Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Self Care in Academia: How going to the gym keeps me sane in graduate school

Today, in our new series on Self Care in Academia, I have the pleasure of inviting Alice Violett. Alice is currently in her second year of a history PhD at the University of Essex about the public perceptions and personal experiences of only children, c. 1850-1950. She blogs at http://aliceinacademia.tumblr.com

I'd like to start with a disclaimer: I'm not what you would call 'sporty'. I hated school PE lessons so much that when I was 14 I literally got the lowest score in the entire year group for 'effort', and the whole experience of embarrassing team sports and muddy cross-country runs put me off exercise for a long time afterwards. The circuit-based gym I go to markets itself to women like me, who want to be fit and healthy but are intimidated by competitive, often narcissistic ‘traditional’ gyms. Although I’m by no means a ‘gym bunny’, it is an important part of my daily routine and helps me stay relatively sane whilst doing a history PhD.

In a normal week, I go to the gym six times, incorporating four half-hour circuits and five classes ranging between 15 and 45 minutes. I usually go first thing in the morning, for a couple of reasons. The first of these is that, by using the gym’s optional ‘appointment’ system, or going to a scheduled class, I have to get out of bed. I am naturally lazy, so without the gym I could end up staying in bed very late (‘just five more minutes’) and getting very little work done in the morning. The second reason is that it ‘gets me going’. I can’t claim the gym completely takes my mind off work on weekdays, but while I’m on the machines I’ll be thinking about what I want to do during the day, and by the end of the session I feel ‘pumped up’ and ready to tackle my workload.

Going to the gym is also beneficial because it gets me out of the house. My work often involves activities I can do from home – coding data, reading books I’ve brought home from the university library, or doing research online, for example – and it’s likely to get even more home-based next year, when I start writing up. I sometimes work on campus, but I often find home more convenient and conducive to study, as I have easy access to all my notes, it’s quieter, and I don't have to wait ages for the bus. Having the gym to go to ensures that I go out at least once a day. This brings further benefits: part of my ten-minute walk takes me through woodlands and past an old millpond, so not only do I get fresh air, but I get to enjoy some natural beauty too. At the gym itself, of course, I get to see other people, which is also important in staving off the isolation so often associated with doing a PhD in the humanities.

Finally, exercising in this way gives me a ‘project’ outside of my studies. I have the basic goal of going as often as I can, and I feel rather proud of myself when I resist the seductive charms of my duvet and go for a workout even though it’s cold outside and I don’t really feel like it. There’s also something immensely satisfying about being able to increase the difficulty setting on one of the machines, or find an exercise or class I initially found hard getting gradually easier. In short, alongside maintaining less physically-demanding leisurely activities such as reading for pleasure and going out with my friends, going to the gym prevents me from being completely consumed by my PhD.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

My goals for 2015

My momma says that as long as you write your Christmas/New Year's cards before the end of January, you're good. So, I'm extending this do blog posts that are related to reviewing 2014, and setting goals for 2015.

I set my goals for 2015 before the end of 2014, but I didn't get around writing a post about it. I know you must be feeling overly stuffed with "best of 2014" posts and "goals for 2015" posts by now, but I'm presenting you my goals for 2015 anyways - because somehow I feel more motivated when my goals are Out There in the Internetz. As if anybody would ever really come after me and kick my arse somewhere in April when I start slacking off...

For 2014 I had an impossibly long list of goals. Needless to say, I didn't accomplish all of that in 2014, but I did get a fair amount of Stuff Done.

I've learned a lesson, and limited myself to 15 goals for 2015. Just because of the symmetry of numbers :)

Not only did I set these goals, but I also clearly wrote down when I want to work on these goals, and how I'm going to make sure that I achieve them.

Here's my list of goals for 2015:

1. Try a month of writing from 6am to 8am

I recycled this goal from my 2014 list, since I never got this done, but I am curious to try out this experiment. I will do this in March 2015. Feel free to bug me mid-March and see if I managed to stick with it. (I will only write Monday - Friday at these hours.)

2. Submit 6 journal papers for review

I've outlined the papers that I will write, when I will write them, and to which journal I will submit them. #Acwri 2015 - here we come!

