How to be a productive scientist: what I’ve learned

I still remember the feeling after finishing my master’s thesis, 5 (!) years ago.  I felt like I had made my way through a trackless wilderness of data and literature searches and SAS code and finally organized that big heap of data into something coherent, a process during which I had little confidence in my own ability and was somewhat overcome with amazement when the file sat completed on my laptop.  I sent it off gleefully and went out for drinks, glad that I would be able to return to a normal job with normal deadlines and defined tasks and endpoints.

Well, that didn’t last long.  Five years later, I sit here with my fifth manuscript accepted for publication, about to submit another and starting to daydream about the next couple.  And I’m proud of how they’ve turned out- one has been cited 32 times by other scientists per Google Scholar and even been quoted in the New York Times.  And all of it with literally a fraction of the stress of that first masters thesis.  So clearly something has changed.  Part of it is just the confidence factor.  I really do believe in myself and my ideas now, and I have oodles more training and experience, thanks to wonderful supervisors and trainings.  But I’ve also learned a few hacks that I am thinking about now, at the tail end of my PhD.

  • Always have a plan.  At any given moment, I have a yearly goal and milestone spreadsheet, a monthly one, and a weekly one.  They are revised almost every week.  This type of organization is so, so key for a scientist.  No one is watching over your shoulder or telling you when something is due, making it far too easy to get bogged down for weeks in tasks.  My personal tactic when I realize that I’m getting stuck is figure out someone I can ask for help (such a great part of academia is the depth of the friendly brainpower around us!)  If that doesn’t work, maybe it’s time to brainstorm some new tactics.

 

  • The Pomodoro Method.  A productivity manager that has really helped me partition my time effectively.  Essentially, I divide my day into 25 minute intervals, with small 5 minute stretching breaks between each block (read more here).  I don’t adhere to it religiously, but find it especially helpful with writing large documents and other tasks that require high focus.  I put my phone in airplane mode during each block and don’t allow myself to stop writing/brainstorming/coding/whatever during that time.  I don’t use it at all for things like checking email or meetings so it keeps me really conscious of when those less productive things are eating up too much of my day.  It also tells me when I can quit- when writing something like a dissertation it can be hard to know when you’ve done “enough” work for the day.

 

  • Keep your storyline in mind.  We did a multi-day training the first year of my PhD that I have found endlessly useful.  It was a training on how to give an effective presentation, but I have found some of the things apply to almost every aspect of my job.  For example, what do you want your audience to remember when they think of your talk days later?  If you want them to remember anything, you had better make a compelling story out of your research, and even then they will at most remember 1-2 things overall.  What do you want those 1-2 things to be? Now, when I prepare for another talk or begin to write up a new analysis or design a new data visualization, I first sit down with a pen and paper and brainstorm 4-5 bullet points of how I want my “story” to go.  If I can’t distill my story down to a few bullet points that make a logical story, I know I’m not quite ready to start drafting.

 

  • Make time for networking.  No one does science in isolation any more.  Well, probably they do, but you have never heard of them because they don’t get the grants/write the papers/join the collaborations.  And it’s super fun!  I mostly apply for things like consortiums and workshops and conferences and join R Users Groups because they sound like fun, but I have learned so so much, widened my scientific horizons, and made so many great connections through them.  I’ve gotten really comfortable with emailing random people to ask them about their research, etc, and it can have big payoffs.  Also, it makes it much easier to find a position after graduation 😉

 

  • Set boundaries about your time.  This directly contradicts the last point, and I admit is one that took me a while to learn.  But people are always going to be asking you to help with writing grants and teaching classes and giving talks, stuff that is an important part of science but not the part that is most important during the PhD specifically.  During the PhD the most important thing is to build your track record by publishing.  Learning how to say no diplomatically has been a big part of my PhD.

I am curious if others have the same experience as me.  I’ve learned that everyone has a different PhD experience- I had very hands off supervisors in a lot of ways, which comes with a very specific set of challenges and also opportunities.  Like this week I’ve had a bad summer cold and decided to just work from home, a decision I don’t have to justify or run by anyone.  In fact it would probably take at least a month before my supervisors noticed I wasn’t coming in, no joke.  My friends certainly notice, so don’t feel too sorry for me 😉

P.S. Summer colds suck.

