Managing Your Productivity in Grad School + Undergrad

To manage your life in school takes a serious balancing act – I know this is a little departure from Mass Communication Theory but anyone who reads this site can learn something from my experience as both a student and professor. There are a few things that you need:

  • File Management
  • Task Management
  • Timeline Management

As someone who was recently a graduate student, has adjunct-ed a handful of classes in the last few years, and is currently a project manager I’ve gotten a great 360 degree perspective on how to juggle these things and what apps/processes work best. So first, file management. You have only two options here that are agile and free.

File Management

Dropbox – if you don’t have a dropbox account, go there and sign up immediately. You get a few free gigs of space just for signing up and don’t have to pay a cent if you don’t want to. Dropbox is great for two reasons – one: cloud storage (for both working and backup), and two: accessibility. The Web interface is easy to download/upload and you can access your files anywhere and it has amazing apps. Now there are quite a few other products that do this but here is where dropbox is different:

It creates a folder on your computer just like any other folder that will automatically sync itself to your account in the cloud. Boom. Never lose anything again. Computer blows up? No problem. All your files are sitting in your Dropbox account. No lost papers, theses, or research data. You can back up photos, everything. It also saves previous versions – you accidentally save after deleting half your paper? No worries – restore the backup. If you download the app, it works in conjunction with the Mailbox app to allow you to attach files to on your phone or tablet. Awesome. I don’t think I could survive without it.

In terms of collaboration you can share only specific folders with other users (think group projects) – this makes everything super easy to access and no more emailing around presentations. I highly, highly recommend it. Apps for all OSs and work beautifully even on those crappy library computers. Get it now.

Second is Google Drive. I use Google drive in conjunction with dropbox – most colleges use the gmail apps with your email address so there is a good chance you already have a drive account. I use these mostly for working documents that I’ll need at a moments notice and that get updated regularly – maintenance records, password and logins to every random thing you need to sign up for (Protip: Don’t type the whole password, just part of it so you can remember which one it is).

If you’re going to write it, save it, move on, I’d use Dropbox to store it – use Google Drive for collaboration documents that will need to evolve.

Either can work fine on their own, I’d suggest playing with them to see what combo works best for you.

Task + Timeline Management

Task management is a tricky one – but as you’ll have a good pile of deadlines to keep track of throughout the semester I’d recommend at least putting those in something digital.

Calendar Apps

Simple and often effective – Google Calendar and iCal are the two best – they sync to your phone, desktop and cloud. Always, always – at the start of a semester go through your due dates and enter them ALL in your calendar with a 1 week and 1 day reminder time. Best advice I’ve ever been given, you’ll stop missing deadlines and losing points on your papers needlessly.

Task Apps


By for my favorite task app is Wunderlist, It lets you set due dates, reminders, flag and assign (it offers shared to-do lists), attach files and have a list of sub tasks. Easy. Cheesy.

Also of note is iProcrastinate, very similiar but they have recently started charging for it. Native for Mac – worth a look if you aren’t a fan of Wunderlist.

Good old Pen and Paper – the old stand by, you can’t go wrong here – it’s cheap, doesn’t crash, and never needs to be charged.

Hopefully these tips can help you and your students – please share or leave any questions below!

How to Write a Good Title, Abstract, and Introduction

Writing the title and abstract can be the easiest and most frustrating part of writing a research paper. There are two major things to keep in mind when writing your title and abstract:

  • Be clear and concise. You want everyone to know exactly what your paper is about simply by reading the title.
  • Write the title, abstract (and introduction) last. This may seem a little strange to a lot of people but it makes the most sense to write them once you understand what you studied, what your results were, and what you want your audience to take away from reading it.

Writing Your Title

The title should describe what you are studying and to what effect. For example, my thesis was called: The Hero Soldier: Portrayals of Soldiers in War Films (You can access it here if you are interested) This title hits all the main points:
What: soldiers as heroes
Where: war films
Concept: the way they are portrayed

This covers the basics and only the basics, don’t include your research methods, your results, or your pet’s name (seriously). Hit the main points that people will:

  1. Be searching for (Google, Library Databases, etc.)
  2. Catch their attention
  3. Tell the audience exactly what the study is about

That’s all. I didn’t call my thesis: A Qualitative In-depth Analysis of the Conception of the the Hero as Portrayed by Soldiers in War Films. I could have, because that’s what it is about, but it impedes comprehension. It needs to be to the point and convey exactly what that person will read.