3. Meditate daily

I've been on and off with meditating for the last 13 years *__* so it's really time to turn this into a consistent habit. I know it's good for me, I know I can focus better when I practice - yet it's always one of the first things to slip to the side. I'm using Lift to track my daily sessions.

4. Work through the Dotzauer books for cello

For the last 10 years, I haven't practiced seriously, but last September I accidentally joined a band as cello player, and last August I flew my cello to Ecuador, so it's time to get going again. The Dotzauer books are 4 volumes of technical work, and after looking at the final etudes in the fourth book, I already regret setting this goal... I vouch the play daily, as long as I'm in Ecuador (or, in other words, as long as I have actually access to my cello - an instrument which is unfortunately not so handy to travel with, as Mr. Cello Lantsoght needs to travel as a ticketed passenger on flights). I'm using Lift to track my practice.

5. Write 80 poems and bundle the 20 best

Another recycled goal from 2014. I need to practice creativity in a more varied ranges of fields, and I used to write a lot and win prizes and stuff, and then suddenly life took over... I'm setting a reminder in Todoist to write every 4 days. I might use the prompts when I need a little push in my back.

6. Draw 7 mandalas

Another exercise to flex my creativity muscle, and another recycled goal from 2014.

7. Go without refined sugar for 40 days

Another recycled goal from 2014 - and one that might be very, very difficult for me, since I easily eat an entire bar of chocolate a day. However, I'm planning to do this between the 18th of February and the 30th of March (during Lent, in other words, even though I am not a Christian - but I like the 40-day challenges people put themselves during Lent, so I thought I might feel motivated to join the herd).

8. Revisit the Silva meditation technique

I worked through the basic Silva course on the Mindvalley website in 2012/2013, but then I dropped these meditation exercises. I like these exercises, so I want to pick it up again. Another recycled goal from 2014.

9. Get a tattoo

I know exactly what I want, but I'm terrified by needles. I also know that I want crueltyfree ink. I just need to work up the courage, and I think I will do this in June 2015, when I am in Delft. And before I turn 30.

10. Visit the Galapagos Islands

I've been living in Ecuador for 1,5 years now, and I haven't made it to the Galapagos - clearly, I'm doing something wrong (or tell my boss, I'm doing something right). I'm hoping to go during the Easter break, in April.

11. Buy a house

Another recycled goal for 2014. But by now, at least my husband fulfills the requirements to make the loan. I need to be living in the country for 3 years before I qualify...

12. Write a grant proposal

Yet another recycled goal from 2014... This year, it's time to move my position as researcher at USFQ one notch up, and try to get a research grant, instead of fully depending on projects from Delft to keep me busy (even though I love Delft projects, don't get me wrong, but I need to develop research lines here too, and direct more theses based on these research lines).

13. Write a book

I am so going to do #nanowrimo and write a book chockful of advice for PhD students. I've been wanting to do this for way too long.

14. Read 40 books

This goals shouldn't' be too hard - I read 105 books in 2015. In 2014, however, I want to chew through a few harder, lengthier books. I should finish Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, for example.

15. Improve my Spanish

I haven't taken any formal course in Spanish, but I babble and write emails when necessary. However, I have no understanding of the Spanish grammar at all, so I probably sound like a caveman. I have two coursebooks on intermediate Spanish that I want to work through. I've set a reminder every 3 days to fork out some time to study...

(And, above all, I'll remain committed to eating well (aka plant-based), training (a lot), getting enough sleep, playing with my cat, pomodoring through hard tasks, and generally keep up with the good habits I've developed over the past years).

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

PhD Talk Interview: Creating your Career, post-PhD

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Kelly, after exchanging some thoughts on Twitter about life after the PhD. Dr. Kelly is an analytical chemist specializing in NMR spectroscopy. She completed her doctoral degree in 2008 and a postdoctoral fellowship with the NIH. She has worked in pharmaceutical and biomedical research, in addition to her current position at a non-profit research organization. She is has two wonderful sons, and tweets under the name @KanneDo.

