Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Time Watch

The time-track system mentioned in the previous post is not a computer program, but a self-regimen. I selected 3-minute increments because 3 minutes = .05 hours (I like round numbers), and multiples of 3 and 5 are the easiest to memorize and divide.

I looked into Meetimer (since non-work time at the office is by definition time spent surfing the web), and there are probably programs out there that record how much time you spend with a certain program or window in focus, but I decided against them.
No computer would be able to log how much time I spent on different projects (teaching, vs three different experiments) and I'm not quite so irrevocably tied to the computer for work anyway.

An actual computer program would defeat half the purpose. In the short term, I want to make sure I'm earning my paycheck, yes; but I also want to make sure some time is being spent on the less pleasant projects, and in the long term, I want to thwart excessive multi-tasking and create some boundaries between work and the rest of my life. This can be difficult; I work at home when I don't need internet access, and play at work when I want to surf the web. Time only counts when I'm watching the clock, so there's a more compelling reason not to fret about research while cooking or shopping.

The Excel spreadsheet gets updated with time spent whenever I stop working, which also lets me see how much time I spend working at a step. Usually this is less than an hour (Go go generation short-attention-span!). Ultimately I hope to train myself toward two or three hours at a time, which will help separate life and work even further. Half an hour of reading followed by half an hour of tv sounds good, but at the end of the day it feels like the entire day was spent working.

If I were really obsessive, I'd buy a stopwatch and carry it around with me everywhere, starting the timer whenever I have a work related thought and stopping it whenever I have a non-work thought. One day we will have chips implanted in our brains that do this for us. In the meantime, it would miss all that experimental design that happens in the shower.

And yes, time spent on this blog counts as work, filed under the general "student" category. I consider it a vital part of my career; if I could vent the frustration or reflect on grad student life, I probably wouldn't have lasted this long.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

How Many Hours Is Full-Time, Really?

For my own entertainment, when the pay period switched to summer and the lovely full-time RA status (i.e., twice the paycheck), I started an Excel spreadsheet to track how much time I was really spending on work, with separate calculations for teaching, general student work, the specific projects I was working on. What I've found is that it's very difficult to actually spend 40 hours a week on my work.

This is a system that records the work I do in 3-minute chunks. It does not include the time I spend reading blogs online, chatting with other graduate students in the hall, or assorted other activities that frequently break up the work day of those on the standard 9 to 5 schedule. I had thought that this might account for only an hour's worth of time, in little bits and pieces over the course of a regular day. Yet even with my careful on-task-only, there is not yet a week with even 35 hours dedicated to graduate school work of any type.

It could be that I'm just more interested in spending some time in the sunshine than in getting more work done. It could be that, as much as I love reading, there are very finite limits in the number of journal articles one can focus on in a single day. It could be that the 8-hour workday is design to really only get 5 or 6 hours of productive work (which is what I usually manage). I might just take the delusional road and declare this last to be the case; spending 40 hours a week in the office just translates into 30 hours of time spent on task.

Meanwhile, only a third of my time is being spent specifically on the project for which I am funded this term. Throw in the basic "student" time (dealing with the never-ending emails, etc) and general lab time, and it gets up toward 60%. This was the real purpose of the spreadsheet; I'm not neglecting the project. I'm just neglecting comps and data collection.

Monday, June 16, 2008

An Overflow of Grad Students

My first e-mail announcement as lead TA, describing the teaching/professional development workshops being offered over the summers, only gave me a minor fit. Fortunately, I sent it out before I realized how many people there were on the department's "students" list, and how few of them I knew.

The official list of students requesting TA funding for the fall numbers 43 students. The count of graduate students on the department website is 93. I can take some comfort from the fact that this is out of date - at least three students are listed in my area that I know have since graduated or left the department - but I hadn't realized exactly how big our department is, when it isn't broken down into our specialties. No wonder we have a multi-person department business office, and one staffer assigned just to administrating graduate students.

On the bright side, if five or even 10 students see that I'm the new lead and create a filter to junk my messages (which wouldn't surprise me), I can console myself with the knowledge that it's only a small fraction of the students I'm supposed to be inspiring to expand their graduate training. Sure.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Back to the Library

I'm not sure which shocks me more: That for the second time in two months (and the second time in three years) I had to resort to the campus library to get hold of a reference, or that the book was actually checked out. Technically, the article was available online, thanks to the magic of Google Books, but I don't actually like this resource; I prefer my downloadable .pdfs, particularly since I'm too cheap (grad student stipend, after all) to pay for internet access at home.

I think the fact that it was checked out is the shocker. Generally speaking, anything that starts "Multidimensional" from the 1990s is probably not high on anyone's reading list. I recalled it, quite easily, but then had to go back an reassure myself that it was due in 2008 and wasn't lost sometime years ago. I'm actually curious who has it out, and whether they're in my field/department. Odds are, it's sitting in my advisor's office, or the other faculty member involved in this project's office, but there was no way to tell. My own experiences working at my undergraduate library tell me this may or may not be returned as recalled, since professors often take books for their year-long checkout period, renew them automatically regardless of use, and come to think of them as their own property.

