Productivity Level Up

I’ve always liked to consider myself an organized person. My mom says my favorite game as a little girl was secretary, and I can drool over office supplies for hours. I even worked in project management for a couple years before grad school, and I can make a damn good Gantt chart.

But…I’m lazy.

So it’s no surprise that I’m always looking for ways to improve my day-to-day organization! Fancy organization schemes mean nothing if you can’t stick to them (I’m looking at you, bullet journaling). Because I recently had a pretty big change in my work life, going from a pre-candidacy, classes-attending grad student to a post-candidacy, research-machine PhD candidate, I decided it was a good time to re-evaluate my productivity habits.

When I was attending classes, I frequently had to carry around notebooks and writing utensils for taking notes, as well as papers for assignments and other bits and pieces. Now, I pretty much just need my laptop, a notebook for working out things by hand, and the equivalent of my purse. So I switched from a big, bulky backpack to a sleek, minimalist backpack. After a lot of research, I ended up with my new Everlane bag (this is definitely not an ad, just my personal experience). It was a bit of a wince to hand over the money, but I love my new backpack! It makes me feel more professional and is more suited to my daily needs. A simple switch like that can really help boost my mindset and productivity!

In my old backpack, I liked to have a little notebook for writing down my to-do list, often having to pull it out during class to add a due date for an assignment, talk, or project. But that list became less helpful as I’ve transitioned into more open-ended tasks associated with my research. I also don’t usually come up with new to-dos away from my computer anymore. I decided to ditch the notebook in favor of an easier digital format. There are an overwhelming number of options out there for to-do list apps. In my personal life, I’ve been using Todoist for years. But I wanted a simple option, and one strictly for work, so I opted for Google Tasks. My institution uses G-suite, so I already am used to having my Gmail page open in one of my workspaces. Google Tasks integrates into the sidebar of my email, so I can keep it up all day. It’s been working great! One nice bonus of moving to a computer-based to-do list is setting up recurring tasks. For example, I’ve always wanted to be better about keeping up with new papers in my field, but it’s been hard to build up a habit. Now I added a daily workweek task to review arXiv, and I’ve actually been doing it every day!

Keep and Tasks are both right in my inbox.

Another thing I have implemented is a daily work log. This was an idea I got from my boyfriend, who had a simple text file he kept where he updated what he was doing every day. I often find myself getting sidetracked and then forgetting what I was doing before the detour, even with my comprehensive to-do list. I opted to use another Google tool here, for the same reason as above. I’ve started using Google Keep, and I write a new note every work day. I just jot down what I did and brief explanations of my thought process, the kind of notes that used to get haphazardly put down in my research notebook and then be hard to find again later. I use labels to track which categories of things I am working on, so in the future I can quickly find all the logs where I worked on a certain area. Although I don’t have performance reviews anymore, this is the kind of thing that is really handy down the line when you need to brag about all your own accomplishments! I also make sure to keep track of things I do that aren’t strictly related to my research. That’s important to keep perspective when I feel like I’m wasting all my time, because admin, mentoring, etc. are all a part of my job too!

These two items have been a huge level up for my productivity. I feel like I’m more organized, more on top of things, and more understanding of just where all my time goes to. It’s not quite as satisfying as fancy pens, thick paper, and office supplies, but it’s something I can actually integrate easily into my workflow, so I count it as a win!

On Milestones and Maladies

This week was a pretty big one for me. On Tuesday, I successfully completed part II of my candidacy exam. So I’m a PhD candidate now! Hurrah!

The exam had been looming over me for some months. Due to scheduling issues within the committee, the date was pushed back to later than it usually occurs. The extra time to prepare was nice, but it was also extra time for anxiety. I’m not the sort of person to put in 80 hour weeks, nor do I think it would have been helpful, but I started to feel a vague sort of guilt anytime I wasn’t studying or working on my candidacy talk or paper. So of course I feel quite relieved now that it is over and done with!

But—there’s always a but—a lot of my anxiety hasn’t gone away. This isn’t totally surprising, as I have been previously diagnosed with anxiety, so this is just part of my life and the way my brain works. It’s still annoying, that I’ve so easily begun now to worry about this new stage of my graduate career. Luckily, I am quite happy with the area I’ve chosen and my current advisor, so I don’t need to worry about changing that. But I do have to organize my thesis committee and at least start to come up with a general idea or theme for my thesis. I’ve been putting off thinking much about this before as a post-candidacy problem…well now it’s post-candidacy, so here are all my delayed worries come to rear their heads.