You can find the full interview here:

Thursday, January 15, 2015

2014 in review: the 10 best books I read in 2014

In 2014, I read 105 books. I'm not sure if I've ever read this many books in a year (I read a lot as a child and teenager, but I didn't track the exact numbers), and it even didn't feel like I spent all my free time reading. I read at night before falling asleep, I read in the plane (something I always do) and every now and then I'd spend a Saturday afternoon in the park finishing up a book.

I've read fiction and non-fiction. I've read digital books, print books and a good number of free e-books taken from blogs that I like.

At the end of the year, my Kindle of only 18 months old broke down, and somehow I can't seem to get a replacement from Amazon - only sales-pitches trying to sell me a new Kindle. Yes, I can read my Kindle books in the Kindle app, but it's not the same, it's not like digital ink. I also made the mistake of storing a number of books (blogger e-books, books from project Gutenberg, ..) only on my Kindle. Gone, gone, gone... But anyway, I'll keep my disappointment in the Kindle to myself or for another post, and focus on the lovely books I read this year.

You can find the full list of books I read on Goodreads.

Some other day, I will write a post on how to read this many books in a year, but today I'd like to highlight the 10 best books I read in 2014. The vast majority of these books were published in the last 10 years, but the publication dates are random.

Here's my list.

10. Wild - Cheryl Strayed

An easy read, anything but great literature; but it made me dream of lacing up my hiking boots and exploring some grand trails.

9. The China Study - Colin T. Campbell

This book focuses on the health benefits of a plant-based diet. The academic rigor in the (second half) of the book went missing, but nonetheless, it's a thoroughly referenced work.

8. Eating Animals - Jonathan Safran Foer

Even though there is not much advice in this book about how to stand your ground in our extrovert world as an introvert, I did learn to understand introversion better by reading this book.

6. Guns, Germs and Steel - Jared Diamond

I must say, this book was maybe not my best choice to read in bed before sleeping, and at times (as a non-native English speaker) it took me some courage to chew through the English in this book. But very interesting reading material - it was surely worth the effort of plowing through this massive book.

5. An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth - Chris Hadfield

I dreamed of becoming an astronaut when I was younger, and that certainly pushed me into the direction of engineering. So I might be biased and by default like a book that is a mixture of a memoir, self-help book and non-fiction book about space travel - but, seeing the rave reviews on Goodreads, I'm not the only one.

4. The Monsters of Templeton - Lauren Groff

There's something in the poetic quality of Groff's writing that makes me an entire fangirl of this book, as well as Arcadia, which I read in 2013.

3. Einstein - Walter Isaacson

Physics and pacifism and much more - this biography is a thrilling introduction to the world of one of the greatest scientists ever. I never thought I'd read about quantum physics in a hammock on the beach of the Pacific Ocean, but Isaacson dissected complex theories into very logic work.

2. The Orphan Master's Son - Adam Johnson

A deserved Pulitzer Prize winner. Maybe it's our curiosity towards North Korea that makes this book even more fascinating, but I was genuinely intrigued by this story.

1. The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls - Emilie Autumn

Partially a piece of art, partially a memoir, partially a work of fiction. At times it was deeply unsettling to read, but by lacing this book with the fictional story of Emily, there was always enough space to breathe. You can't read this book on a Kindle - if you ever felt an appreciation for the darker arts and anything gothic, this book/artwork will make your heart sing.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

2014 in review: the 10 best CD releases

Just as in 2013, I have been reviewing a number of new CD releases over the last year for Grave Concerns e-zine, and, while you might be already tired of the end-of-year lists that pop up everywhere on the internet in December, here I would like to present you with my top 10 of CD releases of 2014:

10. In Flames - Siren Charms

I'm a massive fan of Gothenburg death metal, but I'm not 100% convinced of the "new" direction In Flames have been following recently. Not their best album ever, but I like In Flames. A lot. And I enjoy listening to their latest album.

9. Pink Floyd - The Endless River

The swansong album of my favorite band ever. the psychedelic edge is gone, and some might say that only navel-gazing is left - but I can't deny I love that typical Pink Floyd sound. Maybe it's more nostalgia than anything I like about this album.

