Graduate Student Workflow, Part 6

I will be continuing on in my series about my workflow as a graduate student (overview in Part 1). Last week, in Part 5, I talked about free writing. This week I will discuss the next step in the writing process for me: memos.



For me, memos look a lot like my free writing. They are mostly unformatted text (I will throw in an occasional header for sanity reasons). The big difference is memos are focused. They usually start with a question or idea that I want to expand upon. Maybe I am working through collected data or some literature I have just read. Perhaps I am asking the 10 questions about my research ( Memos are a great way to start thinking through without worrying about the consequences (no grammar check, no worry about formatting, or if there’s a point).

Another difference between free writing and memos is the likelihood someone else might read a memo. My free writing I don’t share with anyone. However, my memos might get shared with co-authors or my advisor – especially memos that I have iterated on and are in a little better shape after a couple of drafts.

Really rough memos I do in Evernote. One nice thing about Evernote is you can link notes to each other. So as I am writing I can paste in links to other relevant notes (which would include other notes I’ve written, pdfs I’ve saved, or media I’ve clipped from the web).

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If my memos make it to the stage where I am doing multiple iterations or drafts, I switch to Word. This is mostly so I can save versions as needed to Dropbox and so I can share easily with co-authors and my advisor.

Memoing is an important step in between free writing and starting drafts of academic papers. This is where the big thinking happens. Granted, you are thinking your way through the whole writing process, but this stage is where the questions get asked, the connections get made, and the literature starts to make sense. I have found it makes the next step, which I will talk about next week, much, much easier.

Grad Student Workflow, Part 5

This week I will be writing about free writing. This is the fifth part of my series about my workflow as a graduate student (you can find Part 1 here). Last week, in Part 4, I gave an overview of my various steps in my writing process. Now I will break the first step down for you.


Free Writing

This is something I strive to do every (work) day. I carve out 35-45 minutes and sit down and write. My goal is 1500 (any kind of) words. Some days I don’t quite make it to my 1500 goal because I am tired or things get too hectic for my full writing session, but I do the best I can.

I do my free writes in OmmWriter and then transfer the text over to Evernote for safe keeping.

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The great thing about this program is it is simple and quiet. I can plug in my headphones and hear ocean waves and the happy click-clack of keystrokes.

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With a quick swipe of the mouse, I can check in on my word count if I’m feeling particularly anxious. For the most part, however, I just write.

When I’m done with my 1500 words, a quick copy and paste from OmmWriter to Evernote (filed under my notebook title “Free Writes”) saves my writing. I do this quick switch for one primary reason – searchability. My goal at the end of the day is to have all my research notes, memos, writing, etc. all in one place that is easily parsed and searchable. That way, when I get to later steps in my writing (“Now where did I put that one idea about a conference paper…..”) I can throw some keywords into my Evernote and find what I need. Work done now, upfront, is work saved later when energy levels may be low, cognitive function may be impaired, and deadlines are getting anxiously near.

I find this free write process to be very freeing (haha). First, it gets rid of one reason for writer’s block – the blank page. My later writings can now have snippets of free write pasted in to get them started – no more blank page! I also find this process really helps jumpstart and solidify my thought process. I am thinking through my writing. As I go through my day, do my readings, maybe work on various projects, my brain is making all sorts of connections I might not be aware of. These free writes are one place where I find myself actually articulating for the first time and iterating on these connections.

Up next, I will talk about memos in Part 6.

Getting Started, Competitive Edge 2013

This summer I am participating in a program at the University of California, Irvine called Competitive Edge. The aims of the program are to give minority (and women) incoming graduate students a “competitive edge” on their Ph.D. programs.

After a successful drive from Washington down to southern California, we settled into our new home in campus housing adjacent to the UCI campus. One benefit of the Competitive Edge program is the early move in for the student housing. We had a couple days to acclimate before I started my program. This was spent mostly setting up house and trying to get used (mostly unsuccessfully thus far) to the heat.

A highway going through dry land.
Road to Irvine, CA.

The first day of the program was orientation, including a campus tour, luncheon, and a ropes course. Yes, a ropes course. Most of the folks back home would probably have a hard time imagining me up on a ropes course because, honestly, heights really aren’t my thing. But it happened. And I even did the zipline at the end.

Competitive Edge Students gathered near the ropes course.
Competitive Edge Students gathered near the ropes course.
Group of students at ropes course.
Competitive Edge Students after the ropes course.