This is, as far as I can tell, enormously common! Achieving a milestone is wonderful. It can feel very great and relieving. But it can also be anticlimactic in some ways, and after all is said and done, you’re still the same you as before the milestone.

For me, the best thing to do is make a list and keep on going. I don’t have to figure everything out today. Today, I can just enjoy my accomplishment and also check off one new task. Onwards and upwards, but never forgetting how far I’ve come!

A Year in the Life of a Grad Student

This afternoon I entered the Chandrasekhar Room at 1 PM to do the first part of my candidacy exam, and I am now officially a second year PhD student! It’s quite hard to believe it’s been a year. Looking back on that year, it was a time of growth, change, and learning, and for the most part I had an absolute blast.

One thing that I wanted to do was see just how much time grad school would take out of my life. I’d heard horror stories of 100-hour weeks, little-to-no social life, and scant opportunities for important self-care like cooking, working out, and maintaining relationships. Since I was coming from a consulting job where I was used to billing hours in 15-min intervals, it wasn’t hard to me to log my hours spent each day (I gave myself a break and only did it to 30-min intervals). Now that’s it been a year, I have a full set of data showing how much time I spent!

So how was it? Well…variable. I took an extra elective class every quarter during the academic year, and at times that was hard to juggle. I thought when summer came around I would have so much time to do research, but I struggled with the lack of routine and found it hard to motivate myself to keep a strict schedule. It was also hard to figure out where the boundaries of time off vs work were in the summer, as I traveled quite a bit and took time off.

Here’s what it ended up looking like, in both daily and weekly hours:


The purple line in both cases shows the average over the entire year. Definitely not 100-hour weeks! While I was regularly doing 50-hour weeks in the Autumn Quarter, that tapered down over the course of the year. Of course, by the time summer rolled around, my time plummeted a lot, and this ended up pulling down the yearly average to 37.1 hours. My average workday (so excluding weekends/holidays) was 7.28 hours. Looking at those averages by quarter:

Average Hours
per Workday
Average Hours
per Week
Autumn Quarter
(Sep 25, 2017 – Dec 8, 2017)
9.42 47.64
Winter Quarter
(Jan 3, 2018 – Mar 17, 2018)
8.00 42.41
Spring Quarter
(Mar 25, 2017 – Jun 9, 2018)
6.95 36.18
Summer Quarter
(Jun 17, 2018 – Sep 22, 2018)
4.79 23.42

Some things to keep in mind: Firstly, I have always strongly valued work-life balance, and I have had several years practice in perfecting that balance. I know how to leave even when there is work left to be done (as long as it isn’t urgent), and I prioritize other things besides just school in my life. Secondly, to the best of my ability, this represents time actually spent working. It excludes lunch breaks, long periods of time getting distracted on reddit, and other such things, even if I was sitting in my office. Thirdly, I have depression and anxiety, which sometimes makes it difficult to function as effectively as I would like, and at times that affects my productivity.

As far as how effective I was in that time, well, that’s a bit subjective. I passed all 9 of my classes, I am working on 2 different papers from my research, and no one laughed me out of the room at my candidacy exam today (although I haven’t gotten the official report yet), so while I definitely could be doing more, I don’t think it’s been a failure by any means.

Since I’m already in the habit, I plan to continue my hours-logging for the next year as well!

We’ve Come a Long, Long Way Together

One year ago today, I was sitting at my desk in my dingy cubicle, counting down the hours until I could go home (too many—it was ~9 AM), when I got a very unexpected email. The chair of graduate admissions from UChicago said the committee had met the day before and he would like to call me with some good news.


I didn’t have long to silently freak out at my desk, because he called about 30 minutes later to let me know that I had been accepted (and also nominated for a scholarship). The peculiar combination of elation and disbelief is hard to describe. I had been so unsure if I would get in anywhere. I didn’t know then what the future would bring, whether I would even go through with my mad plan to go back to school for my PhD, but it became a real option in that moment. I ended up getting accepted by 2 more wonderful schools, but here I am at Chicago today. There were a lot of reasons behind my decision, but being first with the news didn’t hurt.

I basically torpedoed my whole entire life over the last year, and while I’ve had my share of doubts and struggles, I can safely say I am very happy with where I am now and that I will never forget silently dancing in the hallway after that phone call.

