Everybody needs time to think

In recent years, I observe a very dangerous development in research and university communities. Researchers are expected to be constantly doing something – writing proposals, answering emails, teaching, supervising, writing papers, making experiments, and so on, and so forth. But when should we actually think thoroughly about what we do? When should we think about problems encountered? When and from where should we get inspiration?

As researchers, we regularly need “ideal times” – time to simply think about everything, read a good book, talk to friends and colleagues with an agenda. When I do not have time for this for, let’s say, a week, I not only get nervous, but also start making more mistakes, forgetting important things, and losing connections. It is not really tiredness, my brain simply needs some time to order stuff, to think alternatives through, plan and observe.

I always urge my PhD students to identify time for this, but also to think about where and how. For me, the best way of getting my brain into this valuable “order and plan” mode is to hike or at least to go for an extended walk, alone. The worst I can do is to stay home, close to the computer 🙂

What is it for you?

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Manage your tasks, not time

This post is highly inspired by the book of Tim Ferriss “The 4-hour Workweek”. I find the title a little misleading, but the ideas do work also for academics.

So let us start straight away. Let us assume you need to work on your paper. No, you must! Let us also imagine that you would like to work for 2 hours on it. There are two ways you could plan for it:

  1. I will work today 2 hours on my paper.
  2. I will write today the related works section.

Oh, I already hear you screaming: I cannot possibly write a complete section in 2 hours! Tim Ferriss says you can, and I confirm.

The first plan has a glitch: you could spend the complete two hours shuffling your references and playing with the format. Is this what you wanted? Is this what you want to report to your supervisor? I don’t think so. In fact, one of my Ph.D. students once confessed to me, that sitting in front of the computer already “feels” like work, so he would try to spend as much time as possible in front of it, staring at the simulation running … What a terrible way to fool yourself and to waste your youth!

The second plan has a huge advantage against the first one: it pushes you to quickly do and FINISH something. You only have two hours and you need to get this done. Thus, you stop shuffling references and playing with the format, but finally get back to the pile of printed papers on your desk and write that section down.

Now, we have to discuss another problem: The references probably do not compile and the format is broken! But this was also not the task. The task was to write it down. Another task, maybe for tomorrow when you only have 30 minutes, could be to fix those.

In general, I advise all my students to work in cycles. I also live this advice myself. I would start writing raw drafts with bullet points and copied paragraphs, then turn them into first drafts, then polish and sharpen the writing, and finally spell-checking the text.

Take-home messages:

  • Define clear, concrete, doable goals. Do’s: finish section 2, fix all references, make graphs 12 and 13, polish the writing.
  • Prioritize your tasks: polishing, formatting, spell checking are done at the end. Writing and presenting results are your first priorities.
  • Learn to work in cycles: write the first draft, re-write later, polish, and spell-check at the end. This also applies to result presentation: make a hand-written graph first to check your hypotheses, create the graph later, play with colors and text size last.
  • Define one or two clear tasks for the day, depending on the time available. Challenge yourself a little bit every day!

Happy task management and paper writing!

P.S. Oh, I forgot the good news: if you finish your task earlier than expected, get a coffee and enjoy your free time!

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Energy Management

Time management is popular and I have already written about it. However, even with the perfect tools and concepts, there are times when you sit in front of your work and you simply do not have the energy to do it. And then there are times when you are full of energy and manage much more than expected. Sounds familiar? It is surely one of my problems ..

The theory is simple: identify your energy levels and the energy needed to accomplish tasks. In practice, it is not that easy. Here is my try:

Tasks, which drain my energy: administrative meetings and work, email, homework and exam corrections. Those are really tasks, which do not only tire me, but drain me.

Tasks, which I truly enjoy: teaching and giving talks, discussions with students and colleagues about research, writing papers (yes, I am one of those weird people), writing research proposals (unless it is already the fifth time I am resubmitting it), doing research, reading and watching inspiring papers and talks, learning something new. I tried to summarize those here:

Task Energy needed to accomplish Energy drain Energy building
Low Middle High
Administrative meetings x x
Email and admin work x x
Homework and exam corrections x x
Teaching and giving talks x x   x
Conferences and workshops x x
Research discussions x   x
Writing papers x   x
Research proposals x   x
Research x   x
Learning something new x x   x

Energy levels: very high at the beginning of the week and during the mornings. Highly dependent on progress and on good news. This part is nasty because I cannot control it. So, I need to develop strategies how to build up my energy when bad news is coming in.

