Tag Archives: Profhacks

Random observation about workflow and life

It used to be, in graduate school and in my early career, that I really couldn’t get any serious work done unless I had large, uninterrupted slabs of time to work with. I had to have 3-4 straight hours, at least, if I wanted to read a journal article, work on research, or get grading done.

But increasingly, it seems like, in my work at a small liberal arts college, this ideal of monolithic slabs of time with which to work has become unlikely. There’s always the out-of-nowhere fire to put out, the meeting that gets scheduled in the middle of a big block of time, the unexpected student dropping by, and so on. Having kids makes the fragmentation of time even more common and pronounced.

However, I’ve noticed something since being mostly at home with my 6-, 4-, and 1-year olds this summer so far: Not only can I count on frequent interruptions if I try to sit down and work on things, I actually need those interruptions to stay focused. It seems counterintuitive, but my attention span is such that I have a hard time staying truly on task for longer than an hour. When I have to stop and fix lunch for the kids, or break up a fight, or change a diaper, every 30-or-so minutes, it actually provides me with a break I didn’t know I needed, and I end up getting more done with the interruptions than I would in an equal stretch of time without them. (In fact this blog post was interrupted about half a dozen times in the writing and editing of it.)

So I’m not so sure about the advice that new professors often get about making sure to carve out big slabs of time in which to work. You have to go with the flow of how you work and how life impinges (in its own wonderful way) upon your work.


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Filed under GTD, Life in academia, Personal, Profhacks, Vocation

You can’t become an expert in college

Cover of "Outliers: The Story of Success&...

Cover of Outliers: The Story of Success

Here’s something of an epiphany I had at the ICTCM while listening to Dave Pritchard‘s keynote, which had a lot to do with the differences between novice and expert behaviors in problem-solving.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, puts forth a now-famous theory that it takes at least 10,000 hours to become a true expert in a particular area, at the top of one’s game in a particular pursuit. That’s 10,000 hours of concentrated work in studying, practicing, and performing in some particular area. When we talk about “expert behavior”, we mean the kinds of behaviors that people who have put in their 10,000 hours exercise as second nature.

Clearly high school or college students who are in an introductory course — even Dave Pritchard’s physics students at MIT, who are likely several levels above the typical college undergrad — are not there yet, and so there’s not a uniform showing of expert behavior. There are more hours to be put in. But: How many more?

On the one hand, if a person spends 40 hours a week working at this activity, for 50 weeks out of the year, then it will take 5 years to reach this level of expertise:

(10000 hours) x (1 week/40 hours) x (1 year/50 weeks) = 5 years

But on the other hand, a typical college student will carry a 16 credit hour load, which means 16 hours of courses per week. If the student does this over a 14-week semester, and if the student takes the standard advice of spending 2 hours outside of class for every hour inside of class, and if the student undergoes two semesters of classes every calendar year, how long does it take to get to 10000 hours?

10000 hours x (1 week/48 hours) x (1 semester/14 weeks) x (1 year/2 semesters) = 7.44 years

That’s fairly close to double the usual time it takes for people to earn a bachelor’s degree. And it assumes that all that coursework is concentrated into one area, which of course it isn’t.

So there’s an important truth here: Nobody can become an expert on something just by going to college. College might add the finishing touches on expertise that was begun in childhood — for example, with kids who start playing music or programming computers at age 6 — but there’s just not enough time in college to start from zero and become an expert.

This has implications for college coursework. Many of us profs have “expertise” in mind as the primary instructional objective of our courses, but this is quite possibly an unreachable goal for most students. Instead, along with reasonable levels of mastery on core subject content, college courses should focus on what students need for the remaining hours they need to get to 10,000. We should be teaching not only content in the here and now, but also processing skills and broad intellectual tools that set students up for success in continuing towards expertise after college is over.

We can’t make students experts in the time we have with them, probably, but we can put them in position to become experts later. Ironically, the harder we try to make experts out of everyone, the less we stress broad intellectual skills, and the less likely they are to become experts later. How are students supposed to continue to learn, practice, and perform to get to that top level if nobody teaches them how to think and learn on their own?

