The Productivity Trap

from PhDComics.com

There is a trap that is very easy to fall into in academia. You are constantly under pressure to do more. Deadlines are coming up, the work you have to get through is simply unmanageable. So you get stressed, easily distracted, mentally tired. I keep running for food (which especially sucks on a diet). Have way too much coffee with hopes to jump-start my brain. Even now I am writing this blog post instead of doing what I need to.

When this happens to me, I simply cannot get things done. Trivial tasks, as doing edits to a draft I have already marked up with paper (well, iPad) and pencil. This should be easy.

And the next thing I know, half the day is gone and I made a dozen edits that would normally take me 20 minutes with a fresh mind. Would it not have been better to just take the darn day off and get it all done in 20 minutes the next day with a fresh mind? Yeah, it would have.

Don’t be like me. Take time off! Recognize the trap and do not fall into it. If you do this right, it will make you more productive and you will get more done, on average.

On procrastination, or how internet corporatism messes with our brains

Another guest post, this time by my friend, colleague and trusted teaching assistant for Scopes and Methods: Stanislas Richard.

Procrastination is not a new phenomenon – Leonardo Da Vinci is famous for having left unfinished a fair number of his paintings. However, his procrastination was not entirely a problem neither for him nor his creativity. If Leonardo decided to postpone the completion of the Adoration of the Magi and to work on The Last Supper instead, it is more likely he did so because he felt the final work would not meet his expectation (perfectionism is often the main cause of procrastinating behaviour), rather than him just being lazy.  Neither Andrea del Verrocchio, Leonardo’s early master, nor Ludovico Sforza, his first unfortunate patron, could complain that his procrastination was unproductive

Delaying the completion of a task was not a problem for the Renaissance man’s career, and this, in a nutshell, is the difference between Leonardo and me (the only one, really). When I feel bad because I wasted my day on Facebook, my complaint is not that I yet again failed to start this overdue paper, it is rather that I did not do anything at all. Not starting this paper would have been all right if I used that time to read this collection of essay on Neuroscience and Political Theory which is gathering dust on my shelf since I bought it and that I promise myself to read every time I see it.

This “unproductivity” is I think a new feature of contemporary procrastination. It is also why I believe that most of us suffer from something else than putting off an unpleasant task, our problem is rather an incapacity to focus our attention on any task that we could perform instead, any task at all.

So what happened?

I am not the first person in my family to write a PhD – I am kind of a walking proof of this appalling feature of modern society that is social reproduction. Incidentally, my grandfather has a Ph.D. in History, and my mother has a Ph.D. in International Relations.

I was not there when my granddad wrote his dissertation in communist Poland. But I can imagine the picture – he walks in his office, sits at his desk, and puts it in order while lighting a cigarette (he was a heavy smoker). Let us have a look at his desk. I bet it resembled something like this.

What’s lying there is simple, his books and the notes he took in the archives, his typewriter, perhaps an ashtray and the latest Trybuna Ludu. In other words, nothing that could distract him for what he intended to do. He has literally no choice but to get to work. Sure, he could read a couple of lines in the newspaper, but at some point, he will have finished it, and will be required to start writing, since there is nothing else to do. The human brain hates emptiness, it needs to be busy with something. Grandpa could not do anything else than diving into his work. He could procrastinate and write poetry instead (I have no idea if he did, I need to ask Grandma), but that would not change the fact that he would have something to show for it at the end of his day.

Now let us have a look at how my day sometimes looks like. I get inside the lab, sit down in front of my computer, full of good intention and ready to write a new Critique of Pure Reason and … I go on Facebook – just to check, after that, I swear, I start writing. But I see a friend of mine who wants to catch up. He will know I read his message, so not to appear rude, I will write a lengthy paragraph to reassure him that my life is overall as uninteresting as his. And, since I am at it, I will go check the Instagram of that cute girl I like. And now, Levi asks me to write a guest post for his blog, so I will go check on YouTube some videos about procrastination. A couple of clicks latter, I am watching a debate about transubstantiation in byzantine theology. I look at my watch. It is time for lunch, and the only thing that looks like the Critique of Pure Reason is the original version on pdf that I downloaded six months ago but still have not read (guess what happened every time I tried).

Does this story sound familiar? What’s the problem? Why cannot I be like Grandpa?

Well, there is one difference between him and myself, my desk looks like this:

And on the desk, thrones the father of all procrastinators, the matrix of time wasting, the vortex that devours countless hours of the little time I have in my earthy life – the internet.

The internet is a wonderful thing. The problem is that you have everything, every content and distraction you want, one click away. And it never ends – it is not like Grandpa’s Trybuna Ludu. So, is the solution to boost your productivity to unplug your router cable?  Well, not really. You cannot work without the internet after all – most of the articles and paper you write are now digitalized – and it is a good thing, it does save a lot of time, and it is simply convenient. To get the literature he needed, Grandpa had to travel a lot between libraries and archives, and it is just easier and faster to download everything. So, perhaps, it would be just a matter of self-discipline? That can be part of the solution, but it will not do, simply because the internet is literally designed to keep you away from your work, and to drag your attention away from this paper you wanted to start writing two months ago. This is the fundamental problem that we all struggle with. The internet is fundamentally user unfriendly as a work tool, since the range of what it can do is too broad.

