Tweet I have seen many people asking for help in data mining forums and on other websites about how to choose a good thesis topic in data mining.
I laughed, but since I briefly ran a small business the comment struck a chord with me. After much thought, I think small business owners and academics have two key problems in common: Since outside of a teaching schedule no one is really telling you what to do with every minute of your time, it can be hard to choose what to do next — especially if all the tasks seem equally important.
Problem One leads to being over-committed, probably constantly. Problem Two makes individual days hard to organise, leading to decision fatigue and fractured attention states. When Problem One, over-commitment, collides with Problem Two choosing what to do next, the trouble really starts.
Flipping erodes your focus, making each task take longer than it really should, at time same time slowly eating you precious time and energy. Every time you start flipping you are creating a technical debt that you will have to pay eventually. This is a concept from computer science that I have discussed before in relation to researching.
Academic work incurs technical debt because of the inter-connected nature of most of the tasks. A simple task, such as reading a paper, relates to bigger projects which are ongoing, like a literature review.
Part of finishing the task of reading the paper is processing the ideas it presented and putting them in relation to other ideas and your own. If you only half read a bunch of papers, ideas start buzzing around in no particular order.
I bet you have heaps of notes in journals that you never look at again — I certainly do. The academic attempting to save time just writes stuff they noticed in a journal, hoping that will preserve the thoughts for their future self.
We imagine our future self will have the calm thinking space that is eluding your present self, but how just realistic is this? How do we stop all the flipping? So what does a good to do list look like? A not very useful to-do list might look like this: Read the papers I downloaded last week Write a bunch of notes Write the literature review section A useful to-do list will break down these large, vague terms into discrete, actionable steps.
My friend Dr Jason Downs says that to-do list items should always have verbs in them, like so some verbs in bold type: You will read far, far too much and end up with an unmanageable hoard of references. Look in your diary for stretches of uninterrupted time of at least 2 hours, but not more than four.
Mark them as dedicated to your literature review. Do not fool yourself by thinking you can do reading and note taking for whole days. You need time to absorb all that academic goodness.
Be kind to yourself, build in breaks and time to do other things. Do a proper, systemmatic literature search. Your purpose here is just to find things related to the topic. Start with your supervisor and then the databases in your area.
Keep track of your keywords — they might end up being useful as themes later. Start a document with the key themes you noticed as headings. Write a word limit at the top. This document will become your literature review, give it a name and file it accordingly.
Make a short list of papers you will deep read. Be ambitious, but try to rank them in order of importance so that you do the most crucial ones first. Deep read the most interesting looking of the papers with the timer on.
As you read scribble on the paper or your journal and think deeply about how this paper relates to others. Divide these in half to give you some writing and editing time.
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