Paper- and thesis-writing advice

My writing zone
I’m at the stage of my PhD where I’m finishing research for and writing up my last two chapters (and then putting together a broad intro and conclusion for everything), and writing two fellowship applications, and sometimes I have trouble focusing on what I’m working on. I asked my wonderful friends on Twitter and Facebook who’ve written theses and papers for their advice, and it’s all so good! So I’m sharing it with you! It has been lightly edited for flow.

(And yes, I know I’ve written two theses and two first-author papers before. Apparently I’ve blocked it out.)

Make a plan

“Maybe make an outline with just the section, subsections, etc first, and then fill in. It’s actually a good idea to do that as soon as you are pretty sure the results will turn into a paper.” – Tom Maccarone via Facebook

“Lay out a timetable with achievable goals for each day/week and stick to it. Also vary what you’re doing, one paper one week another the next.” – Lucy Heil via Facebook

Make an outline to keep it organized and keep you on track. I also don’t write in order. I’ll start at the end and jump around based on how I’m feeling. What also works for me is a change of setting or writing in a notebook instead of staring at a computer screen.” – Desi Paynter-Plivac via Facebook

“When I have a big deadline, I find it helpful to really use a daily planner and write in everything, especially those things that always seem to distract me (social media, email, housework, etc). I give myself a set time of the day to check email or Facebook. When I’m tempted to go there, I remind myself, ‘no, you get to check Facebook at 4, not now.’ I actually need to do this more.” – Rachel Frey via Facebook

“For myself, I know I can’t get myself to write papers that don’t tell (compelling!) stories. So I’m very selective about what I take on.” – Richard Scalzo via Twitter

Break it into bite-sized chunks

“Don’t make the thesis a goal. Make a small piece the goal, and then move on to the next goal.” – Tom Maccarone via Facebook

“DO NOT sit down with ‘write the whole thing’ in your head. Focus on a small part, e.g. spectral calibration with Blobbo spectrograph.” – Matt Kenworthy via Twitter

“Break it down to many small components (more than 10) and establish rewards for each (a walk, baking, TV)… Good luck!” – Anne Pasek via Twitter

“Break it down into small chunks and have lots of treats to keep you going. Stu usually had a chocolate bar in the car for me when he picked me up from the office. Also, it’s hard but take a small break either when you can or get someone to make you take one. So don’t eat at the desk, grab lunch or a coffee elsewhere. Gives you a chance to come back fresh. Evens if it’s only 5 mins, it can make a huge difference. I know it’s hard to take them but it’s better for you in the long run.” – Jeanette Gladstone via Facebook

Just start writing

Try a free write. For me, this works best with pen and paper in longhand. It works like this, just set a goal. It can be time (e.g. 10 minutes) or a number of pages (e.g. 3, longhand) and write whatever comes to mind. Write all the distracting thoughts. Write your dream from last night. Write how much you hate writing. Write what you wish you could write in your thesis. I find this gets all those distracting thoughts out of my head. Most of that I write in my free writes is crap. But occasionally something good comes up. And when that does, I just copy to my computer. But I don’t expect anything there to be good.” – Rachel Frey via Facebook

“I like starting with writing the results section, or even just the captions of my figures, because the results are the exciting bits. 🙂 Basically, just start anywhere that feels manageable to you, and make sure you give yourself plenty of rewards. Writing papers is hard!” – Daniela Huppenkothen via Twitter

Try distraction free writer, say ommwriter or google for free one. Pomodoro it. 29 minute timer, shut off all other windows. Just write. Then get out of your chair and stare outside.” – Matt Kenworthy via Twitter

“Often writing gets me in the flow, and at least it avoids spending hours/days staring at a screen. I’ve always found ‘just write’ to be solid advice. Forcing yourself to write something, even if it’s not perfect / needs to be rewritten.” – Vincent van Eylen via Twitter

“Don’t write it in order, write the bit you have the idea for. Also don’t force yourself to write if you have no inspiration, sort figures etc. until you do and then write whilst you have the thought. Don’t try to edit as you go along, get all ideas down then go back and reorganise. That’s what worked for me.” – Charlie Feldman via Facebook

