Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Uni-tasking vs. Multi-tasking

For two months I have conducted an experiment in obsessive timekeeping: tracking time spent on work (anything relating to grad school) down to 3 minute increments (because 3 minutes = .05 hours, a nice round number). This experiment was probably more successful than any of the research I've done to date, and certainly has a more noticeable impact on my life - or anything, really. I have achieved two things: one, I've trained myself to uni-task; two, I now know exaclty how much of my life I'm spending on graduate school. Today, we look at uni-tasking.

Uni-tasking as a goal was partially instigated by my advisor, who relayed a general faculty observation about graduate students multi-tasking through colloquia, and heavily inspired by "Zen Habits", which has a rather
unique perspective on multitasking.. This perspective seems entirely correct: what's the point of sitting through a seminar if you're only listening to half of what the speaker says? The answer is usually "because I'm required to and don't want my advisor/the faculty at large to note my absence", but this seems to miss the point. There are a large number of seminars that turn out to feel not worth the time spent sitting in an uncomfortable chair, but assuming that the time would be better spent on other projects means not paying enough attention to the current seminar to have any idea whether it would be interesting.

Keeping track of time emphasizes the point of uni-tasking, or rather the lack of point to multi-tasking: in the end, each minute gets counted as only one thing. Two hours spent in a colloquium gets listed as two hours regardless of how much of that time I spend listening to the speaker and how much is spent on other tasks on the laptop. If I just listen, on the other hand, and do the other chores later, more hours get counted and the magic number of "that's enough work for today!" happens much sooner. And, I both have a better chance of understanding the speaker and of making an errorless data analysis that won't need to be redone later.

Keeping such anal track of time also trained sticking to a single task in the face of more pleasurable distractions. This is more than just not trying to do two tasks at the same time, but to not quit working and do something else (check other blogs, for example). The three-minute increments often turned into "alright, I need two more minutes to make the .05", which often turned into 10 minutes or more. The impulse to do something fun is acknowledged and then put off until the current task is actually finished.

The whole exercise sounds like something out of a self-improvement manual, although I came up with it on my own, and certainly took it to an obsessive level only possible in the name of semi-scientific inquiry. One week would have been enough for a "hmm, that's interesting"; two months gave me enough to develop an actual dislike of multi-tasking or stopping a task before it's done (unless I've already spent hours doing it, of course, in which case I'm ready to chuck the laptop against a wall).

Perhaps the biggest effect of uni-tasking is that I don't feel as if I'm spending my entire life on research. I was always in the habit of putting movies or music on in the background while I worked, which made work slightly more bearable but also stretched things out to cover the entire day. I also know exactly how much of my time I'm spending on this work, which helps put the entire experience in perspective. More on this next time.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Job Flexibility

Graduate school has the reputation of being a time sinkhole: 40 to 80 hours a week spent on work despite a 20-hour stipend, Friday nights spent analyzing data rather than going out. To a certain extent, this is true, although I personally don't push my time much past 40 (of real work, not of browsing the Internet from my office). The upside to the time sinkhole is that it doesn't really matter when you work. My advisor doesn't care if I show up to the office at 9 a.m. or at all. There are offices out there that work 10/4, or take every other Friday off, or treat Saturdays as required work time. My schedule can do any of these, depending on my need. It took my advisor three days to notice that my computer clock was accidentally set 12 hours ahead; who notices whether a grad student sends emails at 3 in the morning, unless it's three in the morning tomorrow?

The upshot of this is that informing my advisor that I would unexpectedly be out of town and out of contact for a given weekend is more of a courtesy than a necessity. I'm not entirely sure it would be noticed if all emails went unanswered for a four-day weekend. Normally I'm not in a position to think about, let alone take advantage of, this flexibility. Impulsive trips to Cancun are not in the graduate student budget. At the moment, however, I have reasons to be thankful for this flexibility, as I plan to ditch research to attend my grandmother's memorial service.