How to be a productive scientist: what I’ve learned

Summer 2017 = Good Times

You guys, I’m kind of feeling stupid happy lately.  I know it’s really obnoxious to say so, but I am and sometimes it’s nice to acknowledge that and remember these times when the wheel of fortune feels at its pinnacle (I think a lot of that Shakespeare line: “Fortune is painted blind, with a muffler afore his eyes, to signify to you that Fortune is blind; and she is painted also with a wheel, to signify to you, which is the moral of it, that she is turning, and inconstant, and mutability, and variation. And her foot, look you, is fixed upon a spherical stone, which rolls, and rolls, and rolls.”)  And then sometimes I wonder- will I recognize the happiest times of my life while I’m living them?  Or only after the fact, when I’m old and wrinkled and reflecting on my collection of memories?  It also helps to think of life as a wheel when going through the hard times- no matter how hard they’ve been, there has always been an upswing.  Eventually.

Anyway, I just got back from a really wonderful week in Croatia with some awesome humans.  I laughed so hard I cried, spent some quality time with some of my best friends from way back in Barcelona days, rented our own boat to pilot around the Croatian islands (still shocked I was allowed to do this), tipsily bought 20$ worth of candy at CAPTAIN CANDY CROATIA, took a midnight boat to a clubbing island, drank a whole bunch of schnapps with some Norwegians, practically died of heat stroke during a Game of Thrones tour in beautiful Dubrovnik, was “always the first” leaping off the boat into the beautiful crystal clear waters of the Adriatic, swam deep into a cave so dark that I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, took a bike tour of Zagreb, roadtripped to the Plitvice National Parks where I pretended to be a mermaid, ate a whole lot of seafood and olive oil, and identified the differences between traveling at age 21 and age 31 (many and myriad).

But beyond that, I’m just so relieved that I finally have my life at least somewhat sorted.  I know I’ll be in Switzerland for the next three years, and I love my new coworkers and the research project I’ll be working on.  I don’t have to leave this place I’ve learned to love, along with the friends that I am sure will be lifelong.  And I can’t wait to get to know Africa a little better!  It will be a whole new continent, and I think that actually working there will help me to get a real perspective on this whole new (to me) part of the world.  I’ve already downloaded some Africa books to my kindle, but would appreciate any recommendations, non-fiction or otherwise (mainly Ghana, Tanzania, Mozambique, and Burkina Faso).

I’ve been working like a crazy person to finish my dissertation, and just got some great feedback during my holiday- seriously, the finish line to this whole PhD process is in sight.  It’s like I looked up and suddenly the whole puzzle is assembled around me.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a good chunk of work ahead of me, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

Oh, and last but definitely not least, I met a really great guy.  That goes a long way towards putting a smile on my face 🙂  Fingers crossed this latest streak of good luck lasts!

Summer 2017 = Good Times

Greetings from a place where no one is denying climate change

Even immediately before moving here, my mental image of Switzerland was populated largely by snowcapped mountains and cozy chalets tucked among snow drifts.  However, I’ve been really surprised to find that at least in Zurich, winters are some of the mildest I’ve ever experienced.  No shoveling or snow pileup, temperatures entirely manageable, the Alps within a short train ride for a visit to Real Winter.

The summers turned out to be the real surprise.  So many days of golden sunlight and swimming and subtropical lounging!  However, it gets HOT.  Like hot hot.  Like I’m hotter than I’ve ever been before in my life because the Swiss do not believe in air conditioning for environmental and other reasons.

A note about this- I’ve been told that air conditioning is essentially illegal in Switzerland.  You have to apply for a special permit to have it, and I don’t know of any offices that have it and no one I know has an apartment with air conditioning.  Some grocery stores do, but it’s more of a gentle breeze by the fish than the arctic blast that I’m used to.  Largely, I think this is pretty cool.  It drives most of the population to one of the infinite lakes/rivers/alpen refuges that this country is so lucky to have, and avoids the terrible cost to the environment that aircon represents.  However, this whole system is really based around only a couple days of really hot temperatures per year.

This is changing fast in Switzerland in the last few years.  Temperatures have been above 30 degrees c/86 degrees Fahrenheit every day for the past week, even reaching 35c/96f.  Picture sitting in those temperatures in an office building packed with people and computers all day.  You can mess with the blinds and leaving the lights off and having a fan going, but at some point there’s just no combating such a temperature.  But there’s just no relief except for swimming- even restaurants don’t have AC!

The worst is at night though- the only tactic is to take a cold shower immediately before bed and hope you can fall asleep before you start sweating again.  Last night was officially the hottest night on record in Switzerland (https://www.thelocal.ch/20170623/parts-of-switzerland-experience-hottest-night-ever) at 25c/77f.  A nighttime temperature of above 20c is considered a “tropical night.”

