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May 14

Lyn's Favourite Things: Time Management Strategies

Following on from my last ‘Favourite Things’ post on keeping organised, this month I’m covering tips for maximising my time. I’m a big fan of making the most of the time I have as it means I have more time to spend on the things I enjoy. Here are my three favourite strategies for doing just that.

Eat a Frog

If you’ve ever had the experience of sitting down to check your emails first thing in the morning, only to realise three hours later that the most productive time of your day has disappeared, then I highly recommend frog eating. The idea comes from Mark Twain – he suggested that if you eat a live frog first thing in the morning, you’ll know that’s the worst thing that will happen to you all day. The popular time management book Eat That Frog by Brian Tracey suggests that your “frog” is your biggest and most important task. For many of us, this is the task that we are most likely to procrastinate over. It’s also potentially the task that could make the biggest difference to productivity or progress towards a larger goal.

Tracey’s book has some excellent tips for frog eating (e.g. if you have to eat a live frog, it doesn’t pay to sit and look at it for very long). For researchers, I have a couple of my own tips:

  1. Don’t eat a frog that’s too large – tasks (and frogs) are easier to achieve when they’re bite-sized. ‘Work on my PhD’ is too large, and not specific enough, but reading that journal article on your desk is do-able in one sitting.

  2. Reward yourself for eating your frog – here at Academic Consulting we keep Freddos (a.k.a. chocolate frogs) on hand for when we finish a particularly difficult task.

Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique is based on those tomato shaped oven timers that you’ve probably seen before - Pomodoro is Italian for tomato. The idea is that you set a timer for 25 minutes, and you work uninterrupted for that time – turn your phone, email etc. off and just focus. After 25 minutes, take a 5 minute break and do something different – stretch, get a cup of tea or walk around the office. You then start another 25 minute block. The people that developed the technique suggest that for every four Pomodoro’s you complete, you should take a longer break. I find for me personally, I need to take a longer break after three.

There are a number of things that I particularly like about the Pomodoro Technique – one is that you start to learn how long things take you – most of us are terrible at estimating how long a task will take, but you start to get better at this once you chunk things into 25 minute blocks. Also, research consistently shows that regular breaks improve performance, but we can be quite bad at actually doing this, so the Pomodoro Technique is a good reminder.

Fit the Big Rocks in First

A standard technique for teaching time management is to give a group a pile of rocks and a carton of sand and ask them to put both into a jar. The idea is that the rocks represent the high priority tasks and the sand is the low priority tasks. Obviously the order you put them into the jar is important. If you put the sand in first, the rocks just aren’t going to fit. If you put the rocks in first, the sand can filter into the jar around it. Moral of the story, if you don’t complete the important tasks first, they’re not going to get done.

A nice technique for helping you fit those big rocks in is to make a meeting with yourself – literally. If you were meeting another person, you’d arrive on time with your phone switched off and you’d dedicate your concentration for the time you have set aside. So why not treat your own time with as much respect? The really nice thing about this technique is when a colleague or family member asks you to do something else, you can honestly say, “I’m sorry but I have a meeting at that time”.

My last tip also relates to the jar of rocks – there’s always smaller blocks of time that you can make the most of. The jar looks full with rocks, but there are in fact small gaps. I like to keep a list of tasks that will only take me 5–10 minutes (I call these my ‘quick wins’). That way when I find myself with a few minutes to spare I can get a task achieved and cross it off my list.

 

Pick one of the above techniques to try out over the next week – remember though that not all strategies work equally well for everyone so it’s important to find what works for you personally!

 
 
Apr 25

Tips for Online Training

If you’ve enrolled in one of Academic Consulting’s upcoming online training courses, we recommend you take the time to plan ahead to ensure you get the most out of the session. We’ve compiled some tips to help you do just that.

Check in advance whether you can successfully connect

We use GoToWebinar to deliver our online training – this doesn’t require any special equipment to participate but there are some minimum system requirements. GoToWebinar have a ‘Get Ready’ page that you can visit to check whether you meet these. This webpage does all the work for you, checking your OS, browser version, and even the strength of your Internet connection.