Imagine my Grandpa typing his dissertation. He gets bored for a minute – it happens. Well, he does not have much to do, does he?  He can light a cigarette or fetch some tea, but quickly he will get back to work. Our situation is different. When we get bored, we have the entire cultural legacy of human history at the tip of our fingers. At the first sign of boredom, we can immediately switch to the new season of Game of Thrones or Erika Lust’s films. It is surprising that any of us ends up working at all. We should be in awe in front of the self-discipline we display every time we write a single sentence.

The internet has also a problem in the way it is supposed to function. Internet, as we all know it when we get our bills, is a private sphere. Everything there is designed to make money, and the more you spend on a given site, the more its owner gets in ad revenues. The more we scroll down on our Facebook feeds, the more Facebook stock shares increase in value. There are fortunes being made on us mindlessly browsing social media – some people have a financial interest in preventing us from being productive. Most internet sites, social media and applications are designed with the goal to make us stick to them with methods that sometimes border neurological manipulation. If you want to know more about this? Check for yourself.

This is pretty insane when you think about it – and I hope it is not a surprise for anyone. The invasion of private life by corporate interests has become so rampant that even your free time, your very procrastination, is now monetised. This is just the tip of the iceberg – I do not have the space here to talk about shadow work, or the neurological consequences of the aggressive advertisement campaign that the Internet allows, all of which are often responsible for you not being able to finish this overdue paper.

The worst part of the story is that we are our own enemies in this. Humans are feeble, weak creatures, and yet the internet is designed as if we were automatons, made of steel, endowed with an iron willpower, and without, needs, urges, or lazy days – the fantasy of every self-respecting capitalist if you think about it. If this reminds you of the strategy used by the tobacco industry that adjust nicotine dosages to render cigarettes even more addictive, you are right – first render a product essential, second,  manipulate the users so they cannot quit. This business model has a name now, it is called the attention economy, and its devastating effects on the human brain, on public health, and even on democracy starts being criticized in the Silicon Valley itself. Read about it HERE.

Our entire economic system is built around the key notion of productivity and yet it does everything to sabotage it at the same time by messing with natural, human fallibility. We actually cannot even procrastinate properly anymore – like Leonardo Da Vinci did.

But before you decide to give up on civilization and start training in an anarcho-primitivist terrorist camp in Amazonia to overthrow capitalism, I have some good news. There are solutions.

Solution 1: Install attention nannies.

Human willpower is a limited resource, and the best way not to sin is not to be tempted. There are applications that exist which allow you to focus on your work simply by blocking time wasting sites. I am not exaggerating when I say they saved me hundreds of hours.  Here is a list of them:

  • Stayfocusd is an app that allows you to block or reduce the available amount of time you can spend on a select list of sites. My favourite feature is that if you want to give yourself more time to browse them, you need to copy, by hand, a text on procrastination, and why it is bad.
  • Leechblock functions like stayfocusd but it also counts the number of hours you spend on time wasting site overall. No time to practice a musical instrument or going to the gym? Well, look how much you spent on Instagram today…
  • KillFBfeed (for Firefox) or Kill News Feed (for Chrome) and there are others that make your Facebook feed appear blank. Simple, yet very effective if you want to keep Facebook messenger open. (Levi: I installed this immediately after Stan mentioned it in class. I am better for it. I kind of missed that there was an election in Germany, but I digress…). Newsfeed Eradicator works the same, but instead of leaving your newsfeed blank it puts some awesome quotes about freedom, discipline and work that some clever people once said or wrote. And if you feel smarter, or just like insulting yourself, you can even put your own.
  • Rescue Time provides you with a picture of your day as given by the list of sites you browsed that day (and how much time you spent on them). Allow me to tell you that when I tried, it did not look pretty. The premium version is not free, but the free service still allows you to plan your day most effectively.

Solution 2: Plan your “Social media time”.

Whether we like it or not, it is difficult to live without emails, Facebook, tweets, and social media in general. I do not like RSS feeds, and Facebook provides me access to a lot of content that I am happy to read. But I do not want to do it all the time. I check my Facebook only twice a day, for instance. When people used to write letters (yeah, people used to do that), they were devoting an hour or two every morning to it. Let’s do the same, but for social medias. From 9 to 10, I read the articles, papers, and interesting stuff that appeared on my news feed. Afterwards, I switch it off (with Killfbfeed).

Solution 3: Make some non-digital space.

Have a non-digital space on your desk. This sounds silly, but think about it, most of us, if we wanted to work on a paper without using our computers, would not even have a flat space to put our sheets of paper on. Our desks have become spaces planned around our electronic devices. Have a place on it for you to work without switching them on. If you need to put your keyboard away to read and annotate a printed work, it means your computer takes too much space, and you cannot start working without it if you do not have space for analogue work.

Solution 4: Learn how to switch off your laptop/phone and have hobbies.

A lot of us just go on the internet because they do not have anything else to do. This is bad because if we get the practice of visiting time-wasting sites in our free time, we might as well do the same during our working time (and we waste time anyway). I remember that once I had to live two weeks without an Internet connection, so I could not just sit at my desk and spend my time in front of my screen. The amount of time that was liberated blew my mind. It is like someone opened a tap from which free hours flowed that I could devote to reading, going on a stroll, or to play music. This is probably the most difficult (and I still do not do it), but let’s learn how to switch off our devices. You want to read the news? Take the newspaper. You want to listen to music while cooking? Switch on the radio and leave your laptop in the office. You want to prepare a draft for a paper? Do it in a notebook, not on Microsoft Word. Want to read an article to be up to date with the literature. Print it (Levi: poor trees) and have a look at it on the couch. You come back home after a long day? Sit in front of your piano instead of your Facebook. Reducing the amount of time, you spend on a screen is the best way to avoid procrastination – and to banish the corporate parasite from our lives and brains.

