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I'm currently working on a DPhil in HCT at the University of Sussex. This section of the website is for an on-going 'learning diary', for me to write my thoughts and notes on various courses and my thesis.

Entries in course (4)


Inbox zero and tech-task lists: getting things done

Inbox zero has seemed totally unobtainable to me for a long time. I am the kind of person who can easily collect over 1000 emails in a work inbox, although I do try and keep my private one down to a dull roar down at around 300. I've tried filing things, but then they just get missed. So I signed up for this course more in hope than expectation if I'm honest, thinking I could do with the help but not really expecting it to stick.

The course (led by the supremely over-achieving Martin Eve - I swear he has more hours in the day than normal people) introduced the idea of using an email-based todo list (producteev.com) to clear out your inbox. His reasoning is quite simple and straightforward, but was a connection that I have never made: any mail I leave in my inbox is actually a todo item. That's why I miss things when I move them to a different folder. The emails hang around forever, because I never get around to putting any kind of date on the todo item or defining what it is I have to actually do - they just sit there, making me feel vaguely guilty and think things like 'Oh, I must get around to...'.

I can honestly say this has been a totally revolutionary idea to me. I'm now aiming to spend half an hour first thing going through my mail (I don't get a lot of new mail now, fortunately, so this includes going through some of the backlog) and clearing things quickly as I need, or if they need longer than a minute or two sending them to my todo list and filing the email somewhere practical. Emails that don't have anything for me to do but I want to keep for sentimental reasons (e.g. from family) I file, so I know where to find them. (Actually, even with the family ones I've been adding a reminder to reply. Is that bad?)

It's working a treat! I'm down from 350 to 16 emails in my personal account, and 500+ down to 209 in my uni account. This is a triumph! I've even got round to doing things like reading papers that people have sent me (or at least filing them in the right place so I can find them later), deleting reminders that are well past their deadlines, and filing project-related stuff appropriately! I'm not sure how long this will last - I haven't quite got into the habit of adding in non-email related tasks yet, and my estimates of time scales are currently pretty rubbish - but it's a great start.

Strange how a small shift in conceptual viewpoint can make such a big difference! 


Poster presentation course

Yesterday I attended a poster presentation course. I kept hearing about posters and how PhD students normally start out by presenting them at conferences, but I wasn't entirely sure what it meant. Surely they don't just mean you make a poster that shows your work, do they?

Erm. Yes. Yes, they do. A poster is a graphical representation of your work to date. Just like in primary school. 

Unlike primary school, there should be a reasonably clear structure to them. In fact, the information presented should be rather like an exceptionally brief paper, with snappy title, background, methodology, results and conclusions. The order of the names on the poster (and apparently putting only one name on the poster is very bad form - your supervisor's name should go on there at the very least) is critical. The acknowledgements section is important. And don't forget the (brief) references section (ideally less than 10). 

The results section is the most important - that's the bit you can't put any spin on, what you will actually be judged on. Even if the results are preliminary, which many are. The methodology should give an idea of what you are doing, but not spell out every step clearly to prevent intellectual theft (as posters are unpublished and therefore not protected). The conclusions should remind of the problem and the results, and show why the results are interesting, along with indicating the relevance to other published work and what your future work may be. 

Quite like primary school, a bit of polish goes a long way. Of course, what that means has probably changed since I was 10. It's no longer a lovely double-border with a decorative pattern made from joined up letters. Now it ideally means you create a large pdf file and pay someone to colour print it for you. Printing multiple A4 pages and glueing them onto some backing paper is apparently not a good option, and looks like you haven't really prepared. 

There was a link given to studentposters.co.uk for poster templates which may come in handy - apparently starting from a template is an easy way to make sure you get the right size when it's printed out. Also, different conferences have different maximum sizes and may have different requirements for anonymity, so it is really, really important to read the guidelines for the conference. And finally, work out what you want the result of the poster to be before you write it: if you want a job, focus on how your work is relevant for industry. If you want collaborators, structure the information to show where people could help. 

So, all in all a potentially-useful course. A good overview on posters, and what to expect. The venue left a little to be desired, but that building (Fulton - it's brand new, but I don't like it) has some technical issues. I'll leave those for another rant!


Profolio Course

I think one of the biggest surprises to me about this PhD lark has been just how differently the academic world seems to work compared to the commercial one. I picked up reasonably quickly that reputation plays a huge part in the academic world, but how do you go about getting a good academic reputation when you're just a lowly PhD student? 

So I went on a course. Sussex Uni run a whole load of courses for students. This one was the Profolio: for New Doctoral Researchers course. It was divided into two parts: one part keeping a personal record of the things you do and what skills you can demonstrate over the course of your PhD, and the other part about getting an online presence to demonstrate what you've done and what you are about to other researchers.

I'll be honest, I hate a lot of the personal record stuff. They have one of those lovely 'skills audit tools', full of such wonderful phrases as 'Engagement, influence and impact'. Instant loathing on my part. That's very unfair of me and it is good (I grudgingly admit) to keep track of these sorts of things on the way through. It makes updating the CV so much easier when the time comes! 

I found the outwards facing bit to be much more interesting. They had talks from a couple of other PhD candidates, one focussing much more on the getting out and meeting people through societies etc, the other on online presence and using tools such as blogging, twitter etc. to get your voice out there. We also got to grips with our profile pages on the University of Sussex directory. That's one of those tasks where I've been meaning to do it, but I really wasn't sure what to put in the various sections. I think I probably got more from looking at other people's but it was good to have done it before the session so I could get a second opinion on what I'd written. (My profile page - http://www.sussex.ac.uk/profiles/196717)

I think one of the main things I'll be taking from the course is something I kind of already knew. I need to focus this part of my blogging down onto my research (my personal blog tends to veer all over the place!) and I need to blog more often. I think that will be a good habit to get into, to get used to writing something regularly.

The other thing I need to stop doing is actually being quite dismissive when someone asks me about my research. I think it's mostly because I'm not totally clear on my research question myself yet, but I must stop doing it! I think I possibly need to come up with a short and pithy way to explain the duality of the game production and the PhD research. I'll work on that. 


Journal keeping

Long time between posts. As it happens, my colleague and I started a blog at http://grdphil.blogspot.com/ to note down a lot of our project issues and reading etc, so I've been posting there quite a lot. 

We've been making some pretty good progress I think. We've settled on a Flash front end with Java backend, using SmartFoxServer 2.0 to link the two and Hibernate to make it easy to get things in and out of the database. We've done some iterations of a possible front end, and we're currently waiting for feedback from our ebullient client on his latest forays into the world with them! 

I went on a course, all about my career development as a researcher. The Profolio course. Apart from making me fill out one of those dreadful "give evidence of when you have done xxx", they also pointed out the importance of keeping notes of what you've done and when. This (I think) is subtly different from the blog we're keeping over at GRDPhil, although there will be certain overlaps. So I thought I'd brush this section up a bit and update. 

Last term I did my first bit of teaching, helping out on the Multimedia Design for Applications course, that I actually did back during my masters. It was strange being on the other side of it! I was just helping out in the lab sessions. 10 sessions, Thursday morning 9-11. Getting there for 9 every week was good. There were supposed to be 90 people in the lab session, but I don't think we ever got more than about 50 turn up. There were always the same 10 people there at 9 - the AmEx students and about 6 others. There were questions that needed my knowledge of Flash, but mostly I think I was teaching how to debug. How to watch what variables were set to what values, and work out what was going wrong from that. I think it's an under-rated skill. 

Have to see what I end up teaching in the future!