Painlessly Managing Your Workload

2. October 2014

Arti Agrawal


I felt like I had spent the whole summer working without a vacation, and still my to-do list seemed endless. After spending a few days feeling frustrated and stressed at my lack of progress, I started reading up on how people manage to get it all done. It turns out there are a few tricks for managing your workload that I found very useful:


Take baby steps. When faced with a large task, I used to try to find a big block of continuous time to complete it. It was a challenge to block out such long slots in my schedule. Even when I managed to find the time, after a few hours I would get tired and lose concentration. This made the task take longer and caused me more stress. A better technique is to plan to do a smaller portion every day, and assign multiple sessions to the task. That way, you’ll come to your work with fresh eyes and operate at peak efficiency each time. Tasks get done faster with less mental pain!


Figure out your prime working hours. I find that if I work late into the night, I make more mistakes and wake up tired and cranky, so there isn’t much point in imitating my night owl colleagues. For me, the best time to work is immediately after I wake up, when I feel the most refreshed and focused. Figure out when you can concentrate best and do the most difficult or important work at that time.


“Open the file.” Sometimes I simply cannot motivate myself to complete an unwanted or boring task, so I procrastinate too long and get into trouble. Often, the hardest part is just getting started. This approach aims to address the problem. The idea is that if you get yourself to metaphorically “open the file” and jump into the project, you tend to work on it. Before you know it, you’ve made some progress.


Stop firefighting. I found that I was constantly dealing with tasks marked “urgent” and could not get anything done on other projects that were important to me. Color-coded, prioritized lists and turning off my email helped somewhat, but I needed more. To that end, I found the Eisenhower Decision matrix really useful. It helped me learn to prevent long-term projects from reaching the “urgent” state, and focus on what really mattered to me. It introduced an element of strategic thinking into my planning process.


Take a walk. Sometime the stress from work or other tasks can seem overwhelming. It becomes difficult to find energy and motivation, every task seems harder than it should and even ideas for research seem to dry up. You need inspiration and fresh air! Timely breaks, especially those spent walking or exercising outside, can wake your brain and freshen your mind. It helps calm the nerves and sparks creativity.


Arti Agrawal (arti_agrawal@hotmail.com) is a lecturer at City University London, U.K., in the department of electrical, electronic and information engineering at the School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. To follow her blog, visit http://artiagrawal.wordpress.com.

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How to Use Your Business Card

21. July 2014

Arti Agrawal

“Here’s my card.” How often is this sentence uttered at conferences, meetings and other networking events? The ubiquitous business card is a marvelous thing, and its repertoire of functions is expanding beyond just providing your basic contact information.
 
Make an impression.
The first time I saw a card with a long string of letters after the name, I was bemused. What do all of those acronyms mean? Why are they included? That’s when I realized that this rectangular piece of paper can be more than a convenient way to give someone your email address. Increasingly, business cards are becoming miniature CVs: some cards list every degree the person has acquired (and perhaps even where they were earned) and all of their professional affiliations.
 
When you state on your business card that you are a member or fellow of a professional organization, or are chartered in your profession, you relate key achievements, abilities and your professional standing to the reader. You are starting to sell yourself before you give someone a full CV. Presenting someone with your card is a way to both inform and impress, and including some additional details can help you stand out from the get-go.
 
Strike the right balance.
But how much additional information about your qualifications is appropriate to include on your card? Is this the proper context for telling people where you did your undergraduate degree many moons ago, or to which institutions you pay a yearly membership fee? It’s important to strike a balance between providing the a few key details to catch the right person’s eye, and inundating readers with unnecessary and possibly incomprehensible information. Do some research on what is standard in your profession, and look at the card carefully to be sure that it’s not difficult to read. Regardless of what you decide to include, the card should be simple and easy to decipher.
 
