Category Archives: Unsolicited suggestions

Interesting ways we can talk ourselves into productivity

Author: Brianna

This morning I’m working in pajamas, waiting for the utility company folks to send a person to look at the gas meter or whatever it is that they have to do that requires you to be home for a 4-hour window. The subject of my work is a manuscript that I’m rather fond of, one that I and my coauthors are aiming to get submitted next week.

But you know how the end of writing a paper goes: last 2% of the paper, what feels like 50% of the total work.


And yet, yesterday I wound up putting in quite a bit of revision and tidying. All this shortly after I’d pretty much written the afternoon off, because I was sleepy and we had lab meeting focused on a really challenging paper that more or less fried my brain for more complicated thinking. So what got me going?

A little task on my Google Calendar that said “Add references for R packages to PC horses paper.”

Because, hey, adding references for R packages is pretty easy and doesn’t require a lot of effort! And my time-tracking app was showing me that I wasn’t putting on much of a good show yesterday. (This is why I have one: to keep me honest.) So I decided I’d rack up a few more points minutes with an easy task.

Well, you know where the rest of this story goes. I added a short paragraph citing the R packages after tracking them all down and adding them to Zotero. I corrected some numbers on the manuscript that had changed a bit when I fixed a mistake in the code. I wrote a new caption for a figure that had changed considerably and then changed the main paper text to reflect the new figure. I found a couple places to improve our phrasing. Then I wandered over to the Discussion section that needed a little more love and found myself revising, and then adding new text…

All that from a Very Easy Item on a to-do list that I happened to see when I was checking my calendar.

I’m not sure what the unsolicited suggestion is here. Perhaps it is: keep in mind what small fiddly tasks you might be able to do as a way to ease into more challenging tasks on the same project.

Little things: small habits that help my science focus and productivity

Author: Brianna

Here’s another old post that was initially drafted some months ago. More thinking about work habits.

Focus is a fickle creature sometimes. Getting consistent, high-quality work done without burning out (or wasting too much time trying to optimize my ability to get that work done) is a challenge — and finding the right balance of routine and change is important, too.

As I switched from “work mode” to “browse the internet for 10 minutes before I meet my friends for lunch mode,” I did a couple things that made the shift more clean mentally. Then I decided I would share with you some of these little things I do, mostly without thinking about them, to help me work when I am working and relax when I am relaxing.

At work, I listen to music when I am working. When I start doing something else (email, chatting to friends who drop by, reading blog posts, tweeting) the music goes off.

After reading this Dynamic Ecology post about work hours in science, I started tracking my time. I do it in a very loose way, tracking only academic-related things (different science projects, email, fun science/academia reading, paper reading, etc) and not any other life activities. I use a free timer for Android called TimeSheet; it’s simple and has nice features. It’s been enlightening seeing how much work I am truly doing during the day. Knowing that it’s running reminds me to stay on task or read just one more paper even though I’m a bit bored. Also interesting: seeing how the peaks and troughs smooth out to a quite respectable average.

If I’m stuck in a procrastination loop or just really struggling with what I’m working on, I reset by going for a walk outside and often by making a cup of tea before I sit back down to the work at hand. Smaller version: close all programs and close my laptop, get up, stretch, sit back down and begin again.

I change my level of planning detail on a pretty regular basis. Right now, my outline for the week is very loose and vague (e.g., today’s list shows work on a phylogeny project in morning, lunch + walk, work on the postcrania project all afternoon plus some dissertation specimen planning, a Skype call, and a library book return task). You’ll notice that those aren’t very accomplishment-focused, other than returning the library book. Other times I work best if I map out very specific tasks to specific times of day. Other times I am motivated by setting discrete tasks and saying I’m done with work for the day when I am done with them. No one thing ever seems to work for me forever, so I’ve learned to just roll with whatever motivates me most at the time.

I use Chrome Nanny to block tempting websites like Twitter during specific times of day. Usually just in the morning; by afternoon, I tend to be in a working groove and capable of discipline.

On days when my focus seems totally shattered, I’ll do the “mental reboot” I mentioned earlier (walk, tea, or shut laptop) and then work in painfully tiny timed increments. When I’m really having a rough time, I start with 15 minutes. (You can type into Google, “Set timer for 15 minutes.” Magic.) I can do whatever I want after the 15 minutes, but for those 15 minutes I am not allowed to do anything but work. No bathroom break, no tea, no just-check-the-email-for-a-second. This bite-sized goal helps me work back up to more usual 50-minute chunks of focused work with short breaks in between.