First, I decided to focus on my high-energy tasks, which also built up my energy during the mornings. What to do with the tasks, which require high energy, but completely drain me, like homework corrections? Some people advise to bulk such tasks together and to work on them only on some days. This does not work for me – I prefer “hiding” them. If I have 30 homework assignments to grade, I could easily spend a complete day on those and will be completely broken and annoyed at the end. I will be terrible company. But if I do one or two corrections every day between other tasks, my energy levels seem to overlook them :-). However, I will be ready in 5-6 days, which needs to be planned properly.

Tasks that do not need that much energy, like research discussions, I prefer scheduling in the afternoon or towards the end of the week. Even if I feel tired, I enjoy those tasks and I can easily motivate myself to address them.

Sometimes, I need to replenish my energy. I do sports and I do learn something new – I am practicing languages with my favorite learning apps (Duolingo and especially Memrise), I watch TED videos and I read books. I must admit, I read also a lot of time management and self-optimisation books!

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Time Management Principles

I have been experimenting with time management for almost 10 years now. Early in my career as a researcher, I noticed that if you manage to focus well, you can get extremely productive and will need only a fraction of the time planned. However, achieving productivity is not trivial: there is no button on the back of your head to switch it on, unfortunately.

In this post, I would like to share the pure basics, which work well for me for many years now. You have heard many of them already, but I am sure you still do not “live” them, for one reason or another.

  1. Switch off media when you want to focus. Put your phone in the next room, switch off email and all messaging apps. You probably know these. But did you think also about calendar notifications, Dropbox und Google Drive updates, etc? All these disrupt your flow and any disruption, even just for a second, brings you off your real work. In general, I am very conservative which apps can send me notifications and I generally switch them all off. If I know that a meeting is upcoming and I am afraid to miss it because I am so deeply involved in my work, I set an alarm.
  2. Allow emails to “ripe”. You do not have to answer each and any email that comes and surely not immediately. It is better to wait for at least several hours. This also means that you do not have to check on emails constantly, you can do so during waiting times (e.g. when a meeting has finished earlier). I really hate emails – once you answer one, an avalanche of further emails come upon you.
  3. Observe yourself and identify the most productive times. For me, these are the mornings, between 9am and 12pm, approximately. Block these slots for your most important work. Do not waste them for meetings, emails, etc.
  4. Do not overbook your time. You want to work 8 hours per day? Then schedule at most 6. You need the remaining two for breaks, switching tasks, checking emails and   buying coffee in the cafeteria.
  5. Make a (virtual) office hour. Each time somebody asks you for a meeting, it costs you 3-4 minutes to check your calendar and to answer to that person. Especially with students and admin stuff, it is really useful to have a fixed office hour. I switch on my Zoom personal meeting and can check emails and do some other small and quick tasks while I am waiting for people to come. I find this extremely useful and efficient – people know when they can surely find me and talk to me and I know that I usually manage to put some todos off my list. Plus, people tend to be more constructive in your office hour, since they assume others are waiting.
  6. Organise your todos. It is not enough to keep a list of todos, since these lists tend to grow very long. What works better for me is to organise into sub-lists, which I can grab one by one and work myself down. For example, I have a list for paper writing, a list for teaching and students, a list for admin stuff, etc. The items which have a deadline, get a deadline. I am not a fan of putting deadlines to items which do not have any. For some reason, I always end up not meeting those (because I know they are not real and I cannot fool myself), but I still feel bad about it. What is worse, however, I cannot visually and quickly differentiate between real and non-real deadlines and I end up messing it all up. Thus, only real deadlines are marked. I use Trello for this.
  7. Reserve time for important tasks. Some tasks, like meetings and email checking, have the incredible talent of eating all your time, if you allow them to do so. If I go to all meetings I have been invited to and I answer all emails immediately, I would end up with almost no time for real work (like papers, and research, and teaching, and supervision – they are not few!) Thus, I started reserving floating slots for time eaters. I would decide how much time I need to invest in them, e.g. 15 hours per week for meetings (wow, so much!). Then, once I schedule a meeting, one of these floating slots disappear from your calendar. Once they are all gone, it is over – first come, first serve. This has taught me also to say no to meetings which I think will not   serve my priorities, so that I have meeting slots available for more important stuff. This principle, together with step 3 works well for me to keep control over my time.

