Time Management and Lists

Last week, Brandon wrote an awesome post about his five priorities as a graduate student. You can read it here. Time management is always such a huge issue for us as graduate students, since we’re often pulled in so many different directions. We are students with classes, but we’re also scholars with research projects, instructors with classes to teach, and so much more. That’s why staying organized is one of the keys to staying sane in graduate school.

Brandon’s prioritized list made me think of the tools that I use for time management as a graduate student, one of which is list-making. Here are some ways that I use lists to get/stay organized:

1. Making a list of all the things to be done:
This is the most obvious use of a list, and what makes lists great. Most days as a graduate student, I have a lot of things to get done, which fall into a variety of categories: experiments, lab maintenance, administrative, teaching, personal, etc. On those really, really busy days, having a list of the things that I need to get done is great because it really helps me with task-switching. Generally, if I don’t have it written down, at least one task will slip through the cracks, such as not remembering that I have to stop by X’s office until 6:15pm when X is already long gone.

2. Using lists as incentives:
I use this particularly on writing days (days when I’m not in the lab, but instead I’m working on my dissertation) and usually with a friend. What we’d do is make a list of five things we’d like to accomplish while working in the library. Once we’ve both finished two or three things on our lists, we take a cookie break. This type of list is good for setting clear goals, and also nice for rewarding yourself for reaching them. Another example is my little brother: each day he makes a list of three things he would like to accomplish. He doesn’t consider the day to be over until he’s accomplished those three things, which gives him incentive to get them done early.

3. Using productivity apps:
In case you couldn’t tell from the title and first few sentences, I’m a fan of list-making. So much of a fan that I have two specific list-making apps that I use daily (in addition to having a planner and Google Keep). The two apps that I use are Any.do and Todoist. [If you’re a fan of making pen-and-paper lists so that you have the satisfaction of crossing things out, the swipe-to-cross-out feature of both of these apps is almost as satisfying, I promise.] Both apps also come in a free version and a paid premium version. In true grad student fashion, I’ve only used the free versions of both of them. Here are my thoughts on each of them:

Any.do: I really like this app because it’s very intuitive and easy to use. You can set list items for specific dates with or without reminders or for a generic “someday”. The app and website both make it easy to drag and drop an item to another day, and you can view your list items either by time view (in order by due date) or by folder view (in order by category). In Any.do you can also add sub-tasks and notes to a to-do list item, and it has a collaboration feature as well (which I’ve never used). One of my favorite features of the Android app is that your to-do list always appears in your pull-down notifications list (but not as an actual notification in the bar at the top, so it doesn’t get annoying). This way whenever I check my notifications I see the things that still need to be done on my list.

Todoist: One of the best things about this app is the Gmail integration feature. This allows me to add emails to my to-do list directly from my email window in my browser. Then when I click the item in my to-do list, it will open the email. I’ve found this to be very convenient when there’s an email that requires action that I can’t address as soon as I’ve read it, but I need to respond to relatively soon. Other features include list categories called projects, prioritization of list items with different-colored flags, recurring list items, project sharing with friends or peers, and sub-tasks. Todoist makes it especially easy to add recurring items to your to-do list, as it is designed to recognize certain phrases as cues to create a recurring item (e.g. “Bowling every Tuesday” will create a list item called “Bowling” every Tuesday until the end of time).


What about you? How do you stay organized? Do you have preferred apps that you use? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Time Management Power Rankings

I’ve been in the Volunteer Blog Industry for a solid 3 months now and in that time I’ve learned two things. First, my grammar is atrocious. Second, if it’s one thing that drives readership and discussion, it’s power rankings.

During a month where the number of exams and papers are higher than the number of remaining class days, it’s important to think about time management, and where academics currently lie in the power rankings of your life.

Now a disclaimer, my rankings may be questioned or mocked, but they are MY rankings. I’d encourage you to place your top 5 in the comments.

1. Research/Experiments
After all, it is the reason we are here, right? While we all have other obligations, when pressed, I think we would all say on some level that our research is at #1 on most days, right? Thankfully, I’ve been here so long that classes no longer have a place on my rankings since I’m finished with my course load.

