Thursday, April 17, 2014

How to present your proposal

Continuing with the pile of questions that I have which deserve a spot in the Q&A series, I would like to expand on the following question, which I got through Twitter:



First of all, you might like to think about the outline of your presentation. Don't just throw information randomly at your listeners. Instead, follow a logic. Essentially, there are two outlines you can use:
1. Deduction of results from experiments
- Introduction / Motivation of the research
- Literature review / background info
- Experiments
- Analysis of the experiments
- Results
- Conclusions
2. QOD approach
- Introduction / Motivation of the research
- Literature review / background info
- Proposition
- Proof (this can be based on experiments)
- QOD / Conclusions

With that said, we are talking here about a proposal, so the research is just starting, and you are mostly focusing on the value of your research.
Since the goal of your proposal presentation is to convince your committee that your line of research is worth leading to a doctoral dissertation, you need use a persuasive presentation rather than an informative presentation.
Moreover, since you are defending your proposal, you probably only have a vague idea yet of the direction in which your data analysis will lead you. You can't promise certain results in your presentation, so you should focus on the motivation of the research.

If you want to take that focus on your motivation one step farther, you can dedicate one slide to the greater impact of this research. Will it have an influence on the (local) economy? Will your results be valuable for the industry? Will your research fit somewhere in the cure for a disease? Try to get a helicopter overview of how your research would fit into your field, and then into the world.

Come prepared as well: have an idea of the methods that you will be using, have a good understanding of the literature in this field, and do a careful estimate of what your research results might look like. For example: will you be gathering data on a certain topic, or will you develop software or a tech tool? Have an idea of the direction where you want to go.

Which other elements should this reader add to the slides of his proposal presentation? Share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The second life of the dissertation

The day I received my dissertation as a printed and published document, I considered it a final, finished entity of writing. I thought of it as a milestone, or even a giant monument in my life.

And for a few months, it felt like a finished entity indeed.

But then things changed. As I started working on my papers, I started working with the dissertation again. I started to look up in my dissertation how I precisely did certain things, and I started to look up my experimental data.

My dissertation became a tool. It is on my desk, and I use it often.

And now that I am using it often, I am aware of the flaws in my work. There are theoretical elements that I am refining. There are typing errors. There are printing errors (a few rows of the overview table of my experiments is missing, and I didn't notice that in the print proof). I came to realize that my dissertation was not the holy grail for which I took it.

I'm still very proud of my dissertation, and I still believe in the value of my work - but I'm also bothered by the mistakes I found months after publication.

I've come to understand that my dissertation marks a milestone in a learning process, in a process in which I evolved into an independent researcher, but it is not the end - not the end of my research on shear in slabs, nor the end of my writing on this topic.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The balance between planning and room for spontaneity

More Q&A today!

I recently got the following interesting question:

Question: does/did it feel depressing to plan your life?

Much advice suggests planning as the panacea against the ills of procrastination and a sure promise of a high quality of life, but... isn't there something sad about allocating time in a planner for 'non-business' activities -- 'from 7-8pm on Wednesdays I read novel X'? Do you find a life that's regimented like this depressing or not at all? More broadly, self-help literature focuses on how to get yourself to a particular ideal, but is that ideal appealing? Would you agree that that ideal is at odds with the joy of life? Or, are freedom and spontaneity values for the weak among us? Your thoughts would be much appreciated.


My original quick answer was the following:

That's an excellent question - and something I've been musing about for some time.

Sometimes, I reach the point where I feel like I *have to* go to the gym, and *have to* journal and all that. Most of the times, however, I like having a plan for my evening, because otherwise I'll just end up browsing the internet and then feeling as if my time just slipped through my fingers.

However, from time to time, I try to stop and think: "What would feel really good now? What do I crave?". I'm a linear thinker and a planner, but I need to connect more often to my body and feminine energy and think of what would feel just right in this very moment.


As I've been doing in my previous Q&A posts, let me break down this question in different chunks:

1. planning as the panacea against the ills of procrastination and a sure promise of a high quality of life

Planning helps to achieve goals - that's for sure. You can't be working on a big life project if you don't manage to carve out a bit of time for it every now and then. Similarly, I think it is more valuable to have a plan for your evening than to come home and fret away the evening in front of the TV (which I consider doing nothing), or surfing the internet.

2. Do you find a life that's regimented like this depressing or not at all?

As long as it doesn't feel like pressure, it should be fine... And that's the tricky part. As I wrote in my original answer, sometimes I feel like I "have" to blog in the evening, and "have" to study the lectures in the MOOCs that I'm following - while all I really want to do is take a book and crawl into my bed and sleep early. I tend to freak out a little bit as well when I get short-notice invites - because then it doesn't fit my planning and I have to change things around.
Along the same lines, I sometimes get a little disheartened when I compare my plan of everything I'd like to do in the evening or weekend, and what I really get accomplished. Then I feel as if I have failed - while I probably am just setting too high standards for myself.

