Creating a post-conference action plan

Last week was my first opportunity to participate in a technical meeting during my PhD program and I took the opportunity to maximize learning by modifying my conference-goer plan of attack.

I usually plan ahead for conferences. I like to review the program in detail and highlight key sessions that I plan to attend and search for key people who could become future collaborators or mentors. In between technical sessions, I fill my schedule with social and networking events to meet new colleagues and spend time with friends and peers. However, once the event concludes, I often dive back into old to-do lists and quickly revert to established habits without making time to cultivate the new ideas, ways of working, and relationships that germinated during the conference.

Creating a post-conference action plan is one way to help digest the dense content presented during the conference program and follow up on potential collaborations with new partners. The list below includes prompts and ideas on how to develop your own post-conference action plan with a focus on reflection and implementation of key ideas and learnings.

  1. Write a short stream-of-consciousness paragraph about the event. Include the name, location, description of the program, sessions and workshops attended, and connections with new colleagues. This will help refresh your memory after an information-heavy event.
  2. List a few bullet points that summarize the key learnings and ideas from the sessions most relevant to your research or about the speakers who presented thought-provoking material.
  3. Review your conference notes and make a list of ideas that you would like to follow up on. This could include trying a new method, searching for a cited reference, or following up on an offer to collaborate. Sort your list into technical, project management, engagement and outreach, professional development, and collaboration categories.
  4. Select a few action items to implement and tell someone about it! Including a post-conference action item in your personal development plan will encourage accountability and increase the likelihood of following through.

It took me about one hour to review my conference notes, write a reflective statement, and compile a list of eight actions across the five categories listed in bullet three. This approach could also be scaled to longer and shorter opportunities. You could repeat the exercise weekly during an intensive field school or a long field season or take five minutes to write a follow-up action on a sticky note after a lunch talk. This should be a personalized experience – engaging in the reflective thought process will look different for each individual. After you organize your thoughts and reflect on your experience, solidify your learning with a concrete commitment to implement something new.

© SF Jones, 2017

Read! (something not related to your thesis)

Reading is one of my favourite ways to relax. Anytime. Anywhere. Snuggled up with a novel on a rainy day, deciphering poetry and discussing with friends, or brushing up on local history and culture while travelling. I remember the feeling of joy after completing my master’s and picking up a book that was not related to my thesis. I was going to get to read again… for fun! Looking back, I’m sorry that I didn’t make more time for reading during my program and this time around, I have made a promise to myself to keep reading even if it’s just a little bit here and there.

Here are my top three tips for graduate students on finding the time to read something different.

Indulge in a warm-up read.

Mornings are my favourite time in the lab. I arrive early, grab a coffee, put on some music, and sit down to organize my day. Before diving into heavy, technical papers, I like to start with what I call a warm-up read. Warm-up reads are short, light on jargon, have nice figures, and discuss the big picture – think Nature or Science papers. I like to get inspiration for my warm-up reading list from table of contents email alerts or by looking through the reference lists of articles that I have found useful or enjoyed. Warm-up reads are perfect when you want to take a step back from your research, but not too far back. You can pick something generally related to your field, which will lessen any guilt about working on something else. After starting your day with something fun you will feel like you have already accomplished something and your brain will feel ready and motivated to take on more detailed and challenging tasks.

Help yourself.

I absolutely love self-help books and I encourage everyone to give this genre a shot. I have amassed a small library of books on technical writing, research methods, and graduate school and they are full of ideas on how to improve as a student, scientist, and individual. I wish that I had discovered this treasure trove of reference material earlier. Some of my favourites are The Craft of Research, A PhD is not enough!, and PhD – an uncommon guide to research, writing, and PhD life. Many self-help and reference books do not have to be read linearly, you can pick and choose what sections you are interested in and treat chapters like mini-modules. This means that the time commitment for these books is relatively low. I like to borrow new books from the library to see if they are something I will use before purchasing my own copy. Reading resource books is a great way to learn something new or different, while still gaining knowledge that you can apply to your thesis or professional life.

Carry a novel with you.

Keeping a novel in your backpack is a great way to capitalize on surprise reading opportunities. Instead of playing with your phone or wasting time on social media, use your time riding transit or waiting in line at student services to read something fun. I always have a fiction book on the go, even if it takes me months to get through. And because you are tied up somewhere away from work anyway, there is no guilt for spending time indulging in reading for pleasure.

Reading exercises the creative parts of my brain. It keeps me happy and makes me a better person and scientist. And if you still need another reason to pick up a book, remember that good writers are also good readers. The more you read, the better your writing will become – and good writing is essential for successfully completing graduate school.

Reading list

Booth, W. C., Colomb, G. G., Williams, J. M., Bizup, J., and Fitzgerald, W. T. (2016) The craft of research, fourth edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 316 pp.

Feibelman, P. J. (2011) A PhD is not enough! A guide to survival in science. New York: Basic Books, 144 pp.

Hayton, J. (2015) PhD – an uncommon guide to research, writing, and PhD life. USA: James Hayton PhD, 209 pp.

© SF Jones, 2017

Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Procrastinator

Dream sequence

The candle on the center of the bistro table tosses shadows across the crisp linens. The host tips the delicate goose neck of the decanter, filling my glass with a deep and distinguished red Bordeaux.

