Two of my PhD students have successfully defended their thesis in the past three weeks. For both of them, they have accomplished what constituted the biggest project (in term of scope and time) of their life yet.
However, is it really one project or a collection of multiple projects forming a whole, called a PhD thesis?
Let’s look at it closely. When you are an undergrad, things tend to be straightforward i.e. the road in going from A to B is usually obvious: you learn new stuff, you get an exam on that stuff, you answers the questions on predefined topics. Even undergrad research projects tend to be usually projects with clear paths from beginning to end.
As you get to grad studies, there come a new paradigm: you (the PhD student!) get to formulate the question(s) for which, this is the new twist, you or your advisor do not know the correct answer(s) or the best (and easiest and safest and…) way to accomplish them. Let’s face it, if it was obvious it would be done by a technician following a recipe. This is also why a PhD project takes a few years to complete and sometime (often!), the final results is quite different than what you expected when starting.
For some, this is an overwhelming discovery. Here is how you should tackle it. First, think of it like going to the top of Mount Everest. You do not decide one morning that you will do it in one stride… you’ll never get there! Rather, it takes planning and smaller steps. This is the same for your PhD project.
So the overall project goal (at least from the point of view of the PhD student) is to get the diploma and on to the next step. However to achieve this goal you will need to break it down to manageable “steps” or smaller projects. So in a sense a PhD project is a collection of smaller projects.
The road to your PhD might very well look like a collection of projects similar to this:
Project 1: Comprehensive literature review and PhD research theme definition (P..S.: include a few sessions with supervisor)
Project 2: Plan , design and run a few simple, easy experiments to get the feel for it – got to start somewhere
Project 3: Paper #1 (I found something interesting, which the field might like!)
Project 4: Plan , design and run a new set of experiments base on my latest, greatest idea (which is idea #26!)
Project 5: The results a great. I plan to submit an abstract and get to give an oral presentation at this incredible international conference
Project 6: Paper #2 (this is my best and greatest work to date)
Project N-1: write thesis (I am done… my supervisor said so!)
Project N: prepare for thesis examination
In the example above, I used the publication of scientific manuscripts to mark important steps in the completion of a PhD thesis. It serves multiple purposes, including the fact that a PhD thesis is all about making a significant scientific contribution. It also ensures that the student get the credits for his work (at least in my group, each student get to be first author for their work) and it is also a critical part of the PhD learning process. One might argue that it is difficult to separate the “sub-projects” like this. Maybe, but once you get in a mode of preparing a paper, it is a project in itself which will involve more validation, experimental works, writing (and arguing with the referees sometimes) and so on. However when done, that chapter is closed and you can move on to another one. So, yes, these are “sub-projects” or simply projects whose completion support the achievement of the primary goal (overall project).
Therefore, do not hesitate to break down your PhD project in smaller pieces. Each time make sure that they fit with the overall goal (you should never lose sight of the bigger picture) and move you forward to graduation.
- Is it cutting-edge (for the field)?
- It is going to be fun, exciting (life is short after all)?
- How it fits with all of my other projects and responsibilities) ?
- Do I have all the needed resources (time, $, …) ?
- Should I reach out to other researchers (it is a collaborative project) ?
- What would be the measure of success of this project (envisioning the best possible end result) ?
Notice that to answer the first question, you do need to know about all of your other projects and responsibilities. If fact you should take the excellent habit to keep an up-to-date list or inventory of ongoing projects and related tasks. If you think you have none, you should stop now. Your are missing too much information to make a good decision about the new project you’d like to start.
All of this can happen in a few minutes or over days / months depending on the scale of the project. However, it is essential to do before putting resources into it. Skipping the fundamentals could mean a never ending project or a half-started project (or both!), a general waist of effort and potentially frustration, in particular if you are not alone working on the project. The time invested in getting answers to these simples questions (and I am sure there are a few more…) is time well spent, that will pay off down the road! Furthermore, they act as a filter that allows you to say no with conviction…
Do not hesitate to ask your supervisor about the nuts and bolts of project planning. I will put them on the stop here: he (or she) should be able to help. If not…well, you may need to ask yourself more important questions.
So far, posts in this digital office series this blog have tackled the hardware selection and components, OSX and iOS software, and finally the inputs or “Inboxes”. In this post, I will try to illustrate how all the pieces come together and making it all work.
