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Getting research done


EngineerGrad
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Hi guys,

I was wondering: how do you balance classes and research? I feel like I'm not getting a lot of research done lately because I'm constantly busy with classes. How do you manage to take care of your classes and get substantial research done during the semester?

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It's hard for me to balance too. I've found that what works best for me is a few things:

1) Setting concrete goals/tasks. It helps me to keep lists of where I am at in different projects and "next steps" so it is easy for me to make progress on the research when I do find the time. If I don't know clearly and exactly what needs to be done I'm more likely to put it off.
2) Having regular meetings with my advisor or mentors (whoever is involved with my research). This keeps me on a schedule and gives me the drive to get the tasks done. Also it keeps my advisor/mentors in the loop and helps the research move forward/gives me motivation if I get stuck.
3) Working on my research first thing in the morning. I'm a morning person so this is a natural thing for me, but I find that if I put it off in the day, other stuff always takes precedence. I try to block an hour or two every morning to do a little, and when I get some concrete things done, I can move to my work for my classes. I know my coursework will always get done either way, but it is easy for the research to fall behind later in the day when I'm tired/less motivated.

 

I'm currently working on 3 research projects and taking 17 credits (and maintaining decent grades) so I would say I'm managing it fairly well, but it's taken me a bit of time to figure out what works for me. It's also important to know your own limits and really not to take on more than you can handle.

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Good advice from Gina. 

 

The other thing to ask around (check with senior grad students in your program) is how important the coursework actually is. 

 

In my department, for instance, a lot of our first and second years spend way, way more time than they should on coursework when the faculty don't really care. The courses are designed to be done with minimal effort, but the students are focusing on them to the exclusion of research, which is what's really important. 

 

I know this isn't the case in all programs, but I would strongly suggest cultivating a good relationship with a senior grad student that can help answer questions about things like this. 

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Scheduling for me was key. I'd set aside specific time for research, time for classes, time for TA duties, exercise, etc. and then do everything in my power to stick to that schedule. So, maybe I'd say 9-11am was for reading articles, writing summaries, and working on a new grant proposal. Then, a break, then time for classwork, etc. I also never really did all the reading for grad seminars once I was at the Ph.D. level... 

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Scheduling, as others have said. I am an evening person, so some time in the afternoons is dedicated to writing, and I try and make sure that the day is not otherwise overbooked so I'm not too tired by that point in the day. For the non-research portions of my work, I try to have quotas -- no more than X hours spent prepping for teaching, no more than Y time spent reading, grading, responding to students' emails, etc. I also schedule in my time off, and if it comes to that, my sleep. It's important to me to keep balanced and stay healthy, and it's much easier this way to look at your calendar and say "sorry, I am not free at that time" when someone wants to schedule something at a time when you were going to meet up with a friend or go to the gym.

 

I have a policy that I only read and respond to emails once, so I try and resist the urge to check my email when I can't actually take care of it, so I don't do things twice. My inbox holds only emails that I still need to take care of, other things are filed away as soon as they are taken care of.

 

I also keep lists so I don't need to keep stuff in my head. That frees me up to do research. My lists include everything I need to do, broken down into small achievable tasks. (I like crossing things off my list. It gives me a sense of achievement and it's a good way to have some accountability for your time.) 

 

For writing, I do outlines before I write any actual text. The outline goes at least to the level of subheadings, sometimes keywords for paragraphs. You can then fill the text in one paragraph or chunk at a time. 

 

I like meeting with people often, that kept me motivated. I also present fairly often in reading groups at my university. Also, as others have mentioned, sometimes you can not do all the reading, or solve all the most difficult questions on the problem set. You need to figure out what is actually expected of you. 

 

Finally, to be quite honest, everyone gets more done over breaks than during the semester. You are not the only one who is slowed down. It's normal, but there are ways to manage it to increase productivity somewhat.

