly demanding. Specifically, the "people work on their own schedule" mantra slowly morphed, over the course of a few months, to "If you don't get all your tasks done by the end of the week, you have to work as many hours a week as I do. Last week I worked 70 hours. Keep that in mind." What are these tasks? They are research tasks he assigns us at the start of each week. That idea is awesome. It's like your adviser is helping you do a GTD weekly review. Now in practice, the tasks are rarely, if ever, a set that you can get done in a week. In your own GTD system, that's fine, that's why you have a next actions list, you just do them as soon as you can. With the above rule, however, it means you are expected to work 70 hours that week. 70 hours when you're being that kid and telling your friends how much you've worked is one thing. 70 hours when your adviser demands it is another thing. And 70 hours when your adviser specifically told you he wouldn't demand hours is out of control.

So what did we do? We went and talked to him (being able to help shape group culture falls in the awesome category by the way). We cited our complaints specifically and within 5 to 10 minutes into the conversation, he eliminated the rule. Now we get the GTD task list, without the crap attached to it. He simply tells us to stop slacking if we start slacking on our tasks. So how much do we actually work now? Probably between 50 to 60 hours a week. But it feels one hell of a lot better because when you have interesting results and you feel energetic, putting in 65-70 hours that week doesn't feel like much, because the next week when it's time to go on a ski trip for the weekend, you can cut it back to 50.

He can still at times be overbearing and do things that make you shake your head like schedule meetings with you that start at 9pm. And still when he comes into the lab on the weekends, he asks if your other labmates are here yet. That's annoying. But he compromised on the main rules, the guidance and help with the research is awesome, and I'm willing to put up with the crap to get the good stuff. Here is my tips summary for newbie (some of these are for when you've already joined, but are important nonetheless.):

  • Ask your prospective adviser direct questions about management style so that you have some leverage if you need to complain later.
  • Don't be afraid to tell your adviser you're burning out.
  • Keep in mind that if other people say that this guy/gal is hardcore, even if they don't seem so in a 5 minute conversation, they probably are.
  • Tell the adviser what you want from the group.
  • Ask the grad students about the adviser's management style and compare to the adviser's description. Pay close attention to the differences and try your best to deduce whether the adviser seems in touch with the group or not. Try to find one that is.
  • Once in the group, communicate communicate communicate early on. This will set the precedent and let both sides know how the other is feeling and what the other wants.
Sound like advice for a marriage? Yeah, that's not a coincidence.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

How to Pick a Group - Part 1

It's that time of year: visiting weekend, website surfing, the sweet smell of springtime flowers, and a huge decision waiting to be made. This is a post for those entering grad school that have the ever-important decision on their plates of picking a graduate adviser.

Let me start by relaying my experience with graduate advisers (I've had 2) and in the process explaining why I'm even bothering to write about this. My two advisers shall be referred to from here on as oldie and newbie.

Oldie was my my adviser for my first year of grad school. He was an older man. He was an older professor. He was established. He had a big group. He was extremely charismatic. His research was on a subject I was absolutely enthralled about. But the most important characteristic of oldie was that he was a negligent. That's right, he was a negligent adviser. He promised to fund me for the entirety of my first year and said directly to me that the long term funding prospects were great. He promised this funding right up to the second semester's start and lo and behold it never arrived. I had to teach. Oldie also didn't guide his grad students at all. He had no motivation. He was old and established. He fell asleep during group seminars. He didn't respond to emails until about the 12th time you emailed him. He was negligent. The research I was so enthralled about started looking worse and worse. He was charismatic, and it turned out he knew how to hype his work like it was goin outta style. New ideas were getting hard to come by and I slowly figured out that the group was being carried by an older graduate student who was just about to graduate. Oldie ended up leaving my school at the end of my second semester leaving about 10 group members high and dry. And so began my experience with newbie.