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Filed under Education, High school, Higher ed, Life in academia, Problem Solving, Study hacks, Teaching

Handling the opening moments of a course

Classes started for us this week. It’s gotten me thinking about what profs do on the first day of class and their overall concepts for how to approach the first few days of a class, where students form those crucial first impressions about the course and the instructor. Here’s my overall approach:

  • I prefer a quick, energetic launch directly into the course material. I spend maybe the first 7-10 minutes on course structure. Then we start right into the course content through a lecture/activity combination.
  • To help with the first point, I will often create screencasts for some of the course management stuff (like this screencast for how to navigate Moodle) and email students the links to these, often before the first class meets.
  • I do not go in for icebreakers, get-to-know-you activities, exercises intended to discover students Myers-Briggs types or learning styles, or any of that. Not that I think such things are not useful. But I’d rather the students get to work and get to know themselves and each other in the context of working, rather than get to know each other instead of working.
  • I give a full-bodied assignment on the first day of class to do for the second day of class — something that would really take about two hours outside of class to do, if the class meeting took one hour. Here’s the assignment list, for example, for my calculus class. That’s about 2 hours worth of work, although if you look closely, a lot of it is watching instructional screencasts and playing around with course software, so it’s less work than it looks like. But still, students have to do stuff.

Students form their conceptions of the class — and keep that conception through the whole semester — in these first few moments of the course. I want to give students the impression that the class is something they need to take seriously, and there’s a workload that has to be managed carefully, and they cannot expect to succeed if they hold the course at arms’ length. I think jumping in, rather than easing in, to the coursework is a good way to accomplish this. A potential downside of my approach is that students often get shellshocked by the initial workload and give up before they even get started. I always get a few students coming by with drop forms, saying “I just don’t think I’m going to have the time for this course.”

How do you approach the first day, and next few days, of a course? Or, if you are not a teacher, what was the best or worst approach you’ve seen to the initial few days of a course?


Filed under Education, Life in academia, Profhacks, Teaching

Ten rules for financing a transition to academia (Rerun/bumped)

This post is a rerun from December 2008, which was itself a re-posting from an article I wrote for the Young Mathematicians’ Network. If you’re headed to the Joint Mathematics Meetings this month to interview for academic positions, or if you’re one of the lucky ones who have already lined up a job for next year, or if you just want some ideas for New Year’s resolutions about money management, maybe this will fit the bill. Enjoy, and Happy New Year.


Right now, if you are on the job market, you are thinking of two, maybe three things. The top attention-getter, if you’re in graduate school, is getting your thesis done. Next down the list, you’re probably wondering what all those search committees are thinking, particularly what they are thinking of you and where they put you in the pack of applicants for their positions. And third, you might be thinking about the Joint Meetings next month, where you’ll likely get your first dose of interviewing.

But what many job applicants, particularly those still in graduate school, don’t think about at this time of year is how things are going to unfold after the interviews have been done and the job offers extended and accepted. Very soon, you’ll be done with your thesis and signed on to start a new position in the fall. And the gap between finishing school and starting a new academic job has to be paid for.

A failure to plan for this gap can create a huge financial mess, as you can tell if you look at my story. I accepted a job in April 1997 and defended my dissertation in May of that year, but not once did I plan for the interim period between finishing school and starting my job. When the summer following my defense came, I had virtually no income and absolutely no savings. So when I made my move from Tennessee to Indiana, I had to put everything — groceries, apartment deposits, and so on — on credit cards at 15% to 18% interest. My indebtedness went even deeper when I discovered the simple fact that my first paycheck wasn’t due to arrive until the middle of September. So I had to live for two months on my own with no money, living like a graduate student, racking up high-interest debt, after telling myself I’d finally be able to afford nicer things once I had a job. I absolutely failed to enjoy the new, comparatively luxurious income that I had earned by getting my job, because I had to spend the plurality of it paying off the debt I incurred while moving to that very same job! It took me the better part of four years after starting my job to pay off the debt I incurred from May through September.