Be careful with acronyms.
Certain acronyms and abbreviations can provide valuable information for those in a specific field, but for others, they can be befuddling. For example, within the U.K. physics community, “FInstP” signifies being a Fellow of the Institute of Physics. But to someone outside of the country or the field, it might make no sense at all. Listing “SMOSA” on a card may lead some readers to think of the fried Indian snack of samosas, but the intention is to state that the card owner is quite distinguished and is a Senior Member of the Optical Society! Choose your acronyms with care, and be ready to explain them.
 
A card can’t convey context, so you can’t depend on it alone to get your message across. However, when used correctly, a business card can provide a valuable snapshot of your professional life. Use your card to grab someone’s attention, and then follow up by filling in the details.
 
Arti Agrawal (arti_agrawal@hotmail.com) is a lecturer at City University London, U.K., in the department of electrical, electronic and information engineering at the School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. To follow her blog, visit http://artiagrawal.wordpress.com.

 

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Finding Meaning in Your Ph.D. Research

25. February 2014
Arti Agrawal

I recently interviewed a Ph.D. candidate, and it brought back memories of my own graduate student days. In particular, it got me thinking about the times when I struggled to define exactly why getting my degree was important and what I was accomplishing.

Like most science students, I learned about the big, earthshattering developments in various fields while getting my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. It was exciting and inspiring to study key theories in physics and the critical advances that were made by people like Gauss, Newton, Feynman, Planck, Boltzmann and many others.

When I started my doctoral work, I was fresh-faced, eager and ready to make my own mark. I hoped to contribute something big to Science, with a capital S. I wanted to accomplish something like the achievements I had studied in class all those years, and add my name to the list of distinguished scientists taught in classrooms.

But as I proceeded with my research, things didn’t quite work out that way. Scientific accomplishment stopped seeming so simple. The work that you do when completing a Ph.D. is so narrow and focused that you begin to wonder where it fits into the big picture. What is the value of this small piece of work? How will it ever measure up against the really important developments written about in textbooks?

It takes time to realize that the advances we learned about were made over long periods of time and represent the work of many people. Science often advances in small increments, with lots of different discoveries added together to make a whole. Each scientist involved becomes a worthy contributor to the bigger picture. Some make larger contributions than others, and may become famous. That does not detract from the work of others, or the sheer joy that everyone can derive from research.

Once you come to terms with this and begin to understand where you fit in the larger scheme of things, it helps! At least it helped me find peace in my heart, pride in my work and the motivation to keep improving. Even though it may sometimes feel like it, your efforts are not useless. You are part of a larger scientific community, working together to make progress toward common goals.

Arti Agrawal (arti_agrawal@hotmail.com) is a lecturer at City University London in the department of electrical, electronic and information engineering at the School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. To follow her personal blog, visit http://artiagrawal.wordpress.com.

 

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Writing Up a (Scientific) Storm

30. July 2013

Arti Agrawal

As a Ph.D. student, I was exposed to only two kinds of science writing: textbooks and journal articles. When our work reached a sufficiently advanced stage, we wrote our own papers and submitted them to journals. I still remember the excitement of submitting my first paper—and the disappointment of my first rejection. My energy and attention, like those of other graduate students I knew, were focused on research. Writing about our work was a bit of a chore.

However, since that time my perception of writing in science has changed dramatically. Today, I see it as a creative process almost on par with research. Writing should be an enjoyable process of content creation that allows you to present your research in an effective manner and express your individual style.

Not only can writing be personally fulfilling, it’s also professionally important. Doing good science is fantastic, but if that work does not reach other people, then much of our purpose remains unachieved. Having well-written papers can help get you published—which can be critical to progressing in your career. Increasingly, employers are also looking for examples of less technical writing skills. Writing does not have to be a hardship—you just have to start thinking about the task in a new way.

Consider writing a blog. The potential outlets for your work are more varied than ever before. For example, a blog (such as OSA’s blog, this career blog, or my own blog) is a great way to communicate more informally about topics in science. This format gives you a lot of freedom in choosing the subject matter, technical level and content type of your posts. You can express opinions on other people’s work, policy and current issues in science.