Let’s briefly recall from part IV that for any document, either paper or digital, I follow the 2 minutes rule and the workflow diagram given below (click on it to obtain a high resolution image).
In my work workflow, I have a total 4 inboxes to deal with: 1) physical, 2) e-mail, 3) DevonThink Pro Office (DTPO) and 4) Things. However, the complete list of all projects and tasks resides in my electronic task manager, Things. Support documents are in DTPO and support e-mails in my Mail applications. The task manager has embedded links to get me back from a given project or task to DTPO or Mail. This is done automatically when a project or task is created from existing scripts (that comes with the task manager or DTPO, as will be discussed below).
Setting up a good structure is important. First you should do this for your task manager. The structure in my task manager follow closely that put forth in David Allen’s GTD book. I have:
- Areas of responsibility (20000 ft.)
- which can contains Projects (10000 ft.)
- and Tasks (here and now).
Things does not allowed for nested projects. So for very large projects, I will create an Area of responsibility with multiple projects in it. Otherwise my use of Things follow very closely this document by a Things user named goldencrisp87 and won’t repeat all of it here.
I have been saying that creating a good structure in your task manager is important because you will want to have a similar one in DTPO and maybe in your e-mail software depending how you organize your stuff. Example of Areas that I used (apart from the obvious GTD Next, Scheduled, Someday, Waiting For – I used a contact for Waiting For in Things since the very first OSX beta version):
Read / Review (manuscript, thesis, …)
Human resources (my students, one project each!)
University (teaching – one project per course and other faculty related projects)
Large research project 1
Large research project 2 (I have a few of these)
Infrastructures (lab and equipment)
Conferences-Travel (work related)
Delegated projects (I am not in charge of those but involved closely)
… and a few more Areas!
The relationship between the structure I am describing and the various applications I am using is depicted in the figure below (again click on it to obtain a high resolution image).
First at the top, my three main applications in term repository of documents, projects and tasks are given. Each project has is own project in Things and the associated mailbox and group (folder) in the other two applications. In practice, DTPO comes with a few AppleScripts that will make your jobs very easy. For example by selecting a document or a folder, you can generate an entry in Things with a link pointing back to that document or folder in DTPO. This means that any projects and tasks in Things which have support documents in DTPO can be connected. Similarly, if an e-mail is at the source of a task, the task can be created directly from Mail and the entry in Things will contains a link back to the e-mail (similar features can also be found in OmniFocus). Also, DTPO installs general “system scripts” which allow you to send mail attachments (documents!) or attachments and the associated message to DTPO. All those automated actions are described in the figure by the dashed-arrowed lines.
You will notice other applications in a second layer, which contains utility applications such as Address Book, iCal, Safari and Papers 2. Finally, the very last layer illustrates the mobile component of the workflow.
Digital workflow: Getting your inboxes to zero.
In dealing with my Inboxes, Things inbox is the last one I will get to zero. After my Calendar, it is the first application I will look at in the morning and the last before leaving work. My task manager is with me at all time having a sync copy on my iPhone and iPad (yes I did use Things Beta with cloud sync for quite a while, which has now been superseded with Things 2).
All attachments are transferred to DTPO inbox if important (to be classified later on). All e-mails are either discarded (trashed!), dealt with directly (2 minutes rule) or transformed into a task (created automatically in Things Inbox from Mail with a link back to that e-mail in the Things entry). On my employer IMAP server, I have four folders (you can click on the image below to have a better view of the structure in mail):
- Next Action for e-mails that are not part of projects, that I have to deal with and takes more than 2 minutes (entry in Things).
- OnGoing for e-mails related to ongoing projects in DTPO and Things. The substructure of this folder follow closely that of my task manager and DTPO. I could keep all of the e-mails of this category in DPTO with the other documents but I find it better to keep them on the IMAP server as it is accessible from multiple points (computer, web, iPhone, iPad, …). Furthermore, that e-mail system is maintained professionally and backup are handled directly by my employer.
- Finally I also use a Someday/Maybe and
- WaitingFor folders.
Notice that there is a no “Scheduled” folder. This is because either these e-mails will end up in my Tickler file system in DTPO or as a Calendar entry and move to the Next Action folder. If something contains a information or document to be used later on e.g. an invitation to event I generate an entry in my Calendar (this is done automatically in OSX by simple moving the mouse of the date/time in the Apple Mail app) and keep a copy of the invitation in my electronic Tickler file system in DTPO (more on that later on). Again a script transfer automatically the e-mail to DTPO Inbox as described above.