I hope these could be useful also for others! Happy time optimising!

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How to start publishing papers

Beginning PhD students are often desperate about this question: how to START publishing? Many universities pose very strict requirements on their students and want to see the first publication in the first year. This is not easy. Here are some possible strategies:

  • Write a survey. If you already know in which field you are working and what your approximate topic is, target a survey. A good survey is a real “cash-cow” – it will bring you most of your citations. Example: According to Google Scholar, I have published by now 144 papers in total and I have 2055 citations (Feb 2021). From these citations, 967 are to be accounted to only three survey papers!
  • Reproduce and extend a state of the art work. If you find a really good paper (a recent one), which is going exactly into your direction, consider re-producing it. This means that you try to re-do all the experiments the authors have done. You will learn a lot and you will get into the real depth of the topic. You can usually publish even those results already. However, what is really nice is that usually you get ideas on the way of how to improve the work – and this can be the basis of a really solid first piece of research. Don’t forget: the extension has to be substantial.
  • If you already have some preliminary results, use publication venues like poster and demo sessions, PhD forum, workshops, etc. Make sure those are associated with top conferences in your field. Do not get fooled with low-quality conferences – you will not get proper feedback and you will not meet the top people. Focus on A rank conferences (e.g. check here: https://www.aminer.org/ranks/conf).
  • Ask your supervisor to team you up with somebody more experienced, working in the same field. You can learn a lot and if you also contribute to their work with your ideas or coding skills, you will be included in their publications.

These strategies will help you in the beginning, especially so that you are not that scared of publishing any more. Later on, you have to learn how to craft really good research and describe it in top publications.

If you really hate writing papers, you should probably consider another job, honestly. Research is about doing research, but also writing about it.

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How to publish more papers

Publish or perish: this is the dogma of today’s research. So, how to maximise your publication output? This depends mostly on your career level, so let us focus here first on master and PhD students, who are most desperate for publications.

Some students adopt really questionable strategies: publish the same work under different names; chop your work into smaller pieces; add tiny incremental stuff to your work; etc. This is not a good strategy, as it produces (in the best case) un-interesting works, which nobody reads or cites. Don’t forget: now you are desperate for publications, but tomorrow you will be hunting citations. So prepare for the next step too.

A good strategy follows three different paths:

  1. Align what you are doing to what can be published, not the other way around. I often see this problem: a student works on something, without taking care about how to publish it later and then she wonders why she cannot find a publication venue or so mich additional work is needed to get to a publishable state. Thus, before you start doing something, ask yourself where and what you will be able to publish. You always need to offer innovation!
  2. Make the extra work also publishable. Often you produce a lot of secondary material,  like source code, datasets, etc. Make sure those also get published in repositories (data and code) or specialised publishers. Those will not necessary contribute to your “official” publication record, but will your work more prominent in the community, people will remember your name and THEN they will also start reading and citing your work…
  3. Help others. Usually people do not ask you simply “Would you like to write this paper together?”. At least not when you are still a student. However, you can watch out for opportunities. At conferences, at workshops or at group research meetings, you can listen carefully to the problems of other people and offer your help. Very often the result of this is a joint paper. Your interest and offer to help should be genuine, otherwise people will never repeat the experience with you.

And, last but not least: Publishing papers means writing papers. Practice it as much as you can: write, write, write…

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Can I submit a paper to my own journal special issue?

I am currently serving as a guest editor for a special issue at MDPI. Some of my students got really excited: Can we submit something there? I am not really sure why they think this is a good idea and in fact, some people do this. However, my simple answer is: No.  It is not a good idea. First of all, if the journal and /or publisher are sensible, they will require a completely independent review process for your papers. They will need to find another editor for this job. At the same time, if it gets published, that process is not visible any more and people might think: Oh, how unprofessional is that, publishing in your own SI!

Remember, your scientific reputation is all you have. Do not put it on risk just to get another paper on your list.

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Wish post: how to make presentations

A student asked me recently how to prepare good presentations, “as in your lectures!”. Beside being really touched by the fact that she liked my presentations, in fact I do have some tips, which I acquired over time.

