Sabbatical report: Context switching

I’m now about 6 months in to my year-long sabbatical. Currently, I’m working on two very different sub-projects. Each sub-project is related to my larger research project on self-healing home networks, and each one approaches the larger project from the lens of the two subfields I straddle.

The first sub-project is more mathematical/theoretical. I’m attempting to create a mathematical model of a home network, based on my own measurement work and the measurement studies of others. I submitted a paper in December, which was rejected but got really helpful reviews. Even the infamous Reviewer 3 had constructive and kind things to say. (Thanks, anonymous reviewers!) So now I’m working to make the model more mathematically rigorous. This project approaches the problem of self-healing home networks from the computer networks perspective, and also harkens back to my electrical engineering days, when it seems like every graduate class I took had “processes” in the title (Stochastic Processes, Random Processes, etc.).

The second sub-project could not be more different from the first. It’s a qualitative, interview based study on how people reason about the networks within their homes. This project approaches the problem of self-healing home networks from the human-computer interaction (HCI) side. The research methods I’m utilizing are completely new to me, so the learning curve has been large. While I’ve done some math for this project (mainly freshening up my knowledge of statistics), the bulk of the work resembles work that a social scientist would normally do.

The disparity in approaches of the two sub-projects has made for some interesting work weeks. I spent a few days recently cozying up with my old Stochastic Processes textbook trying to remember the details of Markov chains vs. autoregressive models, drawing lots and lots of diagrams, and calculating transition probability matrices. I haven’t thought in such a mathematically rigorous way in a while, so while my skills are definitely rusty, it felt good to return to that mode of thinking. Interspersed with this work are days where I’m reviewing techniques for asking effective interview questions, testing out my recording equipment, strategizing about how to recruit participants, and refining my interview guide. This is an entirely new way of thinking and working for me, so I alternate between feeling like a fish completely out of water and invigorated by the intellectual challenge.

There was probably a time early in my career when I couldn’t fathom working in two such disparate areas. But now, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I like that I’ve found my research passions in two very different subfields. I love that each field engages a different part of my brain. I appreciate that I’ve identified research problems that straddle both fields. I love the opportunity to do and write about math-y things AND design/people-y things. I love that I can use different tools and skill sets to construct models about the world.

I embrace and enjoy the context-switching that my research life entails.

#AcWriMo, Sabbatical Edition: The Final Reckoning

As I’ve done for the past few years, last month I participated in AcWriMo, the month-long academic writing extravaganza. I started the month with two goals:

  1. Complete an almost-submission-ready draft of a conference paper.
  2. Complete a rough draft of a new research study.

I chose this particular set of goals as a way to address some clogs in my research pipeline. Right now I have a lot of work in preliminary stages and/or various stages of write-up, but nothing out for review. I chose the first goal as a way to move something closer to the out-for-review stage of the pipeline, and the second goal as a way to move a project from the half-baked idea phase to the gee-I-could-start-collecting-data-soon stage.

So, how did I do?

I completely met my first goal. I have a complete draft of a conference paper ready to be tweaked for a particular conference. I did not start the month with a particular conference in mind. Instead, I decided to write a generic draft — more like a tech report — that I could then slightly tweak and reframe for particular venues. So all the source material is there, and all I need to do is edit it. And as luck would have it, a few days ago I found a conference with a mid-December deadline that’s a pretty good fit for it. I’ll need to cut 3 pages and I’ll need to reframe the intro to better fit the conference’s focus, but that should be pretty straightforward. So, bonus, this paper WILL be out for review soon!

I completely met my second goal. My literature search confirmed what I suspected — that this new study area is pretty underexplored. Reviewing the literature, and working through my stash of HCI books, gave me some good ideas for how I might explore this space, and I feel pretty excited about my study plan. Also, terrified, because the new study involves qualitative research methods that I’ve never, ever used before. (I am setting up a lot of meetings with my social scientist friends in the near future!)

I wanted to keep track of how I spent my writing time, so I logged my writing time, number of words, time spent coding, time spent on each project, etc. every day.

research time plot

Time spent over the month on the two projects. “Coding” was code development I did in conjunction with the conference paper.

As expected, I spent more time over the course of the month on the conference paper. This makes sense, because there was a lot more work to do on that particular project and it had a more defined finished product. I also find it interesting that the majority of the work on the new research study was done early in the month. I made a lot of progress early in the month, getting me almost all the way to my goal, which freed up my time to focus on the conference paper. (You can also clearly tell where the weekends are and where the long holiday weekend fell.)

number of words written

Number of words written over the month on the two projects.