All important documents either for reference, for the Tickler file system or for a project are scanned on my Fujitsu ScanSnap 1500M, transfer directly in DTPO, OCR’ed and put in the Inbox. Physical documents are going directly to the recycling bin afterward.
Now that e-mails and paper entries are dealt with. We need to empty DPTO and task manager Inboxes. For DTPO one needs to decide if an entry is for future reference needed at a given date (Tickler file system), for a new project, belong to an existing projects or need to get assigned to a simple task (not really a project but should be dealt with).
I keep three main databases (I have a few more but for simplicity, I only mentioned those I used on a regular basis):
Note that my use of DTPO mimic that of regular filing cabinets to the extend of the structure explained in David Allen’s Getting Things Done.
The reference database is simple and uses a standard A-Z folder system (comes as a predefine option in DTPO). It is intended for documents (any kinds including clipping of websites!) that can be of used later on and as archive for completed projects.
The Daily database is the home of my electronic tickler file systems (e-Tickler), basically a digital version of the 43 folders technique (but with 366 sub-folders grouped in 12 folders, you get the picture ). The DTPO version of it is something I developed a few years back. The gurus at DevonTechnology made it even better. It comes with a script (which I have assign to a hot key – CMD-F14 in my case), which make an entry in iCal that something needs your attention on a specific date with a link to get you automatically to the specific DTPO folder containing your documents: based on the subfolder and folder you drop your documents in, the script will recognize the day and month and put a reminder entry either at that date in the current year or the next. Since your calendar should be the first thing to consult everyday, this is very efficient. I put all of my meeting documents there as well as any documents needing my attention at a specific date. Note that this e-Tickler works on 12 months cycle. Therefore, I also keep separate folders for future years as needed to temporary store documents I will need in more than 12 months. Once a year, I review these separate folder and redistribute the document at the appropriate place in the e-Tickler system. Finally, I further have a separate Read/Review folder where I put all of the documents I need review on short notice. The last important thing, I keep all of the folders from this database in the Sync area of DTPO as to sync on a regular basis with DevonThink To Go (DTTG) on my iPad (which is the tool I bring to meetings and do most of my reading/review from).
The OnGoing stuff database is just that. As per GTD, each project as it own folder. The overall structure will vary from user to user. In my case, the main category of projects follow the Area of responsibility in Cultured Code Things software as described in the previous section of this post. In Things, each DTPO folder becomes a project and a file can be attached to a task as needed. I used the Inbox in DTPO the same way as a physical IN basket. I throw everything in DTPO (using the Sorter) and when ready I proceed from top to bottom using the 2 minutes rule and using Things’ scripts described above as needed. This is another area where DTPO beats the competition for digital repository of documents: DTPO uses an artificial intelligence algorithm (AI) that help you sort documents in the appropriate folders / subfolders. With a good folder structure, the algorithm is right over 90% of the time, speeding up the classification process. Note that unique links assign by DTPO to your files (in Things for example) will not be broken as files are moved to subfolders!
I also keep all the elements from this database in the Sync area. When a project is fully completed, it is moved out of the OnGoing database and in the Reference database (and checked as completed in Things!). Note that you can throw about any kind of documents in DTPO including RSS and webpage. A nice tool is available for most browsers for clipping to DTPO directly. This makes it also a perfect software for about any kind of research projects.
A last note, DTPO can also index folders without importing its content. It will allow you to search as if it were imported by frequent synchronization either through the menu or attaching the sync script to the DTPO folder of interest. Note this is only one way i.e. to DTPO not the other way around. I use this feature for my scientific manuscript PDF library which is managed by Papers 2 (this is described by a one way dashed-arrowed line from Papers 2 icon to DTPO Scientific manuscript folder in the provided e-office figure).
Making it really work
Here is an example of inboxes processing I am conducting:
Physical inbox: For every document, decide If it is not actionable and not important, it needs to go top the recycling bin. Otherwise scan the document and file it in DevonThink inbox. If it is actionable and less than two minutes DO it, if it would take MORE than 2 min. scan and put in DTPO inbox. At this time, it takes me no more than 15 min. per week ( I keep very little paper documents and now ask my colleagues to directly send me the digital files by e-mail).
