Month: November 2014

Time Management for Scientists

Over the years I’ve come to realize that science is an extremely creative enterprise. I am of the mind that I can be at my most creative when I have the time to think deeply about scientific questions and how I might approach answering those using various experimental approaches. I would argue that having time to think and plan is required to be a successful scientist.
With that in mind I’m always on the prowl for effective time management and productivity techniques. Below I list some tips and tricks that I’ve picked up over the years that might prove helpful to others.

1) Plan ahead. I can’t count the number of times that this mentality has saved my bacon over the years. I once heard that 3 hours in the library can save you 3 months in the lab and I absolutely believe it. I try to do some planning at higher levels (1-4 year time scale), medium levels (per term), and low levels (weekly and daily). I’ve found it useful to have weekly goals for what I want to accomplish and to plan which day I want to tackle particular tasks. I use Friday afternoons as my planning time as campus is quiet and I can reflect on the past week and then have a look at what’s on my plate for next week. Before I leave for the day I try to have 3-5 goals that I’m aiming to accomplish the following day.

2) Bundle tasks. As scientists we have to simultaneously complete multiple projects pertaining to research, teaching, service, and administration which have a tendency to fragment our days and have massive negative effects on our productivity. I’ve found that a good strategy is to group like tasks together and to complete them all in one go. For example, this term I was teaching Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and was therefore in a teaching mind-set on those days. As a consequence I made a conscious choice to offer office hours and to book my one-on-one update appointments with my lab trainees on those days. I also used those days to mark assignments and tests and to prepare for upcoming lectures and assignments. This left Tuesdays and Thursdays wide open for research focused tasks.

3) Wrestle email to the ground. Email is a time suck and it will take over your life and destroy your productivity if you let it. Humans see something new and shiny and are immediately drawn to it and forget what they were previously focused on. Your goal should be to only check email 2-3 times a day and to respond to messages during those times. Close your email program and turn off your notifications and get on with your tasks. Don’t leave emails sitting in your inbox as reminders to do something. Convert the contents of that email into a task that you can do and aim to get your inbox to zero. Easier said than done I know, but it works.

How I Use my iPad as an Academic Scientist

I received my first iPad as a Christmas present several years ago from my partner. Prior to that I had purchased an iPod and that was the first Apple device that I owned. I still use a PC laptop as my primary computing device at work, but I have integrated my iPad into my daily work flow. I am now on my second iPad (a first generation iPad Air). I thought that it might be interesting to other academics if I described how I use my iPad at work. Below I describe three of the apps that I use every day and how they have led to increases in my productivity as a scientist.

Week Cal

I used to use a paper calendar and was frustrated when appointments changed or got cancelled and entering repeating appointments was a pain. During the transition to an electronic calendar I maintained a paper and an electronic calendar for a few months because I was paranoid that the iCloud would eat my data. This never happened and I love the convenience of using an electronic calendar. I find that I prefer the Week Cal display and set-up compared to the Apple Calendar App. I found having an electronic calendar extremely useful when I was recently preparing my tenure file; it was easy to go back in time and look at the past 3 years of my life. I only use my calendar for appointments (i.e. I physically have to be somewhere at a certain time and place).


Academics are busy people and we have to keep a lot of balls up in the air at the same time. I am a typical type-A personality and prior to having my iPad I kept a notebook with a master to-do list and notes on each of the many projects that I had on the go. It was all there, but it wasn’t very organized or efficient. As a compulsive list maker I was looking for a program that was flexible and could deal with the complexities of my varied projects. Several years ago I read the book “Getting Things Done” by David Allen and it was a life changer. OmniFocus has had a similar positive impact on my productivity. The Omni company has recently released version 2 of the app for iPad. The program is very expensive for an app, but it has been worth every penny for me. The program also has a steep learning curve, but once you figure it out it is awesome!


The Clock app comes as a default app on the iPad and I use it in a few ways. When I’m doing a task for the first time, but I know that it’s a repeating task that I’ll need to do again in the future, I use the Stopwatch feature to determine how long it takes me to complete the task. I now know that it takes me about 15 minutes to reconcile my monthly research account spending on my corporate credit card. That’s useful information because I now know that I can get this task done in one of those awkward 15 minute chunks of time that pop up in my schedule.
I also use this app to avoid procrastinating on a task that I don’t feel like doing or to work on a project in short bursts. I like to break overwhelming projects into smaller pieces. I can usually do any task for 30 minutes even if I don’t really want to do it. I promise myself that I only have to work on that task for 30 minutes and then I’ll stop. This works like a charm; I’ve made progress, but the evil task from Hell hasn’t stolen my entire day. Working in these shorter periods of time of intense focus and taking quick breaks in between is called the Pomodoro technique.

