Sunday, July 27, 2014

Writers' Lab: 10 Tips for more productive academic writing

Over the past year, I've been mostly focused on writing. As I finished my dissertation, I started to work on the journal articles that I want to publish from my dissertation, which completely covered the time I was spending working for TU Delft as a researcher. All the rest of my days got taken up by teaching activities - organizing 3 new courses in a semester is quite something!

For the little bit of time that I could devote to writing, I tried to be as focused as I could to get maximum results. From this practice, I've come to the conclusion that the following ten elements are crucial to productive academic writing:

1. Consistent practice

I could have waited with working on my papers until I had all my course material prepared, but I tried to fit about 10 hours of research into my weekly schedule. I deeply admire academics who manage to spend the first hours of their day on writing, and nothing else, but so far, I have not had success with getting into a routine of writing first thing in the morning, every day. However, I've been writing almost every workday, usually at least 3 days a week. I'm used to write continuously, as I did during the months that I wrote my dissertation, so it feels a little odd to break off my work after just 2 or 3 hours of writing, but it is great practice to keep things moving forward.

2. Deliberate practice

If you only have 2 hours on a day to get some writing done, it better be 2 really focused hours. I tend to lose my concentration quickly, and drift off on tangents, but over the past months I've been trying to build up a better concentration during my writing hours, and then enjoy some more relaxing (or at least, less brain-intensive time) during the hour that I have reserved for clearing out my mailbox. Getting into the flow and going full speed face-forward is key here, to squeeze as much results out of a tiny bit of time.

3. Have a plan(ning) for every piece

Before I start writing a paper, I make an outline and estimate how much time each part of the paper will take me. I break it down into pomodoro sessions, and then royally schedule that time into my planner. Since I use my Google Calendar to plan hour by hour, I usually plan to do 2 pomodoros (1 hour of intensive work) in a time block of 1,5 hours - that gives me some buffer during the day.

4. Have a general plan(ning)

When preparing to write a number of journal papers, it's not a bad idea to have a planning of when you will write which paper (it might take more time than you initially thought, as I learned...). Once the papers start rolling out and being submitted, you'll need to keep track of when you can expect the answers from the editors, when you need to resubmit, and all that. I'm keeping a Google Doc spreadsheet with an overview of these papers, so that my co-authors can also see where we are with the papers.

5. Hone your skills

You don't only want to become a more productive writer, as in, someone who cranks out a lot of words in a row, but also as in a sense that you get more of your work published in great journals. And that only happens when you improve your writing. Practice makes perfect, and putting some deliberate practice into improving your writing style will pay off in the long term. Try out a more drastic revision strategy to get better paragraphs. Pay attention to active and passive voice. Vary the length of your sentences and paragraphs. Make sure you use the same tense throughout your writing. Become aware of the mistakes you most commonly make.

6. Document your steps

Prepare for writing journal papers from the very first steps of doing any type of research. Keep track of your references, in any reference management software you like. Compile reports in which you describe the process that you followed. Add a tab of version management to your spreadsheets. Make sure everything is up for grabs once you get started with writing your papers.

7. Measure your progress

Measure your output to know how you are doing. You can use Word's word count function to get an idea of your progress on a day. You can keep a score sheet for yourself and write down the number of words per day you write (I did this throughout all the months that I wrote my dissertation, trying to beat my own record every now and then). If you like, use the PhDometer from PhD2Published, which I used to track my word output when writing my dissertation.

8. Use shortcuts

Don't waste time moving around your mouse to select everything - memorize the most important keyboard shortcuts. If you type a lot of formulas, either move to LaTex or Open Office, or use MathType as a plugin for MS Word. If you use MathType, again, learn the keyboard shortcuts for brackets, roots, fractions, greek letters and more, so that you can simply type out your formulas.

9. Find your best writing tools

Should you use MS Word? Unless your papers need to be submitted as .doc files, you are not limited to MS Word. Many people prefer Scrivener, or other writing environments. Have access to a good reference management software, so that you can keep your literature just a mouse-click away. Know what works for you to nip writer's block in the bud.

10. Reward yourself

Don't force yourself deep into the night, going without decent food or exercise - you'll just end up sick and/or feeling miserable. Put realistic goals, and then go home and enjoy your evening. You want to think consistent output, not spurts and then needing to recover for days on end.