3. More broadly, self-help literature focuses on how to get yourself to a particular ideal, but is that ideal appealing?

That is an excellent question - I float between wanting to make sure I eat clean, wake up very early, drink my green juice, work out, meditate and do all the "right" things, and just wanting to go to a party, eat all the cheese, drink a cup too much, go to bed super late and sleep deep into the next day...
I try to focus on the question: "What feels good for myself right now?", but it is difficult. It's hard to listen to your inner guidance and do the right thing for yourself when the whole world seems to be having ideas on how you should be behaving.

4. Would you agree that that ideal is at odds with the joy of life?

It really depends.... I get a lot of joy out of being able to solve difficult problems, study material online, play music and all these activities that get "planned" for my evenings. Similarly, I enjoy achieving a big goal in life.
But at the same time, sometimes I feel like I'm living a rather Spartan life, pushing myself at all moments of the day and trying to excel in every possible field.

5. Or, are freedom and spontaneity values for the weak among us?

Not at all - I think there is a lot of beauty and wisdom in spontaneity. As I mentioned earlier, the ability to listen to your personal needs, and identifying what would feel right at this moment in time, is an important skill. More than anything, I think many of us need to learn to slow down and listen to ourselves and our personal needs. So, if freedom and spontaneity come from your center, from your personal needs, then it is absolutely OK. When you are trying to conform to someone else's needs or society's pressure, then I think you are moving away from your self.

These are just my random thoughts on this topic - but I think this is an excellent topic for further discussion. So please, share your thoughts and musings in the comments!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Tips for Productive Planning and Using Lists

It's Q&A time! I recently got this question from a reader, and would like to expand on it in a full post.

The question is the following, as a comment to the post on my PhD schedule:

To me, it sounds like you have it all figured out so well... that it almost depressing to read for someone who is not able to meet her own plannings ;-) (and yes, I do make lists for evenings etc. too, but I can't always put them into reality)...
Even my supervisors now think that I will not mee the goal (only have three months left to finish my PhD)...

So any hints for more productivity and sticking with lists?

Or how to deal with it when you have another view on the planning than your supervisors?


My quick reply was the following:

Though question - and I'll expand on it in a post (need to think a little deeper about that!).

But - one of the things that helps, is to cut out all the "crap". Try to really stick to what matters in terms of replying your research question.

And experiment with different productivity tricks to see what works for you. We all have different learning styles, so it takes some trying out to see what works for yourself (although I understand you're pretty pressed for time!)

(Oh, and BTW, I HAD things figured out when I was a PhD student. Now that I'm a fresh assistant professor, I'm again trying to get it all together)


Since I promised to think a little deeper about this question, I decided to look at the different elements in this question.

1. It sounds like you have it all figured out so well

Honestly, I don't have it all figured out. Yes, during my PhD I had a working schedule, but now that I've just started as an assistant professor, I feel like I'm starting all over again, with new challenges.
We never have it all figured out. We never know it all. Life is about searching and experimenting, and that is the whole journey.
You might like to remember Kavafis' poem here:

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.


2. Not being able to meet your own planning

I wrote about what to do when your planning fails previously.
As with everything, finding a planning that works for you, is an iterative process. You make a planning, find out that you are thinking you can do more in a day than what actually gets done, so next time you plan less work to be done in a day.
What helps, is to closely monitor how you spend your time. I use ManicTime for tracking my time, so that I can learn how much time things really take.
And then, when all is said and done, and your planning just won't work: take a deep breathe, don't get mad at yourself, and just start all over again. You'll get there eventually!

3. Even my supervisors now think that I will not meet the goal

Prove them wrong ;-)! Get ruthlessly efficient at cutting out what does not matter over the next 3 months, and steam ahead with full determination. Whatever parts of your research that are interesting look deeper into, but are not directly related to your research question: but that in the freezer and focus on your research question. Monitor yourself constantly. Try to pump up your motivation by rewarding yourself with a treat in the evening if you manage to meet your written word count for the day, or the part of calculations you needed to do.

4. What to do when you have another view on the planning than your supervisors?

Your PhD is your journey towards becoming an independent researcher. Since you're almost at the end, I assume you've reached quite some levels of independence by now.
When it comes to knowing your work rhythm, you are the expert. Nobody besides you knows when you do your best work (at night, or early mornings, for example). Nobody besides you knows how much rest you need to be able to stay focused on your work. Nobody besides you can make your planning.
You have a clear view of your goal, so arrange your planning in the way it works best for you - and defend your working schedule to your supervisors. They'll like to know what your plans are, and when they can expect your chapters and results.