How to do a literature review

from PhDComics

Before we go into this topic, lets just take a moment and recognize how spoiled we are. Nobody under 40 (and that includes me for a little while longer) had to ever look though paper based library catalogues to find an article, never had to take multiple paper copies to a conference to exchange with colleagues and never had to stand in the paper room at a conference trying to find the new works of the people they were interested in reading only to find that every copy is already gone. (In fact, most of us don’t even know what a paper room at a conference is.)

The Internet democratized science and while some barriers to accessing papers still exist, titles, author lists, abstracts, at minimum, are readily available at your fingertips. For the rest, we should thank our library staffs who not only work tirelessly to help us by tearing down those barriers, their jobs over the past couple decades transformed completely. They adopted and we reap the benefits.

Back in the day, you couldn’t do this, but today you have incredible tools at your disposal to do a literature review. So how do you proceed?

Usually you have a starting point. You have a paper, a book that inspired you. If you don’t have that starting point, find one. Dig up the wikipedia article on the subject you are interested in, (if there isn’t one, make one) and see if they cite a scholarly piece? Or just do a Google Scholar search (that is https://scholar.google.com – and remember this website as it will come up again.)

(1) Find a starting point. (Sometimes, you have multiple starting points, that is fine as well.)

(2) Read your starting point(s). Make note of every (and I mean EVERY) relevant piece they cite.

(3) Take a look at the list of pieces you complied from the citations. When looking at a paper (and see also the How to Read post), first, you should always read the title. Sometimes the title will already tell you if this is something you should be interested in (you should figure this out from just the citation and without looking up the paper, the abstract). Always take note of the author, check the outlet it is published in. (Assess the quality of the outlet, this may require a google search or two.) If you still feel interested, read the abstract. At this point you should be able to decide with almost certainty if the paper (or book, I may overuse paper or article here, but it applies to anything that could be cited) is worth reading on or not. (Note that sometimes things are, in fact, worth reading but you don’t necessarily need to end up citing all of it. Maybe it will be a better fit for a future study. You won’t end up citing everything you read.)

This strategy of looking who people cite takes you back in time from your starting point. But, today, there is another path. This one takes you in the other direction temporally. (Not all the way to the future, but counting from the publication date of a key paper, yes.)

(4) With Google Scholar you can look at who cites a certain article. You probably still want to start with the ones you selected in Point 1. Type (or copy and paste) the title (precisely) into Google Scholar. Usually the first hit will be the paper you searched for (and if not, it is usually not much lower). Here, among other things, you will see the number of citations that paper received, to date. Click the number, and voilà, you have the list of papers that cite this study. Especially if you are looking at an important book or article, there could be many items on this list. Google orders them by the number of times they have been cited (which is a reasonable proxy of importance, especially for studies that have been out for a few years). Sometimes the task of looking through all these seems daunting. You don’t have the reference of any context as before (like in what context a paper was cited). At the same time you will find that many of these articles will not be relevant for you. (Sometimes it is surprising how many contexts a study could be cited in.) Remember the reading strategy. Read the titles on this list first (and most of the time your search will end here). If you feel you have to filter more, stick to the pieces with the highest number of citations and augment this list with pieces published in the past year or two . (Yes, you can filter by year.) These pieces may be important but did not have time to accumulate too many citations yet).

(5) And do it over and over and over and over. Once you identify and read an important article, save it, read it, (it is also a good idea to take notes on it), identify new cites, check who cites this article.

Once you are at the point where you are going in circles, you are seeing the same pieces come up over and over with almost no new information coming your way anymore, you are done.

One important thing to keep in mind is when doing a literature review, you need the literature that most closely connects with your work, your points, your arguments. If you go too broad, the work will certainly be unmanageable. Sure, pay homage to the most important publications in the general field, but you do not need to cite (or read) everything that vaguely relates to what you do. Knowing what is too distant and what is close enough to consider is kind of an art form, but with practice you will pick this up quick. What helps in this exercise the most is if you know what you are doing when you start.

Also, I am not going to lie, this is a work intensive, time-consuming and brain wrecking activity. When you start on it, the work will seem absolutely unmanageable. Work systematically and, I promise, you will get to the end. At the same time it is also a very fulfilling process. During these steps you are becoming a total expert in a field. Maybe it won’t feel like it at the time because you cannot process so much information at once, but after the initial steps the information, with time and thinking, it will skink in. Focus on the key points that most capture your attention. Write about them during the process as part of your reading notes, annotated bibliographies. Revisit your notes after you took some rest. Go take a day off after a multi-day, intensive, literature review. Go out in nature, clear your head to kick-start your thinking again.

I have gone through this process a few times. The most notable was when I changed MS thesis topics for my Survey Research and Methodology Masters Degree (the second one and already after I received my PhD in Political Science). I knew exactly what I wanted to do. Use a twin studies approach on survey response style. I found an article I liked on measuring extreme response style in an everyday survey. But I was much more uncertain about the measurement of acquiescence and I needed a solid literature review on how these two phenomena are conceptualized and/or measured.

