My writing rituals

Author: Brianna

This post was inspired by the podcast on writing rituals over at James Hayton’s blog. He focuses especially on the beginning and end of the writing day, which I agree are critical times.

I spent considerable hours as an undergrad writing creatively. After taking the standard Intro to Fiction and Intermediate Fiction courses, I decided to apply to the Kidd Tutorial, an intensive (and intense) yearlong creative writing course. I was accepted! Hooray. I spent the next year juggling regular and serious creative writing output, plus scholarly analysis of the craft, with classes like Physics and Organic Chemistry. It was quite the experience. Just me, three other undergrads, our MFA-student instructor, and two hours twice a week of discussion, workshops, and pushing my limits. It made for some truly frazzled finals weeks.

At the end of the year I left with a far deeper understanding of and appreciation for writing, the knowledge that I did not in fact want to be a creative writer for a living, a mild-to-moderate sense of creative burnout, and—perhaps most important to my current occupation—much better-developed skills for saying what I wanted to say and for pushing my mind to continue creating when I felt like I was trying to draw water from a dry well.

Surprisingly useful skills for a scientist.

Over that year and the years since, as my writing output has become more focused on scientific papers, I developed some strategies and rituals. What it comes down to is, sometimes your brain is like a well-trained adult German Shepherd ready to focus on the task at hand, and sometimes your brain is like a little hyperactive Labrador puppy that’s as likely to pee on the floor from being so excited as it is to flop over with no warning and take a nap because it’s just done.

We should not yell at puppies for accidents or for napping (and really, THEY ARE SO CUTE if also aggravating), and we should not yell at ourselves if and when we struggle with writing. And sometimes even a grown-up German Shepherd needs a play break.

Just like there are ways to train your puppy, there are ways to train yourself to at least smooth the writing process along. Here are some things I have invented for myself, with an eye to the special weirdness of my own brain. Modify as you desire for your own weirdness. (Note that the only thing scientific about these ideas are that I tested them on myself and refined the ones that worked.)

1. Develop an “I’m writing now” situation that engages multiple senses.

The idea here is to build an association between the activity of writing and your ritual. A very strong association. Then, ideally, when the ritual starts, your brain gets into the writing “mode” much more efficiently.

For me, for whatever reason, the following seem to work:
- Sound: I usually associated about an album’s worth of songs with each story I worked on. Yes, I am one of those people that will happily listen to a handful of songs over and over and over again, at least for a short while. This builds up a strong connection between those songs and that story (or paper), and has the advantage that after awhile the music is so familiar it fades into the background, allowing your mind to focus on the words you’re making. I still get vivid memories of writing certain stories when I hear songs I used for them. Similarly, I strongly associate Goat Rodeo Sessions and the Imagine Dragons album with scientific productivity, because I’ve spent a lot of time listening to those albums while working.
- Touch: Easy. I write best when I am cozy. This usually involves wearing a sweatshirt with the hood up (also functions as blinders!) and/or wrapping a blanket around myself.
- Scent: I go the easy route and use a candle. It is my writing candle, and it smells like pleasantly cinnamon-y spicy things. You could use…I don’t know. Room spray, perfume, those cool little lavender satchet things, whatever.
- Taste: This one is less rigid. Basically it means I have a snack and/or tea while I write, because it keeps the resistant parts of my brain from being all “But we are HUNGRY and we want something to DRINK and this is BORING WE SHOULD STOP NOW.”
- Sight: Less important, because you’re staring at the damn computer screen (or notebook) most of the time. Perhaps we should interpret this more loosely as location. Writing always in the same place can certainly help trigger writing mode, although it’s important to remember that shifting locations can be important too.

2. Warm up with a free write.

I first learned about this from my high school English teacher when I took College Writing my senior year. It is not a new concept; see the Thesis Whisperer, most creative writing books, etc. The general idea is that you take a focusing idea (or not) and just…write. Type or longhand, doesn’t matter. Don’t think, don’t stop, even if you have to write “I am stuck on this and I hate writing and where am I going to go with this” over and over again. Just go.

I find it helps to start with a question and free write from there. What am I trying to say in this conclusion? Why should someone care about this paper? What do we know from this figure that we didn’t know before? Something like that.

It sounds silly, I know. It sounds like it will waste your time, because none of those sentences are likely to go into your paper. It sounds more like journaling than anything.

But seriously. It unlocks the writing brain; it gets words going from your mind to the paper or screen and that is often the hardest part about writing. It also subdues the editing, perfectionist tendencies. Even if you aren’t one of those people who can handle writing shitty first drafts (links to PDF) a la Anne Lamott and desires to craft high-quality sentences and organization as you go, you can benefit from settling down on the nitpicking early on.

