My checklist for wrapping up summer research with students

This week marks the end of my summer research collaboration with my students. I usually wrap up research by the end of July/first week of August so that I can spend some quality time with my family and particularly the kiddos before school starts back up. Granted, this is more of a perk when we haven’t been cooped up together for months….

I digress.

The last research week is always hectic. No matter how on track we’ve been all summer, there’s always a lot to do to wrap things up. Finish the analyses. Make sure all the code is in the repo. Make sure all of the code is commented. Get a rough draft of the eventual conference paper to some stage of “completion”. And so on. A million little details, some of which inevitably slip through the cracks.

Every summer I tell myself I will make a checklist of what needs to be done. Every summer I fail to do so. Maybe it’s because I see my students every day, or almost every day, so part of me assumes that it will come up during a meeting, or that I’ll pop into the lab and remind them to do whatever just popped into my head.

But this summer, we’re all online, in 3 different cities in 2 different time zones. I’ve gotten in the habit of putting more things in writing, more formally. More lists, more systems in place. More structure.

Turns out, this put me in the perfect mindset to finally write that checklist.

Here’s my checklist for this summer. I suspect that in the future, particular details might change based on the nature of the project, but that the overall categories and most of the items will largely stay the same, or at least very similar.

I. Complete project writeup. (I always have students write something up about the project, no matter where we ended up. I think it’s important for students to get some practice writing for a technical audience.)

  •  Write up the methodology for each of the analyses you completed.
  •  Write up the results for each of the analyses you completed. Include graphs/tables.
  •  Write up the takeaway points for each of the analyses you completed. What did you learn? What do you think the results indicate? What are the next steps that should be done?

II. Check in and clean up all code. (I’ve learned the hard way over the years that students need to be reminded of this, and also of specifically what I mean by “clean up”.)

  •  Make sure all code is commented. Think of You, Six Months From Now. What does You, Six Months From Now need to know/remember about what’s in this code?
  •  Write a TODO list for each of the (major) scripts you wrote. (You can put this at the top of the file, in the comments.) What’s not working that needs to be fixed? What’s working imperfectly that needs to be fixed? What are the things you hoped to get to, but ran out of time?
  •  Write up how to execute each script. (You can put this at the top of the file, in the comments.) What data files does this operate on? Where are they specified in the code? Are there command line arguments? Any other assumptions that you made that others should know when running the script?

III. Write up onboarding docs and next steps for next set of students. (This is still a work in progress. Students, understandably, find it difficult to anticipate what others will struggle with, and invariably forget what they struggled with early on in the project.)

  •  Make sure all README files are up to date.
  •  Write up a “Start Here” document that describes what students starting on the project should know about the project, the code, and the data. (I ended up outlining this document for them, because they were really struggling with what to include.)
  •  Make sure all metadata documents (on all datasets) are updated, correct, and easy to find.

IV. Write up a short reflection for me about your experience. (You can defer this until next week if you’re overwhelmed!) Email is fine for this. (I don’t always remember to ask for this, and I always regret when I forget! I learn so much from these reflections.)

  •  What were you hoping to get out of this experience?
  •  How much of that do you feel you accomplished this summer?
  •  What, if anything, surprised you about your experience?
  •  What were you hoping to accomplish/get out of this experience that you did not?
  •  What work are you most proud of, and why?
  •  When/if I write letters of recommendation for you, what parts of your contributions to this project would you like me to emphasize?
  •  What advice would you give to future students on this project?
  •  What advice would you give to me to help me better mentor future students on this project?

V. Celebrate a job well done! (Admittedly, this is trickier to do in the time of Covid. Usually I take them out for lunch, but that doesn’t work when we’re all in different locales. I will likely send my students a little gift of appreciation and a note, but I’m still trying to figure out what to send.)


Do you use a checklist with your research students to keep track of end-of-the-project todos, or at other stages of your research project? I’d love to hear your experiences.

A late start to summer

When your institution’s on the quarter or trimester system, summers have a different rhythm than for most of the rest of academia. By the time graduation and the due date for final grades rolls around in mid-June for us, the semester schools are nearly halfway through their summers. And while most of the rest of academia frantically preps through the month of August, we enjoy a full month of summer, knowing that we’ll have a couple of weeks in September as an extra buffer before our fall starts.

Most years, I structure my summers to take an extended break in August, opting to “front-load” my summer meetings, large tasks, and research student mentoring so that I can use August mainly for relaxation and restoration. We typically vacation as a family in August (and I fully disconnect during that time, something I look forward to doing all year!), and we give our kids a break from structured camps and activities the last 2 weeks of August before they return to school.

This summer, we tried something different, opting to vacation in June right after spring term and the kids’ school years ended. Due to some complicated scheduling, we ended up returning from vacation just in time to turn around and head back out on the road for my brother’s wedding, which meant we were on the road for 3 weeks all together. Since our trip involved camping and national parks, we wanted to see if the parks and campgrounds would be less busy (and, in the desert areas, less hot) in June than in the height of tourist season in August. (Answer: Yes, but we traded crowds for snow — no joke!) And since I knew I would not be working with research students this summer so that I could concentrate on my job transition, I had some freedom in terms of scheduling my own summer.

So, how did it go?