8. Epica - The Quantum Enigma

You can't go wrong with an Epica album, right? Great female fronted metal - the stuff I grew up with. Not much new in this album, but put a few good riffs, Simone's vocals and some choirs, and I'm happy.

7. Pet the Preacher - The Cave & The Sunlight

Best stoner rock album of the year. Pet the Preacher did not reinvent stoner on this album, but they did cross-over into the realm of post-rock a little bet. Catchy stuff. You can find my full review of this album over at Grave Concerns.

6. Fluisteraars - Dromers

Best black metal album of the year. Or should I say: post-black? Fluisteraars are a Dutch band, with their own take on the swooningly emotional metal from bands like Opeth and Primordial. You can find my full review over at Grave Concerns.

5. Diabulus in Musica- Argia

Best symphonic metal album of the year. This Spanish band has surprised me with their fresh energy and great compositions.

4. Schwarzblut - Gebeyn Aller Verdammten

Because some music just sounds better in German: Schwarzblut! Tanzen! I love how they bring German poetry and electronic / gothic music together into their gesammtkunstwerk.

3. Blood and Sun - White Storms Fall

Neofolk done just right, and married to dark americana. Blood and Sun are a deeply Appalachian band, and deeply rooted in old American traditions. Not just a side project of some metalheads. Read my full review here.

2. Sabbath Assembly - Quaternity

Ever since I first heard my review copy of "Ye Are Gods", I've been intrigued by Sabbath Assembly, who are using the liturgical material of the Process Church into their releases. Quaternity centers around the Christ, Jehovah, Satan and Lucifer. Read my full review here.

1. Messenger - Illusory Blues

Hands down the best album of the year. Kristoffer Rygg from Ulver said "Fuckin' well done" about this album - and I have nothing more to add. Or if you want some more explanation, my full review is here.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: How to set goals and resolutions for the New Year

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!

The beginning of the year is the moment when millions of people swear they will make this year better than before. We decide to change some of our habits, live healthier lives, become more productive and -generally- become a better version of ourselves.

The new year is associated with setting resolutions and goals, both for our personal as well as our professional lives. I myself have come a long way: originally, I never set new year's resolutions (because everybody always seems to focus on wanting to lose weight, something which is completely out of my range of interest - I don't even own a scale). A few years ago. I started to set goals and resolutions at the beginning of the year, inspired by all the productivity blogs I'm fascinated by - and I ended up making the typical rookie mistake(s): setting too many goals, and not having a focus in these goals. I ended up with my own method for setting goals, which involves a good deal of self-reflection, and which attempts at finding a balance between focusing on priorities in life and still finding space for an array of different interests.

In today's post, I'd like to walk you step by step through the process of setting achievable goals, and turning these goals into reality.

1. Review your year

Before you enthusiastically start making a list of all the things you want to achieve in the new year, I recommend you reflect on the previous year first.
If you need some inspiration for this review, you can start by replying these questions:
* What are your 10 top achievements of the last year?
* What are your 10 top failures of the last year?
* How would you summarize the past year in a single sentence?
* What do you wish you would have done in the last year, but didn't?
* What did you do in the last year, that you wish you wouldn't have spent your time on?
Alternatively, you can free-write or journal about your past year for a given amount of time, and then reread what you wrote and summarize the major points for further reference.
Once you start setting goals, you can use your list of goals at the end of the year to reflect back upon your successes and failures.

2. Analyze the different areas of your life

You can't review your year solely based on your academic performance. If you were not living under a rock for the past decade, you should know by now that your physical and mental health deeply influence your productivity and academic outcome. Therefore, I strongly suggest you carry out your annual review and set your goals based on the different categories in life. If you need some guidance, you can use the following categories:
1. Health and fitness
2. Intellectual life
3. Emotional life
4. Developing your character
5. Love relationships
6. Spiritual life
7. Parenting
8. Social life
9. Financial life
10. Career
11. Quality of life
12. Life vision

You can carry out your annual review, by thinking about each of these categories, and giving yourself a grade for each of these categories - this exercise helps you to see which areas of your life might need a little more attention in the following year.