But we shall save newbie for another day and summarize lessons I feel I learned from my experience with oldie:

  • Don't pick a school based on wanting to work for one group only.
  • Choose group culture and advising style over research specifics.
  • If you can't choose between hands on and hands off, go with hands on.
  • Ask grad students not in the group of interest if they would join that group. Listen to them.
  • Ask grad students very direct questions like: "Are you happy here?" "What are the three worst qualities about your adviser/group?" "If you had the choice, what other group would you join?"
In Part 2, I'll discuss newbie and summarize lessons from my (ongoing) experience with him. Then in subsequent parts I'll expand on things I think should be stressed. In the meantime I want to emphasize the importance of visiting weekend and stress the last two bullets above. You only have a couple of days to be there, talk to them, and feel what it's like. Take advantage of it!

Also, all of these points are my opinions based on some hard knock experience. Your experiences may be different. Or they may not. Let me know what you think.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Tips and Tricks Text File

We've all had the experience of going back to an old, complicated project only to remember that you forgot all the little tips, tricks, and shortcuts you learned when working on it the first time. It sucks because you have to relearn it with that icky feeling of knowing that you've done it before but for the life of you can't remember how you got around these roadblocks. Concrete examples range from getting that graphing program to make your plots just right, formatting a paper for that one journal, a super useful keyboard shortcut, etc.

Those are the tips and tricks you wish you remembered. Sometimes for me, I also wish I could have a refresher course on the background of the project and the details that were sorted out at towards the end of it. This is especially useful when a paper comes back with requested revisions and you've been totally preoccupied with other projects that you haven't thought about the specifics in a while.

I've found that a beautifully simple solution is to put one text file in the main folder of that project titled tips and tricks. In it, while working on the project, you can jot down anything and everything you know you will want to know later, but won't remember: "Don't just press ctrl+c to copy the graph to right size, go to Edit -> Copy Graph -> Fix size -> Minimize white space to have it come out perfectly in Word."

I'm a big fan of GTD simplicity and this one embodies that spirit. It's one text file, with an obvious name, put in the same place (main folder) for every project and it stores all your goodies. It's not tucked away in the caves of old Outlook tasks, buried in a huge pile of Outlook notes, or buried in the endless ream of Evernote (although I'll concede that Evernote is something that can work if you're super good at picking the right keywords or are efficient at sorting through categories), or worse yet, buried in the endless caves of your mind. It's not fancy and for me, that's precisely why it works so well. I mean, it's in the project's main folder! Even if you're not looking for it, you can't help but read it when you open that folder, which can often lead you to so beautifully realize that there was, indeed, something in there you're glad you now remember.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Don't be THAT Kid

All of us are busy. Everyone knows the famous grad student tag-line of being "overworked and underpaid". We all would like to spend more time exercising, playing with friends, with loved ones, cooking for ourselves, eating better, and of course, we would all like more sleep. What does this mean? Well, the next time you get the urge to tell others about "how busy" you are, and how you "haven't slept in years" and how you "never do anything but work" resist it at all costs. It's annoying. You're only hurting your chances of actually having friends if/when things clear up for you. Of course, this applies -- as most things I say -- to not just grad students but everyone. Your co-workers are busy, your clients are busy, your phone guy is busy, the bank teller is busy, your subordinates are busy, we're all busy. So there is no need, I repeat, no need to tell us how busy you are.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Extended 2-Minute Rule

It’s 6:02pm and I’m getting ready to pack up my stuff and make it to the ever-punctual public transit bus that arrives at 6:08pm outside of my building. I wiggle the mouse to see past my screen saver and, unfortunately, I see my outlook inbox. In it is an email from my advisor asking me to do a task that I estimate will take me between 15 to 20 minutes. Well, it’s my advisor, so the email text includes the phrase “…and send to me ASAP.” An email sent at 6pm from my advisor that asks for something to be done ASAP doesn’t mean, “send this to me by tomorrow.” It means it better be in his inbox in a few hours. I’m hungry, and at this point, I have a choice: I can flag this email and put it into my system, or I can do it now, miss the 6:00 bus, and take the 6:30.