2. Sleep
I can’t stand the taste of coffee so getting a solid 7-8 hours of sleep is almost integral to having a productive day. I’ve often spoke to older people who use their age as an excuse to go to sleep earlier. If that’s the case, I can’t wait to get older.

3.  Basketball
My closest friends would say I watch too much basketball, but how well do LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Ricky Rubio really know me? Don’t worry, not a total waste of time as I often will watch games on my iPad while on the treadmill.

4. Teaching
Oh wait, I just finished all my teaching obligations outside the final exam!! If my bosses are reading this, it was absolutely #2, but needed a gimmick for this post.

4. Data Analysis
The beauty of my research is that it actually allows me to pile up data for months (I can say this from personal experience), without having to rush to get it done before starting my next experiment. Excel has become my best friend and worst enemy at times, with the amount of manipulation I need to do for Excel to make graphs, however with the help of macros and templates, Microsoft might need to go in my acknowledgements of my dissertation.

5. Video Games
Now that teaching is over, time for my old #6 to move back into top 5. Let’s hope this old friend (future Hall of Fame status in my Top 5) stays at #5 without going much higher.

So, as we wind down another semester, remember to focus on why you are here, but also don’t let graduate school overtake your life. Whether it’s basketball or video games, find something a little fun and stress-less to add to your Time Management Power Rankings this month.

What’s your 5 and should it change?

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Prioritizing Writing

At this point in the semester, I am surrounded by individuals trying to ride out the wave of work that surges through a semester.  The most important task is the one that is due next, and those long term projects are put off until it is too close to really give them the time they deserve.  For example, learning science and doing science are important, but so is communicating it.  Between courses, exams, teaching, lab work, mentoring, family and other commitments, how do grad students find time for writing?  One of my greatest struggles is determining where in the “To do” list to prioritize this long term task.

While it may seem like this is something that would come at the end of a large study or after a great deal of research/reading, I recently read a book that convinced me otherwise.  The book, How to Write a Lot by Paul J. Silva, is a fast read that discusses how to be successful in writing more consistently and productively.  There are some specific tips about writing articles v books, but the main points are

  1.  Set aside time dedicated to writing and all of its associated tasks
  2. Commit to and defend  this time

To learn more about the author’s suggestions, I suggest borrowing the book from the library or purchasing it.  This book has totally changed my perspective on writing.  While I understand that writing and preparing presentations of my work is just as important as reading background information and working in the lab, I have not been dividing my time accordingly.  Now, I am taking the authors suggestion and planning a few hours every week, on my calendar, just for writing.

So far this strategy has allowed me to more efficiently organize my thoughts and make progress writing emails, blog posts and my dissertation proposal.  I know that writing is viewed differently between humanities and sciences, but this point is relevant for any field.  So, I am eager for others to comment on their own trials and successes with writing productively.

What do you do to prioritize writing?

Posted in advice, dissertation, organizational skills, writing | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Teaching Issues: Behavioral Ethics

As graduate students, we share our opinions with the force of fact.  In many fields, this unwavering confidence is necessary for ideas to be considered.  We are required to frame our ideas so we receive thoughtful insight,  constructive criticism and no nit-picking.  Typically, this means significant amounts of preparation and burrowing into the ideas which we support.  What a fantastic skill to develop!

Have you ever considered what happens when you stand up in front of an audience with this strong bias towards your own ideas?  As a presenter, you are serving as an “expert” on a topic.  While you may want to persuade your audience of an opinion (yours, your advisor’s your department chair’s), doing so without all of the relevant information, including opposing points, is deceptive.

As teachers and mentors, what is our responsibility to our students?  Is it ethical to share your opinion without letting them form their own?  Or to present one side of a research argument without at least mentioning the other?  The one-sided or incomplete seminars I have experienced left me skeptical and unexcited.  The classes I’ve taken taught by stubbornly opinionated professors have left me questioning the expertise of the professor.  Perhaps these are conscious choices of the presenter, but it is unclear if these individuals understand the mistrust they instill in their audience by forcing their own perspective or missing important information.

I found an interesting series of videos on behavioral ethics that discusses social influences on individual choice.  As leaders in the classroom, laboratory or organization, graduate students have influence on undergraduates and peers.  It is important to acknowledge this influence and use it carefully and thoughtfully.  When you prepare for your next class just consider what you are sharing, or not sharing, with your audience.  Consider if you are being honest about what you do and don’t know to support your conclusions.