It’s a bit demoralizing to see your word count go down over the course of the month, but this reflects the edits on the conference paper. There’s also a faster rate of word production (most of the time) for the new study, because most of that was “new” writing, so it was less edited and vetted. (It also includes the word count for notes I took while reading articles and books for the project.)

I’ve liked the experience of logging my output like this. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that you’re actually making progress when you’re slogging away day after day, but charts like these drive home the point that daily effort does add up over time. I also experimented with journaling about my research every day, and I’ve found that useful as well. I plan on continuing both practices beyond AcWriMo.

As always, I’ve enjoyed the community aspect of AcWriMo, and I will miss that. One of the many things I’ve been thinking about while on sabbatical is how I can recreate some of that supportive community around research and writing at my institution. I hope to come up with some concrete ideas and try them out next year.

I’m so glad I decided to do AcWriMo again this year. I almost didn’t participate because it felt like “cheating” since I am on sabbatical and I’m supposed to be laser-focused on my research. Participating provided me with a chance to reflect on my research practices and experiment with ways of working, as well as set specific and scary goals and make myself publicly accountable. And these are lessons that I’ll take with me beyond AcWriMo and into the new year.

#AcWriMo: Sabbatical Edition

Longtime readers of this blog know that November brings that annual rite of productivity for academics: Academic Writing Month, or AcWriMo for short. The premise of AcWriMo is simple: you set some ambitious research/writing goal(s) for the month and do your darndest to achieve those goals, with the support of a virtual writing community. I’ve participated in 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015, and have always found it to be a worthwhile experience.

I’m a little late to the party this year — I didn’t finalize my goals until today. And it feels a teeny bit like cheating, since the purpose of being on sabbatical is to have the space to work on your research, so I don’t “need” this challenge to jump-start my research or get back into good research habits, which is my usual motivation for participating. But I really love the community and support around AcWriMo, and I really love the challenge of setting and trying to meet ambitious goals, so that’s reason enough in my book to join in!

I’ve decided on two main goals for AcWriMo this year:

  1. Complete draft of conference paper. I spent a lot of time this summer thinking about restructuring my research. In the process, I identified a line of research that I thought I could complete and submit as a conference paper by the end of this calendar year. I’ve made really good progress so far on this paper. I really really want to end the month with a completed draft that’s pretty close to submission-ready, because if memory serves there’s a submission deadline in early December for a conference that seems like a fairly good fit. To complete this goal, I’ll need to write, debug, and test some simulation code and run some experiments in addition to writing the paper. This is my main goal.
  2. Complete rough draft of new research study. The idea for this study also came out of my Summer of Reflection. I’ve been chipping away at it, but not making as much progress as I’d like. (So much to read! So little time!) With this project, I just need to buckle down, complete a preliminary lit review, and sketch out one or two possible study designs in some detail. The challenging part of this project (and probably what’s been holding me back) is that it’s way more of a “pure” HCI (human computer interaction) project than I’ve ever attempted, and is likely going to involve research methods that I’ve never used before. Exciting! and also terrifying.

As usual, I’ll be updating my progress here and on Twitter (@drcsiz) under the hashtag #AcWriMo. This year, there’s also a fancy schmancy tracking app that I’ll be using. And since I’m planning on writing anyway, I’ll also be participating in a  14 day writing challenge in the middle of the month. If all this doesn’t keep me accountable, nothing will!

Happy November writing, everyone!

And so begins a new chapter

Today is a day for celebration around these parts.

My three year term as chair is finally over. My sabbatical has officially begun. And last night, I handed in my materials for promotion to full professor. (If memory serves, I’ll find out whether my bid was successful next spring.)

I feel like I’ve been working so long without a break, running from one thing to the next, putting out metaphorical fires everywhere. Other than one last report I’ll need to submit in the next couple of weeks (which shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours to complete), my work time for the next year and change is pretty much my own. It’s been a very, very long time since I could say that.

I have some posts brewing about a few things that I’ll try to get out over the next month. Lessons learned as chair, lessons learned from doing 3 tenure track hires in a row, and so on. I am looking forward to having time to blog again.

I am looking forward to having time to BREATHE again.

I’m also eager to start my sabbatical. I realized a couple of weeks ago that I do have something publishable, or very, very close to being publishable. I am pretty sure I can get this out by October. So that’s my near-term goal. In general, I’m just eager to spend lots of quality time thinking about, and actually working on, my research — something that’s been in very short supply lately.

But to be honest, the next week is all about celebration and relaxation. Today I’m taking the day off and spending some quality time with my son at his favorite place — the science museum. Tonight I’ll celebrate all three work milestones with my family. This weekend I’ll hopefully spend some quality time on my kayak. On the 4th, I’ll run our local 5 mile race and eat way too much (vegetarian) barbecue, as I normally do. I did not sign my kids up for any camps next week, so my kids and I will have a staycation of sorts. I plan to spend as much time with them outdoors as humanly possible to take full advantage of our gorgeous summer here.