What did I do? I chose the latter. I realized that this task had mental and emotional weight associated with it: it was from my advisor, he asked me to do it ASAP, I knew the more I waited the more he’d get agitated, and most importantly, I knew that putting this task into my system would not get it out of my head because of those reasons. So I effectively extended the 2-minute rule to the 30-minute rule. I had 30 minutes before the next bus, and a task that I knew I would worry about even if I put it in my system would be done if it took less than 30 minutes.

The point of the 2-minute rule is to not track tasks that don’t take that long to do anyways. David Allen says he picked 2 minutes because at that point it begins to take more work to track it through the system than to do it immediately. But if a task that will take longer than 2 minutes to complete won’t get out of your head even if you file it, do it as soon as you can, and you’ve effectively reduced the mental energy you spend on it by…a lot. That’s the point of GTD anyways; to get that shiznit off your mind. This rule is not only useful for grad students with demanding advisors, but workers with demanding bosses, and people with demanding lives. Any time you are not actively interrupting focused work on another task, extending the 2-minute rule on mentally or emotionally heavy tasks is worth it. How do you know if a task qualifies for an extension? If you get any shred of the “I’d rather chew glass than deal with this” feeling, it qualifies. Do it now, don’t waste your life thinking about it.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Digital Camera Wonders

Academic productivity has a nice post about using your digital camera as a photocopier. This can work in certain situations where actually taking parts of a book/magazine to a photocopier is inconvenient, or when you don't want to fork over the buck or two for a bunch of pages, or (and I sympathize with this one) when you don't want to go through the hassle of dealing with your school's ridiculously inconvenient copy card system: "Oh no no, you can't add money to your card on this machine, you can only buy a new card, which costs an additional dollar for the card itself. The machine you're looking for is in the main library." "You've got to be kidding me."

However, many grad students have easy access to the copy machine in their department or lab area, in that case, making copies of things is super easy. But, this article reminded me of another great use of a digital camera taught to me by none other than my adviser, which is to take pictures of lab setups. Your own lab setup, perhaps, but also other people's lab setups, like when you visit a colleague's lab that has a similar setup for doing blah blah blah and you want to replicate some components, it's a pain in the hoo-ha to keep forgetting and asking and visiting and forgetting again. The quick fix is to just take a picture or two or three. I've also found this useful when moving from apartment to apartment and having to take apart and reassemble tricky desks or other furniture (of course if you're a compulsive manual keeper this is unnecessary, but for the rest of us...) -- one or two pictures makes it a heck of a lot easier.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

My Views on Productivity

Let me start of by declaring this outright: my goal in personal productivity is not to minimize the amount of time I spend “goofing-off” it’s to maximize the amount of time I spend in the focused, imaginative, stress-free “flow state”. I spent some time walking the first path and it just made me tired, bitter, and sick. But, now, changing the way I view productivity has made life absolutely splendid.

The Now Habit

In the introduction to Niel Fiore’s book The Now Habit, he mentions the various professional achievements he was able to attain while working no more than 20 “quality” hours a week. A full time practice coaching clients and organizations and writing articles for various journals in twenty hours a week? For the vast majority of knowledge workers, it sounds impossible, but special attention should be placed on his italicized use of the word quality. He then dedicates entire chapter on entering the flow state when you’re working on your projects, essentially defining “quality hours”.

And of course, any grad student that has read that book can’t forget Fiore’s study on procrastinating PhD students versus producing PhD students. The first group took anywhere from 3-19 years to complete their dissertation (I want to meet the 19-year one and shake their hand, maybe give them a hug). The producers on the other hand took less than 3 years. The characteristic differences between the two groups were:

  • Producers “were dedicated and committed to their leisure time.”
  • Producers “had to swim, run, or dance almost every day.”
  • Producers “had to be with friends for dinner several nights a week.”
  • Producers “didn’t see their work as depriving them of anything… working intensely and playing intensely went hand in hand.”
  • Producers “were living now – not waiting to begin living when their work was completed.”
Dr. Fiore emphasizes the importance of these extracurricular activities because they take your mind off of your work. Then, when you’re working, you’re more relaxed, you’re not burned out, and you're more easily able to enter the flow state.

