Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Information management tools

The key to success as an academic scientist lies in successful management of two vital resources: time and information. Poor management of one or both of these will make success (as measured by the usual metrics of tenure, grants and publications) extremely difficult, if not impossible. I've been thinking about information management recently (I'll save time management for another post).

We live in the information age - ready access to the internet can easily lead to information overload, a debilitating condition that can lead directly to a lack of focus and an inability to act efficiently. This isn't the first time people have had to deal with information overload (or at least worried about it). James Burke notes in The Knowledge Web that the powers that be were concerned that the printing press would overload the citizens of the time with worthless knowledge (or more likely, knowledge the overlords would have preferred kept to themselves), so both church and state imposed strict censorship. Efforts to censor the internet have, so far, failed. In fact the internet has become such a ubiquitous part of our lives that I suspect any large-scale censorship efforts are doomed to fail.

So how to manage the vast amounts of information flooding our professional lives? Here I'm referring to external sources (i.e. not the flood of data from your lab). Buggered if I know a really good answer to that. I do know that the first step is to filter. Ruthlessly. The vast majority of the information flooding my academic life is useless, irrelevant and/or unimportant. Delete it. Block it. Just get rid of it. Otherwise you'll spend your days whacking useless moles.

Below I describe the tools and/or approaches I use to handle the bulk of the rest of the information. Your mileage may vary. I'd welcome comments from others describing other ways to handle this stuff. Note that I'm a Mac user, so some of the stuff I describe is Mac-centric.

I find if I don't handle important emails within a day they tend to get ignored for too long. So I reply to the important stuff within a few hours when I can. Everything else is filed away or deleted. In some cases I've set up signatures I can use as a sort of form-letter reply, but I only use those for form-letter-style emails (e.g. the dozens of form-letter emails I get a week from people looking for a position in my lab).

And I make liberal use of Apple Mail's junk mail-learning feature.

I do tend to keep copies of most non-junk emails. I have set up numerous folders in Mail for this purpose. This has proven very useful at times when I've wanted to track down some piece of information I was sent some time ago.

I have a personalized home page I've set up with iGoogle. Right there on the front page I have gadgets for Google Reader, Google Calendar, Gmail Contacts, and gadgets I've created myself (a very easy process) for access to Big State U.'s web interface to email, links to my lab's homepage and various other links I use several times a day. My homepage also has a set of tabs linking to other personalized pages with gadgets for Google Docs and Google Notebook, various search engines (PubMed, Google Scholar etc.), the news, weather etc. etc. This is all very easy to set up and puts a whole bunch of stuff I use a lot all in one easy to access place. Furthermore, I can access it from any computer connected to the internet.

Google Reader
I love Google Reader. I have journal table of content feeds, grantmaking agency feeds, feeds from ISI's Web of Knowledge tracking citations to my published work, etc.* All in one place. Makes dealing with all that stuff really easy.

I just wish I could get my saved PubMed searches fed into Google Reader... Anyone know how to do that?

Alright, so these are really time management tools, but they contain information too. I like iCal on the Mac. I have it synced with Google Calendar (via Busymac shareware - I'm too cheap to invest in MobileMe). This allows me to keep iCal on Macs at home and work all synced. And give me access to my calendars via my iGoogle home page. Any changes made to any of the calendars is automatically transmitted over the internet to the others. Cool.

Address Books
It's good to have the same address book on my Macs at work and home, my cell phone, and in Gmail Contacts. Good, but not as easy as I would like. My cell phone has Bluetooth, so that's not too bad. I did need a plugin to get it to play nice with Apple's iSync, but that was easy enough. Syncing the Mac Address book with Gmail Contacts isn't so easy (unless you have an iPhone or iPod Touch...). I use a little freeware program called A to G to help with this. Unfortunately any changes I make on either Mac or on Gmail Contacts isn't automatically transmitted to the others... Apparently this is being added to Busymac at some point. SpanningSync is another option for Mac users, but is a subscription service.

One day I'm getting me one of those newfangled iPhone gadgets...

Google Notebook
I've just started using this as a sort of glorified To Do device. I have notebooks with short-term plans for my various research projects, one for a new project I'm planning, one for non-research lab-related plans etc. The jury is still out on this one, but I like the idea of having ready access to this kind of stuff from where ever.

You could keep track of bookmarks via Google, but I find that a little cumbersome. I use Firefox as my main browser and have downloaded an Add-In called Foxmarks. This syncs my bookmarks from Firefox on my Mac at work with that at home via the internet.