This literature dates back the 1920s, though it is less broad than some other topics in the social sciences. Cycling through the above process took me 4-5 days. I went to my favorite coffee shop (at the time) and just worked 10-14 hour days. In the end I collected, read, took notes on 60 articles. I probably considered (read the titles of, or maybe started looking at the abstract of) over 1000 and fully read the abstract of hundreds. Depending on the topic, your experience with academic reading, your reading speed, your personal discipline, your interest in the activity, your mileage may vary greatly.

Interestingly, I think, this was the closest I ever came to experiencing Flow. I am a horrible programmer, (I do quite a bit of it, but I passionately hate it) so it is quite unlikely that I will ever get there with programming. But this process was just flying. I read about flow only at a later time, but it immediately made sense specifically because of this literature review experience. So there are certainly synergies with Flow productivity. Consider training your brain in that as well and you may be surprised how efficient you can be during this process.

Best of luck.

Enjoy the Budapest Music Scene

I am a firm believer that life does not stop when grad school work begins. (If for you it did, you are doing it wrong. Your grad school productivity is a function of how much rest and off time your brain has. Give it the time it needs to get things done efficiently, in less time. More on this in another post.) So, sparked by a conversation with one of you, students, on the departmental trip, I asked two of the pros, Juraj Medzihorský and Natalia A. Peral who recently left our PhD program to write up some tips and tricks for you. (Many thanks for the contribution.) This is our first guest post. There should be more coming. If you think you have something to offer to students, talk to me about posting it here.

The (mostly) classical music scene of Budapest (by Juraj Medzihorský)

One of the many great features of being a student in Budapest is the chance to see a lot of great music for really cheap. There are two principal venues for classical music Müpa Budapest (Palace of Arts) and the Liszt Academy.

Müpa is where the CEU graduation ceremony usually takes place, so as a CEU student you’ll get there eventually. There’s no reason to wait for your graduation to visit Müpa.

With a student card, such as the CEU ID, you can buy student tickets for 500 HUF. (Levi: Lets hope the Hungarian government did not mess this up as well allowing only the government issued student IDs. I would not put it past them.) These tickets are sold on the spot before the concert. Usually, the tickets are for the uppermost balcony. However, in case there are still unsold seats minutes before the concert, these are sold as students tickets as well. You can guess your chances of getting a good seat by checking which seats are already sold on Müpa’s website. A note of warning: for the majority of concerts it is easy to get a student ticket, and often with a pretty good seat. However, for high-profile performers and orchestras–think Daniel Barenboim or the Berlin Philharmonic–there will be a cue for the student tickets already hours in advance, and many will still not get a ticket. Just the same, you might get lucky as your humble correspondent did on an occasion or two, and end up paying 500 HUF for a 10 000 HUF seat

You can see the list of performances at
https://www.mupa.hu/en/events/calendar/10/2017

As you can see, Müpa’s program is by no means limited to classical music. Jazz and world music is also on feature there regularly.  On some days there are two concerts in parallel–this is possible because Müpa has two concert halls. One of the biggest attractions regularly appearing in Müpa is the Budapest Festival Orchestra. BFO is often ranked among the top 10 world leading orchestras, and it has a distinct character.

Perhaps the easiest way to get to Müpa, especially if you are going from the CEU campus, is to take the tram number 2.

Finally, a note on the dress code. While most concertgoers at Müpa dress up a bit, no one is going to stare at you for wearing smart casual.

The Liszt Academy is a different type of venue, with a central role in Hungarian musical education. It is also placed in the center of Budapest, about 20 minutes walk from CEU. Alas, the Academy does not offer student tickets of the same type as Müpa. However, performances there are often priced reasonably (think 1-2 thousand Forints), and quite a few of them are for free. That being said, tickets at the Academy often sell out days if not weeks before the performance. So plan ahead. You can find the program here. http://zeneakademia.hu/en/all-programs

Just like at Müpa, it includes also jazz and occasionally other genres as well. And just like at Müpa, you can do no wrong attending in smart casual.

For Opera Lovers (by Natalia A. Peral)

Do you love Opera? Budapest is your place!

In Hungary, the costs of the tickets are a bargain for the quality of the Opera you will see. You must know that the Opera season runs from September to May every year, June being mostly a month with a program for kids, specific events and one or two Gala nights. By early March the Opera also launches the season tickets so keep this mind if you are willing to get those!

As for the season 2017/2018 the Opera house will be closed and a shorter program will take place in Erkel Teather.  The Opera building is under renovation so you will have to wait until 2018/2019 season to really enjoy the full spirit of Opera in Budapest.

Do you want to know how to access to cheap tickets, even free performances? Here are some tips.