E-mail: I get to inbox zero every few days or so, usually before leaving work as discussed previously. However, as I look at my e-mail a few times a day, I will for example generate on the fly tasks in Things Inbox if not urgent or deal with the e-mail directly if it takes less then 2 min. I will also move the e-mail in the appropiate folder (Next Action, OnGoing, … Or trash) directly. If the e-mail as a file attached to it, it will also go in DPTO inbox (using a script). So as the week move on, my inboxes both in DPTO and Things grows but everything that needed my attention within that time frame was already taken care of. What left in the inboxes are for the weekly review.
Next is getting DevonThink inbox to zero. Note that I must precise that for me the DTPO inbox is my main, large database Ongoing stuff Inbox not the global one. The reason for this is that DTPO AI for automatic classification of documents works with only one database at a time. If you put everything in the golbal inbox you would have to move them again before using the AI. Since most documents should go into either ongoing or new projects anyhow…Top to bottom following GTD process:
- Decides if its a new projects: if yes create a new group/folder in Devon followed by an entry in Things using the DTPO script.
- Decides if a new action is needed for each document. If yes, use DTPO script to generate an entry in Things.
- Use the AI to classify stuff in my database (or move manually if it is a new project).
- Move documents that goes into the Reference and Daily databases (Tickler file system – with entry by scriot into my Calendar and read/review as soon as possible).
- Repeat for all documents in the Inbox.
Things Inbox:I classify all entries top to bottom in the proper Area / Project folder. I will change an entry into a project if needed (all entry from the DTPO script are tasks by default but the change is a one click action Things and forces you to review what you are doing, which is a very good thing!)
- Review Project / Area and make sure next action is define (could be a Waiting For action) for all.
- Review tasks not attached to Projects / Areas
- Review Someday
- Review Schedule
Others: I will also once a week put all new PDF scientific manuscripts into Papers 2 and clean-up my DropBox folder.
By this point you should have a pretty good idea of all the commitments you have going forward i.e. what is on your plate. Simply review of next week calender items (your calender should be the first thing you open and close everyday anyhow) to be ready.
If you are new to this, program weekly recurring tasks in your task manager software (e.g. Things or OmniFocus) to remind you to perform all of these steps. Pick the order that make sense to you! Do set aside 2 hours weekly at first to do this. This will be well-invested time as it will saved you even more time in the future.
Two important tips:
1) The only way for such a system to really work is to use it and trust it.
- If you do not throw everything in, it will failed.
- Furthermore, if you do not review your projects / tasks at least once every week, it will also failed.
- Finally, be aware that developing a new habit takes 3 to 4 months i.e. for your brain to generate new pathways! This means that it will take you 3 to 4 months before you get use to this type e-GTD/e-Office approach. Before that time, you cannot really conclude if it is truly working or not.
2) Also important, is to figure out based on your level of activities what (and how much) software you really need. The goal is to get to an efficent and usable workflow while investing a minimum amount of time to maintain your set-up. if at any time you feel you are spending too much time “tweeking” the system and not enough time getting things done with it, it will be a sign that something must change.
In a discussion with a postdoc of mine, she was telling me that she observed that advisors are of three types: opener, middle cruncher and closer… I am not sure this is the whole story but there is something to it
Opener corresponds to those individuals that the exceptionally good in defining projects in details, breaking it in smaller parts, imparting a vision to it and setting an achievable target for success. They are also especially good in getting all that is needed to get the project going.
Middle “crunchers” are highly efficient to step in resolving issues, pointing out important elements during the realization and getting new ideas along the way. They can turn around a project that appears to be failing and make them winner. At the same time, a number of individuals in that category tends to jump from project to project without always finishing the previous one: once they understand what’s going on, they get bored and move to a new “problem”.
Closers are particularly good in identifying key moments in project where enough have been done and, for example, a pause should be taken to write a paper and your thesis. They will guide you to destination and make sure everything is perfect.
I found out that getting ideas for projects is usually an easy part for most peoples. However, it does take more to be successful as a researcher. You have to be able to funnel those ideas to actual projects that are executed and in the end published in a form that is accepted in your field. A good mix of the above categories is essential. We all know or have encountered peoples for which one or more of the above is lacking… they usually experience difficulties in being independent researchers.
Have a critical look at how you are conducting your research activities and try to find out which one of the three types need your attention right now. Repeat once in a while. See how improving your weakest “side” help you get better overall!
Which types are you? What type is your thesis advisor?