Back in the Dark Ages when I was a grad student I used to make photocopies of papers relevant to my research. This continued into my postdoc years. With the advent of PDF's I began printing them out. A lot of trees died. A lot. Early on as a postdoc I realized my ever-growing pile of papers was getting out of hand. So I hit on a system of labeling them before filing them away after reading. I started numbering them, starting at one. I'm now up to 2310 (I keep a note of where I am, and no, I haven't actually read all 2310 in detail, just most of them). That way I could file the papers numerically. At about the same time I started using EndNote. EndNote has a field called "Label" for each entry - that's where I put my numbers. So I can look up a paper in EndNote and find it in seconds in my files. In recent years I've tried to wean myself of the environmentally-unfriendly habit of printing out every paper I think I want to read. Instead I try to save and read the PDF on my computer. I rename each PDF with a number and enter it into EndNote with the number in the "Label" field. That way I can look it up and find it on my computer in seconds. And the Mac search feature, Spotlight, can be used to search via keywords etc. to dig up all papers related to a certain subject.

That's it for now. As I said above, I'd welcome comments from others describing other ways to handle this stuff.

Damn I'm getting into the habit of very long posts. Perhaps I should market them as a cure for insomnia...

* I like to know where my work has been cited. In part because it helps me keep track of the field, and in part because of vanity. :-)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Dear Graduate Student...

At Big State U. all graduate students have an advisory committee that generally consists of their mentor, two (sometimes three) other faculty from their department and one person from outside their department. Right now I'm the outside person on three such committees. Two years ago I was part of the qualifying exam for one of these students. I came very, very close to failing her at the time because she demonstrated an almost complete lack of knowledge regarding some of the methods she was using. I happen to know quite a bit about those techniques since I helped develop them. I believed at the time that that's why I was asked to be on this committee. Apparently not. The student was surprised to find out I knew something about these techniques... Anyway, I passed the student in the end because she seemed to have a pretty good grasp of the other aspects of her proposed research. I told the student I would be more than willing to help her understand and use the techniques in question. I have seen nothing of her since (she's in a different building on a different part of campus so there's very little chance of running into her).

Now here at Big State U. graduate students typically have a meeting once a year with their committee to keep the members updated on the student's progress. Students are also encouraged to talk to their committee members on a regular basis (although distressingly few do so). Last December I remembered that we should have probably had a meeting with this student by then, and emailed her asking her if she would be setting one up soon. She replied that she hadn't really thought about it, but that it might be a good idea... Nothing further happened.

In April she sent out an email to her committee asking when they would be available to meet. Now asking four faculty members when they're available without providing potential times never works. I and one of the other committee members both replied that it would be a good idea for the student to provide a list of potential times so committee members could then indicate which would work. She replied that this seemed like a good idea... Nothing further happened.

About ten days go (it's October now) I get this email from said graduate student:

Dear Dr. Odyssey,
I am beginning my job search and would like to use you as a reference.
Graduate Student

Here is the ensuing email conversation that occurred:

Dear Graduate Student,
I am very surprised to hear that you are looking for a job. I assume that means you believe you will be graduating soon. I'm afraid that I cannot agree to act as a reference for you since I have no idea of how your research has been progressing. We have not had a committee meeting in two years and I have not seen you in that time.

I am also puzzled that you seem to believe you will be graduating soon. Typically the student needs the okay of their committee before starting to write their dissertation. I strongly suggest that you set up a meeting as soon as possible so that you can discuss this with your committee.
Dr. Odyssey

Dear Dr. Odyssey,
I have not been able to set up a committee meeting over the last two years because I haven't been able to find a time when both I and Dr. Mentor's Other Graduate Student can have a meeting at the same time. Other Graduate Student has three committee members in common with me and we want to save them time by having a committee meeting together.

I will be starting to write my dissertation by the beginning of November and hope to set up my dissertation defense for February.

I will do my best to set up a meeting by the end of the year or early next year. You can decide then whether you will act as a reference for me.
Graduate Student

Note: I am not on Other Graduate Student's committee. I strongly suspect the one person on that committee who is NOT on Graduate Student's committee is the outside person. It pretty much has to be.

Dear Graduate Student,
You really cannot have a committee meeting with Other Graduate Student. Each student needs to meet with their committee separately. I happened to run into one of your other committee members today and he has assured me that he does not want a joint meeting with Other Graduate Student.

Additionally, perhaps you did not quite understand my last email. Here at Big State U. you need your dissertation advisory committee to agree before you start writing your dissertation. Although this is generally a given, it cannot occur without a meeting of the committee. You need to set up a committee meeting as soon as possible.

Finally, I stand by my decision not to act as your reference. I have had no contact with you in two years and do not feel I could write a reasonable letter.
Dr. Odyssey

Dear Committee Members,
I am hoping to set up a meeting sometime in the next six weeks. When are you available?
Graduate Student

Sigh... I sent her an extensive list of times I would be available.