Writing a Good Abstract

Outside the title the abstract is the only place where someone can get a quick overview of your study, think of the title as the abstract-lite, without the conclusions or big words. Basically your abstract should only be a paragraph long (that’s 3-4 sentences MAX!). Don’t ramble on for 15 sentences. There are only a few basic things you need to cover in your abstract:

  1. What you are studying + why it’s important
  2. How you are studying it (method)
  3. What you learned/found/argue and its significance

That’s it! The point of an abstract is to summarize your entire paper in a paragraph so someone looking at it can get a brief idea what it is about and determine if they want to keep reading the entire paper. If you can’t write a brief and succinct abstract then you clearly don’t know what your own paper is about.

Writing a Good Introduction

The introduction should cover the same topics as your abstract but in a bit more detail.
You also need to include:

  • Thesis statement
  • Overview of the study methods
  • Theoretical framework (if you have one)
  • The reasons why the study has value to the research area you’re contributing to
  • If you’ve finished your research be sure to give us a good idea about your findings

Many times, when beginning any writing project it is suggested that you start with a “hook” to get your reader interested in your topic, this is not necessary in a research paper. It can however, add to your paper. It’s acceptable but not required. After covering everything mentioned above, provide a one paragraph roadmap of your paper. This gives us an idea of how you will attack the rest of the document we are about to read. For example:

“In the following pages I will first discuss the relevant literature and previously
conducted studies that relate to my study about goldfish and their love for beer. Second, I then outline the method by which the research was conducted, followed last by a discussion of the results as well as future implications of the goldfish/beer relationship.” You’ll notice that I use “I” in that statement. It is perfectly acceptable to use “I” from time to time in a paper as long as you don’t overuse it.

Protip: Don’t write your introduction first. As it is a preview of the study it’s usually best to write your introduction and abstract last.

This is an excerpt from my eBook: How to Write a Research Paper, Proposal, or Thesis (grab it today, it’s free and I don’t ask for your email address to get it!)

Communicating Effectively in a Digital Age

In our digital age, most people have long forgotten or never been taught the art and science of written communication. We’ve progressed (or regressed depending on your point of view) from a time when it was commonplace to jot down a note or letter and drop it in the mail, not expecting someone to reply with fifteen minutes. We’ve come to a time where people legitimately don’t know the difference between “there” and “their,” and they’re using “4” instead of “for.”

But as scholars and humans we need to understand how to operate and interact in in our current digital age efficiently and effectively and without abbreviating the word “you” with “u” (seriously, how much time are you actually saving?) In any email, conversation, text, or messenger chat you have at work or in your personal life there are some key pieces of information and expectations that you need to set (and please learn proper grammar, but that’s a topic for a different article).

Many might write this approach off as specific to a workplace or business context, however these principles can aid you in all aspects of life and help you avoid some very sticky situations. And remember, these aren’t the principles for casual conversation, love letters, or catching up with an old friend. These are guidelines for actionable conversation, or when you want something to get done.

1. Set Expectations
This is the oft overlooked piece of clear communication that builds the foundation on which the rest of your message rests. First and foremost in any piece of written communication, you need to immediately let your recipient know what they are getting into, and what you want to get out of it.

Answer the “What’s happening?” Question. The first piece of this is your subject line or the first sentence in whatever you may be sending. “Hey” and “Question” aren’t helpful. Get to your point quickly – “Questions re: the one project from the other day” puts your message in the right context immediately and starts the receiver’s head churning away to pull up all the relevant info they have.

Also – set the foundation for our third principle (Next Steps) by quickly pointing out what you want to get out of the interaction. “I’m asking this question because I have a meeting with the client tomorrow… etc.” But we’ll get to that in a moment.