5. Any hints for more productivity and sticking with lists
- Don't put too much in your planning: Something that I myself am guilty of. I tend to plan every single minute of my days, but there's always something that happens, so that things get postponed. Seeing at the end of the day that you could not do all you wanted to do is distressing. So, try to plan only 75%-80% of your time, and leave the rest as "buffer" to deal with whatever trouble comes your way.
- Try the Pomodoro technique. I wrote about it here and here, and it still works well for me to get through tedious tasks.
- Switch off all distractions. If need be, use Leechblock or something similar to keep you away from websites that distract you. Put your phone on silent. Use noise-cancelling headphones. Close your office door. Given the time pressure that you are facing, this is not the right time to chit chat away your afternoons.
- Keep separate lists. I use ToDoist.com and track different lists: admin, errands, waiting for, writing papers, tasks work, goals 2014 - to name a few of the different lists that I use.
- Prioritize: Know your 3 MITs of the day, your 3 Most Important Tasks. These would be 3 actions that keep your dissertation moving forward. Do these first thing in the morning, so that you know that you are on a roll.
-Take good care of yourself. Eat well, sleep enough, exercise - you might think that you now don't have time for that, but, more than anything, you don't have time to get sick and/or sluggish. Keep your energy levels high by taking good care of yourself.

I hope these tips will help you, and if you have further questions, or want to talk more about your situation, feel free to reach out to me! You can do it!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Passing the Peak Moment of the Semester

I recently wrote about how I am struggling with my schedule during my first semester of teaching. All those journal papers that I was going to churn out quickly from my dissertation - don't ask me about them!

But the tides are turning. The peak moment of the semester seems to be beyond me, and things start to look a little more manageable now. I needed a lot of time to prepare my lecture notes. Generally, I need 4 hours of preparation time for an hour of lecture. For the Reinforced Concrete design classes, I can sometimes make it in 1,5 hours to 2 hours, but for Pavements, a course that is slightly outside of my field of expertise, I need more time to look for extra material. I just don't have that many books and stories readily available for that class.

I'm still trying to get all my paperwork under control. I still need to get my local driver's license. I am still familiarizing myself with the procedure of the new university. I still need to find out from which stores to find certain things (becoming rather urgent: finding who can import the eye contacts that I wear - I have a large correction so these contacts are typically not readily available).

Moving countries always induces culture shock as well. I'm still going through that whole process, and there are days that I longingly look for a light-blue KLM plane in the sky and secretly wish they could take me "home". And other days I enjoy the pleasant climate, smile at the abundance of produce in my home-delivered box of organic fruit and veggies, realize how fortunate I am to be hired at the same institution as my husband, and think that I landed in the perfect spot at the perfect time.

Now that my proposal for the first stage of the laboratory is in the hands of the People With The Money and my class notes are prepared, I finally can get back to what I enjoy doing most - my own research.

Grading takes time, but I'm approaching it more and more in efficient ways. I start to get a feeling of control over the situation.

It took a good number of months, but I'm finally getting back into a good exercise routine. I lost a lot of strength, and 10 minutes on the treadmill feels like running to the end of the world, but at least I am doing something. And yes, exercising give me more energy, exercising helps me sleep more soundly at night, and generally makes me feel better. So it was long overdue that I signed up for the gym.

Admin stuff still takes a tremendous amount of time. I get way more email than when I was a PhD student, and it takes me about an hour every day to weed through it all, reply, and archive the messages that require these actions. Since I'm still relatively new, I still have to make quite a number of trips to the Human Resources office to get documents sorted out. I'm really looking forward to the day that all this admin stuff will be behind me - but I'm afraid that's just part of the deal.

One of the challenges that I am facing as well, is that I get interrupted a lot. While I encourage students to come to my office for whichever doubts or trouble they have, it is not very productive when I switch between cracking a research problem and attending to students. I might over time need to retreat to my home office for a couple of hours a day to do my deep work. One solution has been to go to the office early, at 7am, to use the silent hours for difficult work.

Since I've tried to set a limit to the hours I work on a daily basis, and since I've tried not to work past 6pm (with moderate success), I've noticed some improvements in my self-care routines. I'm not finding a way to fit it all into my days yet, but I've been spending some enjoyable evenings crafting with my sister-in-law, studying a Food Science MOOC, playing Zelda, and cooking experimental dishes. I've also had a few mornings in which I actually woke up before my alarm started ringing.

To conclude, I can say that this has been (and still is!) an awfully busy semester. But I started to get a few projects under control, take more time for myself (it's not like I need to get tenure by the age of 35 or that my life depends on it...) and to take a more relaxed approach to work and life.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

When Procrastination makes your Motivation sink

More Q&A time! (Yes, I'm currently trying to work through a backlog of questions that deserve a longer answer).
The question we are dealing with today is about procrastination, and was posted as a comment on 7 ways to motivate yourself.

