Revisiting Your Resolution

With the (short) extra time off this week due to snow, I’ve used some of the time to reflect upon the month that was January 2015.  I’m actually not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions. I think an arbitrary end point shouldn’t affect your ability to make changes about yourself if you really want to make them happen. Positive changes can happen in any month of the year, why wait till January? I find it amusing when people make broad resolutions like “Eat healthier” or “Exercise more”, as they purposely make them non-specific enough to allow themselves to slack off or forget about them by mid-February. An annual custom I’ve come to enjoy is the extremely crowded cardio equipment section at the gym that seemingly becomes empty usually 4-6 weeks into the semester when exams and papers start piling up.

While my resolution sounds clichéd and broad (become a better organizer), I’ve focused on specific smaller ways and used the start of a new semester as a rationale for bucking my resolution trend.

My organization goal actually relates to both of my roles as a graduate student, in both my teaching and research.  My desks both at home and in my office are a complete mess. At home, I often find it difficult to find space for my laptop at night. I mean, I need to have space for the important stuff like my Staples’ Easy button, right? My desk at my office is not much better, scattered with books, journal articles, and that Science section from the New York Times dated October 14, 2014 that I’m definitely going to read this week. I’ve found this disorganization to flow into 2 key places that affect my daily life: my flash drive and my messenger bag.

My flash drive used to look like a 6 year’s old toy chest, scattered with random files of data in raw and Excel formats and folders that say “New Stuff” and “Original Stuff” and it makes me wonder if I’m ready for life after graduate school when I label multiple folders “Stuff”. So, I’ve used this as a jumping off point to organize my flash drive as well as other sections of my computer into labeled folders, placing as much information into folder and file names as possible including semester, year, and full journal article titles. It’s really helped during the writing stage to be able to find that specific experiment or journal article that I used to take me 20 minutes.

The second aspect of my resolution focuses on my messenger bag which contains all my supplies for teaching this semester. Rosters, attendance sheets, graded assignments, and non-graded assignments that I need to collect from students that my bosses want for reasons I’ll never understand. All piled and squished into separate folders but some sections having much thicker folders than others despite having the same amount of students, which after inspection usually is my agenda and teaching supplies from 2012.

Well, not THIS semester. At least that’s the plan. Only 2 weeks in, I think I’m on the right track. What was your resolution and can you make it 11 more months?

Most importantly, prediction that’s relevant for this weekend: Seahawks 28, Patriots 27.

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Enjoy Graduate School at Rutgers

Feel excited when you know you’ve been accepted to graduate school? Or feel nervous, stressed or anxious? Just don’t let your emotions get in the way of setting yourself up to succeed once your new program starts.  Here are some small tips that might help you survive and enjoy graduate school at Rutgers.  First of all,

–Expect to be busy

You are a grad student now, the assignments you’re given will be more involved, the exams you take will need more preparation, and most importantly you’ll be spending much more of your time on academic work, whether it’s on research, thesis paper, or keeping on top of your studying. You need to take responsibility especially if you’re working in a group on a large project.

–Select the work you’re really passionate about

I can’t imagine you can devote hours on end working on something you can’t stand. The truth is that you’ll grow tired of it and simply won’t put forth the endless effort that it takes to get through days and nights of studying.  The bottom line is pick something you absolutely live and breathe so that you can keep moving towards your goal.

–Don’t forget you have an advisor

I’m not sure what the situation is in other departments, but in our computer science department, each graduate student will be assigned an academic advisor and later a research advisor. Your advisor is there to help with any questions you may have regarding programs, research, faculty issues, etc. It’s advisable to set up a regular meeting with your advisor to check in and see how things are progressing for you.

–Be tolerant of your mistakes

You are a graduate student, you are learning, and it’s normal to make mistakes. Seriously, don’t be so hard on yourself. What you’re doing is admirable and difficult. The world isn’t going to come to an end because you make a mistake, the earth won’t stop rotating because your research experiments haven’t gotten inspiring results yet as you expected.

–Take time to experience life

Through your courses and busy research work, remember to take time to experience life as well. You’re a grad student and you’re also young, life is versatile, it’s not only study and work, you deserve more.  Rutgers has a fantastic location, I won’t talk more about it here, there are many great posts in this blog, I’m sure you’ll find them and know where to go to have fun in the area. And last but not least,

–Love your school

Yes, love Rutgers, love where you’re living and the school where you’re studying. You know, not everyone is as lucky as you to be accepted in. Maybe it’s not ranked number one in your field, but somehow I believe in destiny, what you get is actually what is most suitable for you. The miracle is, when you realize that, you feel happy every day, you feel proud of Rutgers, you feel lucky to be a grad student at Rutgers, and you’ll be full of confidence to overcome any difficulties that may happen during the journey.

Love your school, and enjoy your graduate life at Rutgers.