Being a Rockstar

My view of increasing productivity is not about finding a way to do “useful” work all the time, it’s not about cutting all “useless” or “unproductive” tasks from your schedule, it’s about maximizing concentration and focus when you are working. Why? Well for one, it makes work stress-free. But more importantly the outputs of knowledge-work, academic work, and creative work are not linearly related to the time put in. As knowledge-workers, it’s not the loads and loads of work you output that count, it’s the few genius ideas that arrive unexpectedly but make a grand entrance when they get there that make you feel like an absolute rockstar. In my experience, and from my reading of others’ experiences, the best ideas, the genius ideas, the artistic ideas, don’t happen from just cranking widgets for long hours, they happen when your mind is clear. This is how I read Getting Things Done and The Now Habit, and this is the productivity that I strive for.


Gotta make sure I'm searcheable. This is a link to my Technorati profile to activate my account.

Technorati Profile

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Welcome to Grad Hacker

This is it, I'm kicking off the project I've been sitting on for a while: A lifehacking blog for grad students, undergraduate students, high school, pre-school, 30-somethings, 40-somethings, CEOs, and everyone else. But primarily for the first category. Why am I adding yet another blog to the loads of other lifehacking/productivity sites out there? Why not?! The glory of the internet is that anyone and everyone can give their 2 cents on whatever topic they choose, and since we're not limited to channels, stations, front pages, and covers, people can read whatever they want (yeah, the internet has marketing too, but you get the idea). Also, I noticed with all the lifehacking and GTDing out in the blogosphere, I haven't found much specifically tailored to students (due credit given below).

The Name

Grad Hacker is my tribute to lifehackers and the lifehacking world in general. Let me give my shoutouts in the order in which they entered my life: 1. Getting Things Done - David Allen. As a quick type of "GTD" in Google or Google Blog Search will show you, this book has changed many people's work and personal lives, or at least how they handle it. I'm no exception. 2. 43folders - Merlin Mann. This was the site that got me hooked to the internet GTD world. I'm sure I'll be linking to it and praising many of Merlin's articles in the future. Mac based. 3. davidseah - David Seah. This guy creates some of the coolest looking productivity hacks I've seen. David also posts really honest, refreshing blurbs about his personal battles with procrastination and getting things done. Great site. 4. GTDWannabe. This is perhaps the least known of all the sites that I visit regularly. A fellow grad student (what what)! I should mention she's computer savvy, but that may be an understatement. Many of the computer productivity tricks I know came from her blog. Windows based. 5. Lifehacker.com. This is the most recent find of mine and oh what a find (yeah, I don't know how I missed it either). The name of my blog, if nothing else, is a tribute to this site. A mammoth of a productivity site, I check this religiously. In my opinion, lifehacker's specialty is again in tech, but it's got stories ranging all the way to car repair. Windows and Mac friendly.

The Mission

So as I've 'wasted' time on the internet looking through the lifehacking literature, I've over and over again said to myself "oh, this is a perfect tip for a grad student". So, I started to keep a list of blog post ideas to see whether I had enough to start a blog on hacking your way through grad school. Inevitably the list got long, so this is why I'm doing it. Also, to be upfront, grad school is hard. I don't just mean intellectually or academically hard, presumably if you're in grad school you should enjoy that aspect, but it's hard on your life. Grad school sometimes has a way of draining every last ounce of fun and enjoyment from you: Many things have the possibility of sucking. Your advisor can suck, your group members can suck, your department can suck, your social life can suck, your health can suck. So grad hacks can extend to all these domains, beyond technology, where a lot of lifehacking sites focus. I'll try and blog about all these things. Lastly, I should mention that grad school and life can also be a kickin' good time. Hacks can not only make the bad times less bad, but the good times more fun. I'll blog about this too.