These three apps in combination keep me on track, organized, and focused during my work days and have helped me to increase my productivity.

How are you using apps on your iPad in your work as an academic? Feel free to comment below.

The Hidden Curriculum: Sexist Shirts have no place in Science (or anywhere else for that matter)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the hidden curriculum in university science departments. This is the idea that what and how we teach our students imparts information in addition to the content that we are delivering.
My parents both completed high school and then directly entered the workforce. I was the first person in my immediate family to go to university. As an undergraduate student I spent a significant amount of time working out the expectations that faculty members had and how that translated into the marks that I earned in my courses. When I started doing a fourth year research thesis in the lab I discovered that I had a new bunch of expectations that I first had to figure out before I could even dream about meeting or exceeding them. I am not talking here about learning content or scientific concepts; I am talking about uncovering the unvoiced and not obvious rules of how to be a successful scientist. This professionalization process is fraught with challenge and danger for many of us. In some cases it is because our very presence in the academy challenges what was formerly the status quo. We will therefore find it difficult to plug in to a network of people who can help us to navigate what are to us uncharted waters. I often found it difficult to know what questions I should even be asking, let alone how to go about finding the answers. As educators it is well worth asking ourselves not only what content we are delivering, but whether we are intentionally or unintentionally delivering other messages as well.

As a topical example, a cool topic in today’s news is the Rosetta mission which represents a significant scientific achievement. This represents the first time that a probe has been landed on a comet. A series of YouTube videos are available on the topic. One of these is produced by Nature. It’s an exciting news story and is certainly cause for celebration as it’s been 10 years in the making. The money shot in the video pertaining to the hidden curriculum starts at 1 minute 24 seconds. This is when the interviewer starts talking to Matt Taylor who is a Rosetta Project Scientist. At first it’s kind of cool because Matt is showing off his awesome tattoo of the landing module and Rosetta. That’s pretty awesome because that tells me that scientists are just like anybody else and we can have tattoos and be successful and gainfully employed. Unfortunately, his shirt sends another message. I can’t listen to his content (what I’m guessing he’s trying to teach me) because I’m too blindsided by the other message he’s delivering. His sexist attire that is objectifying women tells me that I wouldn’t be welcomed as a member of his team or that I wouldn’t be taken seriously or respected.

I don’t need a Rosetta stone to translate that message, it’s coming through loud and clear.

Rain, rain, go away…

When we purchased our house in Waterloo four years ago we suspected that we’d have to deal with some water issues. The houses behind ours are situated 1.5-2 metres above us and that means that a large portion of their water run-off would be coming into our backyard. We realized then that we’d eventually have to deal with this excess water somehow and that it would have to take place sooner rather than later. Last fall we were really tired of our backyard always being a soggy mess. Due to the high moisture content of the soil, that summer we had lost a pear tree in our backyard. The soil was so wet that the tree blew over (roots and all) during an intense rain storm. The majority of our back lawn was moss instead of grass. We were concerned that water would soon start to seep into our basement and would result in costly repairs. I suspected that climate change was only going to make those intense summer rainstorms worse.

Our first stop in planning a strategy to deal with the water was to check out the City of Waterloo website. From there we were directed to an organization called REEP Green Solutions , a local non-profit agency that offers RAIN home visits that advise homeowners on how they can reduce the risk of flood damage to their home and conserve rainwater for watering lawns and gardens. We signed up for a visit and got some excellent advice.

From there we interviewed several contractors and ultimately went with a company that had done a similar project at another house in the neighbourhood where the focus had been on solving some major water issues. In addition to completely transforming other aspects of our backyard, we installed a rain garden and several rain barrels to deal with the huge amounts of water coming into our backyard. We were very glad that we did this as this summer Waterloo experienced several flash flooding events; had we not addressed the problem our basement would have flooded for sure. Due to our renovations we are also eligible for a storm water rebate.

Last night we were very pleased to attend the 15th anniversary celebration of REEP and received an award in the residential category for our water management efforts. It was a wonderful community event and served to highlight the great work that this organization is doing and how small changes that homeowners and businesses make can lead to big impacts.