  • The cheapest seats are not necessarily the cheapest option.  Although there is a fixed price you can see online (my favorite website is hereor at the cashier in the Opera house, sometimes you can also access to even cheaper tickets through the following options
    • Get the ticket just few minutes before the Opera starts. I have done that many times paying 1000 HUF for a ticket that normally costs 17,000 HUF. Yes, it is possible and you need to be lucky! Generally, in every Opera day there are some empty seats of the seasonal tickets (people goes on holidays, get sick etc.!). People with seasonal tickets donate them to the Opera house so for the house to be able to re-sell them and collect extra money.
    • Ask for rehearsals and morning Opera performances: there used to be some at 11am, and rehearsals timing also varies. Just ask for these options at the cashier at the Opera house. I know, you have to be a true opera lover to find any charm in an Opera at 11am! Yet, tickets are very cheap, I recall paying 400 HUF, and even nothing at all!
    • Know a dancer, a staff member, a singer!  They are not only the best people to hang out with but also sometimes the best and only option to get access to performances that are easily sold out.  This is a win-win option, you not only will learn a lot and turn into a great fan of your talented friend but also you will be able to access to tickets for a very decent price, or to gain access to tickets that are not available otherwise!
  • The most expensive seats at best prices are lately more difficult to find since Erkel Theater opened its doors again. However, you can still try some options:
    • Ask for a last minute season ticket or last minute specific seat that you know is expensive due to its better location.
    • Check the various cultural events that take place in Budapest: for example, in September each year the official buildings are opened to the public and the Opera house sometimes distribute tickets on first come first serve basis for any performance on that specific day. This might change this year as only Erkel Theater is running the Opera performances!
    • Buy Season Tickets as early as possible. Know that most of them are sold out on the very first day they are announced, that happens on the same day that the Opera house announces its program for the year. This requires that you stay in tune with the cultural life in Budapest, or the Opera website! Remember that is generally in March when this takes place.

The dress code in Hungary is extremely free so don’t let the prejudices related to dress code and the Opera of the 19 century traditions deter you. However, keep in mind that the holders of season tickets in Hungary are generally traditional families and well experienced Opera lovers. So if you plan to get a seat that is part of the season tickets then, be aware that some might make you feel uncomfortable with their gaze – if you are just reaching the opera with your sport clothes, for example. Traditional season tickets holders are very protective of Opera traditions, everywhere, not only in Hungary! Nevertheless, except for the specific gala nights with specific dress code (generally thematic as well), you are free to reach the Opera with any outfit you want.

Whether is your first time at the Opera or not, there are two main performances I will always recommend in Budapest “La Boheme” and “La Traviata”. Performance, music and scenography are of an impeccable taste and level! This is just a personal viewpoint. I still truly believe that the best performances I have seen in the world of those two pieces are from my beloved Opera in Budapest!

Nevertheless, the Opera in Budapest is of high quality so keep exploring anything there is in the program until you build your own favorites!

If this is indeed your first time at an Opera performance, keep in mind that no necessarily you will get the flavor of the whole art-form in one opera day.  I particularly do not enjoy much Wagner but I do love Verdi and Puccini. So, I was very lucky that my first time at an Opera house was to see Tosca. My advice, your first time deserves the company of an Opera lover, so get someone next to you with the right passion to make of this an unforgettable memory!

As a disclaimer, keep also in mind that if this is your first time at an Opera performance, do not prejudge it through your experience at the Erkel Teather this year. Opera performances at the Opera house are sublime!  However, that might not necessarily be the case at Erkel Theater. I still resist returning there after it ruined the acoustic of “Aida”. I can tolerate the ugly building but I cannot tolerate the bad acoustic!  I haven’t returned since then, 2 years ago, maybe this has been fixed already!

Again, this is just a personal taste, do not let it deter you! Try it out! The quality of the Opera in Budapest is supreme and the cheapest in the world! No kidding!

 

Back your stuff up

from PhD Comics

If you will only keep one advice posted on this blog, follow this one. It is the one that, most likely, you will not need. But the ones that end up needing it, its absence can be catastrophic.

BACK YOUR STUFF UP! Yes. Back up your work device.

Every year I watch how one MA student loses their work. Sometimes it is to hard drive failure (as hard drives fail, even the lovely non-moving electronic ones), sometimes it is to theft, fortunately I have not seen fire or other disaster loss but it could happen, the worst I have seen (and I mean seen as it happened right in front of me) was a tray of café lattes landing on a computer (which never worked again). Out of the ~50-80 students we have every year, it happens to one. Do not let this be you.

In fact, I follow a backup strategy that is multi-tiered. I have a backup at home, I have one at the office and I use cloud service to back up everything I do in between backups (ie. all the time I am connected). And I do not think anything less is acceptable. Once I had redundant copies of a few hundred pictures. I had to swap hard drives in a computer so I figured it is fine to just delete one, I will back up again as soon as I restart. One copy I deleted, the other had a hard drive failure right there and then. I was an idiot. Never again. But even if you do not tinker with your computers, fire, water damage, theft in your apartment can happen (at the same time) to both the backup and the computer. You cannot afford to have just one backup sitting next to your computer thinking you are safe from drive failure.

So what do I do?

I use an external hard drive I plug into my computer at the office. (And I do not do this enough as I do not go to the office that often.) I have Apple Time Capsule at home backing me up whenever I am connected to my Wi-Fi at home. (By the way, this is not a good way to back up. It is a comfortable, but sub-optimal solution if you ask me. Time Machine on macs is not the best. Try to get a temporary replacement computer with less storage than your lost computer originally had and you will see why. You will have a hard time restoring to it. I only dare to do this because, at this point in my career, I can walk into a store and buy a top of the line mac if I absolutely need it. It is a calculated risk.) And I have multiple cloud back up services running. I work in folders that are auto-synced when I am online. And I make sure I am connected at all times. For photos, I back up to Google Photo. My Android phone is backed up to Google and my iPad is backed up with Apple. (All you need to do on these devices is turn backing up on.)