It's not as if I'm eager to read the 40-page article starting with "Multidimensional" myself...

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Dual Tasking

Yesterday's lab meeting opened with a message passed on from my advisor: people notice when grad students take laptops to colloquia/seminars/things where a crowd of people gather to sit and listen for an hour or more, then spend the time listening with half the brain and doing work with the other half. The general consensus of these "people" is that if you're going to do that, you might as well not come. My advisor is at least willing to admit that we don't actually have a choice about attendance to most of these events, but discouraged dual-tasking all the same.

There are four grad students in our lab, all of whom have laptops we carry around just about everywhere. It was a general message, but I know I am one of the worst offenders. I briefly considered making it a personal rule not to take the laptop to these meetings (unless I'm actually taking notes on the talk, which happens fairly often), but then I started wondering exactly why this is considered to be such a big problem.

There's disrespect to the speaker; this would seem to be the most likely culprit. And yet, the back rows of chairs at these events are lined with faculty who showed up 5, 10, 15 minutes late. How is that less disrespectful? I'm not just sitting there and ignoring the speaker, so I probably only miss as much of the talk as the people who show up late. When the speaker and others in the audience get into a nuanced debate I have no hope of understanding, I lose nothing by running a quick lit search or composing an email to someone.

There's missing the details of the talk; this was my advisor's tack. The point of attending these events is to learn more about other fields, and to learn how to ask good questions. The problem here is that I am not the best learner from the colloquium format. There are too many details, and the slides are too poorly organized, to get a grasp of a talk without interrupting in the middle, which we're not supposed to do. I'm rarely going to do better than getting the gist of the talk anyway, and checking the weather or typing up a blog entry bit by bit is not going to change that.

It doesn't matter how often someone tells you that there are no stupid questions; you can tell how few graduate students buy it by how few actually ask questions. Surrounded by faculty, in a talk far out of my own area, I'm not going to ask what might turn out to be the most basic fact imaginable.

Then there's the appearance. Showing up at a talk and only paying half the attention it might be merited reflects upon you as a student (and your advisor as an advisor, which is probably why we got the lecture in the first place). All those other members of the faculty see that you aren't dedicated, and this is bad, so at least look like you're devoting your entire attention to the talk.Since I can see at least one faculty member doing the same thing, such an angle is slightly hypocritical.

The problem with any of these reasons is that removing the laptop treats the symptom, not the cause: boredom, loss of attention, inability to follow what's being talked about. The worst case was when I watched my lab mate give a practice brown bag, then give the actual brown bag, and then give an extended version for the new summer series. The talk got better each time, but it also got old; the best strategy for attendance was to follow the new information and listen with one ear while he went over the unchanged slides. Hence, the laptop. I'm currently listening to the fourth or fifth iteration of another lab mate's talk, and obviously the umpteenth explanation of the phenomenon she studies does not hold my entire attention.

No one has ever suggested that I have ADHD, but I am a product of my generation. I put a CD or DVD on while I work, I move around cleaning house when I'm on the phone; I multi-task as a way of life; the only time I don't is when I read a book, which is accompanied by a lot of meta-analysis on writing style and possibly upcoming plot turns.Perhaps I should cultivate the ability to put my entire mind behind a single task, but this almost seems counter-productive. I've been involved in several long discussions about "what is intelligence", and to me multi-tasking is a critical component.There may be arguments for how it can be better to get a lot out of the one thing, but there's not clear case for one or the other that might make me put the effort into changing my own thought patterns.

I suppose the real question is this: If hearing about research and findings stimulates my brain, and I'm stuck in an environment where that creative energy can't be channeled into discussion and brainstorming, why is it so wrong to caputre as much of it as possible on my electronic notepad?

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

"Exclusive Focus"

The comic I meant to reference in response to my funding being shifted to a new project is apparently called "Bad News", which is why my archive searches for things like "funding" and the punchline were ineffective. Fortunately, journal articles are named in much more sensible ways. At least, I assume they are.

The day after my post about being given a new project for balance of funding purposes, PhD came out with a comic commentary on why thesis research never progresses as well as it seems it should. This seems to describe the current situation very well. I was going to spend the summer finishing a project, mentoring an undergrad, and writing my comps paper; now I've added a very long weekly meeting and an entire new set of background and design requirements. The old project and the undergrad have priority (i.e., I can't possibly pay any less attention than I already am), which means it is the comps writing that suffers. If it were really a matter of just reading the 119 papers (last count) and integrating them, it doesn't seem like it should take one month, let alone seven. But it's finding time to read those papers that's the hard part.

I'm on the verge of sectioning off days for each project. I've already added "read 2 journal articles for comps" to my daily checklist. It's juvenile, but it's the best way of motivating me to build my exercise habits and accomplish certain chores). Blocking off one or two afternoons to work on this new project (4 to 8 hours out of the 40 I'm being paid for...I'll just have to assume funding agencies know what they're getting when they agree to pay grad student salaries) may be the easiest way to make sure everything gets accomplished this summer than needs to be done before entering the (hopefully) next-to-last year.