What has helped you in terms of becoming a more productive academic writer? Please share your thoughts and experiences!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Being smart is not enough - Four factors necessary for success

While being smart can be a necessary condition for making it to the end of your PhD (or, more general, for being successful in life, regardless of what you do), it is not the only important factor. It might not even be the single most important factor.

When working towards a goal, four factors are equally important:

1. Intelligence

I just said that it is not the only factor that determines the outcome of your undertaking, but it is an important factor nonetheless. And we're talking about intelligence in the broad sense here - not just having a high IQ. We're also considering emotional intelligence, street smarts, wisdom when it comes to making choices in life, and tactic thinking when it comes to making career decisions, or deciding what to spend your time on.

2. Organization

If you take on a large project you want to bring to completion, such as a PhD, then you need to be organized. We've covered time management, managing a research project and more topics on getting organized and being productive on this blog before. Now is the day that we put everything in perspective, and I would like you to realize how all these elements are part of a bigger set of behaviors that increases your chances of positive outcomes.

3. Optimism

Don't worry be happy! We're not talking in the sense of going off to the beach and drinking cocktails (although you certainly should do this every now and then, just not continuously), but in the sense of taking life with ease and expecting the best. I've seen good students getting torn under by the quicksand of pessimism. Don't fall prey to this trap, just keep your dreams and hopes high and expect them to be fulfilled sooner or later if you work hard. You'll be a more pleasant person in your family and with your friends if you decide to replace your frown by a smile. Yes, it might be hard in the sour environment of academia, but remember that all that whining and going between eachothers backs has never made anyone's life better. Go for smiles and gratitude instead.

4. Perseverance


And when the going gets tough, you need to be able to hold on tight and continue the ride. I've been writing about the importance of perseverance before, and that piece ties in with my message of today on how these different elements are interrelated. The gist of the message is that, at times, you will need to roll up your sleeves and clean out your stables. Do it bit by bit, maybe with the help of the pomodoro technique. Think about the bigger picture, and know that this tedious part is a step towards figuring out something pretty cool. Get comfortable in a good chair, with some good music and a nice cuppa tea. Don't start browsing around the internet to procrastinate - you'll feel better if you stay in your office for less hours but finishing more work. And at the end of the day, go do something fun: exercise, good food, reading - reap you reward of a day of hard work.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

On moving across continents

About a year ago, my husband and I started moving our things to Ecuador, a process which is still not finished because I still have quite a number of things in Europe (all my books!).

We moved to Ecuador by shipping a container, and it was quite a tedious process. If you are planning to move abroad, you might find this break-down of steps useful:

1. Contact shipping companies

If you are doubting between selling off everything you have or moving by container, you need to get an idea of the cost. Contact a number of shipping companies and see what they offer, what they require you to do, and how much it will cost. If you don't have many things, shipping a couple of boxes on a pallet can be an option. If you're moving a complete household, you'll need most likely a full 40ft container.

2. Buy things if necessary


If it's cheaper to buy in the country from which you are shipping, then take advantage of this opportunity. Before you go shopping, make sure that you can bring goods into your country of destination without needing to pay tax over there. Also, inquire if you can get tax exemption for the goods you buy in your country of departure which will not be used in said country.

3. Pack boxes and make detailed lists

The fun stuff. Everything needs to go into boxes that are strong enough to be going through a long trip. Your things need to be packed carefully to avoid damage (hint: pack your clothes in some plastic as well, the brown of the boxes can leave stains on lightly colored clothes if the boxes are in a humid environment). Number each box. Then, you will need to make a detailed list of every single item with an estimated value for the insurance and for customs.

4. Move everything to the port

If you don't live in a port, you will need to rent a truck, load the truck with all boxes and appliances, maybe tow your car, and then take all of that to the port. You can rent fairly large trucks at U-Haul (for example), but a truck that is stuffed full will be moaning under the weight of all your things - and that might sound a little scary while you drive.

5. Fill the container


By now, you probably have very sore muscles. The last step of an intensive couple of days/weeks is filling the container. It can be interesting to put your boxes on pallets, and then wrap the entire pallet with plastic wrap to make sure the boxes won't move around, and that you can easily take up the entire pallet from the container.