About cloud back up, I would simply suggest you use it. You only really need one of these. I use multiple, but that is my choice. I started with Dropbox where I acquired some extra free space in the early days and I still like it the best. It never let me down. The app is reliable. It always syncs. I know it is not very secure, and I do not care. I just make sure not to put any sensitive data in an unencrypted folder. (You should too, BTW.) Most colleagues like Dropbox for sharing files so it is here to stay (at least for me). I understand you get some free storage and I think they have some education set up as well that gives extra to students. Another obvious choice for CEU students is OneDrive as the Office 365 subscription you get with your email account comes with a big chunk of free storage. If you are new to cloud back up (and you are a student at CEU), just use this. It has nice Microsoft Office integration and now that CEU is going all Microsoft platform, I also have no choice but to use it. It works nicely with both Mac and Windows. There is the third giant, Google Drive. I actually pay for this as my Gmail needs the extra storage anyways. I also like Google Docs and some colleagues prefer this to Dropbox for collaboration. I really just use it sparingly but I use it and it works.

If you are from the more paranoid walks of life (and it is totally understandable – no judgement) you could use some secure encrypted service. I use one such service for things that could be more sensitive (prone to identity theft). I also encrypt my whole computer. So, again, no judgement for me. There are several such safe, encrypted solutions (and if you are so paranoid as to not even trust these services, I may be judging a little for sure). I use Spider Oak. I have a folder that is with the more sensitive things like tax paperwork, banking papers, etc. That is really all I sync here. And I would not be Hungarian if I did not mention Tresorit as a similar secure alternative (based in Hungary among other places). But these services, look like, will cost you. I got a few GB from Spider Oak for free back in the day. If they still have that option, they are hiding it well. There may be other solutions.

So, in sum, BACK YOUR STUFF UP. Buy an external hard drive (can even be a pen drive) and back up your work. Keep a backup at home and one in your locker/office/etc. And use some kind of cloud storage. Every year I watch disaster hit and how people are able to cope with the disaster 100% depends on this one thing they did or did not do. So, no sympathy and no excuses. I will not care what kind of coffee plantation, thief, fire or dog ate your homework, thesis, etc. and neither should any my colleagues. You have been warned.

How to read

(from PhDComics.com)

Dear Scholars

One of the most important misperceptions about reading in academia is that it is like any other reading, except harder, less fun and therefore it takes longer. No wonder people freak out when they are faced with a graduate student work load of several hundred pages each week.

When faced with this, fear not. There are some great techniques to make your academic reading more efficient.

Lets think about what academic reading is all about. It is about finding out what other scholars have done in a certain area of our interest (or sometimes the interest of our professors who force it on us – oh well). A novel you probably will enjoy reading front to back; with a murder story you usually don’t want to flip to the end finding out who did it. This is not the case in academia. You want to know what was done, how it was done and what you should take away from the scholarship at hand. And there are a few techniques to help you get there and get there more efficiently than “just” reading. More experienced researchers do this intuitively, but there is absolutely no reason why anyone should not just follow the instructions laid out here and act like a more experienced researcher.

When you grab an academic article here’s how you should approach it.

1. Read the title. Very often the title will already tell you that you can stop reading, and if it did not, the next step certainly will. (I guess, if someone assigned the text for you to read, you have no choice but to read it. You still probably want to follow the advice laid out here.) If the title is good, it will effectively communicate what was done in the study. (People like to get cute with their title. It is a bad idea unless you have the luxury of space to get cute – then it is just cute. But more on this in a future blog entry on how to write.)

2. Read the abstract. A good abstract will tell you mostly everything you are interested in. What was done, why, what is the result and what you should take away from this. (Once again, some people don’t like to give away the end of the study, but that is strategically a bad decision.)

3. Look at the tables and figures (if there are any). A good table and/or figure is self-contained and self-explanatory without consulting the text. Sometimes it takes some practice looking at tables and figures and figuring out how to read them, but very quickly it becomes second nature, especially if the figures are good. These excerpts can help get detailed information on what was done, what the author would like to communicate from the study.

4. Read the introduction and the conclusion. In addition to the most important results from tables and figures (especially in empirical studies) why the study was done, why it was interesting to conduct and what you should take away from the results is explained in these two sections.

(Some people prefer to do 4 first and then 3. Figure out what works best for you and use that strategy.)

5. Now, armed with all the most important information, you are ready to just read the whole article. And here’s the trick. It will go much smoother and much faster. You already know what you are reading, why you are reading it, what the findings were. You will not have to stop and think what is going on. You most likely will never have to re-read sections to make sure you are getting it right. In fact, because you got the most important things, now you are just looking for at the details that may be interesting or important. You will be much quicker, your brain can be at ease that you will not miss anything major and therefore you will be at ease reading faster. Cognitively, this faster reading will still allow you to process all the information better than the resource intensive, cognitively more taxing, very careful reading you would do if you were just reading a study front to back.