I admit I don’t do this as often as I should. Usually it is a last resort when I am feeling stuck.

3. Draw pictures.

For organization, I like to draw visual representations of my argument. For creative writing, this can take all kinds of shapes–two stories I analyzed in detail had remarkably interesting structure, one with a sort of back-and-forth tidal pattern and the other a spiral that broke through the center at the end.

Less exciting usually for scientific papers. Generally I envision them taking the form of nested hourglasses, a concept I’m sure most of you are familiar with from high school essays.


You know the one. Start off broad, narrow in to your specific ideas, widen out again at the end. The trick is that it’s kind of a fractal hourglass: the paper as a whole should follow the pattern, but (more or less) so should each section within the paper, and each paragraph within the section. This is not a completely rigid concept, but as a ritual before writing a paper, I find it immensely useful to draw at least the hourglass for the paper itself. When sketching out the structure of a section, I’ll often locate topic sentences of paragraphs on the hourglass; the first sentence of the introduction is the widest part, the next is a little more focused, and so on.

For whatever reason, I find the writing process smoother when it involves actual drawings. It clarifies my thinking, and then the words come more easily.

4. If you’re stuck, put in a placeholder and keep going.

Yes, I used this in creative writing and I still use it when I am writing papers. If I’m trying to say something but the words aren’t coming, I’ll pause and think about it for a moment, maybe trying some different sentence constructions. After all, you want to put some thought into it and not just give up the second you meet mental resistance. But if no forward progress happens, try just putting in a placeholder. I use square brackets, [like so], to indicate unfinished thoughts so I can do a search for them before sending off drafts with accidental incomplete bits.

In the brackets you can put things like, [get that one Smith paper with the squiggly bits], [find way to politely disagree with Smith here], [squiggly things are only found in Oregon but I should double-check that], [potentially irrelevant point about extinct Californian squiggles], and so on.

5. Park facing downhill. 

I believe this idea (or at least the specific metaphor) comes from Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day, a book that I’ve skimmed enough to conclude it has some useful, kind advice in it and it is probably worth reading if you’re looking for writing advice. You’ll find this concept all over, though.

At the end of the day, do future-you a few favors. This is especially critical if you might not be coming back to it the very next day! Stop before you are completely exhausted and sick of the project. Roughly outline the next paragraph you will be working on rather than stopping at the end of a section. Picking up a half-finished paragraph is so much easier than beginning a completely new section.

Write a detailed note at the end of your document outlining what you have done and what you will start with next time. Did I mention how important this is if you’ll be setting the writing aside for awhile? “Today I tightened up my argument about why squiggles matter, but I haven’t yet managed to connect that with the importance of biogeographic distributions of all drawings in general and squiggles in particular. Next time, write the biogeography paragraphs and make sure to include that Jones reference about migratory squiggles, and maybe move some sentences from one of my earlier paragraphs to help tie the concepts together better.”

Clean up your writing area. Save everything. (You’ve been saving about every 15 minutes, right? Save early, save often. Ctrl+S isn’t that hard.) Maybe write something down about how excited you are about the insight you had today that squiggles might have persisted in glacial refugia.

You get the idea.

And that, my friends, is my writing advice for the day.

What I pack for paleontology field work

Author: Brianna

I’m about to take a weeklong trip to the high desert in eastern Oregon, where I get to hang out with the paleontology section of geology field camp. (See this post for why I love field work in the first place.) I remember the first time I went out to do this sort of thing I was all “INTERNET! What do I pack to go do paleontology field work?” but I didn’t find all that much. So here’s the post I wish I found, geared towards the kind of field work I have done, which is almost all in the high desert. Understand that you will probably want different things for different kinds of trips.

Pants! Some people wear shorts, but I really prefer pants. Cheat grass is nasty, nasty stuff (and sage, and rocks, and bitey little ants…). I usually wear Kuhl because they make stuff for men and women that is comfortable, quick-drying, and thick enough to not catch every little sharp thing that comes your way. Go look at some in the store, because I can’t tell which ones on their website are actually made for work and which are all thin and stretchy and will fail you in your quest to not get sharp plant bits embedded in your skin.

Shirts! I wear long sleeves because it’s easier than putting on lots of sunscreen, and also if you’re finding tiny fossil bits it’s easier to just crawl along on the ground; with long sleeves your elbows don’t get all scratched up. Light fabric good. Did I mention it’s the desert? Something like this or this (plaid optional but it makes you look more like a real paleontologist or something). Except don’t go buy one of those new, because that is way too much money for a shirt. REI garage sales or Goodwill is the way to go.

