Friday, June 10, 2011

Reference Management

A program you might find a useful alternative or adjunct to Endnote is Zotero. Use this to gether references on the internet. You have to use Mozilla Firefox as your web browser then download Zotero as an add-in. Zotero will improt references much the same way Endnote does, however you don't have to keep telling it where your Endnote librbary is. When you've finished searching you can download the job lot of references into Endnote. This can be useful when you are doing lots of literature searching as it avoids that tedious extra step.
See Zotero
- Jo Griffiths


Not the plastic kind, not the kind that earn you money, but useful nonetheless! Share your pearls of wisdom with the appendix ...
Thanks to Jo Griffiths for this idea. She suggested we find a forum for sharing our collective post grad experience. Do you have an easy way to format a thesis? A better reference manager than Endnote? A place to order cheap labware? Then we want to hear from you.
With our collective powers we might also be able to fix a seemingly insoluble problem. How do I count all the feral pigs in Australia? How do I generate a thesis table of contents? And just why won't pictures stay where you put them in Word? Post your question, suggest your solution here....


Monday, August 17, 2009

Always put off for tomorrow what you can do today (Part 3)

In time-honoured fashion, I bring you the final instalment of my list of top-10 time wasters. Now you may have lots more new ideas for great procrastination. No, no, don’t thank me...

7. Part time work. This is a pearler because it gives you the illusion of productivity and it generates an essential output: cash. The time spent doing part time work seems very productive because there are either clear goals to aim for or a boss making sure that you are on track. The deadlines MUST be met! Hang the PhD, I’ve got 80 undergraduate lab reports to mark instead.

8. The weather. This sounds like a weird one. But I am an avid fan of the Bureau of Meteorology’s website and sometimes check it at least three times a day. I'm not especially interested in the weather either but I do like to know if I'll have to walk home in the rain...

9. Stationery. Visit Officeworks (conveniently located two minutes walk from the Sydney campus) and pick out manila folders, highlighters, and those snazzy in- and out- trays that you’ve always wanted and that will make you super-productive and organised. Officeworks also has a very efficient cooling system. The Gunn building is not air-conditioned, so on the swelteringly hot summer days (when all of the undergraduates are cavorting on the beaches for three months while the hapless postgraduates slog it out in a sweaty office), you’ll often run into some of your friends deliberating over the range of liquid papers in aisle three.

10. List writing. This is my all-time favourite. When I’m feeling like my PhD life is completely out of control and I have a billion things to do, I like to write to do lists. This is good because it gets the amorphous cloud of scary impending deadlines and small yet essential tasks down on paper and in some sort of order. However, if the list is particularly long (which it mostly gets if you’ve had a really bad week of procrastination or you’ve been out of the office on fieldwork or at a conference for a few days), I do the old chestnut of writing out a weekly schedule, which takes a long time in itself to do. This would be fine if I could stick to the schedule, but inevitably it is unrealistically punishing and it ends up being tweaked, rejigged, reworked, and finally scrapped when its demands cannot be met.

That’s it. Thank you to all of my lovely postgraduate friends for furnishing me with such shining examples of time-wasting, and hopefully not minding that I’ve posted them up here for all and sundry to see!


Friday, August 14, 2009

The postgraduate student’s guide to procrastination (Part 2)

As you know, it's a serious issue that every postgraduate (particularly research postgraduates, who have three-plus years of what seems like unlimited unstructured time on their hands) must face. This week I bring you the continued results of my time-wasting by extending my fabulous list of top-10 ways to procrastinate.

3. Podcasts (eg. from Nature and Science). Jo likes to download and listen to them whilst doing her lab work. Not sure that it makes her more productive but I'm it sure makes the hours fly by! Unfortunately those of us with the attention span of a flea (ie me) are not able to listen to these and concentrate on our experiments at the same time.