“I forced myself in a harsh way to sit every day and write. No calculations, no data, no anything else, but writing only, and I forces myself to write at least 2 news pages every damn single day even if I rewrote previous pages, the manuscript has to increase by 2 text pages no matter what (I do remember how some days were very long…, that period took about 3 months) and then another 3 months went into polishing it.” – Natasha Ivanova via Facebook

“I managed by hitting up a coffee shop everyday for 3 hours. In those three hours, at least three paragraphs must be written. Why only three as my limit? Realistic expectations. Better off with few solid paragraphs than pages of BS that have to be rewritten!” – Hoang Pham via Facebook

Take frequent breaks

“On big projects, I set a timer for 20 minutes, write as many words as I can in 20 minutes, & edit it later. Easier to edit than from scratch.” – Diana Crow via Twitter

“Something like the Be Focused mac app where you only focus on a specific task during each, say, 25 minute slot and don’t do anything else. Then take a break when the time is up. This helps me so much when I’m really struggling to focus.” – Emily Petroff via Facebook

“I don’t use it myself, but I know a lot of people who use the Pomodoro timer. It makes you work for 25 minute blocks of time and then take a break. Good to use if you feel like you don’t know where to start or the project feels too big.” – Emma Gonzalez-Lesser via Facebook

“I use timers all the time. For everything. Any task that seems overwhelming isn’t so bad if you tell yourself, ‘I’m only going to work for 10/15/25 minutes, then take a break and do something else.'” – Rachel Frey via Facebook

Save the rest for when you’re feeling out of it

“When you can’t write, make figures and tables. Better yet, always make them first.” – Maria Womack via Twitter

You can always put together what you have. Plots, method..previous work. Even outlook. Just get writing. Don’t expect to be super-motivated before writing. It’s ok when it feels like a drag. Start anyway. For me motivation comes with writing.” – Ludmila Carone via Twitter

“Inserting the references, figure/section/equation links, etc… is another such thing. I prefer just to have placeholders when writing to not disturb the flow. Then do the ‘dumb’ things when I’m tired.” – Remco de Kok via Twitter

Mix it up!

Switch locations where you’re doing the writing, for me it’s easy to burn out a place and get into an unproductive rut. When I was writing my thesis I’d rotate between the office, the Library, home, and a coffee shop as I burned each place out. If you have multiple papers on the go, procrastinate on one, by working on the other.” – David Tsang via Facebook

“Have a token or clothing item that you only wear while you’re working on your thesis. I had a thesis scarf that when the scarf went on it was time to work. Also then other people can see you’re wearing your thesis scarf and they leave you alone (a friend had a thesis tiara which was arguably better).” – Emily Petroff via Facebook

“Steve Reich and standing desks. Music for 18 Musicians and Electric Counterpoint – makes you feel like everything you are writing will change the world.” – Brian Barth via Facebook

“Okay this may sound crazy but I was once in a class where we did yoga for focus and it was really helpful. You do like 2-3 minutes of sun salutations while focusing on a small goal, then immediately sit down and do it. You slow your breathing and heart rate down and clear your mind and then it becomes a lot easier to focus. Repeat as needed.” – Anna Lenti via Facebook

Take care of yourself

“Be kind to yourself and know that some days you won’t write very much and that’s ok.” – Benjamin Pope via Twitter

“I’ve found that having a ‘thesis buddy’ really helps me. She and I chat about how much progress we’ve made (a positive conversation) and sometimes meet up and write together in the library to stay motivated. I’ve also found that working somewhere with natural light helps me stay focused.” – Mackenzie Jones via Facebook

“Making your work environment as pleasant as possible is important. Whatever makes you feel good…a nice flower on your desk, scented candles, pictures of your loved ones, a hot cup of coffee… Whatever it is, but put it on your desk and make your work place your favorite place to go to. Also when I lacked inspiration, I would just take a break, walk through the woods and get back to work later. If you’re into essential oils….lemon and peppermint help with focus and mood! You can do it!!!” – Silvie Solana via Facebook


Writing this up as a blog post was one of my treats to myself for fixing some giant tables and making a big detailed combo-plot! As you can see in the top photo, I took Silvie’s advice and turned the spare room into a writing corner — so far it’s working! Good luck hugs to everyone else who’s writing up 💖💖

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Travel guide: Warsaw, Poland!