The original question was the following:

I dont find it very motivational..everyday I make new strategy but do not why its never implemented ....what should i do now...I know that I have to follow it very strictly...but I wll defer work every time...and the end of the day I am very angry at me...please help me somebody!!

And my quick answer read as follows:

Take a break, get rid of the stress, high expectations and pressure on yourself in the first place.

Then, make a planning that looks too easy - and try to stick to it. If you manage to do so, treat yourself to doing whatever you feel like in the evening (great dinner, movie, bath, you name it).


Let's look at the elements of the original question, and break these down into parts that we can discuss.

1. everyday I make new strategy

Don't try a new day planning or strategy every single day. Instead, try to set up a template for your day planning, and gradually implement it.
For example, try to implement a healthy morning routine, then set aside an hour for reading, then 2 hours for data analysis, then half an hour to clear your inbox to zero, then the afternoon for writing and the evening for whichever activity you like. This is just an example, listen very carefully to yourself and try to figure out which part of the day you have the right energy for each of these tasks.
You won't get it "right" from the start. Just be gently on yourself, acknowledge that you are experimenting with your schedule, and see where the flow takes you.

2. My planning never gets implemented

Here's where you need to get your monkey brain under control and reason with yourself. Checking facebook might give you pleasure at this very moment, but at the same time you are depriving yourself of the ability to go home early and do something you really enjoy.
Try to first observe your own behavior: What type of procrastination are you susceptible to? What triggers this kind of procrastination? How often do you feel the urge to leave your work and do something else?
Now that you know what is really going, try to watch the urge, and just hang in that feeling of unpleasantness, and then watch the urge go away. This mindfulness technique is one of the most powerful methods to get a hold of your impulses.

3. I know that I have to follow it very strictly

NO!!!! You're not trying to whip yourself to death, you're not trying to work yourself to exhaustion. What you need is a continuous movement forward. If you are constantly putting stress and pressure on yourself, you will dislike your work day. Try to find pleasure in your work. Remind yourself of why you were drawn to PhD studies in the first place. Remember that being able to do research is an intellectual privilege that not many people are granted. Most people have to obey a boss and do back-breaking mind-numbing work. If you have the opportunity to do research, pursue your intellectual whims and enjoy academic independence, you should realize that you are actually very lucky. So remember that science is fun, and find that lightness back in your work.

4. At the end of the day I am very angry at me

It's awfully frustrating to realize at the end of the day that your day was pretty much wasted time. I know the feeling very well, and I think many of us can relate to it in some way. You might have spent the entire day trying to get your computer back running. You have a crash in the late afternoon and lose a couple of day's worth of writing in your article/dissertation. You might have fretted the day away doing minor tasks such as e-mailing, doing some admin work, and *bam* time is up.
Know that this happens to everybody from time to time. If you have a procrastination problem, it might happen often to you. But consider yourself as "in rehab", trying to kick a bad habit. Don't get mad at yourself. If you fail today, tomorrow is a blank slate again. Tomorrow you start again with 24 hours to fill at your disposal. It might help to journal. When I go through bouts of having poor concentration and not getting my work moving forward, I journal about it. I grade myself for a couple of days. One day will be a 4/10 in terms of productivity, and then I analyze in my journal what precisely went wrong. The next day might be a 7/10, and then I celebrate my success and see why I was feeling motivated. It could be because I worked out in the morning. It could be because I ate something that did not make me lethargic. It could be some good news that made feel like a million bucks.

I hope these thoughts help, and if you have more questions, feel free to reach out to me!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

One Week until The Best Way to a Successful PhD!

Before Arjenne's webinar, I wrote about her new course, which will start soon, "The Best Way to a Successful PhD"

Do you want to finish your thesis successfully and in time? Make sure you join ‘The best way to a successful PhD!’, starting April 10th.

Here is a glimpse of what you can expect:

- your writing process as efficient and effective as possible

- clear steps to deal with your literature

- tools to stay motivated

- a daily, weekly and PhD planning that will actually support you

- ways to get the right kind of feedback from your supervisors

- tips on communication to achieve your goals

And that is just the beginning…

In 50 days you will learn everything you need to know to become a successful academic. To good to be true? Not in this case. Previous participants have reported back about the amazing results they got. In this program, you’ll learn

•Exactly those skills to finish your PhD successfully and in time
•No more no less -> that’s the benefit of my experience
•Work with the materials at times that suit you (because the program is online)
•Weekly accountability (to keep you on track)
•Weekly webinar and Q&A session (so you can ask everything you need to know)

Check it out here and make sure you join in time. The course starts next week, April 10th.

Note: I'm using an affiliate link in this post.
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