2. Supplying Context
Context is, simply put, all the information that person will need to respond to your questions, requests, or what have you. Give them everything they need. Be sure to:

  • Detail why you are reaching out to them
  • Include any relevant dates
  • Attach any materials they’ll need. Don’t make them dig for something you sent a month back, you know what it is, send it along.
  • Provide the rationale for what you’re asking. Telling someone why something needs to be done gives them a real life connection and let’s them know the rush isn’t simply because you feel like rushing.

Put simply context is the art of supplying a person with everything they need as part of your query, you want to make them as efficient as possible because, more often than not, it will mean you get back what you need more efficiently.

Most importantly try to think of all the questions that your recipient might have upon receiving your message. Answer them! No one likes 15 back and forth emails with one question in each. At very least you can cut the back and forth down significantly.

3. Next Steps
What happens next? At this point, we understand the context of our conversation, we know what’s expected or we have specific expectations of what going on. However, it is ALWAYS a great idea to spell out exactly what the other person should expect next. Now you don’t have to dictate this, it can certainly be a negotiation, but this piece of the interaction is crucial to wrapping up the topic or reason you contacted them and drawing the conversation to an end.  Giving the person the right takeaways is crucial to accomplish before you bring your interaction to an end.

There are a few ways to do this:

Simply, tell them what happens next. This is specifically good if in an email, letter, or text message. Something where there isn’t a guaranteed immediate response. A few examples of this would be something to the effect of:
“Thanks for taking the time to ready my resume and cover letter, I’ll be following up with you early next week.”

“If I don’t hear back from you I’ll assume the new website copy is approved and post it Wednesday of next week.” This is an interesting technique, and one to be used sparingly. If they miss it, and you move ahead you can create issues. But on a pressing deadline grabbing the bull by the horns and dictating the course of action can be a big problem solver.

Ask what happens next. While this seems like a no brainer, putting the ball in the other interlocutor’s court (that’s the $15 word of the day) is a perfectly acceptable way to keep things moving – examples of this:

“Now that I’ve provided all the research and background materials you requested, what are the next steps? Let me know what else you need from me!”

“Based on past projects, I assume that next we’ll be moving on to X, Y, then Z. Can you confirm?”

…and above all, be concise! No one likes a four page War and Peace email, letter, text message, or IM. Hit these main points, and move on:

  • Set the expectation
  • Supply the context
  • Cover the next steps

Crafting written communication in this way is helpful in that, when done correctly, can get you what you need quickly. If you supply all the info, knowledge, and expectations up front you can save yourself 30 back and forth emails (or at least cut that number down significantly), and make you a better communicator.

How to Write a Research Paper, Proposal, or Thesis eBook now free!

Here is the overview of everything contained in the ~40 page eBook. It contains detailed sections on how to write:

    • Title
    • Abstract
    • Introduction
    • Analysis/Discussion
    • Background/Literature Review
    • Select and define your concept
    • Study purpose and Relevance
    • How to write good qualitative and quantitative research questions
    • Research design
    • Data collection (surveys, analysis, etc.)
    • Ethics, Budget
    • Brief overview and quick guide on citing sources
    • How to describe your results and write your conclusion
    • Witty commentary and general jack-assery.

A new version is coming soon! Check back later.

Writing Good Quantitative Research Questions

Note: this is an excerpt from How to Write a Research Paper, Proposal, or Thesis eBook. Buy it now!

There are three main types of questions that a researcher can ask when writing a quantitative study. They are:

  • Causal
  • Descriptive
  • Predictive

Causal Questions
Causal questions are exactly what they sound like – a question that tries to compare two or more phenomena and determine (or at least suggest) a relationship between the two (or more).

For example: “Does reading the How To Write A Research Paper eBook increase the average research paper grades in a class?” (The answer, of course, is yes. Everyone gets an A++).

Quantitative questions rely on an independent variable or one that remains the same (the students reading the eBook, in the example above). These questions often involve the manipulation of an independent variable and the comparison of the outcome of this manipulation.

