Sunday, November 25, 2012

On Productivity in Grad School

I was recently invited to be on a panel about being productive in graduate school.  This invitation surprised and flattered me.  I do not consider myself to be particularly productive as a graduate student: there are graduate students who have far higher-volume research output and/or greater publication count.  I also don't follow the productivity rules: I don't always remember to track my progress; I don't have a great way of organizing papers I read; I often work on what most catches my attention.  And I spend a good deal of time doing things that are not my research.

That said, I seem to be getting by decently well.  I am happy with the work I have been doing and my papers are in good venues.  When I am in a serious thinking or building mode, itemized goals are not always necessary.  Sure, being more organized about papers would help, but for many topics I am interested in I can give you a short bibliography off the top of my head.  High-level goals usually keep me focused and deadlines can make certain tasks seem pretty damn interesting.  Outside of research, I co-founded Graduate Women at MIT in 2009; we now have over 50 planning committee members running programs serving our over 1200 mailing list members.  This has taught me enormously useful lessons about collaborating with peers, managing people, and managing my time.  The time I spend traveling, doing yoga, and enjoying life with friends also contributes to my happiness and creativity.

Reflecting upon this, I realized that productivity looks different for everyone.  Unlike many people I consider productive, I find it difficult to make myself work.  If I want to work, nothing can stop me; if I don't want to work, then I am better off waiting until I want to work.  To want to work, I need to feel like I am working on something meaningful: technically interesting to me and potentially impactful to the world.  I also refuse to sacrifice a certain quality of life in favor of work: if some end goal requires me to work harder than I would like, then that goal is not for me.

For me, learning how to be productive was about understanding how to harness my motivation and focus it towards productive endeavors.  Below I elaborate on my "top five" strategies that I was asked to discuss at the panel.
  1. Figure out what drives you.  When I am uninspired, I can spend weeks pretty much running in place.  When I am inspired, it is scary what I can do in even one hour.  If you have experienced this, you will agree that the difference between inspired effort and uninspired effort is immense.  Some people are driven by a desire to understand something, others are driven by a desire to create something, and yet others are driven by more abstract goals: a desire to be influential; a desire to be "successful."  Many people are driven by imminent deadlines.  Knowing what you are going after and why you are doing it will make it easier to find those moments.
  2. Stay away from rat races.  Being in a position where you are constantly measuring yourself up to other people is exhausting and, in my opinion, inefficient.  Find your niche; make yourself irreplaceable.  This will give you the freedom to come up with ideas and work at a more leisurely pace.  Discover what topics and groups of people you have the most mutual "chemistry" with.  Figure out what you have that nobody else has--this can be a skill set or a deep interest in some topic.
  3. Learn the rules of the game.  Invest time in figuring out what matters, what doesn't matter, and the relative mileage about different things you can do to achieve your goals.  For instance, I have also been told that your top three papers matter more than how many papers you have.  I have also become increasingly aware of the importance of publicizing work via talks and personal meetings.  I now spend up to one month preparing a talk; if you told me as a young graduate student I would later be doing this, I would have found it preposterous. 
  4. Optimize your environment.  Take time to configure your programming environment, your bibliography collection tools, your way of recording ideas/research notes, etc.  Surround yourself with smart and productive people who motivate you to do good work.  Know the people in your network--a quick e-mail to an expert in a subarea can quickly point you to the most relevant reference materials, saving you days of paper-reading.  Similarly, being in an environment where you are discussing your ideas with peers you respect will make it easier to do innovative research.
  5. Take care of your body and mind.  Learn how to hack your body; one hour of work when you are on top of your game can be equivalent to hours of less high-quality work.  Eating, exercising, sleeping, taking breaks, spending time with friends, and meditating are the solutions to most problems.
A caveat is that this advice is best-suited for those similar to me: workaholics who prefer doing to thinking.  And of course, who knows how good this advice is, as I have yet to really prove myself.  As my own productivity is a work in progress, I welcome what advice you may have.

Related reading:  For those of you who struggle with traditional productivity advice, Structured Procrastination is a nice essay.


Shrutarshi Basu said...

I'd like to contrast #1 with William Faulkner's idea about inspiration (when applied to writing): "I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o'clock every morning."

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