Travel guide: Warsaw, Poland
Back in May 2015 I visited Warsaw, Poland for work (visiting the Nicolaus Copernicus Astronomical Center), so I checked out the city during a little bit of free time that week! Here’s a quick list of what I did and loved:

See and do

Walking around the Old Town

I got a map at the tourist info booth, and went on a self-guided walking tour of the Old Town. I also recommend Rick Steves’ tour guides and travel advice. Warsaw had some cool artsy shops along the side streets, and I got a really nice pair of earrings in one!

I also walked along the wall of the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto and a nearby outdoor photography museum to the uprising. I didn’t go into any museums since my tourist time was quite limited.

Marie SkĹ‚odowska Curie’s birthplace

Marie Skłodowska Curie birthplace, Warsaw, Poland
For many people, Marie SkĹ‚odowska Curie’s the only female physicist (or even female scientist) they can name. As fellow #womeninSTEM I stopped by her birthplace, which has a nice mural on the outside!

Public Parks

Public Park, Warsaw, Poland
On the afternoon before we left, I hung out in one of the public parks and read my book for a bit. It was grey and a touch drizzly, but I sat on a bench under a big tree, so I still had a nice time.

The giant palm tree

Palm tree, Warsaw, Poland
There’s a giant palm tree in a traffic circle on your way from the astronomy institute into the old city. Palm trees aren’t native to Warsaw…

Eat

E. Wedel drinking chocolate

E. Wedel drinking chocolate in Warsaw, Poland
It’s not “hot chocolate”, it’s delicious molten drinkable chocolate. I happened to read about it in a travel forum when googling “what should I see in Warsaw” while I waited for my flight here, and I’M SO GLAD I DID. I recommend starting off with the classic milk chocolate, and on subsequent visits you can up your game (we visited maybe 3 times during the week). There’s an E. Wedel cafe in the Old Town.

Pierogies

Zapiecek perogy restaurant, Warsaw, Poland
We ate pierogies for most dinners, because PIEROGIES ARE DELICIOUS and honestly part of the reason I decided to go on this work trip was to gorge myself on pierogies. Zapiecek Polskie Pierogarnie is a local restaurant with a few locations around Warsaw, so we kept going back to different ones each time so that the staff wouldn’t begin to recognize us.

Other advice

Since Polish as a language is very different from any other languages I’m familiar with, I found it was best to have a small notebook and pen in my purse, so that I could write down where I wanted to go to give to the taxi driver or when asking for help. Some adults speak a bit of English, but don’t assume that you’ll be able to get by easily.

Also, if you like makeup: there’s a huge Inglot counter in the Warsaw airport duty-free! Their lipsticks are excellent.💄

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Cycling through the tulip fields

Tulip fields in South Holland, the Netherlands
It’s tulip season in the Netherlands!! So on a sunny day off at the beginning of Easter weekend, we went for an afternoon-long bike ride through the tulip fields (or more generally, bulb fields) in South Holland, a province of the Netherlands. I recommend going in the middle-to-end of April for optimal spectacular sights, but as many guidebooks will tell you, anytime mid-March through mid-May should still yield picturesque views.

Bikes

Bikes in tulip fields
Since I live in Amsterdam, we didn’t want to cycle alllll the way there and THEN cycle around, so we started in Sassenheim, a town between Amsterdam Schiphol airport and Leiden. It costs about €6 on top of the normal train fare to bring your bike. If you’re just visiting and don’t have your own bike, you can rent bikes at the airport or Keukenhof gardens and cycle from there, rent them in town and take them on the train, or if you live in the Netherlands, rent them at train stations with OV-fiets. A cruiser bike or road bike is fine for this trip — no need to have a fancy off-road bike.