I think Switzerland is an interesting case because it is a country that is changing fast that just literally doesn’t have the infrastructure to support a hotter climate, from public transit to office space.  Beyond just being uncomfortable, heat waves are one of the most deadly natural events- the rates of deaths from many causes have a prolonged spike after a stretch of hot days.  I’m curious to see how Switzerland and also less affluent countries will handle this change in climate (see recent NYTimes article for a breakdown of where we are headed: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/06/22/climate/95-degree-day-maps.html)

The flip side of this- warmer winters- has also been a problem in a country known for its skiing.  I don’t recommend coming to the Alps before late January for a ski holiday, based on the last few winters, and if you want to see some of the amazing glaciers it’s better not to put your trip off too long.

For now, I’ll enjoy one more day of sweating into my computer chair and prolonged swims before some summer storms move in.

 

Greetings from a place where no one is denying climate change

Senioritis, thinkingitis, & general excitement

I know I haven’t done much of a job at updating lately, but it feels like life has been coming at me at such a rate that I can hardly think my thoughts, much less organize them into a coherent blog post.  But since it’s these periods that are often later the most enjoyable for me to reflect back on, I thought I would jot down a few notes.  Gonna do this stream of consciousness “My Summer Vacation” style, though.

  1. Career stuff is similar to dating in that sometimes it just all falls into place and you wonder why you were torturing yourself with all those other options.  I have been ruminating over where to move next for probably the last year, but suddenly it just clicked that, hey, actually I don’t want to leave.  It’s OK to just do what you want instead of what Everyone Says.
  2. Said realization makes me really, really happy.
  3. I still reserve the right to change my mind later.
  4. Sometimes I was really in doubt about this whole PhD process- it can be a giant exhausting morass when you’re wading through the middle of it, and certainly nothing like any of the linear schooling periods I have gone through before (I discovered this comic this week that I think is a great summary of what a PhD really means: http://matt.might.net/articles/phd-school-in-pictures/).  But the postdoc interviewing process has made me realize that I am a totally different person than I was three years ago when I first started.  I’m comfortable taking leadership roles and offering my “expert” opinion and defending my analyses to statisticians.  This might not sound revolutionary, but suddenly the idea of leading my own research team with my own ideas feels not sooo far off, something I’ve always found tremendously exciting.
  5. Getting older coincides with knowing yourself better and recently I’ve found that it has been affecting a lot of my decision making (in a positive way, let’s hope).  For example, for probably the first two years I lived in Europe I travelled like a crazy person to any spot I was invited to.  Now I know better what I like and what just isn’t worth the hassle and the extra carbon footprint.
  6. In fact, I’m pretty proud of myself that as far as I remember I have avoided any and all recreational flights for all of 2017- all of my holidays have either been via train or tacked onto a flight I would have had to take for work regardless.
  7. However, I can’t really can’t act like this was some selfless resolution.  I’ve really had to buckle down to finish this whole PhD thing and would have turned down a lot of trips regardless.  Looming deadlines have a funny way of curtailing holiday plans.
  8. I desperately want to take an extended period of time off after completing my PhD and before embarking on a new adventure, but it might be hard to finagle.  So I’m reminding myself that having a great job trumps exotic vacations any day 🙂
  9. I’m just a little bit scared of the new position.  I’m going to be learning a whole lot.

That’s it, a little sneak peek into my running brain as I’m taking a break from writing up my latest manuscript at 7pm on a Monday.  Wish me luck, there’s a whole lot to do in the next few months!

Senioritis, thinkingitis, & general excitement

Starbucks and other things that remind me of home

A funny thing happened the other day.  I was in Starbucks to get some to go coffee for an afternoon break down by the river on a particularly sunny afternoon with my Swiss colleague (don’t judge me, I swear Starbucks is a rare occurrence.  But sometimes I just have a yen for that filter coffee).  I asked the woman behind the counter in German what the difference between 2 types of coffee was, and she gleefully went off a long catalogue of frothing and milk proportion differences.  It dawned on me quickly that this woman was American, which is not a normal occurrence in service jobs- to get a work visa as a non-EU worker you need to have some seriously sought after skills, and as important as coffee brewing is, there are quite a few qualified candidates right here in Switzerland.

So after her little monologue, I politely placed my drink order and then, switching to English, asked where she was from.  Florida, as it turns out.  She didn’t seem surprised by the question, either- she had clearly also realized I was American, although I had only spoken one sentence, and that in German.

We exchanged a little small talk about how we ended up here, but she had to move on to the person behind me in line, and my friend and I moved on to the little coffee doctoring station where we did our usual pre-coffee rituals.  My friend was amazed, however.

“How did you know that she was American?!  Her German was perfect!  I never would have guessed from what she said that she wasn’t a native speaker.”

