Academic housekeeping tips?
June 18, 2012 5:38 PM   Subscribe

I've just finished my Ph.D. coursework. I need a brief mental rest from serious work! But I'd like to continue being at least marginally productive. Can you help me think of "academic housekeeping" tasks to do that will pay off in the long run?

I'd like to take a couple days to tidy up the organization of my academic life before I start staring my dissertation proposal in the face. As an example of the kind of task I'm looking for, I'm currently working on turning all the .bib files littered around my computer into a master bibliography file in BibDesk. I've also updated my website. What other kinds of small-to-medium-sized tasks can I do along these lines?

The main goal here is to set myself up to work efficiently over the next couple of years while I write a dissertation (or at least over the next few months while I write a proposal). Another way I'm looking at it is that it might be good to get these tempting sources of procrastination out of the way now.

On that note, these don't need to be strictly academic things, since non-academic organizational tasks are also seductive procrastination devices. I'm not looking for things like "clean out and reorganize my closet" though -- more like "Back up and organize my email".
posted by ootandaboot to Education (23 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
Learn LaTeX, if that'll help/you don't know it yet.

Create a timeline for your career for the next 2-3 years.

Start looking at jobs you may want (if academic). Start thinking now about how you can pitch a dissertation/your research in the context of the job market. What buzz words do you see being posted - what's hot in your field.
posted by quodlibet at 5:45 PM on June 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Learn ye some LaTeX.
posted by The White Hat at 5:45 PM on June 18, 2012

LaTeX thirded! (Pretty much regardless of your subject area, even if you are in a Wall of Text field. Your Wall of Text could be beautiful.)
posted by kengraham at 5:54 PM on June 18, 2012

Best answer: We might be able to be more helpful if we knew what field you were in. I know that in my lab there's always housekeeping work to be done -- today I moved the coffeemaking stuff out of the lab where it doesn't belong and set it all up over in the little eating nook down the hall, for instance. The other week some folks defrosted and reorganized one of the freezers.

One thing you could do though if you haven't already is set yourself up with a cloud-based backup service like CrashPlan or something. It's not a replacement for local backup but it's cheap and provides a definite extra layer of insurance which will no doubt feel good in a few years when your dissertation is on its way to completion.
posted by Scientist at 5:55 PM on June 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm not familiar with BibDesk, but when I was putting my big bibliography file together I found it really useful to tag groups of papers by topic, and to have the topic labels be the same as were on my folders of pdfs and physical folders containing the journal articles. It was easy to continue once I'd gone through the initial annoyance, and it was incredibly helpful while writing and trying to remember what group did that thing with the stuff that was so cool. Being able to narrow it down to 10-15 papers with a click was WAY easier than sorting through my 500+paper folder looking for a familiar bit. If there's a way to do that with your software I'd recommend it.

Work on a timeline, even a general one.

Talk to your department secretary about what paperwork you'll need to have together, who needs to sign it, and at what point in the process they need to do so. Add it to the timeline.

Write your CV.
posted by tchemgrrl at 5:55 PM on June 18, 2012

Set up email forwarding to gmail so that you don't have to backup or organize your email- you can just search.

Choose a reference manger- I think Zotero is probably the best free one out there, as far as this former science reference librarian is concerned. I see you use bibdesk- that's great! But i think Zotero does a nicer job of grabbing all sorts of references in the first place, and Zotero plays nice with bibdesk.

install selfcontrol, which can block the entire internet, or just selected sites, or just allow selected site. Used to be mac only, now it is ported to Linux and windows.
posted by rockindata at 5:56 PM on June 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh yeah- dropbox. Dropbox EVERYTHING important. My friend had her entire backpack- laptop, phone, keys, the works- stolen, three weeks before her quals. Because her proposal and all her notes were dropboxed, everything still sucked, but it sucked way, way, less.

Also have another crashplan, NAS in the lab, time machine, something storage solution for backup that is totally mindless.
posted by rockindata at 6:00 PM on June 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

How are your finances? Do you have a budget so that your expenses are mapped out based on a sometimes-odd academic pay schedule?
posted by bleep at 6:09 PM on June 18, 2012

Best answer: Organize the contents of that folder called TO READ which is full of of downloaded pdfs
posted by shothotbot at 6:35 PM on June 18, 2012

Best answer: nthing LaTeX; also learn version control, which dovetails very nicely with getting a backup system sorted out.
posted by holgate at 6:54 PM on June 18, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions so far! Just as a quick update I already use LaTeX, that's why I'm organizing my .bib files :) Other suggestions along this line (like, technical skills to brush up on) would be welcome though.

Oh, and I'm in linguistics.
posted by ootandaboot at 6:56 PM on June 18, 2012

Along the LaTeX lines: Learn TikZ and PGF.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 6:57 PM on June 18, 2012

Best answer: Seems like a good time to go for Inbox Zero, if you're not there.
posted by escabeche at 7:02 PM on June 18, 2012

Best answer: Don't forget your, like, actual desktop; not just your virtual one.

But some new pads of paper, get a filing system going, sort through that stack of journal papers if you're the type to print stuff out, steal some pens from your officemates. Get lots of file folders and sticky notes.