Socks! No cotton. Do not bring cotton socks. (Okay, I bring some for evenings or if someone drags me out on a run in the mornings.) Wool! Coolmax! Whatever your preference. Just not cotton. And they don’t have to be super thick, although that is better than cotton; SmartWool, at least, makes some pretty sweet super-thin hiking height socks. They won’t have padding on the bottom but it will be less hot.

Underwear! Do you know how awesome it is to have quick-drying underwear when you’re in the field? Because it’s awesome. Examples: synthetic stuff, more synthetic stuff, really thin merino wool stuff, etc. Men, I cannot advise, except that there probably exist quick-dry versions of whatever you normally wear too. And that is all I will say on the matter of underwear, because you can figure your own underwear out.

A hat! Keep that sun off your face. And neck. You can go all Indiana Jones if you want (I know people who do…) but I prefer lightweight and vented. Something basic like these women’s hats or this men’s hat. I myself got a nifty fly-fishing hat on clearance at the Columbia outlets or something. It has plaid on it!

I am the one in the middle. With the sweet, sweet plaid hat.
I am the one in the middle. With the sweet, sweet plaid hat.

Also pictured: the taller half of Fossilosophy adjusting my pack, and Win supervising like a good grad student. Note that we are all wearing pants. Different shirt choices, though.

And then whatever other clothing you feel like. Swimsuit of some sort if there’s water anywhere, warm coat because the desert gets damn cold at night, shorts for chilling in camp after a day of hard work, pajamas, whatever else you’re convinced you can’t live without. Probably a rain coat, just in case. Also a towel.

Sunglasses! Necessity. All fancy and UV-blocking and stuff.

Hiking boots! Make sure they fit and are broken in, etc. Your toes shouldn’t hit the front when you’re walking downhill. I got a pair of very light, vented Keens because I knew I was going to be in a dry desert and Keens fit my feet. Your mileage may vary.

Also sandals or something for wandering around in camp.

Equipment! Water bottles and/or water pack (like a Camelbak), field pack of some sort to carry fossils and lunch and water and pin flags etc (I use my Camelbak pack), rock hammer (I like the chisel-edge ones because it makes digging trenches easier when you’re measuring section), a belt of some sort on which to hang your hammer holster, a waterproof field notebook, knee pads, work gloves, a pocket knife and/or multitool of some kind, a watch, a head lamp, and perhaps a scratch awl.

The usual toiletries, except find some biodegradable products if you’ll be washing yourself anywhere outside. Baby wipes are useful too, and you definitely want sunscreen.

Camping gear depends on your situation. We camp in tents, so I make sure I have a sleeping bag, sleeping pad, pillow, and either a tent or a promise from someone else to share their tent.

Foooood! Usually when you’re going in the field as someone else’s crew, you get fed. I tend to bring some of those awesome foil packets of tuna and a hard salami or something, because when I’m in the field I am a salt- and protein-craving fiend. So if you have any strange food preferences, maybe bring some of your own to supplement the communal fare.

Finally, miscellaneous things: a book, phone charger, any necessary medications, a travel mug for your morning coffee, pencils, pens, cards, music device, belt, chocolate, rope/string, repair kit for sleeping pad/tent. Perhaps a small first-aid kit, though whoever is running the field crew should have a good one.

Did I miss anything? If I did, better bring it up quick, because we’re driving off to the fossiliferous wilds in an hour or so!

Research projects are like cats

Author: Brianna

I have come to an important analogy-realization. This is great because I spent the four years of my undergraduate research career being spoken to in elaborate analogy (see: Edward Davis’s use of 7 football maxims for basically any mentorship discussion). And that means that I, too, must develop my stable of eye-rolly but ultimately enlightening metaphors!

So here’s my new favorite.

Research projects are like cats.


Adorable, cuddly, wonderful cats.

Everyone wants one. (If you do not like cats, feel free to substitute dog/bird/child/expensive car/whatever.) It is good to have a cat. Especially if cats are something you want in your life, it is kind of sad to be hanging around not having a cat and looking at all the adorable cat pictures being posted by people who do have cats.

So you get your first cat and it’s really really exciting. Maybe you even soon get another one! That’s great. You spend much of your free time snuggling with this cat and thinking about how awesome it is that your cat is the best, most loving, cutest cat in the whole world.

Louise 2

And life is good.