The route

Bike route through tulip fields in South Holland, the Netherlands
I consulted these sites to determine the best route for us: Holland Cycling, Tulips in Holland, and The Spinlister Blog. Most of them make use of the bike path network, which has numbered points (knooppunten) with various connecting routes. The route mapped above is 30 km (18.6 mi), which takes about 2 hours without stops. Keep in mind though, you’ll stop frequently to take photos and enjoy the view! I encourage you to use the Fietsknoop app to plan the above route (unfortunately I can’t embed it as a navigable map) or make your own!

At or near each knooppunt, there’s a map showing the local area with connecting paths and points, so you can navigate without needing GPS. In the picture above, the route we took is marked with green lines, and the dark blue lines show the other bicycle routes in the area. In purple between points 44 and 48, I marked the part where we deviated from the nice paths and went on the normal bike path alongside the road. As mentioned above, we started at the train station in Sassenheim, and just went towards the town center until we hit Hoofdstraat, then turned right. That pretty much put us at point 50 (bottom center, marked with a big star).

The route in text: Sassenheim Station > 50 > 58 > 55 > 57 > 38 > 07 > 49 > 40 > 48 > 11 > 44 > towards 06 then turn left at Delftweg to 48 > 47 > 80 > 75 > 74 > 59 > 58 > 56 > 50 > Sassenheim Station.

Cycling through tulip fields!

Hyacinth field in South Holland, the Netherlands
Red and yellow tulips in South Holland, the Netherlands
We improvised a bit (that’s the polite phrasing for “going the wrong way but being fine with it and eventually getting back on track”, right?), but generally stuck to the above route. Go at a comfortable pace, take photos, pull off for a picnic when you feel like it, and don’t forget to literally stop and smell the flowers! There are also a couple cafes throughout the route, and their prices looked reasonable.

Local tips

  • There are other systems of numbered route points that you’ll see on wooden posts as you cycle around. You want to use the green circled numbers that are on small street signs.
  • Bring picnic snacks (cheese, crackers, fruit, etc.) and at least a liter of drinking water.
  • Dutch words that might be useful:
    • bloem(en) = flower(s)
    • bollenvelden = bulb fields, the more accurate name for the tulip fields (since there are daffodils and hyacinths as well)
    • fiets = bike, both the noun and the verb
    • tulp(en) = tulip(s)

Tulip fields without cycling

If cycling isn’t your forte, you can still see much of this route if you take the train from Haarlem to Leiden (about 20 minutes), though be warned that it flashes by pretty quickly. You can also walk through displays of countless varieties of tulips and other bulb flowers at the Keukenhof gardens.

Is seeing the Dutch tulip fields on your bucket list? If you’ve already been, what’s your favourite route?

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Astronomy projects with Google Summer of Code

Google Summer of Code GSoC
Google Summer of Code projects are now open for application! We’re looking for some undergrads to work in python on black hole X-ray analysis code (they don’t need to know any astrophysics in advance): check out our Timelab ideas page. There are also some astronomy projects with the OpenAstronomy umbrella organization.

If you’re mentoring undergrads (or are an undergrad yourself) who particularly like coding, this could be great astro-programming experience for them! Google Summer of Code is a paid internship for people who are enrolled as undergraduate students as of May 4th 2017.

Please encourage your undergrads to apply!! Applications are open until April 3rd. Check out the main GSoC website for more info.

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Hack Together Day at EWASS 2017

We are pleased to announce a hack day to accompany the special session on astronomy research software at EWASS 2017!!

Hack Together Day is a day to work intensively on projects, individually or in small groups, of interest to the astronomical community. A wide variety of projects will be undertaken, spanning everything from software development to community outreach to scientific research to trying out new analysis tools. We’ll also ask the contributors for SS16 (Developments and Practices in Astronomy Research Software) block 3 to be at the hack day, to help participants install, configure, and use the featured software packages. This information will be shared here once the talk schedule is confirmed.