Today begins a new chapter. I look forward to seeing what this chapter brings.

#AcWriMo 2015: the final accounting

By all accounts, this was a very successful #AcWriMo for me!

I went into the month of “writing like there’s no December!” with modest plans: just 30 minutes a day, 6 days a week. I just needed to get myself back in the habit of doing research regularly, since research had completely fallen by the wayside this term. My secondary goal: to draft my own private “research proposal” as a way to frame how to spend my sabbatical time.

Because I love me a good chart, here’s a chart that shows the number of minutes and number of words per day I accomplished during the month:


Figure 1: Time and minutes spent per day on research activities. Note that I did not have a goal for the number of words, but it was interesting to track this anyway.

Note that on some days, I was creating diagrams or sketches, or doing lit searches, so these show up as zero word days. Days that show up as zero minutes and zero words were “rest days”.

I didn’t always hit my 6 days a week goal, but I did end up exceeding my time goal overall. Some days I worked for longer than 30 minutes, and I always worked on research at least 5 days each week. I’m super happy with that. Also, the weeks I decided against the 6th day of research were deliberate decisions, usually because mentally I knew I needed a break.

I spent the time very productively, too:

  • I finished that research proposal, and came up with a reasonable timeline for how to spend my sabbatical (and my non-teaching “scholar in residence” term this spring).
  • I started from scratch and made serious headway on a potential conference paper.
  • The act of working on the conference paper clarified certain aspects of the simulation I’m developing that previously had me (unproductively) stuck and spinning my wheels.
  • I made figures. Lots of figures. Sometimes figure-making can be a procrastination tool, but in this case the process of making figures for this potential conference paper clarified my thinking on the project.

Most importantly, even though I “didn’t have time to do research this term”, I found that the simple act of doing research for 30 minutes a day actually made me more productive overall! Since I had to prioritize my tasks to incorporate research, I spent less time on things I should be spending less time on, and was smarter about allocating the rest of my time.

There was one aspect of this year’s #AcWriMo that I didn’t expect, and that almost derailed me at the start of the month. Longtime readers of this blog may recall that my father passed away somewhat unexpectedly last April. Since that time, I’ve found research to be an epic struggle. During the first week of #AcWriMo, I realized why: going back to my research, in my mind, meant revisiting that time period, which meant starting to deal with my grief. Ignoring my research became a way for me to avoid the grieving process. #AcWriMo forced me to face this head on—and yes, to finally start grieving the loss of my dad. I was able to finally untangle my research from my grieving, and to start to make progress on both fronts.

I plan on continuing this momentum into December, by participating in the new grassroots #AcWriAdv (academic writing advent)—you can follow my progress on Twitter. My goals for #AcWriAdv will focus mainly on consistency (30 minutes a day, 6 days a week), with a plan specifically to continue work on the conference paper-in-progress and the simulation development. By the end of December, I hope to firmly establish research habits that will carry me into and through winter term—which looks to be as crazy, if not crazier, than fall term. (Gulp.)

AcWriMo 2015: Baby steps back to research productivity

I have a confession to make: I seriously, seriously considered skipping AcWriMo this year.

Let me back up for a minute, for those of you new to the rodeo: AcWriMo is a month-long academic writing extravaganza! AcWriMo is the academic’s equivalent of NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. Basically, you as an academic pledge to set some writing/research goals for the month (ideally, that stretch you a bit), sign up so that you’re publicly accountable for those goals, track those goals, get encouragement from the community, and celebrate your accomplishments at the end of the month. I’ve participated the past 3 years (2012, 2013, and 2014), and have found it tremendously beneficial each time.

So why, if AcWriMo’s been so good to me, would I consider skipping it?

Well, in a nutshell, I’m exhausted and sooooooo very far behind on absolutely everything in my work life. Teaching an overload is kicking my ass in the most serious of ways. The last time I even thought about research was back in September, when I ambitiously and optimistically set out a research plan for the term, as the picture below shows.

Research plan gone awry.

Notice the lone checkmark, in week 1. That’s pretty much the extent of my research accomplishments this term. We’re now in Week 7.

In short, my time has seriously gotten away from me this term, and this makes me very, very unhappy. It’s been so very easy to justify ignoring the research blocks I also optimistically scheduled on my calendar way back in September—there’s always grading, or class prep, or some “crisis” to consume my time. So, what could it hurt to take a year off from AcWriMo, right?