But cats take up time and attention. You generally know where they are in the house, more or less, and if you have multiple cats then you might get really nervous if they are off in some other room and things suddenly go mysteriously quiet. Your energy and focus is divided.

At some point, you have Too Many Cats. Just keeping track of them is a chore, let alone doing anything fun with them. They keep you up at night, meowing and knocking things over and clawing the furniture. Your feline carrying capacity (catpacity?) probably increases throughout your career, especially if you have collaborators helping you take care of some of them, but early on that number may be limited.

So you have to…get rid of some cats? By publishing. (This is where the metaphor breaks down a bit if you are too literal-minded, as all eye-rolly metaphors do. Maybe you are a foster home for cats, and you need to find them loving journals – er, homes…)

Therefore it is important to not wind up juggling too many cats, lest you lose the focus that lets you help them along into happy home/journals.

I have a few too many cats prowling the halls right now. They are all totally great projects and I love them! But some of them need to go out the door. They’ve been lingering a little longer than I’d really like. Happily one should get submitted, if not next week, then by the end of July; it’s about 95% there. Another is clicking along fairly rapidly, and two more are sitting in the corner waiting for me to stop being annoyed about having to rewrite semi-substantial sections. Then there’s the shiny new one I started as a first-year project at Harvard, and the even shinier plans I have for my dissertation…

Too many cats. Good thing I really like them.

Thoughts on motivation

Author: Brianna

Sometimes motivation is hard to come by and that is okay.

For me, the trick is in being calm when motivation is gone; in being a grownup about keeping up my responsibilities even when I don’t have it; in finding it when it is hidden; in knowing and trying to learn more causes of its ebb and flow; in making choices that will nurture it in the long and short term; in spending time around and talking to interesting people; and in consciously aiming for more intense productivity when it is close at hand.

This all involves paying close attention to what excites me. The good news: my dissertation plans excite me! Right now, though, I am working on remembering my excitement for a few papers that need to get finished and out the door. It was there once, and I can still kind of feel it, but we’re in that last 10% of the publication process that always takes up about as much time and energy as the first 90% did. I will be pleased when these papers are off my plate. They are good projects and I like them.

Also, it is good to be home for a little while. I missed Oregon and my animals.

Communing with McKinna before my first ride in about 6 months.

Harmful or Helpful? YouTube Edition

Author: Kelsey

Greetings friends and colleagues! Today we would like to introduce a new, ongoing segment that takes a critical look at popular cultures’ interpretation of paleontology. Someday we promise to cover the incredibly handsome elephant in the room, Indiana Jones, but today we are going to focus on YouTube videos.

YouTube is a popular, inexpensive way to convey ideas. While most of us initially associate YouTube with hilarious feats mortification or iconic movie clips, an impressive number of successful “TV shows” have established themselves from people’s basements all around the world. In fact, these shows have become so successful that they become self-sustainable and all mass media companies today make sure that they are represented on YouTube in some way.

Some of these are more or less educational and delve into the concept of extinction! If my hotlinking has not derailed you by now, here are some examples of paleontology in popular media shows:

1)      Good Mythical Morning (Subscribers: 2,072,139)

Comments: While I applaud the use of the more unusual animals, it was disappointing to see that they just Google searched for facts and images about these animals instead of reading any actual research. The also mispronounced “Miocene” and never connected the idea of extinct animals with the term “Paleontology.” Is that so hard?

Comments: Rhett and Link exonerate themselves here by linking Paleontologists with dinosaurs. Good job, boys. The Cenozoic spirit in me is still a bit disappointed. Perhaps I am being too harsh. After all, this is a comedy show first and a science show second.

2)      DNews (Subscribers: 803,950)

Comments: DNews is part of the Discovery Communications Network Inc. (which includes the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, How Stuff Works, Hard Science, SourceFed.. etc.). The hosts are likable, come from diverse backgrounds, and share the ability to talk fast and clearly. From the look of the show they have more time to whip up sweet graphics and research. My favorite part is when they mention how much of the dinosaur was ACTUALLY found.

Another video from DNews.

3)      Sesame Street (Subscribers: 935,401)

For our younger readers, I even looked up the screamingly popular Sesame Street to see what they had to say about Paleontology!

Comments: Okay, so if I were a five-year-old I would know that paleontology is a thing, maybe something having to do with helmets and shovels. It’s also worth noting that the main topic of conversation in the comments is Elmo’s voice. Considering I start seeing red if I have to listen to Elmo longer than the length of this clip, I’m not sure how anyone can tell.