Also on the above ‘Get Ready’ page is a link to connect to a test session. We strongly recommend that you try this well in advance of the session – if you experience issues connecting you’ll need to troubleshoot, and it’s possible that you may need to seek support from your local IT staff. You don’t want to be doing this two minutes before the session is due to start!

Ensure you have a stable internet connection

Online training uses considerable bandwidth, so plan to attend the training at a location with a stable internet connection (using the guest Wifi at your local café is probably not the best idea, much as the coffee is probably excellent). If you find the audio or video skipping during the session, try closing down other applications that may be using bandwidth such as your email or Skype.

Things to think about for software training

If you’re attending a software-related training course such as NVivo or SPSS, check beforehand that your license is up-to-date and that the version you’re using matches the one we’ll be presenting with (the version number is always detailed in the course description). If you’re using a different OS or version, don’t panic – the course may still be relevant to you, but check with us beforehand to make sure.

For our software training courses, you’ll receive a copy of the practical exercise files beforehand in case you’d like to follow along as we present. Ensure you download these locally before the course so that you have easy access to them.

Following along live with the presentation works best if you have a dual screen set-up (it’s a little tricky juggling both GoToWebinar and the software you need on a single screen). If you’re not lucky enough to have two monitors, you could consider having a second device set-up. For example, you could play the webinar on a mobile device while you’re working through the exercises on your computer. If that all sounds a bit too tricky, don’t feel like you need to follow along live – you’ll receive a copy of the recording after the session and you will be able to use this to practice at a later stage.

Maximise your learning opportunities

For any of our training courses that are two hours or longer in length, we send you a copy of the course materials (handouts and slides) ahead of time. It might be helpful to review these beforehand and also print them off in case you wish to take additional notes.

You’ll receive a link to a recording of the session and will have access to this for a two-week period. Try and make some time to review the material as soon as possible after the course – this is a great strategy to solidify new learning.

To get the most out of your online training, and to minimise distractions, pop a do not disturb sign on your office door and turn your email and phone off.

Do ask questions throughout and make the most of opportunities for interaction – this is an excellent way to learn the material and you’ll likely enjoy the session more by participating.

 

 

Mar 23

Lyn’s Favourite Things: Keeping Organised

In case anyone missed our recent research webinar series, I thought I’d do a rundown of my favourite tips, starting out with what I use to stay on top of the huge pile of information, ideas, literature, and data that comes my way. I think I sometimes give the impression that I’m a seriously organised and efficient person, but my colleagues will attest to the fact that being organised isn't something that comes naturally to me – I definitely have to work at it, and these are the things in my research toolkit that assist with this.

I use Trello to organise the projects and tasks I need to complete. It’s like having a giant wall with different coloured post-it notes that you can constantly re-arrange depending on their priority. Tasks can have due dates and other information assigned to them and you can organise these tasks to suit. Trello becomes particularly useful when you’re working in a team, as everyone has a central place to see what needs to be done, and as it’s online, everyone in your team can access it. Trello is free or you can subscribe for additional functionality and storage.

Evernote is my “go to” application for storing information such as meeting notes, snapshots of webpages, and reminders of project-critical information that I might need while I’m out of the office. The thing I love the most about Evernote is that I’ve never not been able to locate a piece of information I needed. You can tag information with keywords and store within customised notebooks, and the powerful search function recognises even the messiest handwriting. There is a free version of Evernote, but once you start using it you’ll likely be hooked and want to splash out for one of the paid subscriptions.

XMind is a mind mapping application that I use for notetaking and tracking the light bulb moments I have as a researcher. I use it for a range of purposes, for example, to help me take notes at a research team meeting, plan a chapter I’m going to write, or even just brainstorm for an upcoming project. There is a free version with reasonable functionality, or you can pay to upgrade to XMind Pro.

Zotero helps me keep my literature organised – importing information into my account is a breeze and once it’s there I can easily organise it within custom collections or with tags (keywords). My PDFs are neatly linked to the citation they relate to and I can take notes on each article that are attached to the item itself. Zotero is open source so you don't need to pay for it, but there are costs involved if you exceed the basic storage capacity.