  • You need to address two different senses of your audience. Assuming a typical slide-based presentation, this would be hearing and seeing. Your audience listens to what you are saying and they see what you have on your slides. However, the problem is when the slide is full of text. Psychological studies have shown that reading text and hearing text is processed by the same area in the brain. This means that you double occupy this region when you offer text on your slides. Think of your own experience: When  I see text on a slide, I try to read it, but this occupies my full attention and I stop listening. So, you need always to make sure that the audience is not currently occupied with reading when you explain something.

Look at the following two slides – which one is nicer to look at?

However, now it becomes crucial what you say. With the first slide (the text one), you can say anything you want, since the audience is not listening at all and struggle to read your text. With the second one, you need to explain everything on the picture. Best, you introduce the individual items (the nodes, the sink, the wireless links, application) one by one with an animation. Note the arrows and the definitions, they are important!

  • Identify the goal of your presentation! Is it to show new results? Is it to teach something? These two need completely different approaches (maybe I will write about those in the near future…). I general, when teaching, you would use much more text for the people to have a reference later. However, in the best of all worlds you would have a proper presentation for class and handouts/scripts for home and reference. With research results (also from student projects!) you would focus on numbers and important definitions (e.g. a legend).
  • Sometimes you need to present difficult stuff: a complex equation or graph. Make sure to present it step by step, for example like in this slide:

Here, I have used an animation, which shows each line separately, so that I have time to explain it. Especially when it comes to the complex equation at the bottom, I go slowly one spot at a time and give intuition behind what is going on. Do not rely on laser pointers for this! They shake when you are nervous, they are not well seen and people do not know what are you showing them.

You should use the same trick with animations, arrows and spotlights also to present graphs – show the people what exactly they should look at.

  • Build a story. A presentation is not a historical overview and does not have to follow the sections of your research paper. You should also focus on some of your results, not all. You can build the story also visually, see this slide:The colourful legend at the top is not only part of the title of this slide, but also tells the audience where we are in the story. Some people also do this with a normal table of contents. In this slide, you can also see how text can work – you simply need to introduce the bullet points one by one and to have them short.
  • Focus your text on what is really important, do not waste the reading time of your audience with full sentences, conclusions, etc. At the same time, make sure that all important stuff, like mathematical definitions, colours used for coding something, axes on the graph, etc, are always clear. You can easily do this by offering a small legend at each slide.

I would really like to hear from you! Let me know whether you found this useful and what tricks do you have!

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If I ever have to teach online again, …

I will start with a session about how to efficiently and politely use the online tools.

In the online lecture last week, I decided to use Zoom’s breakout rooms. The students loved it and I really think it is a great tool to create a private working space for the students. In fact, I think it works even better for the students than my usual in-class group assignments. However, many of the students wasted almost their complete time in trying to figure out tech stuff, like sharing your screen, connecting via laptop and phone, etc.

Another big problem I am facing right now is students not switching on their cameras. When I asked at the beginning of the lectures who has a camera and who doesn’t, all said they have one. But when I ask now to switch them on, at least half of over 30 students simply do not. I tried to explain them that it is simply not polite and not very useful for the lectures – I need also visual feedback how they are doing.

So, in summary, if I ever need to teach fully online again, I will start with a session on advanced tool usage and what we call netiquette – how to behave politely and efficiently in online lectures.  More concretely, these should include:

  • Switch on your camera, position it correctly
  • Switch off your microphone, unless you want to say something
  • Put your full name
  • Use the “raise hand” and other available buttons
  • Use the breakout rooms, call for help, return back to main room and back to breakout room
  • Use the chat
  • Share your screen
  • Connect with two devices: your laptop and your phone, share the screen of your laptop
  • Use polls

Of course, this is very Zoom-centric. However, most of the video conferencing tools have now one or more of these features, which are indeed very useful. If you want to use some additional tools, it is even more important to practice them before (e.g. for polling).

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My favourite book on scientific writing

I have found this book during an extensive search for books and materials on how to write papers. Its title really attracted me and I decided that if this guy knows how to attract my attention so well, he should also now a couple of tricks how to write papers! So, here we go:

Writing Science: How to write papers that get cited and proposals that get funded. By Joshua Schimel.

The book is mostly based on examples from chemistry and biology, but is well comprehensible for all natural scientists out there (I am a computer scientist and I do understand it). The tips are great and very practical, going into details about writing and presenting data.

Now a must for all my students (and for myself)!

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