This is my guide to successful research: get the organisational stuff out of the way and concentrate on the ideas! This guide is, of course, a work in progress. I’ll adapt it as my workflow get’s more efficient.
Getting Things Done
The most important thing to do before you start working on your thesis is to get yourself organized. First of all, read David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. This is a great primer on productivity related stuff – don’t follow everything strictly to the word, but adopt those parts which are useful to you. To get an idea of what it’s all about, the most important points can be found on wikipedia.
Also look up the article on the Hipster PDA. Why do you need this? The single most important principle of GTD is this: get everything out of your head! When you have stuff in your head, you’ll be prone to mulling it over, making sure that you forget nothing etc. If you know that all your ideas/plans/duties are written down in one location, viz. Hipster PDA, no more worries
The next most important principle is to split up everything into next actions which are sorted according to context (ie: phone, computer, workplace, university, library). Actions have to be actionable, that is, you have to be able to do them at once if you feel like it (and you are in the right context). But you can read all about this in the GTD book.
So much for the basics, now into academic productivity.
My workflow is roughly like this:
1. Information Gathering
- Get feedreeder software like Google Reader or Bloglines. With this, you can subscribe to feeds from journals, academic blogs, or news sites and always be on top of the information without having to visit millions of sites.
- Subscribe to newsgroups
- Subscribe to mailing lists
- Get email subscriptions for journals that don’t offer feeds.
- Collect links to the most important journals and conferences in your field and check up on them regularly if they don’t offer feeds/email subscriptions.
- And now, the most important point: don’t drown in the information deluge which will beset you! Devote at most 2 hours per day to internet research (better less!). Don’t read your feeds on weekends. Get good at filtering the important stuff from the trash.
2. Reference Management
- Reference management is a must. I checked out a lot of software and there really is something for every taste. Requirements for me were usage of open standards, open source, good integration with web browsers (at least firefox and good integration with Latex (this is best when the software generates Bibtex files).
- Zotero : Firefox extension with lots of functionality.
- Jabref : Very solid desktop reference management software, it’s more powerful than the others concerning management functionality. I use this for storing my references.
- cb2bib This tool is a gem: it helps extract citations from PDFs and websites with regular expressions. It needs some configuration though.
3. Read and archive the papers you collect
- No use downloading tons of papers and not reading them. You have to upload the knowledge into your brain.
- Make a group in Jabref (or whatever tool you are using): “incoming” (you get the idea ). Import your papers into Jabref immediately (don’t let them pile up on your harddrive) and dump them into your incoming folder. Organize them as soon as you have the time (do not let too many references accumulate in this folder; empty it at least once a week).
- Make ample use of groups to organize your papers. Make a priority queue for the papers you want to read next.
- Important: only print out those papers you are going to read immediately. Avoid paper piles at all costs.
4. Ideas and Writing
- Zotero is not only good for scraping, but also excellent for collecting your thoughts, notes, todos and everything which you don’t know where else to store.
- Tagging: tag your ideas, otherwise it will be difficult to find them in the future. Needless to say, you will need software which supports tagging (Zotero does )
- Always have pencil/pen and paper with you. You never know when you are going to have a good idea, but when you have it, write it down immediately!
5. Writing papers/thesis etc
I recommend these traditional tools for writing your scientific papers/theses:
- Latex (typesetting tool, no hassle with formatting)
- Miktex (Windows Gui Version of Latex)
- Bibtex (The bibliography system for Latex)
I willl expand on these subjects in due time:
- Cognitive drawbacks of slides: slides structure the way we think and talk – in a bullet point way. Most topics we want to talk about are not structured linearly with bullet points, so the slides hinder transmission of information.
- No math on slides!!! Develop it on a blackboard/whiteboard.
- For longer lectures: beamer is an excellent Latex extension for presentations.
7. Do important work
- See the transcript of this talk by Richard Hamming.
- Nice general tipps by Gian-Carlo Rota
- Avoid procrastination.
8. Keep your cool
- Life is about living every moment to the fullest and nothing else. As scientists, we have a wonderful job – we can learn about the universe every day!!! Don’t forget to have fun with what you are doing. If it start’s to bother you or you can’t keep abreast of things, say NO! Don’t take up new responsibilities. Delegate work. Pass up that sure-fire occasion to climb the career ladder (but in fact just loads you up with paperwork).