Have you ever considered this perspective or your responsibility as an authority figure?  Leave comments on the post to continue this discussion…

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Picking the Right Advisor

As my time at Rutgers comes to a close this fall, I’ve started to reflect on some of the events and traditions I’ll be doing for the last time as a Rutgers student. It’s partially what sparked my interest to start contributing in this space.  Recently my mind has wandered on the events as to why I ended up here at Rutgers.  Before making my decision to come to graduate school, I searched out advice from faculty members, current graduate students, as well as perspectives from people who started working immediately after college. The most surprising thing about my investigation were the details and stories told by my former undergraduate faculty, specifically the highs and lows of their adviser experiences.

I know when I started graduate school, I didn’t really understand the totality of picking an adviser. I knew it was someone I was going to work with/for, but that’s really just the beginning of what your adviser will be to your time here.  My biggest recommendation on finding an adviser is finding someone you admire as to how they think and carry themselves, and who also happens to mold a project to your interest. I think every graduate student extracts some traits from their adviser, so in a way you need to find someone you are comfortable becoming yourself.  What makes it difficult is you can’t just choose based on this advice. I informally joined a group during my first year because I liked the adviser and the other group members, but I just couldn’t fully dedicate myself to the research. I picked a project that I struggled to see the real-life applications of, and when I wasn’t able to explain my research to non-scientists, because I didn’t fully understand it myself, I knew I needed to find something else.

I was torn. There were only a few other full professors in my department that were studying topics related to my specialized area of interest. I emailed a few, heard back from a couple, and after meeting with them my decision was very easy to make. Both of their research projects were similar, but they were very different people. One was very student centered, the other one was not. I knew that I needed an adviser I felt comfortable asking questions of, one who was going to be understanding, and one who would most likely hold me accountable to deadlines and actions.

Here I am, 6 years later, somewhat the group specialist when it comes to gas chromatography (which doesn’t get me as many dates as you’d think). I know that after being somewhat micro-managed early on during my research, which is what I’ve wanted, it has allowed growth in the long term; and that, ultimately, my adviser gave me a project I could run with and helped establish the foundation for becoming an independent scientist. I think that’s finally happened, and that’s why I’m ready to graduate.

If anyone can talk more about their experience with lab rotations and how that affected how you ended up with your adviser, write in the comments!

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Finding your inner grad student foodie

Now that you’re a grad student, it’s time to eat like one. You may have spent undergrad meal times in the dining halls, but some quick math can show you that dining hall meal plans are no bargain price-wise. Cooking and eating at home will save you money and calories as you forgo the take-out menus. Besides, life isn’t really going to get any easier after grad school, so it’s time to learn how to balance work with your basic human needs – and cooking can be a fun break from work! Understandably, we have time and money constraints, so here’s some tips on how to cook and eat at home in the most efficient way:

  1. Plan meals and make a grocery list – plan your meals out one week at a time, make a shopping list, and execute the shopping list by crossing out items as you shop. This saves you from wandering and wasting time in the store, buying unnecessary items, and making multiple store trips each week.
  2. Cook meals with a purpose – it’s most time efficient to do bulk cooking early in the week so that you can have lots of leftovers. However, for people like me who can’t stand the thought of eating the same meal all week, choose the order of your meals for Mon to Fri so that by the end of the week you are using ingredients that will actually stay fresh that long (eggs, bags of frozen veggies, canned goods, pasta, etc.).
  3. Invest in some Tupperware – whatever you make for dinner each night, make enough to have for lunch leftovers the next day. I like glass containers so I know they’re microwave safe.
  4. Make quick and yummy meals – nothing kills the spirit of cooking quite like laborious meal prep, or, even worse, long meal prep followed by disappointing results. For quick, easy, and healthy meals, look for recipes that already have reviews. Here are my suggestions: The Runner’s World Cookbook, One Pan – Two Plates, Poor Girl Eats Well blog
  5. Set the cooking mood – play some music or watch TV, have a glass of wine, relax and enjoy.
Posted in advice, balance, grad student life, health & wellness | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment