Thursday, August 17, 2017

I am Jaime, and This is How I Work

Today, I am interviewing Jaime for the "How I Work" series. She is a third year PhD student at a US-based university studying biological engineering. Though most of her free time is consumed spending time with her three young children, she am passionate about running and lifting weights and actively participates in local science education and communication events. She blogs about life as a mom and PhD student at

Current Job: PhD Candidate in Biological Engineering
Current Location: US

Can you briefly explain your current situation and research to us?
I am a third year PhD candidate in Biological Engineering in the US. My work is focused on computer simulations of bilayer remodeling. My work days are mostly consumed with research and I am currently enrolled in two classes. Luckily, my work is almost all computer-based and therefore portable, so I do 60% of my work from my university office and 40% from home.

What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow?
My calendar is my most important tool. I try to keep dates on my calendar as much as possible so I can easily glimpse at what I have to do for the next week or next month. After that, my trusty notebook is my best friend. Every Monday I sit down and make a list of the tasks I would like to get completed during the week. These tasks sometimes get moved to the next week or look identical to last week, but I still sit down and write them down every Monday.
I use Mendeley to organize research papers effectively. I honestly don't know how I would keep my papers organized without it.

What does your workspace setup look like? Do you have a fixed workspace, or do you alternate between a home office, university office and lab?

My office desk is relatively clean. My advisor once got upset that my desk did not "look like a grad student desk". I'm still not sure what this meant but I need to keep things organized to be able to work efficiently. I have since put a pile of papers in the corner of my desk to make it more "grad-student-like" but the papers I am actively reading and working on stay neatly in my folder at all times.
Though I have a desk at home I typically use my kitchen table to do my work. I enjoy having so much room to put things during the course of my work day. It also forces me to clean up my work when I am done which feels like a clear end to my work day. I initially struggled at delineating my work day from my rest time when working from home and this is one small way I have moved towards a better work-life balance.

What is your best advice for productive academic work?
Keep a schedule and task list. When you write tasks down, it gets them out of your brain and on paper. You cannot fully focus on one task if you are thinking about everything else that needs to get done.
Set deadlines. I like to have a deadline for each portion of my project so that I feel some pressure to complete one task and not just bounce between projects.

How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks?
Paper and pencil. I have a notebook that never leaves my side and has everything I have thought or done written in it.

Which skill makes you stand out as an academic?
My organization and initiative. I am in control of my own experience at university and actively work to get what I need out of my time as a student. I have clear goals for during and after my PhD. I am also reliable, I do tasks quickly and efficiently. I have the motto that if it takes less than 5 minutes to complete, do it now. I also stay on top developments in my research topic and initiate new ideas with my PI without being asked.

What do you listen to when you work?
Nothing. I am not a big fan of listening to music while working, it is distracting to me.

What are you currently reading? How do you find time for reading?
I am reading The Stand my Stephen King. I read mostly at night in bed or during lunch if I don't feel like socializing.

Are you more of an introvert or extrovert? How does this influence your working habits?
I am an introvert though I do like having friends and acquaintances. This is a tricky question because sometimes people think that introverts don't like being around other people. I enjoy regular socializing but it can leave me feeling drained. I think this attribute is helpful to me as my PhD work is very independent so an extrovert could very well feel isolated. I try to socialize every day at lunch but also don't feel like I am missing out if I am not chatting constantly.

What's your sleep routine like?

10PM - 5:30 AM every day. Sleep is very important to me. I don't do well with less sleep and as a mother it is very hard to just "catch up" on sleep.

What's your work routine like?
I work 8-5 every week day. Sometimes I have to work on weekends but only if I have a presentation on Monday and it is usually my fault for not getting it done earlier. I will also sometimes work on weekends if I have to take time off for some reason during the week.

What's the best advice you ever received?
Show your worth with your productivity, not work hours. A lot of PhD students think they are in a competition for who can work the most. I never carried that idea because I don't want to work 80 hours a week and I know 80 hours of mediocre work will be less productive than 40 hours of good work for me. Being productive is not about working a lot; it is about working efficiently and effectively.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

What gets measured gets done

Some time ago, I read an inspiring post on DoctoralWriting SIG about tracking research. The author, Dr. Abigail Winter, was inspired by Paul Silvia's "How to write a lot", who mentions that he uses a simple database to track his writing each day, as one of his strategies for writing a lot. Winter then started tracking her reading and writing. She adds: "in the first six months of 2016, I read 281 articles or academic books, and wrote 36,477 words towards articles, submissions, applications and reviews" and shares the tool she developed online.

Upon reading this article, I decided to start tracking my reading and writing. I had been tracking my writing between February 15th 2012 and May 22nd 2013, mostly to track my word count on my PhD thesis. At that time, my log functioned mostly as a diary.

In November 2016, I started tracking my writing again, and in January 2017 I started tracking my reading as well, as I vouched to read 365 papers in 2017. For my writing, I am now tracking my progress per project:

My reading, on the other hand, is more a continuous log:

In total, since tracking my words (between November 2016 and April 2017, upon writing of this post), I have written 455767 words. My writing has been productive, since I am drafting two book projects. I average 2675 words a day, also taking into account the days on which I don't write (weekends, conferences). This word count will drop down drastically as I start to revise and edit what I wrote before.

Since tracking my reading (between January 2017 and April 2017, upon writing of this post), I have read 150 articles. I'm not doing too well with the "read an article a day" - I tend to read multiple articles together, and then carry out research over a number of days based on what I read. As pregnancy has been slowing me down in 2017, I have not been able to schedule much time for reading, and postponed it mostly to my weekends - where sometimes it simply doesn't happen. I don't need this log for realizing that I am running behind. However, seeing my logged number of articles read makes me feel a bit better: even though I feel like I've been behind on reading, I am actually "on track" with reading on average a paper a day.

If you want to have a better insight in your reading and writing habits, I strongly recommend that you start to track your progress. Set goals for writing a certain amount of words a day, track your writing (for example with the PhDometer), and keep a daily log of how your writing progresses. The same holds true for reading: set a goal for the number of papers you want to read, reserve time for reading, and log the number of papers you've read.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

I am Ana Adi, and This is How I Work

Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Dr. Ana Adi in the "How I Work" series. Dr. Adi is a Professor of Public Relations/Corporate Communications at Quadriga University of Applied Sciences in Berlin. She moved here after she lived in the UK, Bahrain, USA, Belgium and Romania. She writes and speaks often about digital communication (from strategy to measurement) including storytelling. She writes about the “serious stuff” she does on her website ( and Twitter (@ana_adi) but check her instagram for a mouth-watering incursion into her culinary experiences and travels (@ana_ady).

Current Job: Professor of PR/Corporate Communications
Current Location: Berlin
Current mobile device: Iphone 6
Current computer: MacBook Pro

Can you briefly explain your current situation and research to us?
I am a Professor of PR/Corporate Communication at Quadriga University of Applied Sciences in Berlin, Germany, a university focusing on the training and development of executives in communication, politics and public affairs, human resources, sales and marketing. My current research projects are a mixture (usually) of two or more of the following themes: digital communication and strategy, political communication, protest communication, corporate social responsibility and storytelling.

What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow?

My cloud spaces (Hubic and Dropbox) are the most important for me right now. These allow me to access all my information and data from any device no matter where I am in the world (provided that I have an internet connection). Then my messaging apps (Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger) but also email and phone are important to keep up with my research partners and collaborators. I have used IFTTT (If This Than That) and Socioviz to capture some of the social media data for my projects and Skype and Call Recorder for some of my interviews. I am thinking of going back to using Mendeley to sort out my literature archives and I am thinking of testing Overleaf for a book I am co-writing.

What does your workspace setup look like?
I do alternate between a home office and university office.

What is your best advice for productive academic work?
I find useful keeping an overview (and tickbox kind of list) for my ongoing projects. To write I need a relatively quiet place (or a closed door and the endorsement of my colleagues or family of the “research in progress/do not disturb” policy) and a good planning list (which is why I often sketch lists and draft writing outlines to which I keep on adding as I go along). I also find collaboration extremely important for productive work (this also helps produce more outputs and have a potentially higher impact with them).

How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks?
My calendar (or better said synchronized calendars) are a good tracker of my work. They include in-project deadlines (which are captured in emails and project planning docs that have been previously agreed with my research partners and that are backed up in the cloud).

Besides phone and computer, do you use other technological tools in work and daily life?
My phone and computer act as hubs for all my information. The info is synced and backed up between devices.

Which skill makes you stand out as an academic?

You might want to ask my colleagues about that. I’d like to think that it’s my flexibility, respect for my colleagues’/partners’ work and my knowledge of a couple of languages.

What do you listen to when you work?

Nothing works better than peace and quiet these days.

What are you currently reading? How do you find time for reading?
I am switching between several books/journal articles and podcasts that include topics I am teaching and researching. When I am in the office, I catch up on my reading on the subway on the way home (I do have a rather long commute so that helps). Otherwise, I just build it in my schedule.

Are you more of an introvert or extrovert? How does this influence your working habits?

An extrovert. I am not sure if it influences my working habits but it helps colleagues know what I am working on and what to expect from me (and by when).

What's your work routine like?
What is important for me is that the work gets done: so I focus on the deadlines I have to meet and the tasks I have to accomplish; it starts with emails and moves on to the closer deadlines… my day thus can be very long and rather short (and work can happen on the go, in the airport, between brushing teeth and making coffee…)

What's the best advice you ever received?

I didn’t receive it but it is an advice I share often: back up, back up and back up your data.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Is blogging "work" or "hobby"

I ran a poll on Twitter earlier this year to identify how we view blogging as academics. We may consider it as part of our work, as something we take pride in, as something that we feel like our duty perhaps, but at the same time, the results of the poll show that the majority of respondents blog from home, outside of work hours. Granted, in academia the border between work, as the stuff you do in your office, and home is blurry. I too often squeeze in 1 or 2 hours of lighter work in the evening after dinner.

With the results of this poll, and the discussion I had on Twitter, I created this Storify:

Thursday, August 3, 2017

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: On sustaining writing habits

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better - and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!

At the beginning of this year, we look at how you can build and sustain good reading habits, which are necessary to keep up with the output in your field of research, regardless of where you are in your academic career.

Today, we are going to look at another important habit in academia: your writing habits. As Cal Newport pointed out, your publications and their citations are the single most important factor for success in academia. There's no denying: you need to develop and sustain good writing habits as an academic.

Even though writing is so important, for many of us, writing can be the first thing that slips through the cracks when we are juggling different tasks. Journal papers typically don't have deadlines for submission, unless you want to submit something for a special issue. Things that are more urgent, but perhaps not more important, can be taking over your schedule, and your writing ends up on the back burner.

Today, we are going to look at what you can do to give writing the attention it needs, and to treat it as a habit. Here are a few ideas you can implement in your workflow processes to sustain writing habits.

1. Schedule time

If you want to write on a daily basis, you need to reserve time on a daily basis for writing. It may sound very logical, but not many of us really go to the point of booking a meeting with ourselves to write. If something else comes up, it is your time for writing that will be threatened. Figure out which time of the day is the best time of the day for you for writing, and dedicate that time to writing. Don't allow meetings to be booked during that time, close your door, and write.

For many people, writing first thing in the morning, before you do anything else, works well. Others (like myself) prefer a long morning routine, which includes a workout, and then reserve the first hour or first two hours of the work day for writing. If you are a night owl, or your work day is consumed by lab activities, you may find that a few hours after dinner is your best writing time - just make sure you don't book social appointments in the evening or other things that cut into your writing time.

I recommend that you use a weekly template for getting a grip on how you divide your time. You can read more about the weekly template, and how I schedule time for writing, in a previous post.

2. Have a planning of your writing projects

Once you start to get in the flow of writing proposals, doing the research, writing the papers, and revising the papers, you will find that at any point in time, you have a number of papers in progress, in review, or back to you with comments. This combination of different writing projects can be overwhelming. Perhaps you prefer to work on one paper at a time, but if another paper needs to be revised with the comments from the reviewers before a certain deadline, you will have to be more flexible in your schedule.

To keep an overview of the stage of each of your writing projects, I recommend that you have a planning for your writing projects, with self-imposed deadlines, as well as with the deadlines when you need to submit revised versions of papers. You can read about how I keep track of my papers in progress in a previous post from this series.

3. Track and log your writing output

You can schedule two hours a day of time for writing, but if you spend that time staring at a blinking cursor on a white screen, you are not moving your writing forward. A great way to see your progress on a daily basis, is by tracking how many words you are writing. For this purpose, you can use the PhDometer from PhD2Published. You can write down your daily output in a spreadsheet to see how one day compares to another, or to find out how much you write on a monthly or annual basis.

4. Let your work morph from research report to journal paper

If you are faced with the fear of a blank page, make sure you never have to face a blank page. When you are carrying out research, write a research report explaining your methods and results, and detailing all your calculations. Once you have this report finished and are in the stage of developing the corresponding paper, you can throw large parts of the research report into the paper, and take it from there. It is unlikely that any sentence you wrote in the research report will end up in the final paper, but you can start summarizing from the material you have available. You will perhaps summarize the material even further by developing overview tables and figures which are more condensed than anything you had in the research report.

Once you have the section of methods, results, and discussion of the results written in a paper, you feel that you are picking up speed in your writing, and writing the introduction and literature review sections will come more easily. Finally, you can proofread, and then write your section of summary and conclusions.

5. Write first, edit later

Don't think about every sentence twenty times if you want to move your writing forward. Write first, and edit later. Don't edit sentence by sentence as you are writing. Write a first draft, considering it just a very rough draft. Leave the editing stage for later. Make miles in writing first before you will start to evaluate every single word you wrote. It even makes more sense to edit later on, since during the editing stage, you also need to evaluate the structure of your paragraphs and sections.

6. Make writing a daily habit with daily goals

Tracking your word count can become a fun little competition with yourself when you set goals for your word count on a daily basis. If you are getting started with building a sustainable writing habit, I recommend that you set a goal of 1000 words a day. You will see that when you are drafting, you may be producing more words, and that when you are editing, your word count slows down - but in general, 1000 words a day on average hits the sweet spot for many of us.

7. Use deadlines to push yourself a bit further

Use conference papers to show preliminary research results. Write the conference paper by its deadline, and then use the material you have developed to develop this work further into a journal paper. Similarly, use the deadlines for your research reports to develop a report of high quality, that you will be able to use as a basis for writing a journal paper. When you plan a research project, don't consider the end of the project the moment when you deliver the technical report. Shoot for delivering a technical report as well as a draft journal paper (provided that the research project is large and innovative enough to merit publication in a journal).

8. Write different styles

I call this a "writing diet." Take on different writing projects. In your academic work, write entries in your research journal, research reports, research proposals, conference papers, and journal papers. But take the idea one step further, and step outside of the confinement of academia. Consider other ways in which you can flex your writing muscle: blog, write poems, journal, write CD reviews, write op/eds, write non-fiction pieces, write short stories... Develop different writing styles, play around with your voice in different styles, and become more used to write quickly. By being on a writing diet, you will learn to turn your thoughts into written words in a more efficient way.

9. Take notes when you read

If you need a starting point for the literature review section of a paper, take notes while you are reading papers. One way of taking notes that later on you can quickly turn into the literature review section of the paper you are working on, is by taking snapshots of the important parts of each journal paper that you read, and paste these into a designated document together with your thoughts on what you are observing in the paper.

10. Join an accountability group

If you find it still hard to respect the meetings you schedule with yourself for writing, you can join an accountability group. Many universities and cities have #shutupandwrite groups which you can join. The participants of these groups get together in a cafe, get their coffee, write for 1 or 2 hours without talking, and then have some social time together.

If you can't find a #shutupandwrite group, you can use online accountability groups. There is the annual writing event for all writers, which uses the hashtag #NaNoWriMo on Twitter (national novel writing month, in November). The academic sister is #AcWriMo (academic writing month, also in November), where the participants set a goal for the entire month, and update their output in a shared file on a daily basis.

11. Take good care of yourself

You can't do productive academic work if you don't take good care of yourself. You will notice that you are more focused for your writing when you are not too tired. Use common sense, and never let work distract you from your non-negotiable self-care habits. Eat foods that fuel you, sleep the amount of hours you need, and move your body on a daily basis.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Modeling Concrete Material Structure: a Two-Phase Meso Finite Element Model

We recently published a paper titled "Modeling Concrete Material Structure: a Two-Phase Meso Finite Element Model". The work reported in this paper was a collaboration with the department of mechanical engineering of Universidad San Francisco de Quito. My colleague Dr. Bonifaz developed a coupling between Dream3D and Abaqus for modeling metal materials. In our collaboration, we looked at the possibility to apply these concepts to concrete.

You can find the full paper here.

The abstract reads as follows:

Concrete is a compound material where aggregates are randomly placed within the cement paste. To describe the behavior of concrete structures at the ultimate, it is necessary to use nonlinear finite element models, which for shear and torsion problems do not always give satisfactory results. The current study aims at improving the modeling of concrete at the meso-level, which eventually can result in an improved assessment of existing structures. Concrete as a heterogeneous material is modeled consisting of hydrated cement paste and aggregates. The stress–strain curves of the hydrated cement paste and aggregates are described with results from the literature. A three-dimensional (3D) finite element model was developed to determine the influence of individual phases on the inelastic stress–strain distribution of concrete structures. A random distribution and morphology of the cement and aggregate fractions are achieved by using DREAM.3D. Two affordable computational dual-phase representative volume elements (RVEs) are imported to ABAQUS to be studied in compression and tension. The virtual specimens (concrete mesh) subjected to continuous monotonic strain loading conditions were constrained with 3D boundary conditions. Results demonstrate differences in stress–strain mechanical behavior in both compression and tension test simulations. A strong dependency of flow stress and plastic strain on phase type, aggregate (andesite) size, shape and distribution upon the composite local response are clearly observed. It is noted that the resistance to flow is higher in concrete meshes composed of finer and homogeneous aggregate particles because the Misses stresses and effective plastic strains are better distributed. This study shows that at the meso-level, concrete can be modeled consisting of aggregates and hydrated cement paste.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The day I wrote 14046 words

On March 10th, I wrote 14046 words, which is my absolute maximum in a day since I started tracking my writing in November. Not bad for being pregnant, with a foggy brain and rather tired.

How did this word count break down?

I didn't write all 14046 words on a single writing project. Instead, I worked on several projects, as I do virtually every working day:
- 969 words on emails and admin
- 2536 words on my blog
- 1301 words on a journal paper writing project
- 8627 words on my book
- 613 words on a research report
The main chunk of my writing was done that day in the afternoon, as I was working on the first draft of my book, the A-Z of the PhD Trajectory. The book won't be published anytime soon, but it needs to go for review by March 31st 2018. I like being ahead of deadlines, and especially with the baby coming, I'm trying to finish up as much work as possible before I enter a stage in my life of which I have no idea what it will be like (and have no idea how to plan my days for).

So, what did I do that day that made it such a success?
- I slept 9 hours and 37 minutes, according to my fitbit stats, and woke up at 7:46 am. Unfortunately, that rather late wake-up did not give me enough time to squeeze in my yoga practice.
- I must have started with work some time between 8:30 am and 9 am. I worked first on my paper, and then on my research. The idea was to do about 2 hours of each, but since I got off to a late start, it must have been more like 1,5 hours of each. For the research, I was doing calculations, and writing the report about these calculations at the same time, so it was a bit of a combination of writing and the actual number-crunching in matlab.
- I had lunch. Since I was working from home that day, I think I didn't spend more than 30 minutes on lunch: warming up my plate of food, and then quickly eating it.
- I wrote 25 entries for the extended glossary list of my book. When I was working on writing these entries, I made a list with the numbers (1-25), and write down the title for every 5th entry. After each entry was finished, I checked off the number. After 5 to 10 entries, I took a break. This writing kept me busy from 1 pm until about 5pm.
- I replied email for about an hour, and made my planning for the next week.
- I went for a walk while talking to my mom via Skype, and had my dinner.
- I took my laptop to the sofa to type a blog post.
- According to my myfitnesspal account, I had three servings of chocolate peanut butter avocado pudding.

I'm not sure what is the main reason for my major productivity that day: the long sleep the night before? The fact that I was working from home rather undisturbed (except for the lady coming to clean the apartment)? All the chocolate pudding I ate that day?