Each week, the Competitive Edge will be holding workshops to help us make the most of our grad school experience. So far, I have attended workshops on Research Resources, various informational sessions on the types of fellowships available, a workshop on the Ford Foundation fellowship, and a session outlining the NSF GRFP. From here on out, the workshops get more specific into the application process. We will be getting feedback on our essays, proposals, CVs, and even on how we give presentations. At the end of the program, on August 15, we will each be giving a 10 minute presentation on our research at the Research Symposium. All in all, this program is definitely designed to make us much stronger graduate students.

The rest of the week I get time to do research in my own lab. I am a member of the Star Group in LUCI. I will be working on researching assistive technology for those with Autism. This past couple weeks, I have been doing background reading and getting settled in the lab. I will be working with a great group of people in my lab (everyone is really friendly and more than willing to collaborate) and I’m excited to really start working.

On Getting Into Grad School, Part 4

Did you miss Part 3?

March 2013: UC Irvine Visit and THE Decision

After leaving Boulder and hearing what students there had to say about their school, I was more inclined to accept Irvine’s offer. I wasn’t going to say with 100% certainty until I had visited the school and made sure I clicked with the people there, but based on the research that was happening and what I heard from others, Irvine was the way to go.

It did not take me long to feel like my initial instincts were correct. I got off the plane and already felt like I had come home. Now, I had to be cautious, because in a lot of respects, I had come home. I spent the first 12 years of my life in Southern California. I had decided that Kyle, my husband, needed to come with me on this visit. If this was going to be our home for the next 5+ years, I wanted to make sure it was going to work for him. He was not as impressed at first as I was. I knew what he meant about it not being “green”. The Pacific Northwest is definitely a lot greener, but I think that’s probably not the best reason to turn down a grad school offer. J  I also have to say the women huddled around the hot chicken case at the Whole Foods because it was under 70 degrees outside was extremely humorous.

When I checked us into the hotel, I was given a “goodie” bag with snacks and a folder full of information about the school and department. I think the snacks were a really great touch, even though I couldn’t eat most of them. I did enjoy the pudding cup and the Star Wars gummies. The information packet was definitely overwhelming. It had lots of information on what research was going on and other facts about the school. It also contained a hardcopy of my acceptance and award letter. There was also a schedule for Friday, which included what professors I was going to interview with.

Thursday night we had a dinner with the current Informatics grad students. It was great waiting in the hotel lobby and meeting up with some of the people I had met in Boulder. Already knowing a couple people made the whole experience slightly less daunting. The current grad students picked us up and we had a big dinner together. I got to meet my roommate that I will be staying with in Paris for CHI. I also met other students who I would potentially be working with in the future. And apparently my reputation preceded me because at least one of them already knew of me. I am going to admit, it was completely surprising, but also felt pretty good.

I came back to the hotel feeling very excited for the next day. If the grad students were any measure, I was really going to like this place. I’m going to admit, it was hard to share these experiences with Kyle and give him a good sense of how I was feeling. I think my excitement (and exhaustion) was pretty obvious though.

The next day, Friday, I got up early and had breakfast with Kyle. I then waited for the shuttle to take me over to the school. Apparently, there was some confusion and only have of the prospective students had signed up for a ride, so the whole day started a little more slowly than anticipated. We drove straight to the Bren School of Information and Computer Science. I received an additional packet of information that was more general to the entire School. The morning was spent going over all the great things about the school, “the second happiest place on earth” (after Disneyland, of course). Then we broke down into subgroups of Informatics, Computer Science, and Statistics. We spent more time talking about the Informatics department specifically. I learned about the degree, what kinds of courses I would be taking, the research, how the department operates. One of the things that really caught my attention (and this had come up at the grad student dinner as well) was that there seemed to be a lot of collaboration and cooperation. It didn’t feel like there was negative competition, it was more like everyone was trying to help everyone else out. That’s the sort of environment I was looking for.

Then I got to meet with three professors. While they all had really interesting research that I could see myself working on, I knew as soon as Dr. Gillian Hayes told me about the Autism Research Center, I was hooked. This was the sort of assistive tech research that I wanted to be doing. I told her in the interview that I was set to come to Irvine straight away. How soon could I start working?


I feel extremely fortunate that things have worked out this way. I feel lucky that I found a department that feels good and an advisor that I felt an immediate connection to. I know the road ahead will be challenging, but I’m happy that I chose this road or that this road chose me. However that works out.