“What are you celebrating this evening?” he asks.

I raise my drink in a solitary toast.

“I finally turned the isotope analyzer on.”

The equipment seems straightforward and user-friendly, so why the long wait? There were lots of reasons. Some of them good. I’ll wait until my teaching responsibilities conclude for the term, until the lab clears out a bit and there is more working space, until I receive an updated manual, until I am back from the long weekend, and so on. To be fair, I did need some coaching to get things going since I am exploring new territory and am working with new lab equipment and processes. On top of that, I am not a tinkerer. I can build a mean IKEA bookshelf, but I don’t know the proper names and types of tools or how to improvise and create MacGyver-style contraptions that will automate my PhD. And although taking accountability for a component of the lab is an exciting responsibility, it is also intimidating.

I am an average procrastinator, according to the procrastination survey at Procrastination and Science (n.d.). This is not a surprise and may actually be a bit too gentle of a description. I like to avoid discomfort and tend to put off tasks that involve perceived risk, like the possibility of making a costly mistake or compromising my personal safety. At times, the fear of messing up can be paralyzing, preventing me from making progress or decisions. Ironically, the act of procrastinating often causes more stress than the actual task, as I agonize over the decision I plan to make tomorrow instead of taking action and just getting it over with.

Inspired by a graduate student workshop on procrastination, I established an Eisenhower Matrix – a living task list that I periodically update with upcoming deadlines and milestones complete with categorizations of importance and urgency. It is a useful place to start when I am feeling disorganized or overwhelmed. A quick review allows me to ground myself and clearly define the minimum amount of work that needs to be done, the nice-to-haves that would enhance my work, and the activities that can be dropped from my plate with little consequence.

So what about writing posts for this blog? Shouldn’t I be doing something else right now? Although in general, maintaining a blog is an extra indulgence and isn’t urgent, my goal of posting a few times a month comes with a small sense of self-imposed urgency. Particularly if I want to build a following and keep readers interested. And spending time reflecting on my student experience definitely isn’t time wasted. I wish that I started engaging in regular self-reflection earlier as a way to learn and continuously improve as a student, professional, and individual. So like other self-care activities, taking time to write outside of my research project will continue to reside in the non-urgent, but important, quadrant of my matrix as I continue to balance my daily demands with a few fun extras.

Resources:
Learn more about the Eisenhower Matrix:
Eisenhower (2017) http://www.eisenhower.me/. Accessed on May 18, 2017.

Learn more about procrastination:
Procrastination and Science (n.d.). https://procrastinus.com/. Accessed on May 18, 2017.

© SF Jones, 2017

The new you (with new boundaries)

It’s rare to be offered an opportunity to completely reinvent yourself. Over the last few years my professional self has experimented with making changes to improve efficiency and well-being. Unfortunately, most of my changes were short-lived. It’s hard to turn over a new leaf when everyone around you still expects the old one. Generating buy-in from colleagues and supervisors can be a challenge and in almost every circumstance, I surrendered to my old habits and abandoned my plan. Starting a new degree can be an opportunity to redefine your professional image and establish balance and boundaries within a new community.

Virtual ways of working have introduced new dimensions of flexibility into the workday. Technology allows many employees and students to work from remote locations, while still maintaining collaborative relationships with colleagues. Flexibility can also promote peer collaboration on a local scale. For example you could change your cluster of neighbours depending on who you need to work with on a particular day or during a particular project. A few years ago, I had a lightbulb moment while working in this type of environment. I noticed a correlation between visibility and volume of spontaneous work requests. Being visible meant being included – a huge benefit when working on projects that require collaboration. But being included in every discussion can also be disruptive, especially when you are included because you just happen to be there rather than because you have something unique to contribute.

Technology has also contributed to a culture of immediate response. Depending on the communication tool being used, we often know when a recipient has read a message – another form of visibility. And we get impatient when we know that someone has looked at a communication, but hasn’t responded. For me, deciding how and when to respond to digital and face-to-face requests is a boundary issue. It can be hard to institute new habits when you have already established a pattern of answering emails over the weekend or giving tutorials during your lunch break.

During an impactful career counselling session I remember being asked – what does a fresh start look like? The beginning of a new academic program, perhaps at a new institution or in a new city, is an opportunity to implement your wish list. Looking back at my master’s program, I regret that I didn’t make more of an effort to become part of the graduate student community. I wish that I maintained a more organized file structure and that I spent more time writing at the front end of my program. I have a long list of items that I would change if I could do it all over again.

Leveraging these regrets is a smart way to get started with a new challenge. Will I maintain regular working hours or adopt a flexible schedule? How will I network within the Department and the greater University community? What quality of work will I turn in? How much is good enough? What type of teaching assistant do I want to be? Will I answer emails on evenings and weekends? Or reserve that time for family? What do I think I could have done better in the past to promote happiness and well-being? And it isn’t just about the negative – what did I do well that I want to repeat or prioritize?

A new graduate program will be full of new teachers, mentors, and connections who will inspire and guide you along your journey. Complement this with self-coaching. Make use of your personal experiences and take advantage of the opportunity to try a new approach. I’m standing at the beginning of a new adventure and I’m not going to miss my chance to do it all over again.

© SF Jones, 2017