If I am working on something and have distracting thoughts – about other research projects, about something I just remembered I need to do later, about a really great name for a cat, whatever – I write it down on scrap paper and leave it for after my work session.

Posts I have found useful that are about getting into and going to grad school

Author: Brianna

I had excellent mentoring as an undergraduate. Among the many wonderful things about being in the HopkinsDavis lab was their attention, when the time came, to giving us good and detailed advice throughout the graduate school application/admissions process. Potential labs to apply to, yes you really do need to apply for that NSF GRFP (thanks Sam!), feedback on essay structure, sympathy + a kick of motivation when all the deadlines collided, a sounding board for the Actual Decision About Where To Go For Grad School needed to be made, and more.

Anyway, there’s a new crop of undergrads at the UO pondering grad school, and I promised to write up a collection of blog posts I’d found useful. They’re mostly focused on Biology-type or at least science programs, because that’s what I do. I post the list and my comments here in hopes that it may be useful to other readers too! Feel free to add your own suggestions, particularly more recent posts, in the comments.


Dynamic Ecology (a great blog to read in general!) with some thoughts on what to do before and while applying to graduate school.

Clear and concise advice on the whole thing (with a math/comp sci focus) from Matt Might, including book recommendations, what he looks for in grad students, what to do if you’re rejected, and lots more. Actually, his many posts on grad school/research/academia are well worth taking some time to read as a current or future grad student; you could start with the ‘related posts’ down at the bottom of that one.

Contacting professors

Writing to me” (about graduate school) from Female Science Professor. Discussion of levels of quality, and her likelihood of responding, from form letter to very well-considered.

Advice on choosing and applying, including emphasis on finding a potential advisor, in geology. From Mountain Beltway. (Listen to his advice about file-naming for your CV.)

More specific advice on contacting potential advisors, including some direct examples of emails, from Neurotypical?.

My general advice: be polite (use Dr. or Professor in the salutation, check that you haven’t left any copy/paste errors if you’re reusing parts of an email, don’t go on for paragraphs, show that you’ve done your homework), ask questions, definitely contact current students, try as hard as you can to actually meet professors of interest before applying to work with them, ask friends and colleagues for labs they know of that might be a good fit, and Google is your friend for finding potential labs you might not have otherwise heard of.


My grad school application essay” from Female Science Professor, including rules on not talking about how you have wanted to do X since you were 5 years old. And a really amusing shot at the Platonic ideal of a bad applications essay.

Things you should do and not do in your personal statement, from Prof-Like Substance.

Excellent advice on asking for letters of recommendation from Arthropod Ecology. (You know it’s a good post if I’m actually linking to a website THAT USES PICTURES OF SPIDERS IN ITS HEADER.)

Another note from me: start early. Submitting things at the last minute = mistakes, and almost certainly means you haven’t had enough people read and give thorough feedback on your application materials. Having good, critical editing is invaluable for the personal statement and research essays. Ask research mentors! Ask current grad students! This can be tough if you’re still taking classes, so plan ahead. (You will probably still end up scrambling at the last minute. If you do, try to take the brunt of the suffering yourself; don’t, for example, ask for a letter of rec with 3 days’ notice.)


Good questions to ask current (biomedical) grad students.

It’s not an interview,” pay attention to cost of living, and other advice on grad school interviews from Not the Lab.

If you’re wondering what to wear (which I certainly did), I’d say it’s about comparable to what grad students wear at conferences. Which doesn’t solve the problem if you haven’t been to conferences. Happily advice on conference-wear for my general area of science is much easier to find than on interview-wear. In short, something you’re comfortable in, and that is less casual than jeans but more casual than a suit, is probably fine (though I saw both jeans and suits when I interviewed). Be prepared for weather: cold places are cold, especially during interview season. When I interviewed at Harvard we got ~3ft of snow overnight and it took extra days to get home. Fun! If you want more detailed recommendations than that, here are a few more takes on the idea (mostly aimed at women): How to dress for a conference like a fashionable lady scientist, Women’s attire at AGU (geology meeting!), and a beautifully bitter/rebellious/uplifting “What can I wear to this conference?” poem from the kickass Meaghan at Mary Anning’s Revenge.