3. Identify your priorities and values

We're not at the point yet of listing down goals and resolutions... First, I want you to think about your priorities in life, to get the correct mindset for listing your goals. Limit yourself to somewhere between 3 and 5 priorities. Again, these priorities are broader than your academic life; your career might be one of your priorities, but should not fill up your entire priority list (if that's the case, go back to step 2, and realize that your career and intellectual life, which both encompass your academic work, are just one aspect of life, and that you need to add some juice to the other categories to stay balanced).
Do not come up with more than 5 priorities - you risk spreading yourself too thin and losing focus.

Next, take some time to reflect on your personal values. Which personality traits and characteristics do you value most? What makes your heart sing? How do you want to live your life? Do this exercise to make sure that you stay close to yourself and your core, and avoid losing yourself.

4. Define your goals, based on your values and priorities

Now it's time to list your goals! Stay close to your values and priorities to identify your goals. Limit the number of goals you set for the year - you're not superhuman, and you don't want to be spending a little bit of energy on a 1000 different tasks - if you want to make a difference in your life or in the world, you'll need to pour a good amount of energy in a limited number of tasks.

I've set 15 goals for 2015 because I like the symmetry in the numbers, and I'm working on developing/strengthening two habits this year (meditating daily, and practicing the cello daily). That's already more than enough for me (and I do am someone who likes to raise the bar for myself to challenge myself to perform better and better).

5. Make a plan

Setting goals is one thing, but turning them into reality requires some planning. If you are working on building habits, such as exercising or playing an instrument, I recommend you build these activities into your schedule. You can check out this post if you want to learn more about developing a weekly template to fit in all your activities. If you want to write a certain number of journal papers during the year, set deadlines for yourself by when you want to finish each manuscript, and plan your writing accordingly. To keep an overview of your planning, you might want to use a yearlong calendar that you stick to the wall in your house and/or office, or you can use a digital calendar (I use Google Calendar). To keep track of the activities that you need to do, one by one, to reach your goal, you can use a hand-written task list (again, I recommend you put it somewhere in your house and/or office where you can actually see it, to remind yourself of your goals) or use a digital version (I use Todoist).

6. Track your progress

If you want to build better habits, it helps to track your progress, and see your chain of days in which you "did" your new habit. The longer you grow your chain of days on which you fulfilled this habit, the more of a pity it becomes to actually break this chain. You can use a paper calendar on the wall, and mark every day that you "did" your habit, or you can use one of the many apps that are geared towards this purpose (I use Lift).
Don't beat yourself up if you drop the ball somewhere during the year - we all get sick, face family emergencies and the like. Just remember that when you build good habits, it's much easier to pick them up again if you've wandered off, and if your habits are geared towards building a healthier, happier and more focused version of yourself, you will become a wee bit more resilient when you need to face hard times.

7. Find an accountability partner (or talk to yourself)

See if you can find a partner (or more partners) who share one of your goals. You can partner up with a friend who wants to get in shape, and work out together, or at least keep each other motivated by sending WhatsApp messages. You can see who else in your research group or university wants to find more time for writing, and organize a #shutupandwrite meeting once a week in your university. You might have heard this piece of advice a number of times before... What I like to do, is a technique that is slightly more geared towards the quiet among us. I, for one, enjoy the silence of working out on my own from time to time. I also find it beneficial to reflect on my days and progress at regular intervals. As such, I've come up with my "internal coach". In my journal, I reflect on my progress, and analyze what is not going very well, why things might be more behind than I would like, and think about strategies to improve the situation.

Happy New Year - may this year your most productive, most focused and most enjoyable ever!

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The best laid schemes of mice and men

Today I have the pleasure of inviting Sheree Bekker who shares her take on academic workflows with us. Sheree is originally from South Africa, and is now based in Australia as an international PhD scholar at the Australian Centre for Research into Injury in Sport and its Prevention (ACRISP), Federation University Australia. She researches injury prevention within the context of sport. Sheree is fast approaching the end of her second year of candidature, and in this post shares what she has learnt in the process. Follow her on twitter @shereebekker

My schedule consists of not having a schedule. I have a process; “a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end, and/or a natural series of changes”, according to Google. My PhD candidature thus far has been a lesson in paradox: the only certainty is uncertainty.

