I have done some research on research workflow and that includes interviewing some of my peers at Cornell grad school to get a sense of what increases their productivity and what are their strategies for accomplishing long-term research goals. In addition to this, I also gathered good advice from my PI, who is the most ultra-efficient human that I know. Had I taken the following advice, I would’ve written this blog post a week ago.
The Get your research workflow on series, consists of two parts:
Part 1 covers General research workflow tips and Part 2. Setting up your technical workflow for people training in with the Decision Analytics crew (a.k.a. the best crew in town).
General research workflow tips
Disclosure: some of the contents of this list may be easier said than done.
First of all, a research workflow can be very personal and it is definitely tailored to each person’s requirements, personality and interests, but here are some general categories that I think every researcher can relate to:
Taking notes, organizing and reflecting on ideas
I was gifted with the memory of a tuna fish, so I need to take notes for everything. Unfortunately, taking notes with paper notebooks resulted in disaster for me in the past, it was very hard to keep information organized, and occasionally my notebooks would either disappear or get coffee stains all over. Luckily, my office mate Dave, introduced me to the best application for note taking ever: Evernote, this app allows you to keep your notes categorized, so you can keep the information that you need indexed and searchable across every single platform you have, that means that you can keep your notes synchronized with your smartphone, laptop, desktop, etc, and have it accessible anywhere you go.
In addition, the Evernote web clipper tool allows you to save and categorize articles or webpages within your notes and make annotations on them. Additionally, you can tag your notes, this is useful if you have notes that could fit into multiple notebooks. You can also share and invite people to edit notes and you can connect it with Google drive. I would probably still flock to Google docs or Dropbox Paper for collaborative documents, but for personal notes, I prefer the Evernote interface. There’s no limit on the amount of notebooks that you can have. I’ve found this app very useful for brainstorming and developing ideas, I also use it to keep a research log to track my research progress.
Reading journal papers and reference management
Keeping up with the scientific literature can be very challenging specially with the overwhelming amount of journal papers out there, but you can make things manageable for yourself if you find a reference manager that allows you to build a library that makes it easy to find, add, organize, read, prioritize and annotate papers that you can later cite. Additionally, you may want to set up smart notifications about new papers on topics that interest you, and get notified via e-mail. A couple of popular free and open source reference managers that allow you to do the previous are Zotero and Mendeley, also Endnote basic, its free but you would need to upgrade to Endnote Desktop for unlimited storage. These reference managers also allow you to export BibTex files for its integration with LaTeX. You can check out the Grand Reference Management Comparison table for all the reference management software available out there.
In addition to reference manager software, a couple of popular subscription-based multidisciplinary databases are Web of Science and Scopus, they differ from Google scholar, by the fact that these are human curated databases, they are selected by scholarly and quality criteria by literature review committees, and they let you build connections between topics.
Finally, I came across this article on How to keep up with the scientific literature, where a number of scientists were interviewed on the subject, and they all agree that it can be overwhelming but it is key to stay up to date with the literature as its the only way to contextualize your work and identify the knowledge gaps. The article provided advice on how to prioritize what to read despite the overwhelming amount of scientific literature.
Time management and multi-tasking
This is my Achilles heel, and its a skill that requires a lot of practice and discipline. Sometimes, progress in research can seem hard to accomplish, specially when you are involved in several projects, dealing with hard deadlines, taking many classes, TA-ing, or you’re simply busy being a socialité, but there are several tricks to be on top of research while avoiding getting overwhelmed in a multi-tasking world. Some, or most of this tips came from a time-manager master-mind:
Tip # 1. Schedule everything and time everything
Schedule everything from hard, set-in-stone deadlines to casual meetings, that way you’ll know for sure how much time you’ll have to spare on different projects and you can block time for those projects in a weekly basis. Keep track of the time that you spend on different projects/tasks. There’s a very popular app among 3 economists, Julie’s brother and my friend Justyna called be focused that allows you to manage tasks and time them. You can use it to keep track, for instance, of the time it takes you to read a paper, some people use it to time the time it takes them to write a paper till completion, right now I’m tracking the amount of time its taking me to write this blogpost. Timing everything will allow you to get better at predicting the time it will take you to accomplish something and reflect on how you can improve. I always tend to underestimate my timings but this app is giving me a reality check.. very annoying.
Tip # 2. Different mindsets for different time slots
When your schedule is full of small time gaps, fill them doing tasks that involve less concentration, probably reading, answering e-mails, organizing yourself, and leave larger time slots for the most creative and challenging part of your work.
Also, a general recommendation of multi-tasking is don’t do it, trying to do multiple things at once can hurt your productivity, instead, block times to carry specific tasks, were you focus on that one thing, and then move on to the next. Remember to prioritize and tackle the most important thing first.
Tip #4. Visualize long-term research goals and work backwards
Picture what you want to accomplish in a year or in a semester, and work your way backwards, till you refine the accomplishments of each month, each week and each day to hit your long-term target. Setup to-do lists for the week and for the day.
Tip #3. Set aside time for new skills that you want to acquire
Even if you set aside one or two hours a week devoted to that skill that you want to develop, it will pay off, you’ll have come a long way at the end of the year. Challenge yourself and continue to develop new skills.
Tip #5. Don’t leave e-mails sitting in your inbox
There are a couple of strategies for this, you can either allocate time each day specifically for replying to e-mails or you can tackle each e-mail as it comes. If it’s something that will require you more time, move it to a special list, if it’s a meeting, put it in your calendar, if it’s for reference, save it. No matter what your strategy is, take action on an e-mail as soon as you read it.
Some tools for collaborative work :
Overleaf– for writing LaTeX files collaboratively and visualizing the changes live, the platform has several journal templates and can track changes easily.
Github– platform for collaborative code development and management.
Slack – organize conversations with teams, and organize your collaborative workflow
A final recommendation is to have a consistent and intuitive organization of your research. Document everything, and have reproducible code. If you get hit by a bus and your colleagues are able to continue research were you left off in less than a week, then you’re in good shape, organization-wise.
I hope this helps, let me know if there are some crucial topics that I missed, I can always come back and edit.
Special thanks to all of my grad/postdoc friends that participated in the brief research workflow interview.