4)      Dark 5 (Subscribers: 166, 477)

Comments: To be honest, this one just creeps me out. Between the lack of a host (I’ll never understand the trend to just put up text in a video) and interpretive windchimes (plus a lack of cited sources), I’ll have to give this one a “meh.” Why does this have over two million views?

Here is another video in the same vein, this time about animals that will go extinct, thoughtfully set to bagpipe music.

5) The Brain Scoop (subscribers: 218,584)

Whew- ok, let’s end on something a bit more uplifting.


Comments:  The Brain Scoop is hosted by Emily Grasile at the Chicago Field Museum and includes a whole variety of episodes, from Q & A’s to interviews to dissections and random bits. The Brain Scoop is closely associated with a network of progressive science YouTube channels, including SciShow, Michael Aranda, Vi Hart, and Minute Physics. Emily has captured the museum side of a biologist’s (here I include paleontology within biology) life perfectly! One reason why we love our jobs almost obsessively is because it really is a variety show. There is even occassional singing and dancing (much to my co-worker’s chagrin).

And, yes, like all scientists, paleo peeps deal with social issues as well. That’s honestly my primary motivation for blogging in the first place. Now if we could just get more people to watch The Brain Scoop with dinner (or after digestion for the squeamish), maybe paleontology could become known for its content, not “what those khaki-wearing people do in action movies.”


Paleontology has a long way to go in popular culture–the standard response is still, “Oh, like Indiana Jones?” or “Oh, like Ross from Friends!”– but I think we knew that already.  The number of subscribers as well as the number of $$$ backing the show really dictates quality and accuracy.  Good Mythical Morning has the largest audience (and is easily the funniest show on this list), but is pretty lazy when it come to conveying actual facts. DNews has accuracy, but less than half the audience. Sesame Street needs to up their game if they want to create the next generation of a critical, informed public (and entertain that generation’s parents), while random people making quick pseudo-science videos add little to the conversation.

What is needed is a show that is poop-my-pants funny and accurate (The Brain Scoop, you are almost there). This is asking a ton out of society, though, so in the meantime perhaps us scientists can make ourselves more available to entertainment. Popular media has no idea how many scientists would be willing to contribute/do the writers’ work for them if given the chance. Ring me up!



My favorite way to write

Author: Brianna

My friend Meaghan is in town! Thanks to the Ernst Mayr Grant, she’s here at Harvard to take photographs of lots and lots of skulls in our Museum of Comparative Zoology. She is equal parts brilliant and hilarious, and it’s great to have a former labmate come spend time at my new institution.

Meaghan is also a collaborator of mine – in fact, she is the one driving the bus – on a really, really cool Pleistocene project. Not only is she the queen of successful undergraduate research mentoring, it turns out she is also a very, very skilled project manager. Everything is organized. (This is not surprising, if you know Meaghan.) The overall plan for the project and its sub-parts is easy to find and understand. Everyone’s next tasks are clear. Everything moves along at a pace varying between steady and rockets-on-full-blast.

I love it. (This is also not surprising, if you know me.)

So, as I mentioned on twitter…

My favorite thing about being in the same place as my collaborators is the writing.

My favorite way to write? Sitting down with another person.

Face to face or side by side, as long as it’s in actual physical space. Someone’s office, someone’s house (Meaghan and I are both blogging at my kitchen table as I type), or my perennial favorite, the coffee shop. Comes complete with background noise, refreshments, and a sense of slight urgency because you don’t want to be That Guy hogging the prime table and outlets all day. Why is it important to be in the same physical space? I’ve found it vastly expedites the process. Clarifying the intent/message of the piece of writing becomes much simpler, because you can talk it out. Problems or confusions that aren’t big enough to email about, but are still tricky and slow you down, can be resolved instantly.

Another major bonus of this method: it is a great way to teach better writing. I say this as someone who wrote my first manuscript all by myself, then sat down with my project advisor for a couple hours and walked through it sentence by sentence. A big time investment? Yes, but it probably takes only slightly longer than going through and commenting by hand. For me, at least, seeing the corrections discussed and then made in real time provided a major boost to the quality of my future drafts.

You can write together in several ways. The two best ways I’ve found are:

1. One person types while the other looks over the writer’s shoulder. The non-typer makes suggestions and/or heckles. This dual-writing method is very fast for several reasons: the faster typist can be the one at the computer; you rarely get stuck on how to phrase something, because you’re both talking it out and you have another person’s perspective; you can urge each other on in “write the shitty first draft” mode (link to a PDF – go read!), pushing past a desire to nitpick in the early stages; and it’s more fun than sitting alone in a room somewhere.