About five days pass with no further emails from Graduate Student. Then, late yesterday:

Dear Dr. Odyssey,
I cannot set up a committee meeting at this time. The one member of Other Graduate Student's committee who is not on my committee is traveling and hasn't replied to our emails.
Graduate Student

I haven't replied as yet... Obviously a call to Dr. Mentor is overdue. I strongly suspect that some of this is driven by Dr. Mentor, so it won't be a comfortable call.

Oh, and I do understand that I and the other committees members share some blame here. We have not been particularly aggressive in trying to get Graduate Student to organize meetings and I haven't made any efforts to meet one-on-one with her.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Notes from a small meeting

I'm back. Did you miss me?

Overall the meeting in the Armpit of the Midwest went very well (for me). I came away with a seminar invitation, ideas for a couple of cool experiments to do, and a bunch of good suggestions/ideas relating to my fledgling new research program. I also had a very informative and productive two hour lunch with Mega-Big Cheese (recent NAS inductee), Super Big Cheese and Former Postdoc Mentor (also a Super Big Cheese). To what extent I swayed the NSF review panel members who were there is an unknown of course. I've done what I can and now it's time to focus on getting stuff done for the resubmission should it be necessary...

Here are some observations from the meeting:

  • When giving a 30 minute talk, it's probably not a good idea to spend 20 minutes introducing a subject that everyone in the audience has a good grasp of, 2 minutes on data and 8 on (over-reaching) conclusions... It would have been one thing if a graduate student had done this, but sadly it was a rather senior and well-known PI.

  • If you're attending a highly-focused meeting on thingamabobs and present a poster on doozits (which aren't related to thingamabobs at all), don't be surprised if very few people show any interest. And don't spend the remainder of the meeting complaining loudly that very few people showed interest.

  • If you're organizing a small meeting and want to have all of the talks loaded onto a single laptop, make the laptop available to speakers more than five minutes before each session starts. And use a PC (or at the very least warn all speakers in advance that you're going to use a Mac). I'm a Mac person, but even I recognize that, thanks to Micro$oft, Powerpoint slides made on a PC often don't work on a Mac, whereas the opposite usually (not always) works. It was very painful watching two inexperienced graduate student speakers struggling with screwed up slides that were prepared on a PC but didn't work on a Mac. And it wasn't their fault - they weren't given the time to look over their slides on the Mac prior to their talks.

  • If you're organizing a small meeting, don't insist all talks are loaded onto one laptop. Get a switch.

  • Just because you used to be a Big Cheese (no, you used to be one, but really aren't anymore - study sections have been telling you that for a decade, and rightly so) does not mean you get to ask off-topic questions after every talk.

  • It's okay to canvass the powers that be to elect you organizer for next year's meeting. That's how it works. It's not okay, after being elected, to tell everyone that you didn't canvass. It's a small group. We're all aware of who does what. Now you look like a jackass.*

  • Poster making is an art form. There's a lot of really bad art out there. Really bad.

  • The right amount of beer + the right amount of wine = good science. Usually. Too much beer + too much wine + one graduate student = a messy job for the janitor.

* And before anyone leaps to the conclusion that this is sour grapes on my part, I organized this meeting a few years ago and am therefore not eligible to organize it again. That's how this one works.

Friday, October 03, 2008

The Armpit of the Midwest

Tomorrow I leave for a small, but extremely good, meeting being held just outside a small city I refer to as the Armpit of the Midwest. There are worse body parts you could name a city after, so clearly this isn't the worst place in the Midwest. But it's not great. Obviously I'm not going for the location. No, this is a very good small meeting that is not advertised, so it's kind of clubby, but is extremely rigorous. The most rigorous meeting I know of. The participants all tend to be good-natured, but present a poor or incorrect analysis, or inappropriate statistical analysis (or heaven forbid no statistical analysis!) and they will hand you your head on a platter. After having sliced, diced and julienned it. Followed by a quick puree. In the nicest possible way of course.

This is where I'm hoping to bolster the chances of my recently submitted NSF proposal. At least two of the review panel members will be there. I didn't get as much done as I had hoped - the central protein in my new research direction is a pain in the butt to make. I have managed to improve our expression and purification protocols to the point where we're getting a yield 3-4 times larger than at the time of grant submission. This was important because biophysical work can require a lot of material. And we've finished a couple of new experiments, but not the ones I had hoped to do. Oh well, I have what I have.

This is an important reason for attending meetings. Meetings are useful for improving the odds of getting funded. One could even view this as the main reason to attend a meeting. You should aim to impress the people who will/are reviewing your proposals. Your goals are to convince them that you're someone worth funding and, if you have a proposal pending, that you are making progress.

Hopefully I can do the above in the Armpit of the Midwest.