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Learning to Teach Something New

I have taught school finance as an adjunct professor at the graduate level for many years, and my ideal role is that of professor. I enjoy teaching, writing, publishing, and research. One of my greatest joys is observing how students begin to grasp school finance concepts and budgeting principles before ultimately developing an understanding of how proper school finance is linked to the provision of a top quality education. Like all students regardless of age, educational setting, or grade, the epiphany occurs differently and at different times for different students. Most importantly, the epiphany occurs and serves my students well over their careers.

The overwhelming majority of the students, who have attended my school finance course over the years as part of their Master’s in Education, are teachers. Almost all of my students report feeling some level of trepidation when registering for the course because school finance has the little or no overlap with other courses they have attended or previous life experiences. However, my students report that they find it instructive to attend a course that has the little or no overlap with other courses they have attended or previous life experiences because it helps them focus on understanding how students learn new things and, perhaps more importantly, how to hone their skills for teaching concepts that their students find new.

I help my students overcome their trepidation by demonstrating how they have performed many of the budgetary process steps that we discuss in the course in their own life; they called them something different but many of the underlying concepts are the same. Slowly but surely my students gain confidence. Many of my students have told me following the course that their experience in overcoming their trepidation for attending a course focusing on “something new” and learning the new material has informed their pedagogy.

Perhaps we can all benefit from accepting challenges to learn new things especially when these new things seem outside our comfort zone. Moreover, perhaps those studying to become teachers will work hard to understand what it is like for students who feel challenged learning new material because they fear they might fail while doing so. Similarly, those studying to become teachers might incorporate this understanding in their teaching by demonstrating the keen sense of accomplishment that stems from learning something new and realizing a return on their investment that overwhelms their risk.

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A Grad School Sense of Humor

As I approach the halfway mark of my fourth PhD year, one of my favorite ways to keep moving forward is by maintaining a sense of humor. To summarize a great article on gradhacker.org, a sense of humor can help with grad school success because: 1) you will experience failures before you achieve any success, 2) you will inevitably embarrass yourself from time to time, 3) you aren’t going to finish everything you set out to do, 4) stress happens, and you need to let go of it, and 5) dealing with frustrating people and situations is sometimes unavoidable. My favorite laugh a day type website is http://whatshouldwecallgradschool.tumblr.com/. Check out the archives for Dec 29th 2014 for an accurate description of how my fourth year is going. Let me know if you have any favorite daily sites you visit for a good laugh!

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The Truest Sentence You Know: How to Get Un-stuck

The greatest frustration of graduate school has to be that, no matter how often I hope it will, the dissertation never writes itself. How convenient that would be! Alas. It’s one thing to feel confident and assured that you know what you’re doing in the archive. You found a seventeenth-century piece of parchment, and you actually managed to decipher a line of chancery hand? Congratulations, and well done you! You’ve earned a slice of cake and sit-down. And while you savor that pastry, it all comes together in your head – chapter titles, concluding paragraphs, clever introductions. You can see it all. Then you sit down to write it. And that’s another thing entirely.

I can’t be the only one who knows this feeling. It’s like that liminal space between waking and dreaming when your limbs don’t quite work. The fear of failure or – worse – mediocrity can be paralyzing. I’ve always fashioned myself a writer, but what if this time…what if this time…

And then I know I need him. I need Ernest Hemingway.

Hem may have led a disastrous personal life, but he knew a thing or two about putting pen to paper. And even he, the (so to speak) consummate professional, had his bad days. But, thankfully, because he was the consummate professional, he soldiered through them, and, lucky for us, he wrote about it. His advice, recounted in A Moveable Feast, was directed at himself as he struggled with a story in his Paris years. But he might have been talking to me too.

“Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

By some miracle, it works. It always works. It gives my writing the strength and attitude it needs to be convincing and, if luck is shining on me that day, stylish. Excavating my draft for the core truth I want to convey – in this sentence, this paragraph, this chapter – and being able to communicate it in a simple declarative sentence makes me a powerful writer for a moment.

Because that has to be part of the goal, doesn’t it? I’d like the dissertation to be more than passable, more than good. I’d like it to be stylish. Readable. Art historians like me write about people who created, but we’re creating something too. Shouldn’t we recognize that we are engaging in a creative act and try to act accordingly? Shouldn’t we try to write something worth reading? Something that contributes not only to our field or to the humanities but to humanity? (Did I go too far there?) I don’t flatter myself that I’m the next Simon Schama, Paul Barolsky or John Summerson, whose work I would gleefully read under the shade of an elm tree. But what was the point of doing all this if I’m not going to try?

Hemingway rented a room in the Latin Quarter of Paris – no heat, no toilet, no fun of any kind. When he was stuck, he stared into the fire, peeling an orange until he settled on the truest sentence he knew at that moment. He knew the fear of failure would be there, and he had a strategy for facing it. And Lord knows, he wasn’t alone. A list provided by my good friend and writer Michael Fuchs includes a series of successful writers lamenting their own fear of failure, including himself as he prepares his fifteenth manuscript. And Nora Ephron famously said, “I think the hardest thing about writing is writing.” We all get stuck. What is your strategy for getting un-stuck? In the end, I suppose it all comes down to discipline, whatever your discipline.

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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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