6. Paperwork, paperwork

The port of embarkation and the port of arrival all will need you to fill out a whole lot of paperwork. You might need to hire the help of somebody to make sure you don't fill out something wrong, and then are faced with stubborn government officials who refuse to register your car in your new country because you put your passport number instead of your national ID number, even when these two numbers are the same. *gasp*

7. Take the container through customs at arrival

Customs will check that list of every single item in every single box. Lots of paperwork again.

8. Load a truck and drive home

The final leg of the trip! If you've passed customs, now is the time to fill up a truck, tow or drive your car, and go to your new home and start putting everything in place.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Playing in the Creative Sandbox

Time ago, I won by chance a one-month course on creativity from Melissa Dinwiddie, and I planned to write about this course and lessons about creativity for quite some time.

One of the most powerful elements in Dinwiddie's course is her set of rules for the creative sandbox. Although she wrote this set of rules for artists that need to get their creative juices flowing again, these rules are applicable to research - which is a creative work - as well.

The creative sandbox is getting into the habit of making art for sheer fun for 15 minutes a day. Similarly, we could all benefit from a little random dabbling around in ideas that we otherwise would never pursue. The point here is not to spend your entire day playing in a research sandbox, but to escape to the sandbox every now and then, consciously, to explore ideas and see where the exercise takes you.

Let's look at the 10 rules:

1. There is no “wrong.”

When you are fiddling with creative ideas that might or might not take you somewhere, you need to let go of prejudices you might hold against methods or previous research, and simply take a plunge and try out something. The goal of trying it out is not to find a solution to whatever problem you are studying, but to simply explore the possibilities of the method or approach you are trying out.

2. Think process, not product.

Creativity is a muscle you can train, creative thinking is a skill you can learn. And just like you would train for a tennis game by practicing a certain move over and over again, which is not something you actually do during a game, it is wise to focus on the process of toying around with ideas and trying out things when you start with research as a young graduate student.

3. Think quantity, not quality.

Again, here we are talking about playing around with creative research ideas - when it comes to publications, we want quality of quantity of course! When we are trying to develop that creative muscle, trying out a set of different options is similar to repeating that tennis move during a training. Practice asking yourself many different questions, and tackling these one by one - you will learn to think more quickly and broadly over time.

4. Think tiny and daily.

If you want to learn a new skill, consistent deliberate practice is important. Let me break that into the key parts here. Consistent practice would mean daily practice. For art, Melissa Dinwiddie advices 15 minutes of playing around in the sandbox every day. I would suggest at least 1 pomodoro a day to explore some ideas. And make it deliberate practice: deeply concentrated work in which you allow your ideas to flow.

5. Just start. Anywhere.

If you are thinking about a research question, and have listed a number of possible paths to try out to take you to the solution, you are already making some good progress. Now don't start guessing which of these possible paths would be the best option, and which of these are not good options. Just pick one of the options, and start playing around with it. Stop second-guessing yourself - you don't know until you've tried it anyway.

6. When in doubt, ask “What if…?”

I've mentioned it before, and I'll say it again: asking questions leads to creativity. If you have trouble listing the possible paths you could try out to solve a problem, then ask yourself questions. Try to see if you can take your research question out of its comfort zone and turn it around in the sunlight to see all the spots you haven't studied before. Identify the "shadows" in your methods - which assumptions do you take for granted? What if these assumptions are not valid?

7. Take the riskier path.

Of course here we mean that it's OK to make a bold assumption and see where it takes you when you are fiddling with ideas. We don't mean that you have to go and start doing to riskiest things in the lab... Try out a new method, or a method from a different field. Look up some references that have not been cited that much anymore recently - they might have gone lost in the mists of time because they were simply not interesting, or because later generations of researchers all went with the same set of assumptions, dismissing different thoughts from before.

8. Dismiss all gremlins.

Ah, gremlins! When you are in your creativity-pomodoro-moment, stop criticizing your own work. Set a deal with yourself: I will tell the gremlins to wait at the door until I come out of the sandbox - and then they can vent their ideas for 5 minutes. And then tell yourself: this opinion is brought to me by my gremlins, use with caution.

9. Spring the Comparison Trap.

Your process of training your creative muscle. Your research. Your sandbox. There's no need to compare yourself and your progress to anyone else, so stop wasting time and energy doing so.