I didn’t really have a good answer, and it is certainly not the first time that such a thing has happened.  I can often tell another American, particularly if they are my own age, just from walking down the street without a word being spoken.  After this little encounter, I conducted a brief survey of my colleagues of various nationalities to see if they have the same experience, and it seems many to some degree have.  (Although I did get some protests, particularly from my Australian and British friends, that they avoid their fellow countrymen like the devil and so largely can’t make any comment.  I will not overinterpret this statement ;))

Humans are just humans no matter where you go in the world- the same hopes, fears, petty grievances, gossip, and laughter.  This is absolutely true, and I think a lot of our societal problems would disappear if we all could just grasp that on a fundamental level.  But where we grow up DOES influence us, does affect the way we communicate, our sense of humor, our outlook on life, even the way we look to some degree.  Why are we able to recognize our compatriots, sometimes without even knowing why?  Why have so many people told me that I have “an American smile?”  There are so many unnameable things that go into making a person who they are- sometimes I wonder how much of any of us is a product of where we grew up, the commercials we watched, the newspapers we read, the shape of the world we lived in.

Starbucks and other things that remind me of home

At home.

Zurich is really a beautiful city.  I feel like I don’t talk about that enough- traveling is fun and all, but inhabiting the place you actually live is also fun.  And I love the place I live, even if it’s a bit of a rarity that I’m actually there on a weekend.  It’s a quaint little city perched on the lakeside under the towering shadow of the Alps, filled with cobblestone streets and soaring church spires and ABSOLUTELY NO trash or homeless people.  I still don’t know how they manage this last, but it often leads to the sensation that I am living in a happy little bubble far distant from the problems of the world.  I don’t know if this is good or bad for the psyche.

It’s no great secret that I love the mountains, but there’s a quieter sort of beauty to the rolling countryside around Zurich that I also love.  There’s no end to walking or running or cycling paths, all marked out with the usual Swiss perfectionism.  There are over 65,000km of marked trails in the country, which is more than the distance around the world!  And it’s very diverse- my natural inclination is to make a beeline for the glacier strewn mountains farther south, but the local “mountain” Uetliberg” is wonderful for a midweek hard jog or walk upwards through the woods, a wonderful view over lake Zurich awaiting you.  And it seems no matter where you go, you run into local farmers selling their wares, often by the honor system where they list the prices and leave self-serve homemade cheese and jam out in a little hut next to a bucket where you can drop the cash.

Last weekend was a pretty typical weekend “at home” and I thought for once it might be fun to record what a normal weekend in my doctoral student life in Zurich is like.  At almost three years in, Zurich is truly home for me, and it is so nice to have made a little circle of friends and acquaintances to relax and enjoy the springtime weather with.  One of my favorite parts of living here in Zurich (NOT in Switzerland as a whole, this is definitely not true in the countryside) is how international working life here is.  In just this weekend my friends mentioned here were: German, Swiss, Italian, Australian, Mexican, French, and Spanish.  No Americans at all on this particular weekend, although usually there is a smattering of them.

The blow by blow:

Friday

A normal 9-5 working day, although when the weather is so nice it can get hard to stay alllll the way until 5pm.  Every week a rotating group of PhDs at my institute gathers at 5pm for after work beers, and today a group of 5 or 6 of us go down to the river and have panache (lemonade and beer mixed, also known as Radler in high German) at a little open air bar. My friend has brought her toddler along, so we spend a lot of time blowing bubbles and quacking at ducks in different languages (animal sounds in different languages is one of my favorite conversational topics).

Afterwards a couple of us eat burritos and then head to my friend Dayra’s birthday party.  She has rented out a whole bar in the Langstrasse district, a part of Zurich known for its hard partying and (ahem) ladies of the night.  She has provided open bar, bowls of gummy bears, unicorn balloons, and even a homemade tres leches cake- A+ birthday party.

Saturday

I have a mission today.  That mission includes reviving my bike.  See, I don’t cycle in the winter for various reasons that boil down to the fact that I’m a wimp.  One December day I biked to work and then decided it was just entirely too cold to bike back.  It’s been there ever since.  I haven’t really checked on it, but I suspected that 1) the tires would be flat or even possibly have holes in them, as I already had to patch one last fall, and 2) it is covered with dust from the construction site next door to my office.