Choosing a program

Dr. Isis on two really important features to ponder: funding and placement.

Brief advice on several questions about choosing a program, from advisor choice to geographic preference to teaching opportunities, from Sociobiology.

Note that there are many differing opinions on going for a Masters degree before jumping into a PhD program. For example, this Dynamic Ecology post on choosing a program argues why doing a Masters can be a very good idea (and has other good advice besides). For what it’s worth, both halves of Fossilosophy came out of the same undergrad lab, and one of us is doing a MS first while the other went straight to PhD. We are both happy with our respective choices.

I will note that making the final decision was really tough for me. I think I could have been quite happy and successful in any of the three graduate programs that accepted me; in some ways that made the choice easier because it was probably hard to truly screw it up, but in other ways it made the choice very difficult indeed. Talk to people about it — I had many discussions with my undergrad advisors, my friends and labmates, and my family while mulling the choices over. There are many variables to consider and it’s a deeply personal decision. Don’t forget that, if you have more questions at this stage, you can still be in contact with your potential advisor and/or labmates to ask about more things you want to know.

That seems like a sufficient amount of material for now. Happy reading!

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!

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!

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.

Routine and flux in my academic life (or: if what you’re doing isn’t working, change what you’re doing)

Author: Brianna

The title of this post reflects one of the most basic approaches I take to my work patterns. Not to the science itself, mind; troubleshooting there is a different beast entirely and giving up too quickly is bad. I am talking about how, when, and where I work. If my current approaches aren’t doing it for me – especially if things that WERE working previously begin to STOP working – I pay attention. Often I will change my working style in response. This willingness to change helps me stay attuned to patterns and styles that keep me happy and productive. (There’s also an implied inverse: if what you’re doing is working, keep doing it.) As a result, I wind up with an interesting balance of routine and flux. It works for me, and I thought some people might find it interesting.

Part 1: Routine

First, it’s important to note that I am a creature of habit. I like to go to bed at around the same time and get up at around the same time every day. I like to make myself a giant cup of black tea with whole milk and sugar and drink it slowly. I love adding structure to unstructured time (more on that later). I like standing appointments with friends for a meal or coffee or rock climbing. I like to cook, but I’m also happy eating a few more or less unchanging meals for long periods of time.

For me, routine is a powerful tool against the squishiness inherent in academic work. If you fuss around not doing any work until 4pm but then hammer out a beautiful discussion and conclusion section for your paper over the next few hours, is it still a bad work day? If you fight with your R code all day with a short lunch break and at the end of the day you finally figure out what you were doing wrong, is it a productive day or a wasted one? If you spend all day in meetings and responding to emails and filling out paperwork, should you feel accomplished or frustrated?

Yeah. It’s complicated, and routine gives me some structure to work with. It also helps with decision fatigue, I think.

I usually set a rough schedule for the week, blocking off a couple hours at a time. First I fill in classes and other unmoving commitments like meetings with my advisor and lab meeting. Then I start assigning time to reading, writing, working on writing up projects from undergrad, data analysis, classwork, and so on. I try not to use blocks smaller than about an hour for any academic work. I know from experience that my focus is best from around 8am until I stop for lunch (somewhere between 11am and 1pm), so I usually concentrate writing and reading earlier in the day. In a future post, I’ll go into detail about my daily/weekly schedule, how I choose it, and especially how I handle my to-do list. I really, really love lists.

A few things I keep consistent: I roll into the office around 8am. I work until I am too hungry to ignore my food calling to me from the fridge. I work some more or go to class. I go home around 5pm and often head over to the climbing gym shortly thereafter. I read papers on couches or in chairs or coffee shops, not at my desk. I brainstorm with a pen and paper – always in the same notebook – and write at my desk (with external monitor + keyboard) unless I’m feeling stuck.

Earlier in the semester, I wrote a post about a few new habits I aimed to establish for grad school. New post soon evaluating last semester and laying out next semester’s goals, but the short answer is that I pretty much stuck with those habits. Especially biking. I love my bike and ride it everywhere, and I actually really missed it when I was home for break.

