Prioritizing Writing (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

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

Continue reading “Prioritizing Writing (Throwback Thursday)”

Time Management and Lists (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

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: Continue reading “Time Management and Lists (Throwback Thursday)”

Grad Student Experiences in Leadership (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

scrollThis will be a different type of blog post. This is actually a blog post from 14 graduate students who graduated from the Rutgers Pre-Doctoral Leadership Development Institute (PLDI). This post is composed of short notes about their experiences and serves to thank the Faculty and Staff involved in PLDI. Continue reading “Grad Student Experiences in Leadership (Throwback Thursday)”

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.

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!

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?

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?

Reflections and Advice after Many Semesters

Last month, fellow blogger Brian Tholl wrote some advice about the graduate experience from his perspective as a first year graduate student. I think his advice is very useful and informative, and I want to reiterate some of it and add some advice from the perspective of a senior graduate student.

Brian is right, that transitioning into graduate studies can be difficult, and although the process is unique to each of us, much of his advice is likely to be useful to graduate students (even senior students like me). However, graduate school is itself a series of transitions, including admission, coursework, one or more qualifying exams, preliminary thesis work, intensive field work, lab work, research work or other studies, and thesis writing – not to mention teaching, personal life, and myriad other responsibilities unrelated the completion of the degree.

Graduate school is about transition — growth and change as a scholar, researcher, and educator is achieved throughout these transitions. It is important for graduate students to map out their graduate experience, which may vary from field to field, advisor to advisor, even student to student. But it is important to have reasonable expectations about what one wishes to accomplish at each stage of the degree program, information one should be seeking from one’s graduate director, advisor, and other faculty. Besides having day-to-day plans about when and where to invest one’s time, graduate students should have a structured and firm grasp of what their long-term goals are and how to accomplish them.

Organizing one’s free time is critical for first year students, and that will not change throughout one’s graduate studies and after. The responsibilities of graduate students (and in their futures as faculty, scholars, educators, or work) are usually task-oriented, rather than time-oriented. Significantly, these tasks are often very large, high-level goals, e.g. “write a thesis”, rather than simple short-term tasks, e.g. read XYZ paper in ABC journal for next week. Besides allocating time appropriately, it’s important to break down large tasks into small, feasible subitems and complete those subitems on a reasonable (not too lofty, not too lazy) schedule. Constructing these goals and setting them in a reasonable fashion allows students to complete seemingly impossible tasks, e.g. “write a thesis”, by working through a series of smaller, more tangible tasks.

Brian also mentions that graduate students should participate in social events, look after one’s health, and try to reduce stress. Learning to manage the demands and stresses of research work is a very important part of graduate school. It is indeed important for us to prioritize appropriately healthcare, healthy eating, stress-relief, and sleep. The time and money we spend on these may seem like a waste, because every waking hour could be spent working on our theses. But to the contrary, if we have a good perspective on our progress towards completing a degree, and taking care of our other obligations, e.g. teaching, we do have enough time.

Taking care of oneself will result in more effective and efficient research or teaching. There is a point of diminishing returns when a graduate student spends too much time working. I’m not saying don’t work hard — hard work is important, and we are all aware that graduate students may work 60+ hours per week, but in the remaining 80 or 100 hours, we should set aside time for eating right, sleeping adequately, and taking some personal time to relax and stay sane.

I will offer some other practical advice briefly, as a list rather than expounding at length:

  • Have conversations. All the time, with everyone, talk about research, talk about teaching, talk about anything. Use your friends and colleagues as sounding boards, discuss your challenges with your advisor, and really listen when people do the same with you.
  • Attend seminars, workshops, conferences. These are informative and fun, and should help you expand your scholarly boundaries. Even if the topics are tangential or unrelated to your research, you will learn much and may find hidden connections or new interests. This is also a useful way to do “networking.”
  • Teach your own classes whenever possible. This requires a huge time investment compared to TA work in recitations, lab sections, grading, etc. but is an incredibly important part of professional development. Even if you only teach one class for one summer, that’s a great opportunity to get teaching experience.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff, at least, not every time. Graduate students aspire to be scholars, educators, and leaders in their fields of study, which often requires incredible attention to detail. However, it is important to recognize which details are crucial and which are expendable. There is that metaphor about the forest and the trees — don’t get lost!