The pros

  • A natural break between school and summer means less burnout off the bat. The march from January through mid-June with only a short break between winter and spring terms is mentally brutal and exhausting. I often start my summers depleted as a result. It felt lovely to make a clean break after turning in my spring term grades and to give my brain a rest. By the time we got back, I was ready and eager to dive back in to work.
  • Fewer things are scheduled in June vs. August. Back to school events (screenings, tests, meet the teachers, etc) start up in mid-August in my kiddos’ district, so we often find ourselves playing the “can we miss this or do we need to schedule the vacation around this?” game, particularly if we want to vacation later in August. This is less of a problem in June for the kiddos. I did have to skip out on a few end of year things at my institution to make the vacation/wedding combo work out, and I missed out on meeting up with alums back for reunion, but I generally also find there’s less going on in June than in mid- to late-August, work-wise.
  • Fewer crowds. There were still plenty of people at the parks, but definitely fewer than we’ve encountered on our August trips. We could do all of the tours we wanted, when we wanted, at Mesa Verde, and navigated Rocky Mountain NP easily (the 2 parks we were most worried about).
  • More realistic about my summer plans and goals. One trap I routinely fall into coming out of spring term is seeing the summer stretch out ahead of me and thinking that I’ll develop some superpower that will allow me to complete about 6 months worth of work in 8 weeks. It hasn’t happened yet. Starting my “work summer” in July has given me a more realistic view of how much time and energy I have available this summer. When I finally sat down to plan out my summer on Monday, I found that I was more pragmatic about the time and energy I have available and could better map out how much time I could spend on various projects. For the first time, I have a realistic set of goals and priorities!

The cons

  • “That’s it?” I didn’t realize just how much I enjoy anticipating our late summer trips until we returned from this early summer trip. I feel deep and profound sadness that there’s no trip in August to look forward to.
  • “Now what?” It felt weird and a bit disconcerting to me to be almost a month in to my summer and not have any summer goals/plans set for work. It’s July and I don’t have a summer routine yet. This lack of routine is also problematic for the kiddos, and I find we’re working harder than we usually do to help the kids navigate their summer routines and rhythms.
  • Less end of year slack. I didn’t realize how much I, and those around me, rely on the first couple of weeks of summer to wrap up the academic year, until I was forced to wrap up everything in time to pack up the car and head out of town. For me, this meant more meetings during Reading Days that I would have typically scheduled for the week after graduation, and some meetings that I’ve had to push off until August. The Reading Days meetings felt frantic, and the August meetings run the danger of us forgetting valuable items in the interim.

Would we do this again, taking a break right off the bat? I think so, although I am curious to see how I’ll feel in August and how this changes the end of the summer rhythms, both family-wise and work-wise. I am not sure I could pull this off in summers where I have student collaborators, but that might depend on the collaborators and how long we’ve been working together. I do know that I feel more refreshed, more centered, and more confident going into my “work summer” than I’ve felt in forever, and I’m looking forward to seeing if I can sustain that through August.

Summer plans

Well, it had to happen eventually — my year-long sabbatical is now over, and I’m officially into summer. Which means it’s time for summer plans and setting summer goals.

Since I’m a visual person, this year I decided to make a big ol’ summer calendar and write/draw out all of my responsibilities, goals, etc. on it. I found this exercise immensely helpful — and as a bonus, it helped me figure out which weeks the kids have various camps. With 2 kids in 2 different age groups (for camp program purposes), you can imagine how complicated this becomes. In fact, there are only 4 weeks this summer where both kids are in the same camp/location at the same time.

Summer calendar

Summer calendar, in progress last week. It is much more filled in now!

We also decided this summer to purposely not schedule the kids for the entire summer. So there are weeks or partial weeks where the kids are hanging out at home with me. After a disastrous day last week where I spent more time dealing with kid shenanigans (my own and the neighbors) than on the work I needed to complete, I came up with a daily task list for the kids to complete on the days they are home with me. So far it’s worked really well.

Summer to-do list for kids.

Thank you, Pinterest, for inspiring the entries on this list.

What’s also worked is setting a strict time limit on my own work for the day, letting the kids know how much time I will spend working and when I plan to be done. And reminding them that every interruption moves that time back. And scheduling fun things to do together after I finish working, like going to the pool or playing games. (I’m not sure who looks forward to that time more, my kids or me!)

We have a couple of shorter trips planned, plus like last year I blocked off the entire last week of August for Mom’s End Of Summer Fun Camp, which was a big hit with the kids. And I am back to teaching in our high school summer program, after a year off from that. Having those sketched out on the mega-calendar helped me visualize the time I have available to work on other projects.

I have a few projects that I’m working on this summer:

  • I received an internal curricular grant to get things up and running for my HFOSS Comps project. I’m going to spend that time getting involved in the developer community and making connections; figuring out how to contribute to the project, and how my students can contribute; and creating/modifying learning activities for and from the foss2serve community.
  • Starting to conduct interviews for my interview project. I’m a couple of months behind on this because some other projects consumed my time this spring, but I hope to get at least 5 interviews completed this summer. I’m hoping to load these up in the weeks that the kids are in camp/summer programs.
  • Continuing my state diagram/model project. The paper continues to evolve, the modeling language is mostly complete, and now I need to get the event/transition part of the model working in simulation.  I don’t expect to finish this over the summer, but I hope to get the bulk of the design done so I can finish coding it up in the fall.
  • Prep for fall term. There are some minor changes I want to make to Software Design, which I’m teaching this fall and winter. I’ll need to touch base with my community/campus partners for the other 2 Comps projects I’m supervising. I need to update my website. I’m also taking over as mentor/director of the Summer Science Fellows program at Carleton, so I need to figure out what happens when with that program and figure out what to do in the fall seminar I’m leading for this summer’s fellows, along with some other logistical things.

My main goal this summer, though, is to not stress about the things that don’t get done. There are only a few things that need to be completed this summer, but for the rest, the world will not end if I fall a bit behind. I need to make sure I am relaxed, refreshed, and ready to tackle the academic year, and that is really my number one priority this summer.