+1 Take notes as you are reading. Do not highlight. Highlighting is a lazy person’s way of taking notes. But there is a huge problem with it. When you highlight something, you are basically telling your brain, “this is important, so I will have to get back to this”. At the same time you are also telling your brain, “for now, you can ignore this” making your brain less able to process the information you just highlighted. Sure, you could come back and read it again, but how efficient is that? First, you read cognitively ignoring the most important points. And then you have to read again? When you take notes, always rephrase key points in your own words. You make your brain process the information better when you reformulate the points in a way to become more consumable for yourself. It is important that you do not just copy as that is also cognitively lazy (like highlighting). In the end, you have a record of what you found important, memory cues in your words for things your brain already processed so if you want to refresh the material, such notes work very well. But most of the time you will not even need a refresher, unless it is for an exam at a much later date (and such exams are rare in grad school).

I would certainly not propose that you skip any of these steps (including and especially the full read), though in a literature review, earlier points may lead you to conclude the information presented is irrelevant to you. Then it is fine to stop. (Not so much if you are reading because someone above you made you read a piece. Then it is best to really read it, but the techniques laid out here will still help you read the material faster and process it better.)

Final notes: the technique was developed for articles but it works well for books as well. Try it!  To produce this post, I drew heavily from Oxford University Academic good practice – a practical guide (yes, Oxford has this in their “academic guidelines” – but sadly half of that document is about plagiarism…) and conversations with Darren Schreiber.

How to address an academic

From PhD Comics

Dear Scholars. Academics are difficult. They have too many names. In this international world of academia, we don’t even know if the name is a male or female, so no idea if it is Mr. or Ms. (not to mention Mrs., Miss. – but it is Ms., when in doubt between these options, for adults it is always Ms.). Plus, academics have many titles. This can be hard. To add insult to injury names in Hungarian are backwards so you don’t even know if you are looking at a given name or a family name. (Just ask my colleague Judit Sándor who is female: Judit, and not male Sándor which is a common Hungarian male first name.) But it could be worse. You could be in Spain where people poses both their mother’s and father’s family name, or you could just be dealing with my friend and co-author Bruno de Paula Castanho e Silva who, himself could not tell you which one of these to use when you alphabetize the papers in your filing cabinet (and he does not even use these consistently himself).

So how should you address someone, say, in an email? Here are a few tips.

On initial contact use something formal. But beware (common mistake), academics don’t like to be called Mr., Ms., Mrs., etc. They worked hard for that PhD and/or Professor title. So, use those. It spares you the gender guessing, the Ms., Mrs., Miss. misery. Total gain. Dr. is generally safe in conjunction with the last or when in doubt, the full name (and not the first or nickname). Dr Levi sounds stupid, I am sorry to say. But I have only been yelled at once for calling someone a Dr. (Last Name) when I should have called them a Prof (and it was in the biomedical field, and by a third-party Austrian… see below).

In the Anglo world, there is little to no difference between Dr. and Prof. in the social sciences as far as I could tell. If you are not sure of their last name, as with Bruno above, use their full name as they have used it somewhere official (website, paper, etc.). Assistant Professors, Associate Professors and Professors are all professors in the worlds where those titles exist, so Dr or Prof works. Very few Professors out there without a doctorate (though we have one in our department – and you would never guess who… well, OK, maybe if you are really smart you would.) TAs, grad students, they are not Dr. or Professor yet. Usually they don’t mind the upgrade but it may look silly to call them as such. (You can always check someone’s CV. If they have a PhD, they are Dr. If they have a Prof position they are Prof. or Dr.)

In the Germanic world the rules are also pretty simple. They use their titles. They really do! All of them. It is not uncommon to see a Prof. Dr. Dr. Hab. etc. whatever Schmidt (with some post scripts too). The good news is that since they use their titles, you will find their name with all the things that go in the front (and the back) of it right there on the institutional website. On initial contact, address them accordingly.

And then there is this problem of casual, formal, etc. which becomes a common headache early in grad school when some profs start to treat students as peers while others reserve this for PhD candidates or PhDs (or never). But here are sure tips to navigate this problem.

First, if the person asks you to address them a certain way, do as they ask. I always ask people not to call me professor so and so, rather just call me Levi, and some people don’t listen. It is more a sign of disrespect not to address someone the way they would like to be addressed than calling them by their first name. For some, especially from very hierarchical academic cultures, this is weird. Deal with it.

Additionally, another sure tip is to use however they sign their letters. Say me, I use Levi. This means you are allowed to address me as Levi. (This is true even if there is a pre-defined signature sheet at the bottom of someone’s email with their full name.) You can especially go more casual (or formal, depending) if they address you the same way. In fact, you should follow this rule too. Sign your emails the way you would like to be addressed. And don’t be surprised if people address you the way you signed your email. It is a great signaling mechanisms as to how you would like to be treated and how you prefer to treat someone. (It won’t work me. If you sign your emails as Mr. or Ms So and So, I may address you ask such but I will still sign mine Levi, and insist that you call me Levi, but I am stubborn. Others are less so.)

Hope this helps, somewhat…

How to ask for a letter of recommendation

from PhD comics.

Many people are shy to ask for (or about) letters of recommendations. Never be! As academics, it is part of our job to write references. In fact, it is an important part of our job. But You can make this experience as painless as possible for your letter writer. So, instead of wondering if it is OK to ask for 14 recommendations when you need 14 (and yes, it is OK), just do your best to help your letter writer. Here’s how.