Take advantage of new opportunities in traditional publications. Science magazines such as OPN allow for more creative writing than peer-review journals do. They include letters to the editor, reviews, opinions and interviews. Even with journals, the ability to upload supplementary data, videos and other multimedia means we can be quite innovative in how we engage others with our work. Papers no longer need to be collections of static graphs and text.

Utilize social media. By using social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, we can target information to specific people or to large groups. On Twitter, we can draw attention to a piece of work by using just 140 characters. Online availability of content means we can open a window and speak to the whole world—an exciting development! What you write today can be read all over the world in a way that wasn’t possible just a decade ago.

These days, I miss writing if I don’t do it every so often—something I never would have imagined. In fact, I like it so much that I co-wrote an entire book! The more you write, the easier it gets, so take advantage of every opportunity and seek out new ways to practice your skills.

Arti Agrawal (arti_agrawal@hotmail.com) is a lecturer at City University London in the department of electrical, electronic and information engineering at the School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. To follow her personal blog, visit http://artiagrawal.wordpress.com.

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Looking into the Career “Crystal Ball”

2. May 2013

Arti Agrawal  

Throughout our professional lives, we ask ourselves many questions: When and how will I get my dream job? Will I be as successful as I hope to be? Why haven’t I been promoted? Is my job secure? Although it may seem that only a fortune teller can provide answers, this isn’t actually the case.                             

I recently took an online class on strategic thinking, and it struck me that we’re probably asking the wrong questions. Rather than focusing on big, abstract ideas, we should be thinking about specifics that we can control. Below are some factors to consider when you are attempting to predict your career future. 

What are the goals of my institution, and how does my work contribute to them?

Demonstrating that you understand the long-term vision of your organization increases your job security and chances of promotion. For example, my university is currently making strategic changes. I need to be aware of where the organization is headed and figure out how my work fits into our new goals. If I can demonstrate this awareness to my department head, then I become a more integral part of the future of the organization.

What are the trends in the sector that I work in, and is my organization keeping up?

It is important to be aware of the state of your field, and how your organization is doing in the current environment. Are there new opportunities that you can take advantage of, or areas that your department could improve upon? You should be honest with yourself if you don’t like what you see. If your area of research is shrinking and funding is scarce, is this really where you want to be?

Am I prepared to adapt to change?

Consider the example of digital cameras: They completely changed the way we take pictures, and now almost no one uses film cameras. Could something similar happen to me? My expertise is in numerical modeling methods. Before the advent of commercial software, modeling was the domain of experts. Today, this is not the case—people don’t always need extensive training or experience with modeling methods to simulate devices. What does that indicate for my future? How should I deal with this change and ensure that my skills remain relevant?

Why me?

Even for a position for which my expertise will be very useful, I have to make the case for myself. Why pick me? Amongst the many applicants for this position, what makes me special?

These questions still require a lot of thought, but with some research, it is possible to come up with concrete answers that will help keep your career on track.

There are a number of tools that can help guide your thinking. The website mindtools has a very good collection of helpful resources (some of my favorites are the TOWS matrix, Core Competence Analysis, USP analysis and Scenario Analysis). There is also some fascinating reading to be found in The Economist and the Harvard Business Review.

I guess this means some homework for me—and maybe for you too!

Arti Agrawal (arti_agrawal@hotmail.com) is a lecturer at City University London in the department of electrical, electronic and information engineering at the School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. To follow her personal blog, visit http://artiagrawal.wordpress.com

 

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The Value of 360-Degree Networking

27. March 2013

Arti Agrawal

At conferences, well-known scientists and speakers are often surrounded by a group of eager attendees. Those who are perceived as powerful (directors of research centers, heads of departments, presidents of organizations and so forth) are in very high demand, because it is desirable to have an influential person in one’s network. People want to ask more about their work, get their opinions or advice, ask them for jobs, etc. There are numerous reasons why it is useful to make such connections.