Lastly, NVivo is my software of choice when it comes to managing my qualitative data. Not only does it keep my coding nicely organised, but I can use memos to keep track of my own reflections, I can ask it to track every action I make in a project, and its search capacity helps me track down that great quote that I just can’t seem to lay my hands on. I might have conducted my qualitative analysis with highlighter pens and scissors in the past, but now that I’ve used NVivo there’s no going back – it makes my life as a researcher significantly easier. There is a price tag attached, but check with your organisation as to whether they have an existing license you can tap into.

Use the links above for further details about each application. If you're interested in learning more, we have training courses for both NVivo and Zotero and you can book in for a consultation with me to learn how to best use XMind, Trello or Evernote.

 

Oct 21

What exactly is "online training"?

There’s a growing trend towards training courses being offered in online formats. Here at Academic Consulting, we prefer face-to-face training (we like to see your smiling faces!), but the reality is that busy researchers often don’t have the time to attend face-to-face courses.

When I mention that most of our training is now online, I’m usually greeted with horrified expressions. Being a curious researcher, I’ve been interested to understand why, and as a result I’m increasingly aware of the different views people have about online learning.  So, I decided to dispel a few of the myths for you…

Myth #1: I won’t be able to ask questions

Online training often refers to pre-recorded content that can be watched at your own pace, but this isn’t always this case. For example, some online training provides the capacity for you to ask questions in an asynchronous format. Sure, you don’t get an answer right away, but you can still ask! In an Academic Consulting training course, you can do both – our sessions are presented live and the facilitator answers submitted questions as they come in. Sometimes the best questions don’t occur to you until after the training though – you’re welcome to email these through to us when they come to mind.

Myth #2 & #3: My technical skills aren’t good enough/I can’t attend as I don’t know what to do

The platform we use (GoToWebinar) is incredibly user-friendly. If you’re new to the format, check out the YouTube video we’ve created for newbies – this shows you how to connect, what the platform looks like etc.

Not sure you’ve got the right equipment to take part? All you need is an internet connected device and speakers (headphones might be useful if you share an office). You can be using a desktop, laptop, or mobile device – it doesn’t matter. Not sure your machine has what it takes? GoToWebinar will automatically check whether you meet the system requirements if you visit: https://care.citrixonline.com/gotowebinar/get-ready.

If you’re unsure about the technical side of things – you can “try before you buy”. We have a number of free, one-hour webinars that you can attend to see how you find the experience. Details of upcoming webinars can be viewed at: http://www.academic-consulting.co.nz/schedule

Myth #4: I won’t be able to keep up

No worries – we record all our sessions, and you’ll have access to the recording for two weeks after the training. If you need the content later on, just email us to ask and we’ll grant you access again. For our software workshops, having a recording to practise with makes for an ideal learning experience – if you can’t keep up in the live session you can watch again, and press pause whenever you need to.

Myth #5: I won’t get training notes

As part of your registration fee for our online sessions, you’ll receive training notes and/or copies of Powerpoint slides. We send these beforehand so that you can print them off to take notes during the session if you want to - just like being in a face-to-face class. Speaking of which…

Myth #6: I won’t feel part of a ‘class’

It certainly won’t be exactly the same experience, but you’ll get to hear other attendees’ questions, and take part in quizzes and other interactive exercises. We put a lot of effort into ensuring our online courses are as similar to face-to-face classes as possible, so while you won’t be able to “see” fellow attendees, you’ll get a feel for who else is online with you.

 

If you still have concerns or are not sure which course is right for you, then don’t hesitate to contact me to discuss. I look forward to “seeing” you online!

 

Oct 11

NVivo Coding Tips and Tricks

We’ve used NVivo extensively for coding over the years and have discovered a number of tips and tricks that we’d like to share. We’re not suggesting that these are the “right” way to code (we don’t believe there is such a thing), but we’ve certainly found that we’ve saved ourselves some time, not to mention headaches, by following the suggestions below!

Create descriptions for all your nodes

Take the time to enter descriptions when you create nodes. This can be beneficial both to the coding process, as well as your overall data analysis. Nodes often represent abstract or complex concepts, so it’s easy to forget what you intended, and meanings can evolve over time as your analysis progresses. For those of you working in teams, descriptions are particularly important to ensure that everyone has a shared understanding of the nodes. Descriptions can be entered as you create a node within the ‘New Node’ dialog box, or you can insert and amend them at a later stage.