Day in the Life of a Grad Student

7:10 AM Woken by gentle buzzing of my Fitbit. Groan. Even though I’m excited about school, Monday mornings are still hard. Groggily stumble out of bed by 7:15 AM.

7:45 AM Complete with normal morning ablutions, feeding bunnies, making bed, standard morning routine. Remember to grab gloves since apparently it’s in the FORTIES, great, where did summer go?

7:50 AM Biking to school. Regretting not grabbing a scarf too.

8:05 AM Get to my office and start settling in, drink some tea, check email, contemplate my to-do list with dread.

8:30 AM Help a student who couldn’t make office hours with some questions on her lab. Feel bad for her being sick and also really hoping that I don’t get sick.

8:40 AM Okay, time to settle in and focus on a tough homework assignment. No one else is ever here this early, so this is my quiet time. Try to write some code, fail. Continue to skip questions until I’m just writing “tbd” and “uhhh” in the spots where rational, scientific answers should go. Curse the gods of python and numerical integration.

9:00 AM Abandon my pressing to-do list and depressing attempt at homework to watch press conference about LIGO. Get really excited and pester my boyfriend about it until he makes his whole office watch it too.

10:25 AM Time to attend lecture for the course I am TAing. I grade some labs during the lecture, which makes it actually quite productive. Mentally freak out over how long the labs are taking to grade and that they need to be done by tomorrow.

11:30 AM Back to my office to pretend I can write code. It fails.

12:00 PM Head to a meeting about fellowships. Free lunch, hurray! As the fellowships lady tells us about various fellowships that we can and should apply for, I start to inwardly freak out about adding that to my hypothetical to do list (in a year). Decide not to think about my future yet.

1:00 PM More useless attempts at writing code. I actually can do one part of one problem, I rejoice at the little plot that I get.

1:30 PM Class. Same class where I can’t do the homework. The class is interesting and makes sense, but I know that when we get homework on it I won’t be able to do it. Try to focus on just paying attention to the now.

3:00 PM Exoplanet journal club. A guest from Harvard is giving a talk and it is super interesting. Also intimidating. He is a grad student (although in his final year) and has many publications and can speak like a total expert. Journal club always makes me feel miles behind. There are many undergrads who attend who seem to grasp the conversation better than me. Always leave feeling inspired and dejected. On the plus side, cookies.

4:00 PM Special colloquium to discuss the announcement from LIGO. By the time I get there, no seats are open so I sit on the floor. It’s an awesome talk and everyone is really excited. I feel a little guilty thinking about my homework and grading and everything, but I’m glad that I opted to go. The finger foods at the reception afterwards are my dinner.

6:00 PM Back to the office. I really knuckle down on my homework and after a lot of frustration I realize I was missing a square in one of my terms. After I correct this, everything works better (still not well, but better). Manage to finish problem number 2 (of 3).

8:35 PM Decide to call it a day. Remember that the light burnt out on my bike the last time I rode, so hope that the street lights are good.

8:50 PM Get home and feed my bunnies. Poor guys act like they haven’t seen food for days. Wash some dishes. While washing dishes, freak out about when I am going to be able to work on my research this week.

9:20 PM Tell myself I should really either go to bed to get some sleep or grade those labs. Instead eat ice cream and write a blog post for my own amusement. Tell myself it is self care and therefore necessary.

9:30 PM Watch a TV show. In an optimistic move, take folder of labs out of my backpack.

??? PM Go to bed. Realize in a panic that I have 10 more labs to grade before 1 PM but it’s way too late for that now.

Thoughts on My First Week of Grad School

Well, I did it! I made it through one whole week of grad school, and no one pointed and laughed and threw me out on the street for not belonging here. In fact, I felt an energized sense of life and purpose that tells me I definitely belong here, even if it’s going to be a challenge and then some (and despite missing my boyfriend quite desperately and, oddly, being homesick for San Diego, where I haven’t lived for 11 months now!).

The first week went quite well, I think, but I know it is also not quite a true test of what is to come. For one thing, I didn’t get assigned any homework in my own classes, which I know will ramp up significantly in a short time. We were also still covering mostly introductory material, so I didn’t have to feel too out of my depth yet (I can already tell that the math is going to be my limiting factor). I also didn’t have any labs to run, which will be yet another thing to do in the coming weeks. And I’m still new enough to get the benefit of the doubt about having zero clue how to do or even start my research. So it’s not quite an all clear, but it does feel good to not have figuratively died during my first week.