We mathematicians are so good at quantitative ideas and yet many of us miss the boat when it comes to real-life personal finance. Here are ten pieces of advice about money and finances that I wish I had gotten prior to my last year in graduate school.

Things to do BEFORE interviews

1. Use a good online salary/cost of living calculator to get an estimate of monthly living expenses in all the areas you might live. You can Google and find a whole lot of these. Find out what the average starting salary is for the position to which you applied, and start plugging and chugging to find out what that compares to in different places.

2. Starting NOW: Save up for two months of living expenses based on the average monthly cost of living in your potential new locations. Those two months are August and September. This is very tough, because moving to a new location involves lots of one-time startup expenses that can mount up very quickly: deposits for a new apartment, fees to turn on utilities, tags for your car, and so on. Add to that the fact that many employers issue paychecks only once a month in the middle or sometimes (like my current college) at the end of the month. That means that the big, fat paycheck you’re looking forward to is not going to come your way until potentially 6-8 weeks after you actually begin working, and you will have a lot of expenses in the meanwhile to deal with. You have to have a cash reserve that is sufficient to handle these expenses and get you through to your first paycheck.

3. Starting NOW: Procure summer employment and benefits. In light of #2, it’s especially important to try and get some income sources for the time following your completion of school and (hopefully) your thesis defense and prior to your move. Fortunately, summer employment is usually easy to find if you are willing to get outside your comfort zone. There’s a good chance that your current university can hire you on as an adjunct to teach a four- or eight-week summer course. Adjuncting is a gig that usually pays fairly well, doesn’t involve as much grading during the summer as a regular-term course, and keeps your classroom skills fresh. Community colleges are also a good source of these kinds of jobs. If you don’t want to teach, there are always seasonal jobs in retail; or you could tutor; or you could babysit; or whatever. The point is that most graduate school assistantships run out at the end of the academic year, and you will need an income stream once this happens in order to save up for living expenses in August and September. The time to get busy finding such a stream is now, particularly for teaching jobs, as most colleges plan their teaching schedules out 4-6 months in advance. And don’t forget benefits, either, like health insurance; if you carried health insurance as a part of your graduate student assistantship, and you’re no longer a graduate student, then you should look into getting a COBRA or finding a summer position that has health insurance as a benefit.

4. Starting NOW: Pay down or pay off credit card debts and make a pact with yourself to use credit cards only if you know you won’t carry a balance. If you can pay off your credit card and personal loan debts now, then you can use the money you are pumping out to the credit card companies and salt it away instead for your living expenses later in the year. And since the use of credit cards and personal loans is easy to justify when you have to scrape income together to get by, you have to be serious with yourself about using them sparingly, if at all — or else you’ll end up with debt that takes years to pay off, like I did.

Things to do DURING and AFTER interviews

Once you start having phone interviews and/or Joint Meetings interviews, and then go on to on-campus interviews and eventually job offers, it’s time to be more precise:

5. When you are able to make a short list of schools under consideration, do detailed research on the cost of living in each area and revise your calculation from #1. You’ll have between two and ten schools that are holding your interest and which are reciprocating that interest by now. Look at each school in turn and find out: average monthly rent on apartments, average cost per square foot for houses, property tax rates, car and health insurance rates, and so on. You now have to consider the prospect of actually living in one of these places. And the cost of doing so is at least as important of a factor in considering job offers as anything else. If a school in central Indiana (one of the most affordable places to live in the USA) offers you a salary of $50K per year, that’s much different than getting an offer from a school in San Francisco or New York City of the same amount or even $20-30K per year more than that. You can find out information on most of these things online at your salary/COL calculator, local real estate web sites (which let you search for apartments and homes in the area), and Chamber of Commerce sites.