You may now adore my beautiful bike.
You may now adore my beautiful bike.

Who shaped my thinking?
Most of my ideas about routine have been inspired by a few sources. When I was just a wee freshman in undergrad, I learned a lot about building an effective routine for classwork from this Study Hacks post. In recent years, similar posts have expanded the idea of a fixed schedule and how to arrange that time. Most terms in undergrad, I’d go through three or four iterations of a schedule, with each weekday blocked out in hours. I would try to follow the schedule, note where I failed, then tweak and rearrange things until it worked for me and my rhythms. I do the same in graduate school and I’m grateful for all the practice I got as an undergrad. Like I said above, more detailed post on that soon.
Another source that went into my ruminations awhile ago was this 2011 blog post from a novelist: How I Went From Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words a Day. Though I’m not writing fiction in my daily work, I am writing an awful lot, including sometimes on big nebulous projects that have many parallels to big nebulous novels. The author used three main techniques to seriously boost her word count: mastering knowledge, time, and enthusiasm.
Finally, recently I’ve seen some press for a book on the routines of various famous writers, painters, and other artists. It’s called “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work,” by Mason Currey. I don’t know how strictly useful it is in terms of copying patterns – many of their sleeping schedules sound positively awful to me – but it’s nice to muse on other peoples’ methods and/or neuroses, and perhaps pick up an idea or two.

Part 2: Flux

The problem with any routine is that it, by definition, loses novelty. I stop truly appreciating the delicious combination of milk and sugar and black tea in the mornings. I get to the paper-reading time of day and it takes Herculean efforts of focus to make it through a single paper. I rearrange my books on the shelf and wash all the dishes and mop the floors because just about anything sounds better than sitting down to revise that discussion section.

My solution is to change something that doesn’t affect my ability to get work done, but shakes things up a little. Usually it has to do with where I work, because right now, the majority of my work can be done anywhere.

I’m set as long as I have a computer, notebook, pen, and maybe an internet connection. Preferably also music and a hot beverage. Over the fall semester, here are the places I accomplished large amounts of work:

  • Main office on campus: reading on the couch, LOTS of writing at my desk on many different papers.
  • Ernst Mayr library on campus: reading on the giant leather couch, one day of surprisingly productive writing on a class paper when I forgot my laptop power cord.
  • Field Station: basically like my other office, except I go for a nice walk outside when I get stuck on something. I’m not as good about that on the main campus.
  • Home: usually writing at the kitchen table and reading upstairs in the Papasan chair. I often work from home on Fridays.
  • Coffee shop halfway between my apartment and campus: mostly writing. And biscotti. Mmmm.
  • Rock climbing gym: they have a lounge, a big work area with couches and sitting tables and standing tables, and treadmill desks. It’s glorious, I’m telling you. Have done great big swaths of writing papers on that treadmill desk and a good bit of reading in the work area. Plus, built-in break time: go climb, work for a couple hours, go climb some more…

I think those are all my regular places from the fall semester. The key is that I tend to stick with one as my major workplace for awhile, occasionally dropping in to the other places, before I make a switch. The switch only happens when what I am doing isn’t working. For example, early in the semester I did virtually all of my work in my office. When I could barely get myself to sit down on the reading couch in November, I hauled myself up to the library with a big cup of tea and promptly cruised through a giant stack of papers.

I change other things, too. Early in the semester I hand-wrote notes for all the papers I read in my research notebook, then later transferred those into Zotero annotations. Later, I stopped appreciating the aesthetic experience of handwriting into a notebook and craved speed, so I typed directly into Zotero. For most of the semester, I used my iPad for paper reading. After I found myself continuously switching to Facebook on the iPad instead, I printed off a stack of papers and banished myself from electronic devices for awhile. Sometimes I sought out people to work with, sometimes solitude. I started drinking Good Earth Original spiced tea for awhile instad of plain old black tea, and then even switched to Constant Comment! WHAT WILL SHE DO NEXT?

You get the idea. If what you’re doing isn’t working, change what you’re doing. You will notice that none of my shifts were an easy way out or an elaborate way to procrastinate…they just changed the context in which I was working, which seems to give my brain just enough novelty to help me settle down and just get to work already. Laying out the changes all in a row makes it seem like I flit more or less steadily from one working style to another (phyletic gradualism?), but I can assure you that the experience is much more of a punctuated equilibrium.