Classes that I am taking this quarter are:

A million other things that I am doing this quarter:

  • TAing for an undergrad non-major course on stars (this includes attending their lectures, grading, holding office hours, and running 2 lab sections)
  • Attending various seminars/colloquia throughout the week
  • Sitting on a committee as a grad student representative
  • Probably other stuff I am forgetting at the moment

So it’s not the worst schedule but it certainly isn’t going to leave me a lot of free time or sanity. The good thing is that, since UChicago is on a quarter schedule, I only have to endure this for 10 weeks!

In summary: feeling good but a bit anxious and overwhelmed, still worried that I might not be capable of doing this (particularly the math), but super excited to be here. And now I have to go work on this week’s homework!

Never Gonna Give It Up

*blows dust off blog*

Hello there!

So the reason that I haven’t posted is not that I haven’t been studying. It’s just that I haven’t been studying very much. It took me 3 weeks to finish what I had scheduled for a week of studying. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why my productivity has plummeted. There’s a lot of other things going on in my life, to be sure. My family was on vacation nearby, I’ve finally gotten approved to buy my condo, my boyfriend came back from his long trip, etc. But mostly I think I’m just shifting down to enjoy my last couple weeks before the flurry of moving, classes, and all that jazz. I am going to have lots of time to study in the next few years!!

But that doesn’t mean I’m totally giving up on my studies. I still like to be productive (at least a little) and I am enjoying going through this material. I’m just not going to be too hard on myself if I can’t stick to a rigorous schedule.

Since my last post, I have continued on with Bob in the Stars section, reading 3 chapters: The Fate of Massive Stars, The Degenerate Remnants of Stars, and General Relativity and Black Holes. The general relativity stuff is necessary to discuss black holes, but it did feel a bit out of place at first and I had to check back to make sure I was still in the Stars section! These are really fascinating topics, getting into some of the extremes of nature that are on the edge of the field today. My first class this upcoming quarter is going to be on stars and I am really looking forward to it!

I also made some progress through Mathematical Methods and the diff eqs chapters. I finished the chapter on series solutions of ODEs and made it through the chapter on eigenfunction methods for differential equations. To be honest, I am feeling like this is going over my head at this point, but I am trying not to let it upset me. Sitting at home with a pencil and piece of paper and the calculator on my phone trying to work through Bessel’s equation and Legendre’s equation isn’t exactly the best test of my mathematical abilities. I am just focusing on reading through the material now and trying to follow the authors’ arguments as best I can.

I didn’t do much coding over the past couple weeks. I worked through the chapter about errors and accuracy, but that was pretty short and was mostly just about some practical issues and not really new coding. But I am feeling pretty comfortable with Python now, so I hope that I can work with it as needed and continue to learn (and perhaps learn more languages if needed).

In the next couple weeks, I plan to continue to work through Mathematical Methods and An Introduction to Modern Astrophysics. I don’t know if I’ll finish, but just do what I can. I also intend to get more into some of the info that my advisor has sent me about the project I anticipate working on.

Today I Don’t Feel Like Doing Anything

So, here we are, another week closer to my start date and another week of lackluster productivity. Last week I was visiting my boyfriend and, although I brought all my study materials, I didn’t get a lot done. I planned to get back to it this week but…the best laid plans of mice and men, I suppose. I had 10 study assignments planned and I only got through 4. Of course I am still hoping to hit some more this weekend but getting through all 10 seems unrealistic. But no use in being hard on myself! I’m still enjoying the studying, I just have a lot of other things on my plate and I think I am trying to savor this vacation/free time as I know it will be gone soon! So I am going to appreciate all the things I did get done (a 2000 piece puzzle and some freelance writing and fiction editing and over 10,000 steps a day!) and the free time I’ve had (hello, bingeing on Insecure and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and re-reading Wheel of Time for the fourth time). Plus I did do some studying! So what did I actually get to?

I read two chapters in Bob, both still in “The Nature of Stars” section. These two were Main Sequence and Post-Main-Sequence Stellar Evolution and Stellar Pulsation. Super interesting! I also found out that Stars will be one of the first classes I take in grad school, so it’s nice to be brushing up on it now. The chapter on MS and post-MS was super long but full of so much good information. I also appreciated the timing of the chapter on pulsation because it actually ties into a video that I am planning on recording soon (today, maybe?). Overall, I am about 40% through the textbook, so I need to pick up the pace a little if I want to get through it all.

