Sunday, July 24, 2011

Literature Review Tips for Beginning Researchers

1. When you download an article, give it a file name that includes the author, year, and something about the topic. Do not give the file a generic name like “community colleges” or “mathematics”.

2. If you scan or photocopy a book chapter (be careful to obey the copyright laws and not copy too much!), write on the copy the title, author, and year of the book it came from. Better yet, scan/copy the cover page of the book that has the title and author. If you do not do this, you will have a pile of chapters with no way of telling what book they were in or who the book editor is.

3. Don’t wait 7 years to organize the articles you have printed. If you print articles without organizing them, you may find that you have printed exactly the same article 4 times. (Of course, there are other, better, reasons not to wait 7 years….you do want to finish your paper someday!)

4. If you read a research article, write a paragraph about it either while you are reading it, or immediately afterward. If you do not capture your thoughts at the time of reading, you will read it a year later, thinking it is a brand-new article (until you discover your highlights and notes in the margins of page 3). Writing a dissertation takes long enough without duplicating work!

 5. Use hanging folders to organize articles, not regular file folders. If you use file folders without putting them inside hanging folders, all the folders slide down into the bottom of the file box and won’t stand up properly. This makes it hard to find things.

6. If you print an article, immediately put it into a folder with a descriptive label, even if you don’t think the article will be relevant to your dissertation. It is still good to know what’s where! And it is far more satisfying to have a large box of neatly filed and organized useless articles than to have a bunch of useless articles in a pile in the corner.

7. Invent a good way to organize your downloaded articles instead of stuffing them into electronic folders labeled “articles already printed”, “articles may or may not be useful” and “articles to be printed”.

8. Before writing too many random paragraphs that are marginally related to your topic, come up with a plan for organizing your lit review. This will hopefully keep you from having too many articles on one subtopic and none at all on other important subtopics.

9. Buy a good laser printer and don’t feel guilty about using it. The price of toner and an occasional replacement drum is small potatoes compared to the cost of graduate school.

10. Don’t buy cheap thin paper. It wrinkles up when you try to print dense text on both sides. Graduate school is stressful enough without adding preventable stress sources!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A good day is…

  • a reasonable amount of sleep
  • a nice country drive for an hour and a half or so, maybe a little Rush on the radio
  • parking in the parking garage instead of the hot sun, which I’m only allowed to do in the summer
  • walking through a quiet campus, seeing lots of teenagers with their moms, all decked out in their new Aggie gear, and no doubt wondering what new experiences the upcoming year will bring
  • locking myself in a tiny library cubicle, writing for an hour and actually enjoying it
  • visiting my writing friend for a sweet time of mutual dissertation encouragement
  • browsing through journals just to see what sorts of things are in them, and noticing that I am now familiar enough with research in my field to recognize a few names
  • looking through book stacks just to see if anything jumps out to me…found a good book! Libraries are amazing places.
  • lugging so many books to the car that they don’t fit in my backpack
  • driving back to Houston without getting sleepy (this is related to getting sufficient sleep the night before)
  • running 6 strong (for me!) miles in the dark
  • going to bed without regrets

It may not be a spectacular day, but if all my days were like this, I wouldn’t have much to complain about.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Hooray! I got a full-time job!!

Yes, in spite of the terrible economy, I managed to find a new full-time job!

This particular job comes with a couple of disadvantages, but I am still grateful to have it. The first disadvantage is that it doesn’t pay anything. In fact, it requires me to pay a substantial fee for the privilege of having the job. But that is okay, because I already have a full-time job that pays actual money. My duties for the paying full-time job ended, at least for the most part, on this past Wednesday, when I turned in my summer school grades.

This leads to the second disadvantage of the new unpaid full-time job. It will only last for 5 weeks. Then it will revert to part-time status, as my duties for the money-paying job will resume. At that time, though its status will have changed to part-time, the summer unpaid job (or more accurately, the negative-pay-rate job) will still require full-time work. That work will simply have to fit into a part-time schedule.

But there is no need to worry about that now. For now, I plan to just enjoy the bliss of having a full-time job. Since the job is full-time, that means I must do what other people with full-time jobs already do: work their hobbies, sleep, exercise, and other duties of life into the available time around their full-time jobs. For example, if I were silly enough to try to maintain and train a horse, run sufficient miles to survive the Winslow half marathon, or take swimming lessons with a friend, these hobbies would need to be secondary in priority to the full-time job.  

I realize that to most people, the notion of arranging hobby time around a full-time job seems normal. It is certainly not sufficiently interesting to merit several paragraphs of this inconsequential blog, or the bandwidth to hold them. But for me, this is a new concept and I will have to make some serious adjustments.

The problem is that I have not had a normal full-time job since I was 23, when I decided to leave my very well-paid engineering gig to throw newspapers (among other things). I have had jobs that paid full-time money and occupied more than 40 hours each week. This includes my current paid job, which is described and advertised as a full-time job. Though it comes with plenty of hours and a full-time paycheck, it acts like a part-time job in the sense that I keep odd hours and do much of my work at home. I very much enjoy teaching night classes, but they do not tend to promote a set schedule. I live like a college student, frequently staying up late, working on weekends, and pulling the occasional all-nighter. As long as I work around meetings and my day classes, I can do some non-work things during the day.