Who shaped my thinking?
I think my approach to regular change has come mostly out of just observing my own work habits and paying attention to what improves productivity. Nevertheless, I’ve certainly pulled ideas from a few places over the years.
Not surprisingly, more in the way of the Study Hacks blog. I’m telling you, there’s some serious gold in there, especially for undergrads looking to establish good working patterns early on. Adventure studying/work emphasizes changing your physical location, and here’s a post on context that discusses beer, for those of you who are into that sort of thing.
If you haven’t read about the pomodoro technique (basically work in short timed bursts), it’s useful. I don’t use this when things are going well, but if I am having a hard time bringing my mind to the task at hand or am procastinating like a madwoman, this approach gets me back on track.

I should note that this is particular to the scheduling flexibilities I have now, as a PhD student. According the whining discussion I hear from my more senior friends, meetings and paperwork and other undesirable things soon begin to fragment one’s schedule. I could take this as an interestingly reversed “uphill both ways in the snow” situation (it’s just that instead of “back in the day,” it’s “just you wait…”), but mostly I pay attention because I believe them. I think it’s instructive and motivating. If I can’t manage my time effectively when I have close to 100% control over my schedule and few commitments, how will I survive later? Right. So my goal is always to optimize my working habits for the situation I am currently in, while recognizing that over time that situation will change.

I am looking forward to revisiting my old routines now that I am back in Cambridge. It’s been a lovely winter vacation: two weeks back home in Oregon soaking up the time with friends and family and my cats and dog and horse, then a couple weeks in Austin for the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting, plus more friends and family. I like my apartment and my own bed. Especially my own pillow. And, awesome bonus: we’re catsitting! That’s right, came home to two adorable fluffy felines prowling around. Very pleased.

I’ll be spending more time out at the field station this spring and possibly doing some Actual Data Collection. But other than that, I don’t expect my working habits to change much. Read, write, study, think. Happily those are some of my favorite things, and undoubtedly I’ll find one or two new places in which to do them when the routine needs a little flux again.

How to stay warm at scientific meetings: The Four-Step process

Author: Kelsey

We are currently at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology’s annual meeting in Austin, Texas. (There’s a sweet twitter feed, so check it out for snippets of awesome research from attendees!) Thanks to that polar vortex or whatever, it’s 21 degrees outside. So much for a winter conference in Texas, right? After a few miserable moments, we have decided to codify conference thermoregulatory strategy for you, our lovely readers. You’re welcome.

1) Assume the rooms will be over air-conditioned

We understand that it’s hygienic to keep the rooms cooler than your average pub or college dorm room (both excellent breeding grounds for both ideas and bacteria), but sometimes whoever is controlling the magical climate-control nob gets a little over zealous. Also, sitting still for an hour or more leads to heat loss.

2) Dress in classy layers

Sadly, winter hats are usually not acceptable in a conference room, even though we lose a fair amount of body heat from our heads alone! It helps to have warm and cool layers- thinner shirts underneath thicker sweaters and warm coats. Scarves look awesome AND are warm, and gloves are a good call if you have a bit of a walk to the conference center from where you’re staying. We suggest upper body layering for the conference itself, as it is much easier to take off a coat than try to unzip an outer pair of pants without alarming the entire room. Also, you can’t go wrong with smart-wool socks.

3) Jackets are worth it

I (the Kelsey-half of Fossilosophy) always tuck my very thin and warm jacket into my relatively small bag. It’s come in useful several times for me and my colleagues, but it’s light enough that I don’t regret bringing it if I never use it. Microweight down jackets, light windbreakers, etc go nicely in this category.

4) Hit up the hot coffee and tea frequently

Some people might call this the tea break time, but it’s really all about the hot coffee, don’t believe Brianna. That being said, any sort of hot liquid and calories you can ingest will keep your core temperature up longer. The hot cup can also warm your hands. Really, it’s kind of like a ski trip in this way. For bonus points, bring your own travel mug so you can fill up a larger cup during the break and have hot, delicious coffee hours later when the mean people have taken the coffee service away.

Cold-weather whining aside, it has been a most excellent conference. I hope these handy tips will save you from shivering away and missing the nuance during the kickass symposia at your next conference.