4. Thesis formatting. Don’t get me wrong, this is an important thing to do. Hannah Siddle (who, incidentally, survived her PhD), advised “Do not try to format your thesis the week before it is due. This will have an adverse effect on your relationships with loved ones”. The day before her thesis was due she turned up at the office wild-eyed and muttering about outline levels. So we are all well advised to format our theses in advance. However, I have already spent at least a whole day creating a template for my thesis in lieu of actually writing any of it.

Another friend in the Psychology department took two weeks trying to find the perfect quote to put on the fly leaf of her thesis (the quote ended up being from Oscar Wilde: "I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.", which kind of sums up the procrastination process perfectly). Definitely time well spent.

5. Backing up. Again, this is an important thing to do and you should do it religiously as Kao says. However it can get out of control, for example “I’ll back up the entire 4 GB of data on my computer onto this external hard drive. This will take an hour but I really must be here watching it the entire time to make sure nothing goes wrong.” I have also spent hours at the photocopier making duplicates of all of my laboratory notebooks. Jo did point out that without copies of these, you may doom yourself in the unlikely event that the lab somehow goes up in flames. However, I've found that it is also great for that “I’m doing something really constructive” feeling without having to do any actual thinking .

6. Socialising. Postgrad lunches and regular coffees are augmented with our weekly ‘bakeoff’ afternoon teas and Friday night drinks in Sydney and pizza and movie nights in Camden (haven't come along to these yet? You should, they are lots of fun!). Have a moan about how your lab technique didn’t work. Gossip about what such-and-such got up to at the last conference. Talk about your weekend. Plan to have lunch and then have a detailed discussion about what time it should be. Ask for advice on the colour you should bind your thesis in, should you actually manage to finish it.

Next week... that’s right kids, I’m going to 10! Stay tuned...


Thursday, August 13, 2009

Ode to an Allen Key

Greetings from the USA! I made it here safely and have been settling in to my new lab. I could tell you about all of the cool new lab toys that I now have to play with, or the interesting research that I will be doing here to finish off my PhD, but first things first... My apartment that I will call home for the next 8 months or so.

After more than 24 hours in transit, I dragged my slightly hallucinating self to my new apartment building. One small incident with my keys (which, it transpired, were not actually my keys) later, I crashed my way into the flat, dropped my two very heavy bags (a total of 300g under maximum weight, yessssss!), and found... a small mountain of flat- pack furniture and packaged dinnerware/bedding etc stuck all over with labels like “Gosa Vadd Schlewovski”.

Yes, you guessed it, back in Australia when I faced with the problem of having to fill a whole overseas flat with furniture, I thought for a while, before, leaping up and shouting “Jag ha som!*... Ikea!”. This is why, at 3am local time, I found myself sitting on the floor puzzling over cryptic diagrams of smug cartoon men effortlessly putting together stylish furniture.

My first mistake was not just unwrapping the mattress and collapsing on it, leaving the unpacking for later. Instead, I decided to put together the bed first (which, I discovered later, was probably the single most complex bit of furniture in the whole flat).
My second mistake was continuing to put it together despite the fact that the diagrams clearly showed a lone cartoon man looking unhappy with a big cross next to him, and then two cartoon men looking jovial, with a tick next to them. Not having my own cartoon man, I decided to persevere alone.
My third mistake was not having any tools. I thought Ikea furniture came with tools but it turns out that they are fairly allen-key-centric over in Sweden and so I found myself without a drill, screwdriver or hammer. Have no fear though, as I utilised my PhD student resourcefulness by MacGyvering it up with a swiss army knife and a shoe. What transpired next was itself cartoon-like. Step one, balance piece A on piece B. Step two, run over to piece C and try to put it under piece B before A+B collapse. Step three, watch A+B+C collapse in a heap. Step four, repeat 500 times.

Voila, it’s one week later and I finally have all my furniture together. It all seems to work and I have not yet accordioned myself up in the folding sofa or jammed any of my limbs in the gateleg table. There’s just one problem... I have 14 screws left over and I have no idea where they go...