So, I am a 42-year-old person still living the life of a college student (Oh, wait, I am a 42-year-old college student—maybe this makes sense after all!). Anyway, for the next 5 weeks, the new negative-pay-rate full-time job needs to take priority. Like my paid job, it has some flexibility and no one is watching over my shoulder. So if I am not careful, the hobbies and relaxing will take over the hours that should be devoted to the job, and this wonderful 5-week opportunity will slip through my fingers.

So, well-wishing friends, when you see me, please help keep me on track by asking me how my new full-time job is going. And whatever you do, if you want what’s best for me, do not attempt to talk me into any more hobbies or recreational events!!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Snazzy Ware Selection of the Hebdomad: Visual Thesaurus

I considered calling this type of post a “Cool Product Pick of the Week”, a catchy title lifted from Dave Mows Grass. I tried for quite some time to think of an original title. After all, I am an academic, and very aware of the perils of plagiarism. I do not know whether the title is original with DMG, or if he found it somewhere else. His name is definitely catchy, though, and once it was in my head, nothing better could get in. Fortunately, my product is the Visual Thesaurus, so I could use the product itself to help create a title for the post about the product. What do you think of it? (to get snazzy, I had to move an extra generation away from cool….somehow fashionable and stylish didn’t seem to fit my product of the week…er, hebdomad.) I also couldn’t find a way to incorporate Cartesian Product into my title, but was rather impressed that VT knew about it.

This is a wonderful thesaurus, much better than your standard thesaurus which simply gives a list of words, and exponentially superior to the synonym finder embedded in Word, which doesn’t seem to realize that study is a noun. Contrast Word’s thesaurus with Visual Thesaurus, which not only understands that study can be a noun, but knows it can be a room, a subject area, a bailiwick, a sketch, a written report, any of several musical compositions, as well as state-type nouns like engrossment, immersion, absorption, and concentration.

VT creates a map of your word and all its synonyms and related words, arranged in clusters of related words. If you click on a synonym (or antonym), you get a new map, complete with new clusters, centered upon your new word. Visual Thesaurus will also list the definition of your word, and you can hear your word enunciated correctly by an American or British mechanical voice (your choice). Often you’ll see example sentences, such as “He’s a cool dude” illustrating the various meanings of the word.

The price is only $19.95 a year, which is 2.477% of the cost of one credit hour of graduate research at Texas A&M University. I consider this an excellent deal. If I ever finish my dissertation, I will probably keep my subscription…the pay raise my institution gives for doctoral degrees is not large, but it would suffice to cover VT’s $19.95 yearly fee. Now that I’ve started using this wonderful little tool, I just can’t imagine writing without it!  

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Jen Action Planner

Throughout my life, I have been prone to occasional bouts of inspiration, of varying length, in which I feel motivated to change my drifter tendencies and become productive. Often these episodes have resulted in the purchase of a new planner, calendar, or organizational system. Fortunately these have rarely been of the electronic variety, thus minimizing the financial consequences of the episodes.  While I appreciate the benefits of technology and am very glad not to be writing a dissertation in the era of typewriters and ditto machines, I know myself well enough to know I will do better with paper.
My most recent planner purchase was this past winter. I already had a paper calendar that served me well, but I wanted something in which I could map out my days hour-by-hour, a whole day at a time, including of course my scheduled and protected writing session. Knowing that a generic spiral notebook would never suffice to plan my days, I set off in search of the perfect planning notebook. My yearly calendar purchase usually takes several store visits and revisits, as it is difficult to find a calendar that has colors both pleasant and cheerful, paper with a nice feel, and lines that are neither too narrow nor too dark.  However, after visiting just two stores and feeling rather proud of my decisiveness, I purchased a planner. I liked the paper, I liked the lines, and the price was right. I wasn’t thrilled with the dull black cardboard cover, but was willing to overlook it if it could help me finish my dissertation.
When I arrived home, I removed my new planner from the bag to plan my tomorrow. Guess what I found, stamped in gold, on the plain black cardboard cover?  Yes, indeed, its official name is the “Jen Action Planner”.  It even has “Jen Action Planner” on each of the pages. Why on earth would a company name a notebook the “Jen Action Planner”? Clearly this notebook was meant for me. I don’t know why I didn’t notice the name when I was in the store. My eye must have skimmed over it, assuming it said “Jet Action Planner” or just “Action Planner” or some other sensible and inspiring name.
Anyway, I proceeded to make a plan for the next day. I followed through on my plan, at least mostly, got a lot done and felt great about my day. For each of the next few days I planned my time the night before. Then, for some reason, I quit. Since then, I have occasionally planned a few days, but I haven’t been consistent. I noticed the planned days resulted in more productivity than the unplanned days, yet I didn’t persist. I have used my calendar to keep up with meetings and other obligations, but my unspoken-for hours have slipped through my fingers, never to be seen again.   
I ask myself now, “Why am I so unwilling to plan?” I think it is because I am very selfish, and want to reserve the right to do what I want when I want to do it. I don’t like feeling guilty or miserable because I didn’t do follow through on my commitments. If I don’t set any goals, then I can’t be a failure for not meeting them.
I know better. I know that every day is a gift, and that I need to be a better steward of the gifts God has given me. In an effort to use my hours more wisely, I have dusted off my Jen Action Planner, and have planned my tomorrow. Yet I realize that I am not the One who holds tomorrow, and that some unexpected adventure, better than all my plans, may be sent my way...I want to be ready to welcome it.