Marie desJardins has written an excellent, lengthy guide to being a graduate student, and while not all her advice will apply to every single student, it is actually very relevant to most of us and is a very useful and frequently cited tome of advice for graduate students.

Grad Student Experiences in Leadership

scrollThis will be a different type of blog post. This is actually a blog post from 14 graduate students who are about to graduate (or graduated) from the Rutgers Pre-Doctoral Leadership Development Institute (PLDI). This post is composed of short notes about their experiences and serves to thank the Faculty and Staff involved in PLDI.

What is PLDI?

Rutgers’ Pre-Doctoral Leadership Development Institute program (PLDI)  is designed to teach doctoral students aspiring to careers in academia how to navigate the challenges of academic leadership and thrive in the university environment. In this two-year certificate program, our professors shared a very precious gift with us – their experience. We created this blog in order to share our experience with them, with respect and appreciation for the gift they have so graciously given us. We hope that this will continue to serve as a reflective space for affiliates and future cohorts to share their perspectives.

-The PLDI Class of 2013

Tara Coleman: Program in Comparative Literature

When I first started the PLDI program and told my Dad about it, he looked at me strangely and asked why I needed leadership training if I was going to be a professor. He doesn’t know it, but I have already benefitted from my training a great deal, in ways as simple as being able to participate meaningfully in debates among my family and friends about Rutgers, the challenges facing higher education, and how I see my future in this field.

Continue reading “Grad Student Experiences in Leadership”

Organizing Events and Programs

Organizing an event can be incredibly taxing and difficult, especially for a graduate student. However, grad students are often brought into projects of this sort. It provides an event or program with capable staff or assistants of whatever sort, and also provides the student with an important type of experience. The managerial and administrative skills grad students can learn and refine from these experiences is important and useful. If anything can teach time-management, putting together a conference or workshop certainly can.

The type of work undertaken can be varied, as can be the time-commitment and intensity of work. Some students may help with the logistics of a conference and wind up incredibly busy for a 3-day period, while others may be junior members of the organizing committee and wind up working a moderate amount* over a longer period of time.

*And keep in mind, such duties and such work are undertaken in addition to existing obligations towards research, teaching, or coursework. So “moderate” is more than it sounds, perhaps.

From my perspective, these skills are sometimes hard to describe or quantify. Some of the skills may be specific to the type of event being organized, while others may be widely applicable. Having been graduate coordinator for the DIMACS REU for several years, I believe some of the experience may only be applicable in scenarios with undergraduate research. Other skills, however, may transfer to scenarios like organizing a conference or working within a department or university bureaucracy. In some sense, one learns how to do things, how to get things done, whether that means learning to adapt to certain scenarios, understanding how to navigate certain structures, or simply having the experience of making something happen. In the future, stepping up to the figurative plate will be easier and more natural.

One important virtue in organizing events and programs that I have come to value as almost universally applicable and of great importance is this: Set yourself up to succeed. Front-load the work, make sure it is done right, have a plan, and always be as prepared as possible.  Don’t forget to follow up on important emails. Make sure that contingencies have been covered. Accidents will happen, disasters will occur, and you will make mistakes. Have a timetable, have back-up plans, and so on.

That sounds like many principles, but to me it really is one coherent guiding idea. Success in organizational and administrative tasks can be decided, or at least heavily weighted, by the organizational and managerial efforts invested, especially those invested early. That lesson, and a little experience, can help a capable grad student or young faculty member successfully bring together virtually any meeting, conference, project, or program.