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Welcome to Procrastinationsville, population you (Part 1)

A big (and, I feel, under-discussed) issue in the lives of postgraduate students. As a sacrifice to you, dear readers, I am now going to air some dirty laundry from postgrads at the Sydney campus and tell you about some of our favourite time-wasting activities. However, I must insert here a disclaimer- have you got an impending deadline? A paper due? A talk to write? Exams to study for? Marking to do? An actual job? If so, DO NOT read on. You have been warned!

1. Number one would have to be the internet. For the avid procrastinator, this offers a wealth of ways to whittle away the weeks*. Here are a few of my faves:
News websites.
Reading blogs. If it’s related to your field then it’s still work, right? Writing blogs (yes, like this one) is also another good one.
Silly celebrity websites eg (the psychologist postgrads love it. “You don’t know psychiatry. I know psychiatry!”).
Ebay. Sure I need a wireless mouse/second hand motorcycle/lava lamp/pair of those hot shoes Britney wore last week, only in suede/...
Email. You know this already, but this is a MASSIVE time waster. Particularly when you check it in the morning, answer all of the new ones, then check back every five minutes to see if anyone’s replied yet.
Youtube, especially when it’s semi-related to your research (geneticists, have you seen the new BioRad PCR song? Funny in a molecular-biologist-humour kind of way).
Facebook. I don’t use this (clearly for a good reason as I am already an accomplished procrastinator) but going on the amount of time I hear people talking about it, I’m assuming that this tool would also help you to waste a good chunk of your day.
icanhascheezburger. I don’t like cats. But I do love this website. Every now and then they have a captionated cat photograph that makes me kill myself laughing (tip: only the evil cat ones are funny and the captions have to be spelt wrongly). Amazingly enough, this coincides with the other postgraduates the office wanting to kill me for laughing when they are trying to concentrate.

2. ‘Helping’ with other students’ research. We have to look out for each other, so why not spend a day labelling a million sample tubes for a friend? Naturally they’ll then help you out too when the time comes. Last month, I experienced the ultimate in procrastination, when I ‘helped’ Hannah Salvin with her research into canine behaviour. She spends several hours each week taking a dog through a ‘sand maze’ with buried liver treats in order to test its memory (about 30 times per dog!). Feeling she might need some human company during this, I went with her to clip and unclip the dog from its leash. Clearly I was an integral part of her research team.

Right! I really have to go and do some work now. But come back next week to read on...

*writing alliterative sentences is also a form of procrastination


Thursday, July 30, 2009

Adventures in England

I've just gotten back from the 8th International Horse Genome Workshop, which was held last week in the English countryside north of London. The people that have come to this and previous meetings often call it the Havemeyer Workshop, because it's funded and supported by the horse-friendly Havemeyer Foundation.

The workshop spanned one evening and two full days, and had a really full-on social and scientific program. The workshop venue was Ickworth House, a venue with plenty of history, and one of the ugliest central architectural features I've ever seen: a giant rotunda. This enormous round structure (pictured in the most flattering way possible in the web site link) was apparently requested by a family member who'd travelled to Italy - great inspiration, but the execution left something to be desired! It's questionable charms provided an excellent aesthetic foil to the simple and elegant wings of the house, and the extensive and well-designed gardens on the estate.

The final night of the workshop saw us all living the high life at Newmarket Nights: horse racing followed by a show. The Newmarket main straight is really hilly compared to the Australian race tracks that I've been too, and it's also really long. The horses almost disappear from view in the low parts as they come down the straight, which takes a while, because it's also really long. Anyway, I'm delighted to say that I came out even in the betting, with one win and one... not-so-win. The band that played after the races was Status Quo.

The social side of things at the workshop meant plenty of stories and anecdotes. One of the strangest involved feeding vegemite to possums, something that I must say I've never tried personally. I'm not sure that the possum had either, at least before the event in question...

