Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Grad School Time Management

Grad school's different from pretty much all school before it.

In high school, everything was very structured, with the same classes happening every day. You always knew what homework you had to do because you either had to hand it in the next day, or your teacher reminded you about it.

In university during undergrad, things are a little less structured than in high school, but it was still possible to keep track of everything. You could easily write down your assignments in a paper planner, and in computer science, there weren't usually many large term projects until fourth year. Even then, it was possible to finish in a few days at the end of the term (ahem ... you didn't hear it from me).

Then comes grad school. You can forget everything you used to know about time management, because while it might seem like it's working, it probably won't for long. Courses in grad school are really different from undergrad courses. There are still set assignments, but these assignments are usually more open ended and take longer to complete. Now you also have to read papers, give presentations, and do a big term project. These projects are often more research-oriented, and tend not to be the types you can finish up the night before.

I have always been very good at time management, thanks in part to my organizational skills. Things kind of went ok when I started my Masters, though I think I was thrown off by having fewer courses with more work each. But when it came time to direct my own research project... it got a lot harder. That's when things are really open ended, and it can be easy to lose track of yourself.

I did a lot of things wrong during my Masters, but lo and behold, I've learned from my mistakes. Here's how I've been keeping things straight so far in my PhD adventure (which, mind you, only began September 2009, but seems to be going much better so far).

(1) Carpool

When I drove myself to school, I often figured I'd go in after rush hour; after all, sitting in traffic for more than twice the normal off-peak commuting time actually really stinks. But if I do that, I may as well not show up to campus until my class actually starts. Then, to avoid the rush home, I may as well leave at 3pm. I could work from home before and after being on campus.

Except I don't.

I have no idea why, but this strategy seemed to lead to sleeping in, finding chores to do, generally being distracted... The amount of actual work I did wasn't what it could have been.

So this year, I started carpooling with my husband, since he works pretty close to campus. Now I have to get up, I have to be on campus all day, and I may as well do something useful while I'm stuck here. Oh, and I don't get to leave until 5:30pm. It's amazing how much my productivity has gone up - I even have weekends free (at least for now)!

(2) Keep a time sheet

This is going to sound more annoying than useful, but trust me. This works.

Tracking all your work hours can be an incredible way to make yourself accountable to... yourself. Oddly enough, even though nobody else will ever see how my time breaks down, I feel that I must push myself to meet my own goals in terms of time spent on certain activities. This can also mean not spending too much time on other things that are much more enjoyable than that annoying bug in the ol' research project (you know, like CU-WISE stuff - much more fun).

When I was trying to write my thesis for my Masters, I used a time sheet that tracked number of pages written rather than hours spent. I even used a formula in the spreadsheet to set a goal and see how many page I had to do that day to reach it. You can modify what you track to suit whatever it is you need to get done.

I currently use a Google Docs spreadsheet for my time sheet. This is the template that I copy every week and fill in. This is a nice easy-access, flexible solution. Give a try, and keep honest!

(3) Keep research organized

This has suddenly become even more important to me than ever. I'm trying to juggle a survey-based psychology class with a data structures class, finishing up a paper for my Masters research, and working on ideas for upcoming projects. If I can't keep it all straight, I'll spend more time trying to remember where I left off than moving forward.

I've written about research tools and organization here and here. My current setup involves Mendeley for reading papers and taking initial notes, a Google Notebook for a list of tools and interesting links (since Notebook is no longer supported, you might also try Delicious, which I'm starting to use now), and Google Docs for jotting down research ideas and keeping a dynamic to-do list.

There are just some of the things I do to manage my time effectively; what are some of your tricks?


Ioana Burcea said...

One thing that I find indispensable for my work is VNC. I didn't use it in the beginning, but once I started using it, I can't work without it :)

Good luck with your PhD!

Kate said...

TsoukalasAs for #1, I can totally relate. In my undergrad I commuted to school and during graduate school I lived on campus. SUCH a difference to be able to spend as much time as needed in the lab every day (and I did, because I didn't really want to work at home anyway, but I didn't get work done there either). I totally recommend treating grad school ... Read Morelike a job and working in the lab 9-5 (or some semblance of a regular workday). :)

I do not know many people who can be as productive at home as they can be at work.

I thought of something else in the midst of copying this comment here from FB. BACK UP EVERYTHING! I found it really helpful to use subversion, especially when doing my final thesis research. It was handy to keep non-code items there as well, the latex docs for my thesis and other evolving documentation were easily updated and accessed from a variety of locations. This was crucial because when juggling a thesis and a more than part-time internship, I was sometimes forced to work outside of the lab, and this enabled me to maintain my efficiency no matter where I was.

One other thing I've heard and tried in a limited way is to keep your home desk/office as similar as possible to your work/lab one. This goes for computers as well. Keep the same applications, the same tools, the same writing utensils, so that moving from one location to another is as seemless as possible.

Gail Carmichael said...

@Ioana VNC - what a great idea! Wonder how hard it would be to set that up...?

@Kate: Excellent point about backing everything up. I want to set up SVN on my web host (Host Monster) and am pretty sure I can, but don't know how. Yet. I hope to do that SOON!

Collin said...

Great ideas! also works beyond grad school.

VNC: setup is trivial. they say that the other thing -- freenx -- is better, but vnc setup definitely easier.

Ioana Burcea said...

VNC is quite easy to set up. It depends on your work environment (windows, linux, mac). But there are versions for any combination. I have a vnc server running on one machine at school in linux, I connect to it from either school (also linux) or home (from a mac). Depending on your admins at school, you may even have some versions installed already. Feel free to send me an email if you need help.

oske said...

Just one comment on VNC...

I've been using iMac for almost 5 years for now at school for my research and had been very happy with VNC until last month!

My machine was hacked and the only open ports were VNC, ssh, ftp, and http. I had to throw away my hard disk and of course lost my WHOLE data on the disk. After getting the new disk with a new version of MacOS on it, I opened the same ports only and guess what! My machine crashed again.

Now, I do not use VNC and my machine has been working fine since then :) Apparently, VNC is not secure at all! I'm back to good old SSH :) Oh, one useful thing if you decide to give up on VNC is, SSHFS. You can mount any machine you want on your local machine over ssh and edit any files. Secure and a bit more user-friendly than command line!

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