2. Both people have a Google Doc (or some other simul-editing setup) open to the paper/outline/whatever. You should still be sitting next to one another! For this it’s best if you are working on slightly different sections, or at least one person is following slightly behind the other to provide input, complete sentences, or tidy up phrasing. This method provides a little more “divide and conquer” style and may work better if you can’t handle conversation + writing at the same time.

As it turns out, I usually prefer the first method, and that is what Meaghan and I are planning this weekend. Just the two of us, a coffee shop, and some serious progress on a Really Sexy Manuscript that we hope will be coming soon to a journal near you.

Go try it!

(And if you’re interested in a blog that is irreverent, hilarious, and informative, go check out Mary Anning’s Revenge, which Meaghan co-writes.)

Dealing with the first year of grad school, Part 1: the general sense

Author: Brianna

It occurs to me, as I sit in a cozy chair in a sunny lounge overlooking some pleasantly evergreen trees, that I am currently ‘dealing’ with graduate school. As in, things are going pretty well. I’ve published a paper, submitted another, drafted a couple more, given some presentations, taken some classes, made good friends, found a good first-year project. I haven’t written much lately, in part because I am not always sure what I (we) want this blog to be. Also, blogging is not always high on the priority list.

But I think this blog can be a place for advice. I like giving advice, but I am also “just” a first-year graduate student. (This is why we have an “Unsolicited Advice” category.) I still have some sensible ideas about getting work done, though. At the very least I have my own experience working my way through this first year and ostensibly the years after that. I think that might be a useful and/or interesting thing to people. Especially if you’re, say, a senior-ish undergrad looking to go to grad school. Or a first year grad. Something like that.

So this is the first in a several-part series, which I’ve just now decided will be a loosely organized collection detailing exactly what you’d think from the title: how I am dealing with the first year of graduate school.

For the first post, here’s some things I do to keep myself healthy and relatively happy and chugging along. Maybe in the next one I’ll go into some specifics of the first year, like learning to use a bike to commute (even in a terrifying place like Cambridge/Boston!) and being scared of meetings with your adviser.

I have been spending a lot of time around my fellow first-year grads, or G1s as the parlance here goes. Turns out they are a bunch of brilliant, kind, interesting and interested people. Our new-grad seminar, where we meet professors or work on professional development and do lots of talking, is a highlight every week. As a cohort we’ve been tight-knit socially but also academically, for lack of a better word – there are always several people willing to proofread a paper or grant application, give feedback on a presentation, or sit in the conference room eating lunch while you sketch out your lab meeting talk on the whiteboard. You can’t force cohesion, but you can seek out this contact. The first year is easier when you have some buddies to panic with you. (Same goes for the rest of the grad students in the department, of course. But I think making strong connections with your cohort is important, if you can.)

I have been paying close attention to what works for me and what doesn’t. The things that work for me have fluctuated a lot over the 8 months or so I’ve been here so far, which surprised me quite a bit. I talked about this more in the post on flux, but I’m still surprised just how adaptable I’ve needed to be. I need to remember that when I’m stagnating, I should probably go for a walk or go work somewhere else, like I did just a bit ago by relocating to this lounge. When the usual trick of goal-setting and bouncing ideas around really wasn’t helping me get out of a motivation slump, I accepted it eventually. I slept in a lot (for me, around 9 or 10am). I worked in coffee shops to enjoy the anonymous rumble of cheery conversation flowing around me. I read a lot of non-science books. I went from occasionally doing a few hours of work on weekends to never working weekends. You know what? The world didn’t end. I kept up with my classwork, and I made a little progress on my research each week even if it wasn’t mind-blowing giant steps. And then the sun came out, and it stopped snowing (mostly), and gradually I walked myself back up the hill to the place where I once again get excited by all the things I want to do.

But at the time, it felt a little like everything was ruined forever. It’s okay to feel like that.

When I’m getting overwhelmed by the short-term deadlines, I take a deep breath and remember the long timeline of this PhD. It’s oddly comforting that just about everyone in the program seems to say they didn’t get much of anything directly “useful” (i.e., that went into their dissertations) until their second or sometimes third year. This lets me be content with indirect usefulness.

When I’m getting overwhelmed by the long timeline of this PhD, I take a deep breath and focus on the short-term deadlines.

I lift a lot of weights. It’s satisfying, it makes you ready for bed at the end of the day, and it’s a good chance to chat with a friend if you talk one of them into being your lifting buddy. Also it is really good for you. If I had to pick one thing that helped me pull through the end-of-winter slump, it is starting up with a regular lifting schedule again. (Okay, two things: sleep too.)