But to continue with the adventures: after the workshop, Professor Claire gave me a lift to Cambridge, where I met up with my ex-desk neighbour, Dr. Hannah. Our plan for the day was a punt and a pint, which we managed beautifully. Hannah demonstrated her punting technique first, and then Carl (her husband) and I gave it a go. Ten points for each of us, because none of us fell in! We didn't even see anyone else fall in either, which was kind of disappointing. After out exertions, we were parched, and headed down the river to one of the pubs near Han and Carl's apartment. What a perfect way to spend the day!


Thursday, June 11, 2009

Five side effects to being a postgraduate student

There are many wonderful things about being a postgraduate student. A personal computer! A sandwich toaster! Bakeoffs! Bliss! However, we've thought of a few side effects that we've come across in our efforts to get educated. We're sure you can think of more!

1. Judgement based on your subject area. I study platypus venom, which is strange and obscure, so it naturally follows that I am a little odd, and at risk of becoming an eccentric-professorial-type later in life.

2. Novelty T-shirts. It’s your birthday coming up. Your friends can’t afford to buy you that art deco teacup/Shetland pony you’ve always wanted. Instead, “Great, he/she studies X”, your friends think, “why not get him/her a novelty t-shirt?”*. Luckily, when I describe my area of study no-one has yet listened past my description “I study platypus venom...” to hear the next bit “...genes”, or else I would be at risk of drowning in a sea of double helix tops.platypus_tshirt-p235758194011346976y8gh_400.jpg

3. Your subject area everywhere. On birthday cakes (especially if you study cars, squares, or cakes, or if your friends are very clever like mine are (see pic). More difficult if you are studying pi or Greek furniture of the 3rd century).plat cake.jpg
On statues (especially if you are studying an Australian animal/explorer, or any fruit. Again, if you are studying pi then you might be ok). You won’t be able to get away from it!

plat statue.jpg
4. Unstructured days. Sure I can go shopping on Tuesday. Whoops, I slept in and it’s noon and I’m still in my PJ’s, is it even worth going to uni?

5. Becoming an expert in procrastination. As an undergraduate, you thought you were pretty good at this already. But you thought wrong! Until you became a postgraduate, you were a most productive individual. In fact, this is such a big facet of postgraduate life we feel that an entire procrastination-themed blog post is due in the near future.**

*Author's note: You know I love the platypus t-shirt you gave me, Kao!
** No, reading The Appendix does not count as procrastination.


Proof that we are better than trained monkeys

We have heard several PhD students over the last few years complain about how a trained monkey could do 95% of their work. Happily, Jo Griffith has pointed us in the direction of this book excerpt, which begs to differ.

Extract from Complications – a surgeon’s notes on an imperfect science by Atul Gawande, (2002, Picador: New York) on training surgeons.

"As one professor of surgery put it to me, given the choice between a PhD who had painstakingly cloned a gene and a talented sculptor, he'd pick the PhD ever time. She, he said, he'd bet on the sculptor being more physically talented; but he'd bet on the PhD being less "flaky." And in the end that matters more. Skill, surgeons believe, can be taught, tenacity cannot. It's an odd approach to recruitment but it continues all the way up the ranks, even in top surgery departments. They take minions with no experience in surgery, spend years training them and then take most of their faculty from these same home grown ranks.

And it works. There have now been many studies of elite performers - international violinists, chess grand masters, professional ice-skaters, mathematicians and so forth - and the biggest difference researchers find between them and lesser performers is the cumulative amount of deliberate practice they've had. Indeed, the most important talent may be the talent for practice itself. K. Anders Ericsson, a cognitive psychologist and expert on performance, notes that the most important way in which innate factors play a role may be in one’s willingness to engage in sustained training. He’s found, for example that top performers dislike practicing just as much as others do (that's why, for example, athletes and musicians, usually quit practicing when they retire). But more than others they have the will to keep at it anyway."