Keep an eye on the number of nodes in your project

One of the problems with NVivo (admittedly a positive one) is that it is very easy to create nodes and perform coding. The downside of this is that it is very easy to get carried away! Having a large number of very specific nodes can slow you down and negatively impact on the overall quality of your data analysis.

One of the most common questions we’re asked is “How many nodes should I have in my NVivo project?” Our usual response is that there is no magic number – this will be driven by your methodology and research questions, the type of analysis you are looking to perform, as well as the nature of your data. Keep in mind though that ‘less is more’!

Be selective about how much data you code

Another area where the ‘less is more’ principle applies is in relation to the amount of text to select when coding. Many researchers intuitively want to include surrounding contextual data. Unfortunately, this can create problems later on as you end up with lots of extra reading around the primary content. It also makes it difficult to discern patterns in the data. We recommend that you code only the data that specifically relates to the node that you are coding to. And, remember that NVivo allows you to easily view contextual information if needed. Simply right-click over coded text and select either Open Referenced Source, Coding Context, or Spread Coding.

Keep track of your coding

I know that I like to keep track of my coding as I go, just to make sure the information has been coded to the right node. There are a few ways to do this - my preference is to use the ‘Coding Density Bar’ (from the ribbon choose View > Coding Stripes > Coding Density Only). This appears as a stripe down the right-hand side of your document, and if you ‘hover’ your mouse over the stripe it will list all the nodes that relate to that section of data. As this is updated as you code, you’re able to keep an eye on which node(s) the data has been coded to.

Allow sufficient time for coding

Lastly, don’t under-estimate how long the coding process will take. Even with the benefit of a tool such as NVivo, qualitative data analysis can be a complex process and you need sufficient time to do it justice. When planning your research, we recommend that you leave yourself more time than you think you will need for this stage of the process. It’s also important that you avoid coding for too long in one sitting, and we always like to take a break between coding each source. These simple steps will help maintain a high standard of coding for your research project.

There’s only room to share some of our coding advice in this blog, so if you’d like to extend your learning in this area, consider attending our online course ‘Become an NVivo Coding Ninja’.We’ve got a lot more tips to share!  Alternatively, our ‘NVivo Core Skills’ course is suitable for those new to the software who are looking for an introduction to the coding process, and is offered both face-to-face and online. Hope to see you there!

 

Sep 26

What's a masterclass?

I’ve been pondering the meaning of the term ‘masterclass’. I began thinking about this last November when I caught up with some of my fellow NVivo trainers in Melbourne. One of them had enrolled in a survey masterclass and was rather annoyed to find that it was introductory level. At the time I had just scheduled some masterclasses for our own training programme, so I was left wondering whether I had appropriately described these!

Fast forward six months and I found myself enrolling in a masterclass at my local yoga studio. Sitting in the studio that morning, a moment of horror dawned – what on earth was I doing in a masterclass? I’d only been practising yoga for a year – remembering the names of the poses was hard enough, never mind the correct placement of my feet (the fact that I’m terribly clumsy and hopeless at remembering left from right doesn’t help either, but that’s a story for another blog post!). 

Once I got past the fact that I was completely out my depth, I got an enormous amount out of that particular class. I not only learned lots from the teacher, but also from the more advanced students attending. There were some really interesting discussions (which I could mostly understand thanks to having been taught the basics well), there were a lot of laughs, and most importantly I left feeling inspired about what was possible with my yoga practice.

A quick check on Google for the term masterclass reveals various definitions, all of which focus on the class being taught by an expert. I particularly liked a definition that suggested a masterclass is taught by someone who is “charismatic”, but that’s probably because I’m teaching our sessions! In terms of who attends a masterclass, some definitions state that the attendees would be “exceptional” or “good students”, while others suggest that masterclasses are suitable for beginners through to experts.

So having thought at length about this, I’ve decided that a masterclass is a one-off, special event, taught by someone who is expert in the subject matter, and hopefully charismatic! Attendees may include anyone with a genuine interest in the subject, regardless of their level of experience, but ideally they'll know the basics.