I make a conscious effort to stop my stress, or at least mellow it, about things I can’t control.

I don’t go for as many walks as I should, but whenever I do it makes a world of difference to my mental state. I come back calmer, happier, and clearer of mind. Bonus points if you spend some time on your walk coming up with things to be grateful about. I usually start with the healthy legs that are obligingly carrying me around, particularly since I’ve spent enough time in the past with a broken ankle to know a taste of the alternatives.

I try to focus on the parts of my research that I love (planning, data analysis usually, writing, exciting projects) and be a grownup and just matter-of-factly accomplish the parts that I love less (some types of data collection, cleaning up mistakes in data, doing a bunch of revisions after reviews, less exciting projects). Same goes for life: more enjoying things like cooking or rock climbing or thinking about the power tools I’m going to get this fall, less procrastinating on things like taxes or cleaning the bathroom. Just do it and move on.

I go to as many job seminars, departmental seminars, and dissertation defenses as I have the time and energy for. Sometimes I have other priorities or I can’t bear the thought of sitting in a dim room for an hour and a half. Those times I generally don’t feel guilty about.

Good food is important! We get a CSA (community supported agriculture) box with fresh fruit and veggies in it every week, which is nice when you learn to cook new delicious things and annoying when it’s the fifth straight week of way too many dandelion greens.  It helps that I like to cook. It’s easier when you live in a house with roommates who like to cook, too; we all go through cycles where sometimes you’re cooking giant meals all the time and sometimes you have no desire or available time to cook. It’s nice to have hot meals even on evenings when you come home hungry and grouchy at 8pm. I suppose my advice here is to get good roommates! Failing that, learn to make some simple, fairly healthy things that you like to eat. Make them in quantities and freeze some for the busy times.

That’s enough for now. The SVP abstract deadline is coming up, and I have things to finish!

Why I love paleontology field work

Author: Brianna

Lately I’ve been thinking about summer paleontology field work. (Field work? Fieldwork? I never know which to use.) The endless Boston winter has called up this nostalgia, because I am tired of the cold and slush. I want to be back out in Oregon’s high desert in the summer, taking painstaking field notes in little yellow Rite in the Rain notebooks, shivering in the cold morning while staring at the pot of water on the camp stove willing it to boil faster dammit I need my tea, hiking through sagebrush or climbing dry riverbeds up the valley, scrambling up crumbly slopes to measure section, holding in my hand an actual fossil that I just found….these are thoughts to get a person through.

I love paleontology field work because it connects me to my research in the most basic way: I am crawling around in the dirt, sometimes with my nose inches off the ground, and finding fossils that no one has ever found before. And they’re fossils that contribute directly to research. The first paleontology project I finished was completely digital: we did some stats on some data that came from other papers and a database. We found some neat things, and I got hooked on how awesome it is to find out something that nobody else knows. But it was pretty far removed from any physical specimens, for me. So the first time I went out in the field, when I got to find real fossils and take notes on them and bring them back with us to go in the museum…that drove home the connection. It brought a very nice sense of continuity to my grasp of paleontology.

I love paleontology field work because I get to go camp and hike with fellow scientists for a week or two, many of whom are my close friends. Better yet we’re in the desert, where my hatred of thermoregulating in the cold is offset by my complete and utter happiness in unreasonable heat. It never fails to amuse me that the hot, dry air sucks the sweat from your skin before you even realize you’re sweating, until you take off your backpack or knee pads and everywhere underneath is soaked. I like feeling badass when, at the end of a long day of work, I hike back to the truck carrying a big sandbag full of matrix from a microfossil site. I like sleeping in a tent. I like cooking dinner on a camp stove and eating for lunch whatever bizarre combination of fruit, nuts, salami, cheese, and tuna-in-a-packet I happen to have packed that day.

I do not love spiders in the pit toilets. I do love my rock hammer.

I love paleontology field work because, I’ll admit it: I really like long car rides. I know that’s a bit weird. But some of my favorite activities are napping, thinking about stuff, reading, and having long conversations with people…all valid choices for long, dusty car rides between field sites, which for us are spread out across much of Oregon.

I love paleontology field work because it’s a major change from the usual computer-centric work I do. Sometimes it’s hard to feel satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment when you’ve been hammering away at the keyboard all day, you know? But there’s no denying that you’ve done a good day’s work when you hike out there and find a bunch of new specimens or track down an old locality, flip a plaster jacket from yesterday’s work, or maybe measure a bunch of stratigraphy and bring back samples from each layer. Bonus points if you’re taking field camp for credit and stay up til 1am lovingly finishing your strat column, cough. Oh, the howls of despair when you mess up one of the lines with your Micron pen…

If summer scheduling allows, I’ll be out doing all these things (except making strat columns in the wee hours!) this July. For now, I suppose there’s nothing to do but glare at the snow-fluff coming down outside my office window and get back to work.