We all attempt to create networks that will benefit us professionally, and good networking skills are highly prized (see my blog post: The Networking Connection). To this end, we diligently try to meet people whom we see as potentially useful. Generally, this means seeking out individuals who are well-placed or higher up in the hierarchy than oneself.

I wonder, though, if sometimes we miss half of the picture?

Naturally, we look to those at a more advanced stage of their careers to find mentors and sponsors. But for sustained progress, we need more than just these associations. I believe that we must network with our peers and those who are junior to us as well.

We generally consider our contemporaries to be on the same level as us, and so we may not think of them as valuable contacts. But instead of ignoring these people or seeing them as competitors, we should view them as potential collaborators and partners. With that perspective, we can build strong, supportive relationships that help us throughout our careers. The parallel growth of an entire generation produces the leaders for the future. It’s important to know the person who may head the company of your competitor or supplier, or help you recruit the best talent for your business, or work with you on the best research paper of your life.

It’s also critical to cultivate relationships with those on the lower rungs of the proverbial “career ladder.” These are the people who will still be working when we approach retirement. Although they are are the youngest faces in our teams now, they are our future! I think that it is eminently sensible to support and mentor them as we have been (or wanted to be), and to treat them as valuable colleagues and friends. The most wonderful thing that younger people offer is a fresh and unique outlook. That’s why I really enjoy meeting students at conferences (although I am not yet ready to think of myself as “old”).

Setting aside any career advantage, connecting with folks of all ages and career stages will enhance your life with new perspectives and friendships. Simply put, the best way to network is to realize the value of people, and not just the positions they occupy.

Arti Agrawal (arti_agrawal@hotmail.com) is a lecturer at City University London in the department of electrical, electronic and information engineering at the School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. To follow her personal blog, visit http://artiagrawal.wordpress.com. 

 

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What They Don’t Teach You in Graduate School

3. January 2013

Arti Agrawal   

I learned a lot in graduate school: science, research, patience, and technical writing skills, among many other things. So when I took my first position as a lecturer, I thought that my grad school training and subsequent experience as a post-doc had prepared me for professional life as an academic.

Boy, was I wrong!  Many skills that I need in my current job were not taught in school, and sometimes I am blindsided when professional life rudely makes demands on me that weren’t part of my carefully scripted student career. Below are some abilities that I have learned in the workplace.

Persuading and negotiating with people: I must often deal with people in positions of authority to obtain necessities like lab space or funds for equipment, conferences, training courses, or publishing in open access journals. There are limited resources, and the people holding the purse strings are besieged with demands from many others like us, so it’s important to know how to get what you need. Start by prioritizing your wish list into must-have, nice-to-have, and don’t-need-right-now items so that you can focus your energy and efforts accordingly.

Developing good work relationships: You will interact with colleagues, students, peers, superiors, suppliers, vendors and administrative staff, and it can be difficult to maintain these relationships successfully. As a typical geek, I had no idea how to manage working relationships, especially with people who were very different from me. Sometimes taking personality tests like the Meyers-Briggs can help you to better understand yourself and others. You can also get a head start on cultivating working relationships by taking on volunteer leadership opportunities such as organizing an IONS conference  or leading a student chapter—or simply networking within a professional society.

Managing my lab: When I began hiring people, I suddenly needed to understand legal requirements for equality and diversity, health and safety, and risk assessment. I also had to determine how to evaluate my staff. You can find much information online about hiring laws in your area, and my recent OPN article on “Learning to Teach” includes some ideas on how to think through student assessment.

Balancing more than one demanding job: As a post-doc, I would work on several research projects at once and even throw in a bit of teaching on the side—which felt overwhelming enough. But now added to the mix were administrative work, department meetings, lab management, securing funding, reviewing papers and supervising post-docs. Learning how to organize and prioritize is critical.