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I second the seasoned posters above about time management. My day follows a bell curve in terms of productivity, since I'm one of those creatures that is neither a morning nor an evening person (at least for creative work like writing or research). In the mornings I do housework and answer emails, then head in to campus around 11am, eat lunch with other friends in the cohort, and then do research or writing (heavy thinking work) between 1pm and 6pm. I then head home or out for dinner, and once I'm at home I work on reading and taking notes for class (the less demanding work for humanities students). I go to sleep between 11 and midnight, and I wake up at 8 or 9am. I really value my sleep, so I try to make time for that or the rest of my day will be utterly unproductive.

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I've been trying to make a lot of research progress while working on my MS so my typical schedule involves 20-30 hours of research a week + 3 classes a semester. I am able to get reasonable amounts of research done by scheduling it in just like I would class work. If I have a hw assignment due the following day and also have X hours of research that I want to get in then I don't give the school work higher priority just because of the deadline. If you let yourself put off the research because of class work then this can turn into a bad habit of always delaying the research.

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In addition to all of the above, here is what I do to manage my time (some have similar things mentioned above):

 

1. Use procrastination as a tool to help curb your perfectionism (if that is an issue for you). It was hard for me, at first, to get used to the idea that I should not try very hard on my homework and aim for the "diminishing returns" point instead of perfection. I often need to limit my time spent on homework for each course to ~4-5 hours per week. Sure, I can set a 4-5 hour block to do it and make myself stick to it, but sometimes I found it help to not start the homework until the day before it's due in order to prevent myself from spending a whole week on it! Also, if there are mistakes in the homework, waiting until the last minute means the prof/TA will point them out and you won't have to waste time getting stuck on those.

 

2. Set weekly goals for your research. Give yourself freedom to revise your goals as necessary, but if you don't treat research as a priority, it can easily be overlooked. Many people, including me, start out with the mentality that "research is what I'll do after I do coursework, attend seminars, etc." Instead, make it one of your priorities, with meeting your goals just as important as getting that reading done or that assignment finished (but make sure you set realistic goals).

 

3. Don't burn out! Make sure you get enough breaks too to stay motivated. It might be tempting to just work through lunch / eat at your desk but you need some break time and spending that hour with colleagues/friends can be a good break. Make sure you eat well and get enough sleep. I found that as I got older, the late nights I used to do in undergrad to get things done aren't great ideas anymore. I can't work on homework until 2am, then wake up at 6am and go to school at 100%! Even working 1-2 hours past my bedtime usually screws me up for the next day, losing much more than 1-2 hours in productivity. 

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One method that hasn't been suggested yet is to make your coursework an effective workshop(s) for your research.

 

If you take substantive and methods classes, make sure they line up with your research interests. If you are in a methods class and one of the projects is a statistical analysis assignment, run a regression on your research variables. Or if you have to do a research design, do it on a project you are doing/plan to do. Most substantive seminars will have a seminar paper, write it on the project you are working on.

 

This method brings two benefits: 1) It gives you an opportunity to get unsolicited feedback on your research by a prof and the opportunity to revise and improve your research and 2) it decreases your course load (i.e. its more efficient) because you already know the subject matter and are working on these projects concurrently. 

 

Every grad seminar you take should be used to submit and improve your already existing research work that you are doing. 

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It is a bit of a cheat, but go for a program that allows you to finish all coursework before starting on research. :D

 

(I just finished my last exams. Unless I have done poorly in two of them (unlikely), I can now completely focus on research. Really happy with that.)

Edited by Marst
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It is a bit of a cheat, but go for a program that allows you to finish all coursework before starting on research. :D

(I just finished my last exams. Unless I have done poorly in two of them (unlikely), I can now completely focus on research. Really happy with that.)

Or pick a PI who is cool with you focusing on finishing coursework asap with minimal research and frontload the crap out of your classes. That's what I did for my MS. Took everything but one class in my first semester and then spent 18 months in the lab 40 hours a week. I'm also the only person from my entering class who is done with my thesis (defending this week) on time. Everyone else pushed their graduation to summer and I suspect half of them will wind up finishing in December.

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Or pick a PI who is cool with you focusing on finishing coursework asap with minimal research and frontload the crap out of your classes. That's what I did for my MS. Took everything but one class in my first semester and then spent 18 months in the lab 40 hours a week. I'm also the only person from my entering class who is done with my thesis (defending this week) on time. Everyone else pushed their graduation to summer and I suspect half of them will wind up finishing in December.

