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


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).

Places of worship that look like the communists built them

I have always been fascinated by these places. There are some great ones in Prague. There is a great one near Moszkva Tér at Városmajor. There is a good one if you look at the Pest bank of the Danube from the Margaret bridge. But today, in Sarajevo, I found a Mosque as such. It was quite exciting to see. (I saw some other great modern ones as well. One looked distinctly Bauhaus. But no pic. Sorry.)