But honestly, I’m a much better, more focused, happier teacher when I’m regularly working on my research. And honestly, there’s no good reason why I’m not prioritizing research. And I know that it’s so very hard to pick back up with the research after a long layoff—and that’s especially true at this point in my project, where the problems are hard and the path ahead is not clear (and the paper/grant rejections have been coming in fast and furious—seriously, it was a rough end of the summer in that regard).

So I decided to go for it and sign up for AcWriMo again, but with the compromise that the theme this year for my goals is what I stated in the title of this post: “baby steps back to research productivity”. My only goal for AcWriMo is a time goal: 30 minutes a day, 6 days a week. Any research counts, whether that’s reading one of the many papers that’s found its way to my “to read” pile, or working on the Simulation Code That’s Still Not Done, or outlining my potential next conference paper, or writing imagined hate mail to the reviewers that have rejected my work lately. (OK, maybe that last one doesn’t count.) One activity that I will definitely incorporate into my research time is to draft my own, private research “proposal” for my upcoming sabbatical, to help me solidify my thinking about what I want to accomplish next year (when I have the WHOLE YEAR to devote to research!). I’ll be tracking my progress on Twitter (@drcsiz) and occasionally here as well.

If you’d like to participate, this link has all the details. If you’re a fellow academic, I hope you’ll consider joining me! Let’s be productive together!

#AcWriMo final progress report

Yesterday marked the close of #AcWriMo 2014, that month-long festival of academic writing. At my last two check-in points, I was making slow but steady progress towards at least one of my goals. So how’d I end up doing this year?

  1. Revise my failed NSF proposal from 2012: MET (with some caveats). I’m calling this one “met w/ caveats” because I did ultimately move forward on this goal, just not in the way I originally intended. See, I thought I’d spend my time this month on the actual narrative of the grant, rewriting the prose and using that to figure out what experiments and analyses and such to run in December. However, when I started writing, I realized right away not just where the holes were, but exactly how I had to fill them. The act of writing made the experiments and analyses immediately clear, so I decided to switch gears and concentrate on that aspect of the proposal instead. I’m so glad I did—I made such great headway, and honestly this was something that had me stuck for MONTHS. (As a bonus, I did make some headway rewriting the supporting docs.)
  2. Draft my next conference paper: FAILED. Despite my best intentions, I never quite got around to this one. I kind of knew at the outset that this goal would be a stretch, but I thought I’d at least spend a couple of sessions on it. Nope. However, in its place I did spend a lot of time coding up a pretty significant simulation, which is something I did not envision happening at the outset. And I’m thinking about my data in more productive ways. So I failed, but I failed for a damn good reason.

On balance, then, it was an excellent month, and I’m very pleased with my progress, despite the fact that my goals morphed and my month was every bit as crazy as November typically is.

So what lessons did I learn from AcWriMo this year?

  • Slow and steady wins the race. I reminded myself that I don’t need big blocks of time to accomplish things in my research—almost every day, I worked for an hour or less on my research, and I made tremendous progress (I have almost an entire simulation coded up, start to finish, in under a month!).
  • Productivity begets productivity. Working on research one day makes me want to work on it the next day, and the next day, and so on. And making progress one day makes me really want to get back to my work the next day.
  • Stuck? Just write. I am kicking myself that I didn’t try this sooner. I am still amazed by how quickly the pieces fell into place once I started writing.
  • Go with the flow. My goals changed pretty much right off the bat this month, and instead of trying to force myself to stick with the original plan, I recognized the shift as a big opportunity, jumped on it, and never looked back.
  • Rituals are important. I usually don’t need to trick myself into working, but I appreciated some of the little rituals I developed around my writing/research time: brewing a cup of tea, starting up some instrumental music or ambient noise, setting my notebook and favorite pen at the ready nearby. (And of course, afterwards, checking the #AcWriMo tweets!) It was fun to have the physical reminders of “now it’s time to hunker down and work”.

I plan to continue with my own version of AcWriMo in December. Despite not teaching this month, I still have a lot on my plate, and I think the structure of something AcWriMo-like will help me continue to make progress even as I’m pulled in many different directions. My plan is to carve out 1-2 hours per day (depending on the day) just for research, and specifically for the grant proposal, setting daily/weekly goals much like I did in November. By the end of the month, I’d like to have my most of the major analyses done for the grant proposal, and most of the major edits to the narrative and supporting docs done. I think I can make pretty good headway on this.

To all those who participated, and particularly those who shared their ups and downs on Twitter, thank you. (And special thanks to Charlotte Frost for wrangling this together this year and every year!) It was, and always is, much more fun working in (virtual) community than working alone, and the community aspect of AcWriMo is one of the aspects I enjoy most about the experience. I’m already looking forward to participating in AcWriMo 2015!