Saying no without offending: I find it hard to say no to people, and, as a result, I often take on more than I can handle. Although it can sometimes be difficult, it’s important to learn how to deal with such situations and say no without causing hurt or offense. Just be friendly but assertive about what you can and cannot realistically do. You must be able to set healthy boundaries in order to succeed in any relationship, whether personal or professional.

Indeed, these skills are not confined to any single profession–we need them in every sphere of life. Although they may not be part of any formal curriculum, you can learn them through experience and practice. Good luck!

Arti Agrawal (arti_agrawal@hotmail.com) is a lecturer at City University London in the department of electrical, electronic and information engineering at the School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. To follow her personal blog, visit http://artiagrawal.wordpress.com.

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Should You Follow the Science Fashion of the Day?

5. October 2012

Arti Agrawal

I want that gorgeous Chanel bag. I do!

Is there any logic behind it? While I’m not sure what’s behind my urge, I suspect that Chanel has it down to a science (and art)!

Surely the fashions sold to us are not merely the unfettered creative output of talented designers? I believe there is plenty of science behind how trends change and how new products are introduced to the market. As this blog post from IonPsych explains, designers may even draw on optical illusions to create clothes that help elongate the body or emphasize flattering aspects of a person’s figure.

So if fashion follows science, does science follow fashion?

After all, we’ve all seen that certain “hot topics” in science often crop up that attract the attention of policy-makers, grant-giving bodies, journal editors and reviewers. And the work done in these areas tends to get more funding, publications and attention than that in less “fashionable” ones.

The advantages of channelling resources into trendy areas is that it allows us to rapidly develop technology in strategically important areas and to realize a quick potential return to taxpayers, investors, industry and the public. With limited funding resources, it is essential to have a method of prioritizing.

On the other hand, some areas can get over-funded at the expense of other deserving options. Trendy science can cause us to neglect promising potential developments and restrict creativity and diversity in thought.

Science is frustratingly enigmatic: We can't always predict which seemingly obscure development or outlandish piece of research will lead to a fantastic new technology or product that changes our lives. Nor can we be sure that the hot area that many work on will deliver the goods on schedule.

This fickle quality is what makes science so exciting to work in. You can’t really know what the work of today will create for tomorrow.

Take photonics for example. It has many applications and is often thought of as an enabling technology. In my view, the current trend is largely to focus on experimental work. Theoretical ideas are sometimes regarded with a jaundiced eye in the peer review process: If you can't or haven’t fabricated a prototype or demonstrated your predictions, reviewers and editors cannot be easily convinced about the potential of the idea.

But look at how the laser came to be. The principle behind this transformative technology was published years before the first prototype was demonstrated. Today lasers are everywhere: in our printers, DVD reader/writers, medical equipment, industrial equipment. It is nice to see that Charles Townes, whose early work led to the laser, was recently recognized for taking risks when he received a “Golden Goose award,” which was intended to highlight how federally funded research that once seemed pointless can ultimately transform society.

Would this wonderful idea have survived the peer review of today?

Another example is that of left-handed or negative index materials. The concept of a negative refractive index was predicted by Veselago in the 1960s when no experimental verification of the concept was possible: Fabrication was not feasible with the technology of the day, and no known examples existed in the natural world.

Yet the work was published. Moreover, since the 1990s, it has led to a huge research effort globally. By now, everyone has heard of metamaterials! Whether these exotic materials will give us the breakthroughs that researchers expect remains to be seen.

And so I feel we need to encourage a more balanced perspective—and resource allocation—and not lean too heavily in any one direction, lest we ignore incredible ideas that can transform science.

Arti Agrawal (arti_agrawal@hotmail.com) is a lecturer at City University London in the School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. To follow her personal blog, visit http://artiagrawal.wordpress.com.

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