Neat! :D

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Eh, in many programs you need to start doing research in tandem with your coursework, because if you wait until you are finished you will spend more time on a dissertation than absolutely necessary. I decided on my dissertation topic in the middle/end of my third year, so by the time I finished my exams I was ready to boogie on the area. Also, the earlier you start the more publications you'll get out - the one thing I wish I had done more of early in my program is been proactive about getting on papers (although in my defense, I had no idea that's what I was supposed to be doing, lol).

 

Learning how to balance is also important - if you go into academia, you will be balancing courses (on the other side of the desk) with research and service.

 

I used most of the earlier examples but I thing a big thing that was suggested was tying your research to your classwork. All of my final seminar papers were based upon the research I was doing in the lab, so I used it as a tool to gain familiarity with my data and build a literature foundation in my field. I also used procrastination to my advantage - I waited until a couple hours before class to do the readings (forced me to skim most of it, which is all you really need anyway) and while I didn't wait until the last minute to do papers, I definitely tried to cut them short when they were good enough rather than perfect. That's also good practice for academic writing - you need to send off the papers when they are good enough!

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That's also good practice for academic writing - you need to send off the papers when they are good enough!

 

Definitely. You can't begin to imagine what your reviewers are going to worry about. It's almost never what you are worrying about. So I now have a policy of sending papers out as soon as they are decent enough, definitely not when they are "perfect" or I think they don't have any holes in them (just not glaring, obvious ones, that I think undermine the work. Also, no mistakes that I know of). 

 

I've also developed a policy that everything I do should end up published somewhere. Maybe not always at top venues, but I also don't want any of my work to have nothing to show for it. I am now trying to go back to my early work from the beginning of grad school and see about turning those papers into journal submissions. I wish I had done that 2-3 years ago, but better late than never.

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Definitely. You can't begin to imagine what your reviewers are going to worry about. It's almost never what you are worrying about. So I now have a policy of sending papers out as soon as they are decent enough, definitely not when they are "perfect" or I think they don't have any holes in them (just not glaring, obvious ones, that I think undermine the work. Also, no mistakes that I know of). 

 

I've also developed a policy that everything I do should end up published somewhere. Maybe not always at top venues, but I also don't want any of my work to have nothing to show for it. I am now trying to go back to my early work from the beginning of grad school and see about turning those papers into journal submissions. I wish I had done that 2-3 years ago, but better late than never.

 

Seems like a good strategy, although I'm not sure how that'd work in my field. I know some programs have a culture of aiming exclusively for the 'top' journals and as such some people come out with nothing published by graduation.. not good!

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Honestly, AuldReekie, it's hard to get published in top-tier journals for your very first publication. You might be better off trying to get something into a second tier journal so that you can go on to the job market showing that you have and know what it takes to get published, even if you aren't in APSR or whatever yet.

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Seems like a good strategy, although I'm not sure how that'd work in my field. I know some programs have a culture of aiming exclusively for the 'top' journals and as such some people come out with nothing published by graduation.. not good!

 

If you had the option of getting a publication out of your work or not having anything to show for it, people would advise you to have nothing? I don't know about that. I am not talking about a situation where with some more work you could submit to a better journal, but work that you are no longer pursuing -- maybe it was a class project; for me it may be having worked with a speaker of an interesting language who left town so I can't get more data -- so you have something sitting there and there is a chance of turning it into an ok publication or not having anything at all. Seems like a no-brainer to me that you should have something to show for it. You should also have top-tier publications for your main work, yes. But sitting on these things for too long increases the chances that they'll never turn into anything, and I don't think that going into the job market with no publications does you any good either.

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Take fewer courses. Easy. They are huge time-wasters and mean nothing on the job market (for a Ph.D. at least).

 

I never take a course unless it has a project component that I can use to either 1) work into my dissertation, or 2) publish a side-project paper. All other courses are a waste of time for a Ph.D. student. You learn when you do research. An exception might be skill-based classes like statistics or programming, but even then, be careful.

 

I will only take 4 courses and 3 1-hour seminars. Done by half way through year 2.

Edited by Powerup McMisterpants
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