I recently converted my workspace (my actual desk-space) to a paperless, cloud-based system that I have found works best for my productivity (I use a combination of Scrivener, NVivo, Dropbox, Papers3, Asana, InstaGANTT – all synced on my iPhone, iPad, and Macbook Air). This means that I can work from anywhere, at any time. This is not only essential to working in the world of modern academia, but also for my personal workflow rhythms.

My workspace (here I am talking the figurative space) is continually evolving. I am intrinsically motivated, and relish being a researcher. Lists, timelines, and goals drive my productivity – and I take pride in my organisation and administration abilities. Yes, these are essential skills of a modern PhD candidate; we do not get to channel the academics of old by having long philosophical debates anymore (well, not as much as we would like anyway). There is a drive for PhD scholars to treat their candidature as a 9-5 job. This is, after-all, a training period for the work that many of us hope to do after completion. That noxious expression - ‘work-life balance’ is creeping into academia, an environment that has traditionally not been influenced by the ‘rules’ of the corporate world. I understand the concept of having clearly defined work and play, but I have found that this just does not appeal to me, or work for me. Instead of berating myself for not achieving this, I have learnt to accept the process that I work by, and to let go of the 9-5 schedule rather than trying to force work-life balance. This does not mean that I work too hard, or too much – on the contrary – I work smart.

Modern academia is moving. It is relocating to a space that encompasses facets such as location-independence, open-access databases, and social media. None of these are dependent on the traditional idea of a 9-5 office job.

I relish the research culture of being part of a world-class centre, and that I am able to immerse myself in the world of academia, but I do believe that this is changing rapidly. This research culture is now being cultivated on social networks and via blogs. Introverts, like me, find this change invaluable. The ability to foster and incubate ideas that we may not necessarily want to share at an actual event where the objective is: ‘network – go!’ is a revelation. This has also alleviated my frustration with my inability to get serious writing done at our open-plan office, as I now use my office-time to do those tasks where I don’t need to be free from distraction, and thus can be mentally available for my extroverted colleagues.

Perhaps because I am intrinsically motivated, and perhaps because I am passionate about what I am researching, I prefer to call my academic schedule a process. I have learnt that my process differs by the hour, day, week, fortnight, month, and even year. There is also a major difference in how I work in the summer as compared to the winter months, and also between daylight hours and night-time. I find that I am most productive when I do not tie myself to a set schedule, and can work when I am ready to do so. I have daily work rhythms that are flexible, and I use the Pomodoro technique liberally.

As a very specific example, I recently wrote the first draft of a paper that I hope to publish - I am completing my PhD by publication. This draft was crafted with the support of three supervisors, but for some reason the paper did not ‘flow’. In the world of schedules I would have slogged away on that paper for days on end to no avail, or - more probably - procrastinated heavily. Instead, I decided to let sleeping dogs lie. This was not the time. This paper needed time to meld in our collective consciousness. I continued working on other projects, and decided not to fret about this paper. Lo-and-behold, a couple of weeks later on a train ride back from a meeting, my supervisor and I saw the forest for the trees. The main aim of the paper was actually much bigger than what I had originally intended. Instead of writing about the trees as the aim, my aim was actually to write about the forest, with the species of trees as the context (figuratively speaking). I had been too close to see the forest for the trees. *Note my paper is not really about trees, or forests!

I can see how it could be frustrating for someone who is tied to a schedule to allow time for such a variable process, and to embrace it. It is important to realise that there is value in the process - that the time taken for the idea to meld is invaluable in the long run. Of course, this would not have been possible if I was not cognizant of my personal process, and if I had not been clear in communicating this to my supervisors. I always ensure that I am working on multiple projects simultaneously, and build a buffer into my timelines to allow for my process.

There is comfort in knowing that the unplanned process is a schedule in itself. There is certainty in uncertainty.

This view may change as I (hopefully) move from being a PhD scholar into the world of modern academia, but once again, that will be a process that I will be equipped to deal with, if and when the time comes.

The best laid schemes of mice and men…