Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Dear Kate - November 2013 Edition

The namesake of this advice column is Katharine McCormick, who graduated from MIT with a B.Sc. in Biology in 1904. Among others, she was the benefactor of McCormick Hall, a suffragist and a philanthropist.  We hope to continue her legacy and dedication to the advancement of women through this advice column. This month’s column features the same question as the October edition of Dear Kate, but the answer has a completely different spirit and is useful in a different way. As such, we wanted to feature it on its own.

Dear Kate,

During the school year, research gets pushed aside for more immediate but less important obligations (e.g. classes). My project has no foreseeable deadlines or deliverables, and graduation is so far off that it’s of no use motivationally. How can I stay motivated to move my research forward?
Floating along

I think that many researchers face this issue because research is not a well-defined task.  You're constantly faced with the question of what you should work on next, and humans are wired to choose the immediate payoff (homework) over the long-term payoff (research).  (For a fun internet rabbit-hole on this, see and  The trick is not to try to rewire your brain.  Instead, create short-term research tasks that happen on the same time scale as your homework, so that you can remove the value bias against your longer-term research goals.  Your decision-making skills can get tired (, and in order to get things done you have to remove as many barriers and decisions as possible so that you can sit down and work without constantly having to make decisions about what your priorities are.

I had this issue in graduate school and didn't really know what to do about it.  These days my work has the same problem, but I've learned how to trick myself into making research seem like a short-term task.  My usual plan goes like this:
1. At the beginning of a project, or at the beginning of a major phase of a project, break the work down into month-scale or week-scale tasks.
2. Decide which month-scale or week-scale task I'm working on, and break it down into even smaller bits.  I do this whenever I'm finished with the last task chunk, not really on a schedule.
3. Weekly, make a list of tasks.  This includes components of the task chunk I'm working on, plus other things like homework, administrative stuff, meetings, making slides and posters, etc.  Most of these tasks are sized to take less than a day.  I usually make this list on Friday, because what I still need to do is fresh in my mind and I can start work on Monday without too much start-up time.  Since the research work has been broken into smaller tasks that are the same size as shorter-term work, I have an easier time deciding what to do next, and prioritizing the research work appropriately.

So for instance, if I want to write a paper, first I decide what sections it's going to have.  Then I write down the big accomplishments I need to complete each section.  That might be "create a circuit model that represents my structure" or "do this software-defined radio experiment."  Then I break down each of those larger tasks into very small ones, like "look up a formula for microstrip gap capacitance for the circuit model" or "test the timed message control block for the software-defined radios."  There's no way that I can do a complex task like an experiment on the same time scale as homework (and temporal myopia makes it hard to judge which task I should be working on), but I can definitely test one part of the experiment setup, then do my homework, then switch back to the next research task.  Working this way has the positive side effect of keeping my schedule pretty sane, because I know when to declare a project "done" and what steps to take to get there.

Good luck,
Kate K.-P.
Kate K-P. obtained her Ph.D. at MIT in the EECS department

Thank you to the Dear Kate student contributor and to Kate K.-P.!

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