10. Treat yourself with compassion.

A truth truer than any of the truisms I've been throwing around! Be nice to yourself, don't beat yourself up. If you go into your creativity pomodoro for the day, and nothing good comes out of it, then so be it. Again, the goal of the exercise is not to produce results, but simply to train your creative muscle. If something interesting comes out of it, so much the better. If not, that's perfectly fine.

Have you tried out a creativity-pomodoro for a certain stretch of time? What are your experiences?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Replacing Blockify by EZBlocker



Over two years ago, I wrote about ways to improve your Spotify experience (free ways so you can avoid the subscription cost, of course!). Spotify is growing more and more, and is now seemingly the standard for streaming music. The post is thus still relevant, and maybe even more widely applicable. Of the software I discussed in that post, Blockify is not getting updated anymore, and ads slip through more and more.

With Blockify off the radar, it was time for me to look for a replacement. Paying to get rid of the ads just is not something I would want to consider. If I pay for music, it is for CDs, with artwork, a booklet and maybe even a digipack with stickers and whatnot of the band. But just paying to get rid of ads and not even supporting a certain band? No thanks...

After a bit of looking around on the internet, I found EZBlocker. Just like Blockify, EZBlocker is an ad-muting little helper, that makes sure you won't get disturbed when an ad pops up but simply brings a pause in between two tracks, muting the ad into the background. EZBlocker is incredibly easy to use, and is by now a standard feature on my laptop. Highly recommended if you work with music!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

On waking up early

During the exam periods, you're much more likely to find students in the library at 2am the night before the exam trying to push the last pages of their course into their memory than that you are likely to find students who wake up routinely at 6am and start studying early so that they can relax the night before the exam.

When I was an undergraduate student in Brussels, I woke up at 9:20am to start studying at 10am during exams - only to get discourage around 4:30pm in winter when it already started to get dark and I had done about half of everything I wanted to do during that day. And then one of my classmates told me that he always started to study at 8am, just like the days when we had class (we had class from 8am to 5pm). It took me a few years to shift to this routine, but eventually I ended up spending less hours studying (8am to coffee break at 4pm or dinner at 7:30pm as compared to 10am to midnight or beyond), worrying less, relaxing more and getting better grades. Win - win - win if you ask me.

If you'd ask me a few years ago if I'm a morning or evening person, I'd reply that I'm an afternoon person: I don't like waking up early and I don't like going to bed late. But by now, I've shifted to a morning-oriented lifestyle, waking up between 5:30am and 6:30am on weekdays, and rounding off the day around 9pm, then settling down with a book.

As long as I'm at university when I'm supposed to teach my classes, I'm good - nobody checks if I'm starting my workday at 6am or 11am, and I wouldn't want anybody to check on me like that (I'm allergic to authority). During my PhD, I had a sort of external motivation to show up early because that time would match the availability of the people in the lab, but even that push for being early is gone.

I've been experimenting with different routines, especially morning routines, over the past year - and, while the way I fill my morning might differ, the constant is that it starts relatively early. Often times I work out in the morning before going to work, showing up at 9am in the office after 1 or 2 hours in the gym, but the benefit of the morning workout is usually a productive day. It's not the same as biking my commute in the morning, but almost.

The main advantage of waking up early, is that it feels as if I have more hours in the day. My evening hours usually fly by while I busy myself around the house, pack my things, move things around, hang out on the internet and write the occasional post or CD review. Many people watch TV at night. If you start your day early, your evening is shorter, but still provides you with enough time to relax - what's the difference between roaming around the house/ playing games for 2 hours as compared to 5 hours?

So, to wrap things up, I'd like to invite you to rise and shine in the morning, and catch some worms while you're at it. And of course, let me know how this experiment works for you!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Storify on Gender in Academia

In a recent post, I tried to call everybody on board for the STEM fields - everybody who is interested in these studies, regardless of their gender, religion, age, social status, and other differentiations we might make among people. But while attempting to get my message across, I started with a capital mistake - excusing myself beforehand because I don't know enough about the topic to speak up. I didn't even notice I started the race by shooting myself in the foot.

Luckily, I got a reaction on Twitter to draw my attention to the fact that we all should speak up and shine brightly - and this remark was the start of an interesting Twitter conversation:

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