On the math side, I continued my work on differential equations. This is a big topic (6 chapters of the text), so I’ll probably be on it for a bit! I moved on from first order ODEs to cover higher order ODEs and started on series solutions for ODEs. Not going to lie, there was some tough going in there, mostly in recognizing which method will work to solve an equation. Not always easy, but satisfying to be able to work them out.

Lastly, I did get a bit of a chance to continue working on my physics Python. I completed the chapter on graphics, including a pretty sweet rendition of the Mandelbrot set (which only required the tiniest bit of help from Stack Overflow). I started the next section on accuracy and error, which is a little less exciting than making rotating 3D graphics, but definitely very vital when doing calculations and data processing using Python.

So, that’s where I’m at! Totally not freaking out about next month. Not at all. Just enjoying life! Okay, maybe a leeeeetle of column A, little of column B!

We Are All Born Superstars

Happy Monday! It’s thundering and raining up a storm here, so I’m pacing around the bottom floor of my apartment to try to get my steps for the day. Exciting stuff, what can I say.

Speaking of exciting stuff, today I got to practice differential equations! No, that’s not sarcasm, I actually really enjoy solving differential equations. It reminds me of the time I went to summer school in college. I took Diff Eqs so that I could free up some space in my academic year schedule (to take classes not at all required—yep, I have always been a huge nerd). I was still a fresh-faced third class midshipman, excited about not being a plebe anymore (the new class of plebes (Class of 2010, jeez I’m old) were there and calling me “ma’am” when they ran by me, which was…strange, to say the least), and loving getting to spend my time chilling and doing math. I gave up my summer leave to do so and never regretted it.

In any case, reminiscing aside, there’s just something very satisfying about it. Identifying the best way to solve it, doing some algebra, then some calculus, and somehow ending up with a solution. Quite good. Today’s chapter was limited to first-order ordinary differential equations, aka the easy ones.

On the astrophysics side, I continued my journey through stellar astrophysics to learn about protostars, star formation, and pre-main-sequence evolution. This was an interesting topic, and I liked how the book layered on the complexity. Start considering only gravity, then add gas pressure, then add magnetism…now you’re cooking with gas! There’s a whole host of interesting complications to consider, and the text frequently mentioned that it was an active area of research. Which makes me wonder what the status of it is now, 11 years later! I may have to do some digging just to say.

It was a good day for studying here, even if I did lag a little bit and not finish until 10 PM.

Playing Catch Up

I haven’t updated all week! But not because I haven’t been studying, dear readers. Never that! It’s just that I fell behind rather early on this week (Tuesday), and I kept telling myself I’d post when I caught up. But then I never caught up. At least, not until today! Had to devote some of my “weekend” time (as if I don’t have enough free time right now, but it’s nice to have designated days that I don’t stress myself out as much—plus I usually use the extra time for writing) to studying, but I finished my self-assigned studies for the week!

It was quite an interesting week, really. The Bob material ramped up really quickly and got very tough, but it’s all fascinating. I continued the section on stars, and I covered 4 chapters: The Classification of Stellar Spectra, Stellar Atmospheres, The Interiors of Stars, and The Sun. The chapter on atmospheres was a doozy and the one that got me behind on Tuesday. Really, these chapters had everything. Complicated math, analytical solutions, numerical solutions, searing temperatures, nuclear fusion. Super cool stuff. The proton-proton chains! I forgot that in astrophysics we just call everything that isn’t hydrogen or helium “metals”. Oxygen, carbon, nitrogen—all metals!

Speaking of complicated math, I had a couple chapters in Mathematical Methods this week as well. They covered Fourier series and integral transformations (primarily Fourier transforms, but also Laplace transforms). For some reason I was intimidated by the faint memory of Fourier series, but it actually ended up being relatively straightforward. I was able to follow along and work out the examples, and I only swore a couple times. Definitely useful material to review.

As if that weren’t enough, I also hit the Computation Physics book this week as well. I’m about halfway through the third chapter, which deals with graphing. This is totally new for me, as this type of visual coding wasn’t covered by Codecademy at all. It’s not super difficult, but the results are pretty awesome. I wrote a program in only a few lines that shows a diffraction pattern of circular waves! This type of thing is going to be super important for me in my research (I expect), so I’m glad to be getting a taste of it now. I’m starting to feel pretty comfortable in Python. I know it can (and will!) get a lot more complicated, but I’ve got the basics down well enough to be able to tackle the more complicated stuff.

So, all in all, it was a productive week for me! Now I shall take my shortened weekend and begin again on Monday. &9786;