First, think about who would be the best letter writer for you. If you had little to no contact outside of class with this person (and in class there is 20-30, or more people where you certainly were never noticed – maybe you even made sure of this) that person is not the best letter writer. I have written countless letters that say person took my big class (usually stats – could be worse, Scope and Methods), seemed engaged, got an A- (which is a very good grade, BTW), but if this is all that a letter says, that will not stand out. Unless you can’t (in which case you have clearly done something wrong) you should find someone who can write a better letter. I often tell people that I don’t think I am the best letter writer for them as all I can do for them is… well… see above. Usually they still want the letter. (OK. So these people all probably did something wrong along the way, as highlighted above, but it is fine, live and learn. Hopefully, in these cases, my job is only to complement some other letter writer who will write an awesome recommendation.)

So how can you make this easy for your letter writer. Well, look at it from their perspective. They don’t have much time. Here is the key information you need to briefly give them:

What position? Is it a PhD, internship, job, etc.?

Where? Such as University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Department of Political Science

Few words about the position if applicable. eg. I would continue my research I am doing in my MA on voting behavior there or I plan to utilize my skills in focus groups with this NGO during their data collection on how people feel about XYZ policy. In this section, be brief and to the point! A sentence or two is fine. Focus not only on what you want to do but also how is this position a fit for you. OK, if it is PhD at Harvard, nobody will wonder why you would want to do that. But for less obvious things…)

Now I understand that it is easier for you to just send them the link which contains a detailed description and etc. but don’t do that. (Or, do that, but don’t make them peal all the info out of the link. Spoon feed it to your letter writer. Link is good, but only for reference. In fact, many other things are good for reference, CV, other letter writers, etc. But only for reference as an attachment or under your signature in the short email you will send to ask for this letter.

What should the letter writer highlight about you? Give them ideas what to write about. Be specific. If you think the final paper you wrote for their class (which they probably don’t remember so give them cues, tell them what grade you got) is relevant for the position, say so. If the class the person taught makes you a good fit, mention that as well. If your activity in the Political Behavior Research Group would look good in this letter, remind me that you are active in the group and I should mention this. (OK, some of these things the letter writer can figure out as well, but don’t make them think hard about these things. They probably do too much of that every day.)

VERY IMPORTANT. How to send the letter, where to send the letter and the deadline. And this can get difficult. Sometimes, the place you are applying makes you fill out a web form and they contact us letter writers with a link. (And these systems usually suck. Often, they don’t even tell us the deadline, so you need to do that.) Sometimes the reference needs to be emailed. Sometimes they require that the email comes from the institutional email address. Sometimes the form needs to be printed and mailed (less and less, but still). Sometimes, and this is not cool, but what can we do, the letter has to be sent directly to the applicant who includes it in their application. It is your job to make sure that your letter writer knows what they need to do. If there are forms (electronic or paper copy) make sure you read the form first and fill out all parts that is your job to fill out (like your full name and etc. be nice and fill out your letter writer’s name and contact as well – we usually use office contact for these things, though I, myself, use my personal phone which anyone who asks for a letter from me should know).

And again, the deadline. Give your letter writers time. If you cannot (then you messed up, though it may still be worth asking than foregoing an opportunity). Mark the email URGENT: in the title. Apologize for not allowing them enough time. Be understanding if they cannot submit, but ask them to do so even if it is late (most places will still consider it). Make sure the letter writer knows the deadline and send them reminders a week, 3 days, 2 days, and 1 day before the deadline. (Yes, all of those, unless they confirmed that it was sent.)

This is hard. This is especially hard if you consider that most of us, letter writers, receive many emails. To ensure you get a speedy response, your letter better not be more than a short paragraph, otherwise I surely will set it aside and deal with it later (which you don’t want me to do when there are deadlines involved). I understand the urge to be courteous and write a paragraph of a polite sounding big nothing, but don’t do that. Just be polite throughout your message. And being polite does not mean you cannot be assertive. For example, you can (and should) ask the letter writer to let you know once the letter has been submitted. (Electronic platforms also let you know sometimes, but you should not consider that enough. I have seen situations where the instructor submitted, letter was never received and … well, you know what happened.) You can also say you will remind them if you have not heard from them a week before the deadline. (And then remind them.) Despite this task being hard, don’t stress about it. You will make mistakes but if you follow only one of these points (not to mention the rest), you have already made your letter writer’s job much easier. So, you don’t check all these boxes, it is not the end of the world. Nobody will bite your head off, reject your request. But try.

And finally, there is no end to weirdness that letter requester can throw at you or your reference. In these situations, always, think about how you can efficiently and effectively communicate with your letter writer making their job as easy as possible under the circumstances.

And a post script. Some people will ask you to draft the letter for them yourself. Yes. This is a thing. And there is nothing weirder than writing a letter for yourself. But here are some tips if you run into this. Take the list of things you wanted the letter writer to highlight and write then up as if it was written by the prof. No need to overly praise yourself too much. The content is the praise and good letter writers know this. Also, rest assured, the letter writer will go through the letter, will edit the letter, adjust it to their style, add and delete comments as they see fit. (It is really more a collection of the points as suggested above and not a letter that will just be forwarded on, at least, most of the time.) I personally never do this with the exception of letters that seem to do little more than checking administrative boxes (in which case I always ask the requester to draft the letter). If you need such a letter from me, be ready to write it yourself (in fact, send it with the request).