It was also a beautiful spring day in the 70s, and I decided to kill two birds with one stone by taking a meandering jog to the office by way of a trail by my house down to the lake. This turns into more of an obstacle course once I reach the lake, as approximately 3/4s of the mobile population of Zurich has decided that this is the place to be and are walking around sunning their pale winter legs.  Nevertheless, I make it to the office, drag my bike to a nearby bike store, and purchase two inner tubes for my tires.  Then I stare at my bike for a while, a little bemused.  I am just not the Fixit Type. Luckily I have friends who are.  I call my friend Heidi and show up at her door, dusty bike in tow, still in my sweaty running outfit and no makeup.  We have an awesome relaxing afternoon on her rooftop with her, her boyfriend, and another friend Anne while we hose down my bike and repair the brakes/tires.  After a full day of relaxing in the sun, I pedal home for the first time in 2017, pondering how nice it is to have friends who accept emergency calls from sweaty runners who need bike first aid.

Sunday

This same friend Heidi has now organized a bike tour for five of us along the Sihl river into the countryside.  I’m not sure why I thought it was a good idea to kick off biking for the first time with a full day 70ish km hilly tour, especially as I was already a little sore just from 40 minutes of biking home the day before, but overdoing it seems to be a general theme in my life.  Let’s just say, sore bums are the worst.

At home.

stuff i should have figured out by now

I have a nemesis while traveling.  That nemesis is contact lens solution.  I’ve had many a scavenger hunt for contact lens solution while wandering mainland Europe, and my findings are puzzling.  It is truly hard to hunt down those buggers!  Pretty much the only place that always carries it is the pharmacy- which is no CVS.  You’ve gotta go in and talk to the pharmacist, and hit the open hours, which are usually limited and DEFINITELY closed outside of conference working hours, which is when the situation usually becomes dire. 

The worst is Sunday, when almost everything is closed- I spent one memorable Sunday morning wandering around Venice asking café owners for help (literally I will give you money for your contact lens solution, why does no one wear contacts) and finally located a nifty vending machine outside one of the closed pharmacies.  Maybe my favorite experience was in Portugal, where after consuming a slightly too large glass of wine I remembered the usual lack of contact lens solution.  This time I had no problem locating a pharmacy, but the staff were utterly mystified by my usual acting out of the process of putting in a contact to get around the language barrier and I could not stop giggling.

I also routinely forget that Swiss plugs, much like everything else about Switzerland, are not quite compatible with the rest of the EU, but that on the other hand is no problem- almost every hotel has a stock of converters handy.  But contact lens solution?  That is apparently a problem that stumps every concierge, much as I suspect that I am not the only person with this problem.  Are you other vision challenged travelers just much better than me at this?  In my defense, it’s really hard for me to find the travel sized ones even in Switzerland.  Help me fellow Euros.

Huge digression aside, my latest contact lens solution pilgrimage was last week in Belgium, after realizing around 10pm as going to bed that I either needed to locate some under the counter contact lens solution pronto or spend the weekend blindly feeling my way around the conference.  I approached the concierge with trepidation (earlier on handing over my passport he had commented acidly, “Oh, Trumpland,” as has become a normal experience in Europe in the last couple months), and he very kindly took me on an engaging tour of late night stores in Brussels after the usual look of mystification.

Luckily, our tour was successful (and educational!  There are a lot of Middle Eastern owned late night stores in Brussels, just FYI).

The conference was also really successful.  It was the first feedback I’d gotten from the research community outside my institute on the latest paper that I’ve submitted, and it was really outstanding, I thought.  I even ran into the editor in chief of the journal that I submitted the paper to in the elevator, and he not only remembered me but complimented me on the work I’ve done.  It’s hard to convey how satisfying that is to those outside the research community- a normal paper might take more than a year from conception to submission, and the peer review even longer, so long periods of time in a scientist’s life are spent laboring alone with only our ideas.  In addition, this particular study was met with a lot of skepticism in this group when I initially presented the idea and enrollment statistics, so it was great to see how many people we won over with the final result.

And Belgium is beautiful and very interesting in terms of history!  It seems like almost every other country in Europe has conquered Belgium at some point, which leads to an interesting mishmash of language and culture.  At one point the Spanish kicked all the non-Catholics out of Belgium, which is when the Dutch all moved to the Netherlands en masse and still seems to lead to a lot of wink wink jokes about the differences between the 2 cultures. Unlike Switzerland, which is like a patchwork quilt of regions with different languages, Belgium is just one big swirl of everything everywhere.  Brussels is not my favorite, although the Grand Place is one of the most impressive squares I’ve seen in Europe, but both Antwerp and Bruges are beautiful, manageable little canal cities on the water with gorgeous gothic architecture.  How’s that for a 4 sentence summary of a country?  Please do not inspect my history claims too closely :X

And with that I think I’ve tracked all of western Europe except for the microcountries! Woot woot travel.

stuff i should have figured out by now