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In 2008, I resolved to run 1000 miles.  This was a good resolution because it was quantitative, yet long-term, and challenging, yet achievable.  This year I want to resolve to do something that also meets these criteria, but I don’t want to just repeat my 2008 resolution.

I liked the running resolution in particular because I got something tangible out of it.  I’m in the best running shape of my adult life.  I feel good when I run.  I’ve improved my health and fitness.  Now I want to do something similar for my brain.

Recently, I realized that I’ve been learning more at the local trivia night than I have been working on my Ph.D. research topic.  This troubles me.  School is for learning, right?  So what am I doing wrong?  Part of the problem is that graduate research can have little tangible gratification along the way.  There are no grades.  We never feel the sweet release of final exams.  There isn’t always a clear measure of progress.

With that in mind, I wanted to make 2009 a year for learning new skills.  I made a list of goals for things to learn/practice over the course of the year.  It had everything from picking up a new instrument to doing 100 consecutive push-ups. This was a fun list to make, so I’m going to save it in a draft on my blog even though I eventually decided not to make it a part of my 2009 resolution.

Instead, I decided to take the practical route:

In 2009, I will finish my Ph.D. project, write my dissertation, and defend my thesis.

From my current vantage, this seems about as likely as a herd of cats carrying me to school tomorrow on their backs.  From your perspective, on the other hand, it may seem like a cop out to resolve to do something that I am pretty-much on track to do anyways.

But I assure you, this is not going to be easy.  I’ve been working on…  stuff…  for five years now, and I feel I have very little to show for it. Making this thesis happen is going to require discipline, planning, and maybe if I’m lucky, some learning. My running resolution was a success largely because of the logging and reporting I did throughout the course of the year. Completing my thesis will require a similar attention to progress.  I could record pages over time, or just blog more frequently about research, but I’m open to hearing any suggestions for reaching this goal.

What are your resolutions for 2009?

 
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Posted by on January 7, 2009 in Alchemy

 

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Filing System for Research Papers

The Inbox Zero Google Talk recently inspired me to get my research life organized. E-mail organization was a logical place to start, and my desire to try to keep a low number of messages in my e-mail inbox was easily adaptable to the “process down to zero” method promoted by Inbox Zero.

Now I’ve moved on to research papers. For the last several years, I have collected papers in various places (PDFs in a references file, printouts all over the place). When I actually need to organize these for some reason (i.e., to write a paper), I typically go and download all the citations into either Endnote or Jabref, and then assign each paper a unique 5-digit ID number. Then, I put that ID number in the ‘label’ field in Endnote, and keep the PDFs and papers sorted by ID number in my computer and/or filing cabinet.

This system is great for finding things fast, as long as I know what I’m looking for. However, if I want a number of papers on a particular topic (let’s say, ‘synthetic biology’), I either need to do some searching within Endnote (which can be hit-or-miss), or I have to know by memory who wrote the papers on a particular topic, search for those authors in Endnote, and then retrieve the papers by their 5-digit ID number (my memory doesn’t do well at this).

In the end, I duplicate a lot of effort in finding papers that I’ve already “found”.

I’ve done a bit of googling on this topic, but nothing convincing has come up. The best resource I’ve found was at Ask Metafilter, and it’s pretty weak. Some of the possibilities I’m considering are:

  • File by category – This works well for quickly finding a set of papers on a particular topic, but it can fail when one paper belongs in multiple categories (either you won’t find it in the folder where you think it should be, or you will have multiple copies of papers in your file).
  • File by author – This has a lot of the same drawbacks as filing by ID number, but the added advantage of forcing you to think more about who writes what, and becoming more familiar with their names.
  • File everything electronically – This scares me, because I still prefer reading papers on paper. However, it would greatly simplify the storage and searching process. How bad is it for the environment if I just print a paper every time I need to see it?

If you are faced with the same problem, or a similar one, I’m curious to hear how you handle it. I know no system will work for everyone, but I’d love to try something that simplifies and streamlines the process. I’m also interested in comments about particular software or processing steps that you like.

 
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Posted by on February 21, 2008 in Alchemy

 

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