My first semester as a TA, I received some advice about dealing with students who request extensions or make-up tests on the grounds of attending a grandparent's funeral. I can't remember exactly what the advice was - I think that it would be okay to request some proof of needing to attend a grandparent's funeral, but to accept a parent's funeral without question as if they're lying they're going to hell anyway. I never experienced the request from a teaching standpoint, although I did have to put up with any manner of other excuses. From a student standpoint, on the other hand, I got to make the request - my mother had a heart attack the last week of classes, so I missed an exam and a term paper deadline. I much appreciated the fact that the teacher didn't request proof. I even more appreciated that my advisor had no problems with me vanishing for a full four weeks; no one else in my family had that option.

Now again, I am the only member of my immediate family with an easy time attending this service. Three can't get out of work, the fourth is trying but has an even tighter budget than I do (yes, it's possible, especially if you have a house and two kids). Any time I think about leaving academia for the "real world", I think about how much more difficult it would be to drop everything; professors can cancel class, or call for guest lectures, but in a business there are bosses to appease and hourly wages to accrue. I have yet to decide whether this time sinkhole-flexibility trade-off would be worth it on a more permanent basis.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Back to the Daily Grind

One of my siblings, taking a week-long vacation from the wage-slave grind to coincide with my week-long vacation from...not that much work at all, really...informed me that the vacation was a test of sorts, to see if getting a break from a six-day work week of customer service would make her job any more tolerable. If not, she would seriously start looking for another job. I would not say that I returned to the lab with any great enthusiasm, but I'm certainly in better shape than that. My somewhat leisurely return to work has more to do with needing to catch up on a week's worth of Internet browsing than with any reluctance on my part, since I didn't even maintain the pretense of taking the laptop with me.

It's not just the Internet browsing, of course. It's the fact that my annual vacation is arranged around my birthday. I am now 25. I need a new plan. I have begun implementing the new plan, as tenuous as it is. It occupies more of my thoughts than research at the moment, but the pressure of a meeting with my advisor - specifically, the fact that the meeting is themed "that huge critical point of your comps paper" - should help turn things around quickly.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Graduate Student Survival Kit

Our lab coordinator is leaving for graduate school. We encouraged this, perpetuating the great circle of no-life. We were, however, nice enough to provide a Graduate School Survival Kit. It contained:

-Combination coffee mug and french press. Caffeine is vital.
-Dial-An-Excuse wheel. A must-have for all advisor meetings.
-PhD Comic Scrapbook. Rather than conducting research, time was spent selecting a dozen PhD Comics, putting them in a nice scrapbook, and adding advice. For example, "don't take bad papers personally".

This kit was presented as part of my advisor's Fourth of July lab barbecue. The departing lab coordinator then gave a thank-you speech, to all members of the lab. I was singled out for being very organized (this makes a lab coordinator's job much easier). It is my defining feature.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

"Pure" Science

A lab mate's review of a Learning Institute she attended last week opened with a discussion on ways of knowing. It is our field's equivalent of nature vs. nurture, now nature via nurture: the huge debate that has raged for a decade but is now succumbing to "well, it's really more complicated than that". For me, it started highlighting the difference between pure and applied science. Pure science says "But we can only understand why people are X if we have all the details!". Applied science says "It doesn't matter what precise interactions of these genes and this environment resulted in this behavior, here's something that can help". In case it isn't obvious, I am an applied science person.

Perhaps I'm still bitter from having a very prediction-based study dismissed as a fishing expedition on the grounds of investigating three possible causes at once. Perhaps I'm very, very bored with the never-ending reading and the completely stalled attempts to gather data. More likely, though, it's just the thing I always liked about research. I think of science not just as a means to understand why; I think of science as a means of testing ideas, and the ideas that are most interesting are the ones that could actualy make a difference.

I'm glad somone is out there looking for the Real Reason Why. Identifying exactly why some men are homosexual could have profound impacts on culture, for example. It's just not something I could spend my life doing. I'm happier to say "this didn't work" than to say "it didn't work because it actually only applies to half of the sample, and it works great IFF features X, Y, Z1, and Z2 are present". A job in industry sounds more and more appealing; as long as I stay out of marketing, I should be able to swing something where it comes down to "Does this work better than this?". Too many qualifiers just makes science seem meaningless.