Beeminder Forum

Beeminding your way through grad school - actual hours of actual research!

A slight tangent, but as someone who literally just finished grad school (my dissertation was accepted Wednesday): EVERYONE HATES GRAD SCHOOL. IT IS HELL. It is hell in both the near and far views. If people only stayed in grad school because they enjoyed it, there would be no grad students. Forcing yourself to keep going (through beeminder or lots of therapists or support groups with like-minded friends or alcohol or all of the above) is pretty much how you get a phd, and frankly the faster you can force yourself to work through the hell, the faster you will get out. The example the OP gives, of the grad student who floated through grad school without a plan or purpose (which is unfortunately common), seems more likely to be the result of someone NOT pushing themselves forward; if they had been pushing, they would have realized they didn’t have actual work to do.

One of my beeminder goals was to do 20 hours of actual research work a week; weeks when I found it hard to hit that goal were often weeks where I didn’t know what to do, which was a giant flashing neon sign that I needed to go back to the drawing board and figure out what made the most sense to do next. Filling up your time with teaching or classes or other make-work is a way to feel like you’re moving forward even when you’re not, which I guess is another vote in favor of keeping careful data; I know my neurotic time-tracking habit has helped me identify “false progress” multiple times.


(This is off topic, but as a grad student I would love to know how you set up / tracked / enforced your “actual hours of actual research” goal, so I can blatantly copy it!)

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Looks like you and @clarissalittler are both making the point that beeminding grad school will help you find out sooner if it should be aborted. I agree! Although in my case, I guess unusually, I had so much fun in grad school (both what I worked on and the whole lifestyle) that I stretched it out as long as possible. There were super intense periods but I guess I thrive on that. Averaging over the whole 7 years I feel like I had excellent work-life balance then.

Also good point that obsessive time-tracking – or more generally, collecting rich data about oneself – is really valuable.

A couple other reactions to @clarissalittler’s awesome response:

Your 3rd case reminds me of this thread on beeminding with depression:

And in case you missed it, I wrote about ego depletion. [UPDATE: fixed link]

[Super offtopic now, but I love to discuss my many, many systems for surviving grad school.] What ended up working for me (mostly) was a combination of time-tracking, a pencil-and-paper dayplanner, and beeminder. The relevant beeminder goals were “make a list of things that I will do tomorrow”, “do the list of things that I said I would do today”, and “half-hours of actual work done”, with the latter’s slope being 40 half-hours a week; this broke down to 4 hours a weekday, which was a maintainable goal for me. Honestly, of the three goals, making a list every night was the most important one – just forcing myself to decide which aspects of my project I was going to work on, and which vital life-maintenance tasks I was going to keep up on, really gave my days a lot of structure they otherwise lacked.

For time tracking, I use Toggl, which is pretty straightforward, and just assigned everything to projects – so if I spent half an hour tracking down a bug in a script to analyze my metagenomic results, that would be categorized under the project ‘metagenomics’ (and be Real Work), whereas if I spent half an hour resubmitting the lab’s BUA paperwork, that would be in the project ‘safety officer’ (and thus not be Real Work). So the need to minimize busy-work and maximize real work was always at the forefront of my mind. I updated my Beeminder goal as the day went along, most of the time, because I find it really motivating to click buttons and make numbers go up. I ALSO tracked my half-hours-worked in my paper notebook AND in a neat little ring I wore on my finger during work hours that you can rotate to count numbers (did I mention I find it really motivating to make numbers go up?).

Overall, this made it easy to see a) if I was accomplishing the 4 hours a day that would keep me on the right path, and b) that I was keeping the general level of progress that I needed to. I almost never retroratcheted my hours-worked goal, and I was USUALLY (though not always) a day or two ahead of falling off the line; I did pay my fair share of failures to beeminder, though! The system definitely wasn’t foolproof (I have a tendency to react badly to unexpected failures, and grad school is really just a series of unexpected failures, so it was rough for me), but it worked, and got me out a year early for my department, so I’m pretty happy with the result!

[End of offtopic digression!]


I see that this convo has been split so I’ll chime in here too about tracking actual research. For folks who haven’t seen it, I use a version of a chrome extension called Strict Workflow that I updated to link to beeminder. It is a pomodoro timer that blocks websites. I updated it to add a little box when you click on the extension in chrome you can add a note that will be logged with your pomodoro to beeminder and it displays how many pomodoros you’ve done that day. Here’s my fine print edited for clarity:

"Pomodoros should be related to PhD specific activities. Broadly, think of the 20% work that will give 80% of the benefits.

Group meeting counts as 1 pomodoro.

Meetings specifically related to research count in full; lunches/talks or helping another person count as 1 Pomodoro unless significant in duration (e.g. certain conferences would count in full).

Readings directly related to the PhD experience count in moderation (2 per day).

Lab cleanup on designated days can count in full; cleaning up to procrastinate counts for at most 1-2 pomodoros."

I set my pomodoro threshold lower - around 25 pomodoro sessions (25 min each) per week. For some weeks I found myself not very motivated or didn’t have a lot to do, and this was a lower bound that kept things moving but didn’t stress me out. Sometimes I’d also have weeks where I was writing or spending a lot of time thinking and I have a hard time doing that for more than about 4-5 pomos worth in a given day. If I try to do more work those days it needs be more mindless/execution focused. The past few weeks I’ve had deadlines and have worked way more than that, but my goal is ending for the semester Thursday and I haven’t needed the extra kick when I have real deadlines.

I’ve also found that keeping track of what I need to do the next day is very important, especially when I’m not sure what to do next. I’m not a morning person so I know I need to do it the night before. I am not consistent about actually sitting down and writing up my priorities so this is something I may start beeminding in January. When I do plan things out, I use and really like Complice, which is certainly popular among the beeminder crowd. It can also log pomodoros, but I’m set on my routine now so I haven’t personally used the feature.


Link(?) not working

Fixed now; thanks!

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I just spent a semester doing this, and my goal before classes start again is to get everything setup (Beeminder, etc.) so that this semester is better. Thanks for being the proof that Beeminder can help!