Weekend science work: not always a bad thing

Author: Brianna

I have been thinking about work patterns lately. (Let’s be honest: I am more or less always thinking about work patterns.) Meg Duffy over at Dynamic Ecology wrote an excellent post about the myth of the 80-hour work week being necessary to succeed in academia. The comments, as always, are absolutely worth reading.

I try to estimate my output by things I’ve accomplished, not butt-in-chair time. Unless I’m working on something that doesn’t always have measurable forward progress, like trying to figure out broken code or learn to code new things. Then, I count hours because otherwise I’d despair, and time put in really is a reasonable measure of accomplishment.

Generally, I don’t work weekends. I stick to a work schedule that fluctuates a little, but generally runs 8am-5pm during the week. Count me in the camp that thinks trying to be “on” 100% of the time means you’ll accomplish less than if you work with good focus for a reasonable number of hours. I’m also always trying to improve the intensity of that focus and the length of time I can stand to do it, but that’s a subject for another post.

Crunch time happens. I have spent many a weekend and evening and late night on papers, revisions, applications, analysis.

But today, I just want to declare that sometimes I like working on weekends, just because I can.

Tea and notebook

Sometimes it’s relaxing to sit down with a cup of tea and some minor tasks that need doing. Or curl up with a cat and do some reading.

Today I’m drinking chai, putting together a small award application, making a little progress on my taxes, and mapping out my next research project in a flow chart. There’s a cat in my lap (not visible in photo above, alas). It’s a good way to spend a Sunday afternoon.


The importance of interpretation (or what Telephone-Pictionary can teach us about the past)

By: Kelsey

In-class activities are very popular among progressive educators and it’s easy, intuitive even, to understand why. Instead of sitting and letting someone lecture you (the student) for an hour or two about the Incas or linear regressions or the Mesozoic you get to DO SOMETHING. Maybe you get to chat to your neighbor about a reading or write down your thoughts or even discuss a contentious subject with the entire class. It’s taking the communication skills honed by Twitter and Facebook and using them to critically think about class materials.

My favorite in-class activities involve games. Whether it’s the infamous finite resource candy games (there are a variety) or the great clade race, games engage the brain on a social level with classmates AND on an intellectual level with a theory or process. So, not only is the student engaged, they are having fun while learning and they are much more likely to remember the content.

Backgammon, back in the day!
Timeless fun! Source: Heidelberg University Library

One subject easily missed by students in archaeology, paleontology, and anthropology classes is bias – specifically, how interpretation of artifacts (or remains) is dependent upon the person, time period, and accuracy of any measuring device used. These processes do not discredit previous or all interpretations of a fossil or archaeological site, but illuminate the importance of knowing your discipline’s history and the strength of many viewpoints.

To get these points across, I suggest using the game of Telephone-Pictionary, specifically the version I played Saturday night at a colleague’s eighth annual cheese party. In this version of the game you each have a stack of cards equaling the number of people in the group. For a class this means dividing the class into groups of 6-10 people. It is easier if the numbers are even, but not essential. Each person writes a phrase. The phrase should have something to do with the class material. Each person then passes his/her stack to the next person, who reads the sentence, puts the card in the back of the stack, and then DRAWS a representation of the sentence. After everyone has done this, the cards are passed again; the next person sees the picture only, puts that card in the back of the stack, and then WRITES a phrase interpreting the drawing. The rounds continue, alternating pictures and phrases, until each person gets back their original sentence.

Finally, everyone goes around sharing the sequence of sentences and pictures. Some will be surprisingly accurate (e.g., “The unicorn loves going to the cheese party” stayed the same), whereas others will be way off the mark (e.g.,  “the frog waited for the party” turned into “the giant frog was slayed by the mailman in front of the apartment”).

This game can reveal the importance of going back to the original source and how a small error of interpretation can be conflated into something completely different. You can then ask students about “real world” examples. There may be silence at first, but when someone points out the latest dead celebrity rumor or health craze or scientific “fact” that was proven to maybe not be as true as people thought, you’ll easily run out of time to explore all the examples.

And, perhaps, next time one of those students throws a party and is preparing the cards for Pictionary, they’ll remember your lesson on bias and tell their friends. This is helpful step towards creating an educated society. All it takes is a couple games.