So – if you like the sound of our two upcoming masterclasses on Qualitative Data Analysis and NVivo – but are worried you’re not “expert” enough, then you might like to rethink this! For the Qualitative Data Analysis Masterclass, all you need to know is a little about the process of coding, and ideally you’ll have had a go at analysing some qualitative data yourself. The NVivo Masterclass requires that you know how to set up a project and perform coding, and you’ll also need a basic understanding of classifications and queries. My hope is that like my own recent experience at a masterclass, you’ll learn lots, we’ll have some laughs and interesting discussions, and most importantly you’ll leave feeling inspired for your next qualitative project. Can’t wait to see you there!

 

Sep 20

Writing up qualitative research

While preparing for one of our ‘Writing up Qualitative Research’ workshops recently, I began to reminisce about my early research career and the process of writing reports back in the early 90s (yep, that long ago!). These were the days when I had to share a computer with the other junior researcher in the organisation – we mainly hand wrote our reports and passed them over to production staff who would type them up for us. Our manager would then make significant edits via red pen slashes across the page, the material would be sent back to the production team, and so the process would go. Thankfully, technology and work practices have moved on, but it did remind me of the sweat and tears I used to go through to draft a report. I also remember that, while I struggled with writing for a number of years, all of a sudden something just seemed to ‘click’ and it has actually now become one of my favourite stages of the research process.

So, I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learnt along the way to streamline the writing process: both in terms of saving time, and in relation to reducing stress levels!

  1. Start with the easy stuff. If I’m having an off day and struggling to write, instead of torturing myself trying to finish the section I had earmarked for completion, I switch my focus to the ‘easy stuff’. Material that falls into this category generally includes descriptive sections such as methods or sample composition. More often than not, this gets me into a writing flow and I can then switch back to the earlier material, which somehow no longer seems as difficult.
  2. Don’t labour too long over a sentence or phrase (or even a word). Again, this can result in increased stress and delays to your writing. If I’m struggling to find the right word or phrase I either insert something temporary and highlight it, or just put in a series of ???? to hold the place. Usually when I come back to it later, it is much easier to identify the right words or phrases.
  3. Make use of existing material. There’s nothing more satisfying than copying and pasting material from earlier documents (e.g. a research proposal) into your report or thesis. Boom - instant word count! You will probably need to tweak it a bit, but I generally find it easier to edit earlier writing rather than starting from scratch. Existing material can also include field notes or memos you’ve kept during your research journey that can be transformed into findings within your document.
  4. Make sure your analysis is complete before you start writing.If I try and start writing a chapter or section before I have fully analysed the data, I generally find it difficult to get my ideas down on the page. Or, at the very least, they come out jumbled and unclear. Although it may feel a bit like you are going backwards in the process, if this happens to you, I would suggest that you go back to your data, revisit your analysis, and start writing again once it’s clearer in your mind. This almost always resolves the problem for me.
  5. Pick your time of day to write. I don’t know about you, but come 3 o’clock in the afternoon my brain tends not to be at its peak performance (my colleagues will attest to this!). I am most definitely a morning person, and boy is this evident when it comes to writing. The paragraph I struggle over at 6pm, I can whip up in five minutes at 6am the next morning. My preferred writing time is between about 6am and 11am. This may be different for you – I have friends who get on a roll with writing at 2am. Whenever your productive time is, make sure you schedule your writing around this.
  6. Edit from paper-based copies. I can touch type and am pretty fast on the old keyboard – but when it comes to serious editing, I find that I do it more effectively from print-outs of my writing. There’s something about moving away from my computer and reading through a paper copy that allows me to get a better sense of the text, how it flows, and whether or not the structure is working. I usually do this well into my writing, when I’ve got a reasonable chunk of text to review. I know it’s not great for the environment to be printing out reams of paper every day, but you can minimise the impact by being selective about when you do it, making sure you print double-sided, two pages per sheet, etc.

I do hope the above tips are helpful for those of you who find the writing process difficult. Let us know if you have any other tips from your own experiences – we’d love to hear them! And, if you are interested in learning more, consider signing up for our upcoming ‘Writing Up Qualitative Data’ online training course


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