6. When doing on-campus interviews, take time to explore the area to check out housing prices and neighborhoods, rent for apartments near campus, going to grocery stores, etc. While you can do much of your cost-of-living research online, there’s no substitute for pounding the pavement and putting yourself in the actual location in which you might be living. That college’s web site might make it look like an idyllic, forested setting, but maybe that’s just good photography — and the reality is that the college’s town is run-down and crime-ridden. On my first job interview, the college actually loaned me a college vehicle and paid for the gas so I could spend an afternoon on my own driving around to see the place, and that was a major factor in my taking that position.

7. When an offer comes, negotiate for relocation expenses. The cost of actually moving your stuff from your current location to the new location is a significant expense that can be a huge one, if you have more to move than just yourself and a small amount of stuff. Many colleges automatically give some sort of relocation allowance and are happy to do so, but you want to do the research beforehand to estimate just how much it’s going to cost you to actually move (How big of a truck will you need? How much mileage and gas? Will it take one day or multiple days? Do you need movers to handle your stuff?) and then make this a point of negotiation during the offer. If you are attractive enough of a candidate to get an offer at all, most colleges would have no problem spending a little more on a one-time basis to help you move there. (And if they are not willing to help you on that, turn the offer down — who wants to work at a stingy college?) This is a summer expense that you can totally avoid if you have hard data to support your estimate and halfway-decent negotiating skills.

8. Consider living in an inexpensive apartment or rental house for one year after moving, rather than buying a house. There are a lot of reasons in general to prefer owning a home over renting. But when you are moving to a new location, renting for a year will free up income (since rent is typically less than a mortgage payment) and will allow you to do four important things:
(a) Research the housing market in your area, figure out where the good and bad neighborhoods are, and figure out just how much you can really afford per month on a mortgage payment.
(b) Set aside money towards a down payment on the house that you really want (if you really want one). The magic number is often 20% of the house’s value, which will allow you to avoid mortgage insurance costs later.
(c) Build up an emergency fund of at least $1000 that will give you a cushion if something unexpected comes along.
(d) Continue to pay off debts.
Also, since it might be expensive just to travel to a place to look for housing, getting an apartment first doesn’t involve so much guesswork (apartments are pretty uniform in quality whereas houses can look great online but turn out to be terrible in person), and setting up your apartment can be done online or over the phone without having to travel.

9. Make a pact with yourself that you will not splurge on nice stuff until you actually have an income from your new job. This is very tough, because you’ve been living for 4+ years on a pauper’s income and eating Ramen noodles for two meals a day, so you really, REALLY want to go out and buy an iPhone or a new car. But you have to tell yourself that just having a job doesn’t mean you have money — not yet. I think a good waiting period on new stuff would be one semester after you start. By then, you’ll have an idea of just how far that paycheck will stretch each month and you can avoid getting in over your head. Some items, I agree, you have to buy right away — like furniture for your apartment. But you can often get multiple-years same-as-cash deals on things like this and defer payments until after the first semester is over.

10. Continue to educate yourself on personal finance matters. I highly recommend, and have largely stolen from in this article, the work of Dave Ramsey as a good source of learning about financing. He will challenge you to change the way you think about consumerism and debt, and if you listen, you will get on a sound financial footing for the rest of your life. His best book is Total Money Makeover, and his Financial Peace University classes are offered all the time in churches and community centers, usually for free or a small fee. He also has a radio show, web site, and podcast on money matters.

The point here is that you not only want to get a job you love, you also want to give yourself the ability to enjoy it to the fullest by not having to worry about money or how to pay off all the debt you gathered while finishing up.

Do you have other ideas or advice for getting financially ready to transition from grad school to the working world? Leave a comment!

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Teddy Roosevelt’s to-do list

I’ve just finished reading Edmund Morris’ splendid biography The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. I can’t remember how I got interested in this book, but I came away from it greatly appreciative of Roosevelt not only as a great President but as a man whose capacity for both thinking and doing were almost superhuman. Although some aspects of his life seem questionable to me (there’s a distinct subordination of his family life to his career, for instance), I do admire his voracity of mind, his passion for public service and for doing what’s right, and the sheer force of his personality in getting things done.