Hack day or programming experience is not required; newcomers are extremely welcome! Project ideas and participants will be solicited before and during the meeting. Participants can lead or join a project, and should plan on focusing on only one thing.

Hack Together Day will take place on Thursday June 29th from 9:00 to 17:30, with the usual breaks for the plenary session, coffee and lunch.

Please register your attendance using this form so we can ensure enough resources for everyone. You do not need to be contributing an oral or poster presentation to the software session in order to participate in the hack day! For more information, see the EWASS 2017 Hack Together Day page on the AstroBetter wiki.

Get in touch if you have any comments/questions/concerns. We look forward to seeing you in Prague this June!

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EWASS 2017: Developments & Practices in Astronomy Research Software!!

ewass_prague_2017_logo
EXCITING NEWS!! There will be a special session at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science (EWASS) 2017 on developments and practices in astronomy research software and a hack day!! I’m co-organizing the hack day and a block on different astronomy software packages, where we will have a variety of speakers (invited and contributed) share open-source software packages of interest to a broad portion of the astronomical and space science community.

EWASS is the general meeting for the European Astronomical Society that will be held in Prague, Czech Republic on 26-30 June 2017, hosted this year in partnership with the Czech Astronomical Society. There will be many symposia and special sessions on a variety of research topics, and registration for the meeting will open in December.

UPDATE (25 Jan):

Abstract submission is open for all EWASS 2017 sessions, and here’s a blog post on the hack day with links for registration and more info. The talks will be on June 28 and Hack Together Day #hackEWASS will be on June 29.

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Why donate monthly?

Why donate monthly to organizations
After the US federal election and subsequent strong increase in hate crimes and bullying of minorities (source), I and many others have decided to donate to organizations that protect and fight for human rights, civil liberties, and the environment. When you find the organizations you want to support (see below for a list), you get the option to donate once or donate monthly. Here’s why you should donate monthly.

They get to plan with a stable budget

With monthly donations, the organization can have a stable budget and make longer-term plans, instead of just building up and draining the coffers. This allows it to have paid staff with some semblance of job stability, and to take on projects or actions with a larger scope. It may only be $10-$20 from you each month, but when lots of people do that, it adds up. So you can even donate the same amount as you might do in a one-time lump (usually there’s a minimum donation of $5 or $10), but the way it’s structured is more beneficial for the organization’s planning.

Set it and forget it

Monthly donations are automatic, so they require no extra effort from you, and many organizations take PayPal in addition to credit cards. For me, it’s easier on my own budgeting to donate $15 per month than $180 all at once.

Organizations to support

Jezebel put together a list of organizations. Not on there that I also like: Trans Lifeline and the National Resources Defense Council. Also, local organizations in your community (crisis centers, education reform groups, advocacy groups, etc.).

But this is too many organizations!

Yes, it’s a lot. Pick a few that really speak to you and set up $10-$20 monthly donations. Maybe pick another few and do a one-time donation. You can, for example, donate to Lambda Legal or Planned Parenthood in honor of VP-elect Pence, and he’ll get a certificate stating so!

You can also sign up for email newsletters from organizations to get more involved in their local/state/national actions and campaigns.
Header image source

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What are neutron stars and black holes?

I research neutron stars and black holes, and the extreme environments immediately surrounding them. For a general-audience introduction, I highly recommend the videos by Phil Plait on the Crash Course YouTube channel!

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MSc PAPER ACCEPTED!!!!!

The paper from my MSc research has been accepted for publication in ApJ!!!!!

dancing ron swanson

We simulated pulse profiles from thermonuclear X-ray bursts on the surfaces of accreting neutron stars, and fitted them with an evolutionary optimization algorithm to determine how well we could constrain the masses and radii of the neutron stars! The ADS entry for it is here. We’ll update the arXiv version once the proofs are finished!

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Bard alumni career profile

Photo: Me with my senior project poster at Bard in May 2011.

Photo: Me with my senior project poster at Bard in May 2011.

Mine is the latest featured career profile on the Bard College Career Development Office website! You can read it (and others) here!

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