Make your desk a pleasant environment.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 7:36 PM on June 18, 2012

Have you accumulated a lot of books? I am doing a favour for my dissertating partner by entering all the books in our (wall-to-wall books) apartment into Goodreads. From now on when he's at a bookstore or library or out in the world with a bibliographic thought, he can check to see whether we've already got a particular book at home. This would have been a much less enormous task if it had gotten started in year 2 of the Ph.D.! LibraryThing sells an adorable gadget to help, which I would have used if I wasn't pinching pennies.
posted by bewilderbeast at 8:16 PM on June 18, 2012

Best answer: I've recently started keeping a list of things that Everybody Knows (or, well, everybody in my tiny subfield), along with citations to the relevant papers.

It's not really that taxing to add new facts, claims or results to the list. (These are, after all, things that Everybody Knows.) In fact, it's a lot of fun and a great confidence-booster, since it reminds me how on top of this stuff I am.

But The List has also been surprisingly useful when I've been writing or doing research. Where before I would have sometimes had to stop for five or ten minutes to remember who said it, and whether it was in their 1996 book or their 1998 book, and to dig up the page number, now I can just check The List and keep writing. It's also occasionally helped me notice connections I would have missed otherwise. ("Oh man, Prof. X and Prof. Y disagree on almost everything, but here's one claim they're both arguing for! I wonder what's up with that.")
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:30 AM on June 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: on a different tack, i recently had a brief breather period like this and handled it as follows. i kept a running to-do list of every single thing that popped into my mind that i should get done. they were mostly things like update website, renew passport, find a new doctor, check in with so-and-so about such-and-such ... if you start fishing around in your brain you should find you have some thirty items without needing outside suggestions. then every day, using the pomodoro technique, i spent one 25-minute block on each item, one at a time, top of the list to bottom. the purpose was to hit as many as possible without continuing to avoid anything. many things i'd been putting off for months turned out to be completable in 25 mins. many i wanted to keep working on beyond the 25 mins. but i wanted to make sure that nothing on the list continued to slip through the cracks, to be a thing i was still just putting off. this way i was able to start them all and get a sense of how much work ACTUALLY remained and what my next steps ACTUALLY work. the sense of accomplishment, and the amount accomplished, in this time period was beautiful. in the pomodoro technique may serve you very well in the future; it certainly does me.
posted by nevers at 7:20 AM on June 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: These are all great suggestions; I marked the ones I think I'm actually going to do in the next few days as best answers. Thanks!
posted by ootandaboot at 8:02 AM on June 19, 2012

I don't want to hijack the thread, but since I am in the same spot as ootandaboot, I'm very interested in everyone's answers (this was one of those forehead slapping moments of, "Why didn't *I* ask this, too!?"). In particular: Why LaTeX? Is it used in fields outside of Linguistics (I'm in Communication Disorers/Psycholinguistics) for manuscript prep? Is there something amazingly awesome about it? I have never used it, nor do I know of any researchers using it currently, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't be using it.
posted by absquatulate at 6:22 AM on June 21, 2012

Why LaTeX?


I think Libreoffice is installed on my computer, but I don't really remember, because, as a LaTeX convert, I never have occasion to look.

Currently, it's by far the best way to exercise almost total control over the formatting of your text, and it's not really all that much harder than using Word or something, especially if you use a fairly user-friendly editor (Kile and WinEDT are both good ways to TeX things). Yes, there is some effort to learn things, but never again will your basic word processor's attempts to think for you waste your time/emotional energy, so the time spent thinking about typesetting -- which I sympathize with the desire to minimize -- is also time spent learning something useful and future-situation applicable, instead of being a sucking maw of damage control. I'm in math where LaTeX is de rigeur, but I also use LaTeX for anything for which I don't just use a text editor.

Also, adding things like graphics, tables, enumerated lists, weird characters, etc. to your text is non-frustrating in LaTeX to an extent that's pretty unimaginable with most "office" software I've seen. Margins, etc. can be made *exactly* how you like them.

posted by kengraham at 7:25 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

it's by far the best way to exercise almost total control over the formatting of your text

It's also a great way to exercise control over the content, because it's stored in plain text files: you can use the most basic text editor (or one with shortcuts and highlighting and other fancy stuff) and it's easy to put your files into a version control system.

(There are a few previouslies on the topic.)
posted by holgate at 7:42 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's also a great way to exercise control over the content

I think part of the idea is in the reproducible research idea. This is going well beyond the original hijack of LaTeX, but some people are trying to the to the point where the whole article comes out of a single, say, R script. You put you text in as special forms of comments and you generate tables and graphs in the body as well. So a year from now when you try to remember how you know that aphasics took longer on a semantic priming task, you can read your paper, or even better you can look at the script that actually crunches the numbers that led to a particular table. I am not 100% down this road, but I have worked on related projects for ten years at a time and I really understand the draw.
posted by shothotbot at 8:02 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

put your files into a version control system.

Oh, indeed. Thanks for the links, holgate.
posted by kengraham at 8:35 AM on June 21, 2012

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