Here’s one snippet from the book that really stood out to me. Shortly after Roosevelt was nominated for the Vice-Presidency in 1900 (the previous Vice-President, Garret Hobart, having died suddenly the previous year), he went out on the campaign trail for William McKinley. His schedule was, shall we say, vigorous. Here’s a sample daily schedule from the diary of an aide:

7:00 A.M.   Breakfast

7:30 A.M.   A speech

8:00 A.M.   Reading a historical work

9:00 A.M.   A speech

10:00 A.M.  Dictating letters

11:00 A.M.  Discussing Montana mines

11:30 A.M.  A speech

12:00          Reading an ornithological work

12:30 P.M.  A speech

1:00 P.M.    Lunch

1:30 P.M.    A speech

2:30 P.M.    Reading Sir Walter Scott

3:00 P.M.    Answering telegrams

3:45 P.M.    A speech

4:00 P.M.    Meeting the press

4:30 P.M.    Reading

5:00 P.M.    A speech

6:00 P.M.    Reading

7:00 P.M.    Supper

8-10 P.M.   Speaking

11:00 P.M.  Reading alone in his car

12:00          To bed.

That’s a daily schedule that will turn a few heads. On the other hand, all you have to do is substitute “A speech” with “Teach class” and the word “telegram” with “email” and you have a pretty close fit to the modern educator’s school day.

What stands out to me is not so much the sheer frequency of speaking engagements TR had (is this close to what Obama and McCain do today?) but what surrounds those speeches and discussions. Do you see it? It’s reading. This schedule includes 4.5 hours a day of it. And it’s not just memos or strictly political works, but fiction, science, and so on. To me, there are at least three deep lessons to learn from this.

First, making time for personal growth during the day, especially the growth of the intellect, is extremely important. Educators make their living by expending intellectual energy. You cannot continue to expend energy indefinitely without fueling back up somehow, if you expect to last long. This is very easy to forget, as we see the sheer amount of stuff in our inboxes and begin to think that if I just had one more hour, I’d get that much more stuff done and be that much happier. But I think — and perhaps TR thought as well — that happiness can also come from having time to make sure you get fed yourself and not just spend all your time feeding other people.

Second, this time for personal/professional growth can be structured in bite-sized chunks. Look at TR’s schedule again. His reading times average just 45 minutes each, split evenly between three half-hour time slots and three one-hour time slots (the longer ones coming outside the usual work day). In the past, I’ve tried to schedule in these inviolable times for reading and research, but only in single, monolithic, 3-hour long slabs happening once a week. That approach has never worked out for me. So as I think about making time in my busy schedule for reading and writing, maybe the more realistic approach is to take frequent, small chunks of time in which to do it. Surely I can afford 30 minutes a day, right? I probably waste that much time each day checking emails I don’t need to see.

Third, this time for personal/professional growth benefits from a kind of happy diversity. TR was reading whatever interested him, regardless of whether it pertained directly to being the Vice-President or not — ornithology and Walter Scott along with everything else. Personal/professional growth time ought to include, for me, not just mathematics but also new things — say, computer programming, biology, history, and so on. You never know exactly what is going to pertain to your job, and the most pertinent thing for your job if you’re a teacher is a well-rounded, active, happy mind.

So I take some encouragement from this little bit of history, that the most effective thinkers and doers from our past had schedules that were even more insanely busy than mine, but never suffered from burnout or lost their passion and drive for what they do — because they took time to feed themselves and grow themselves just as they fed others and helped them, and their country, to grow as well.


Filed under GTD, Life in academia, Profhacks, Vocation

Tao on time management

Update: Welcome, readers from Terry Tao’s blog. I invite you to browse, starting with the Top 12 Posts retrospective page. I’ve got more articles on math and on time/task management if you want them.

Have you ever wondered how a Fields Medalist does time management? Terry Tao is happy to oblige. It’s not your standard GTD-esque post, as Terry discusses some of the pecuilarities of managing time when practicing a subject so unpredictable as mathematics, where long periods of going nowhere punctuated by massive flashes of insight wreak havoc on calendars and to-do lists.

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Filed under GTD, Life in academia, Math, Profhacks