Generally the script for a causal question follows this formula:
Does the ________________ (change) in _________________ (independent variable) produce change (increase, decrease, not affect) the _______________ (a dependent variable)?

Descriptive Questions
Once again, these are pretty much what you would expect them to be: descriptive research questions ask “how often?”, “how much?”, or “what is the change over time or in a different situation?” questions.

Generally the script for a descriptive question follows this formula:
How often do ________________ (participants) do ________________ (variable being studied) at ________________ (research site)?

For example: “How often do college students need to use the bathroom during a test?” (Obviously the research site is implied here – at college).

Many times descriptive questions involve the degree or existence of relationship that exists between two or more variables. The script for a descriptive relationship question usually follows the below formula:
What is the relationship between ______________ (variable) and ____________ (variable) for _________________ (participants)?
For example: “How often do college students need to use the bathroom during a test as compared to during a normal class?”
Descriptive questions usually lead to further questions that your study was never meant to answer and it is a BIG MISTAKE to suggest so. In the example above one could deduce that if college students use the bathroom quite a bit more during tests that they may be cheating, or just more nervous, but you don’t know that! Don’t speculate until the very end and say exactly that: “This could mean may different things. However, more study is required to determine the reason(s).” The answer “why” is an entirely different study and almost always a qualitative one.

He predicted lots that he didn’t have empirical evidence for… we know how that turned out.

Predictive Questions
Predictive questions are questions that try to predict (no way!) whether one or more variables can be used to predict an outcome. Predictive questions and studies are always highly controversial, be sure to cover all your bases when trying to predict something, more often than not there are about 3,000 variables that come together to create an outcome and trying to link only a few of those to always get the same outcome can be a huge mistake (especially in social science).

Generally the script for a predictive question follows this formula:
Does ________________ (cause variable) lead to/create _____________ (outcome variable) in ________________ (setting)?
For example: “Does the color of a person’s hair lead to higher grades in school?”

As a general suggestion, especially early on, stay away from predictive studies. They can be some of the most fun, but more often than not people get far too excited and overstep the bounds of their study. For example, in answering the above question, you come to the conclusion that yes, people with black and very dark brown hair always get higher grades in school. But unless you explore the ALL possible variables you can’t claim that. Maybe IQ changes someone’s genes and smarter people always have darker hair. Maybe due to the “dumb blonde” stereotype teachers always give preferential treatment to non-blondes. You just don’t know – be very careful in these types of studies. (Obviously the example was meant to be humorous, but you get the point).

How to Write a Research Paper eBook Now Available!

Hey all, haven’t posted in a bit because I’ve been writing an eBook that combines all the research based knowledge that I have here on MCT and a TON more.

It’s titled: How to Write a Research Paper, Proposal, or Thesis.

Here is the over view of everything contained in the ~40 page eBook. It contains detailed sections on how to write:

    • Title
    • Abstract
    • Introduction
    • Analysis/Discussion
    • Background/Literature Review
    • Select and define your concept
    • Study purpose and Relevance
    • How to write good qualitative and quantitative research questions
    • Research design
    • Data collection (surveys, analysis, etc.)
    • Ethics, Budget
    • Brief overview and quick guide on citing sources
    • How to describe your results and write your conclusion
    • Witty commentary and general jack-assery.

Update: a new version is coming soon – stay tuned.

How to Define Your Concept a.k.a. Concept Explication [Part 2]

This is part 2 (the final part) of a series, be sure to read part 1 as well.

A key to research that can be used and repeated is the careful definition of the major concepts in the study. A hazy definition of a concept may enter into relationships with other variables, but since the concept was ill-defined the meaning of those relationships can be no better than ill-defined. The process by which concepts are defined for scientific purposes is called explication, that’s your ten-dollar-impress-your-grad-professor word of then day. Also in academia the word often substitutes for the word “explanation” becase it sounds much, much cooler. So, now that the intro is covered, let’s jump into part 2!

Author’s note: This post is based on a handout from my grad work and the monograph, “Fundamentals of Concept Formation in Empirical Science,” by Carl G. Hempel (1952) – citation at the end of the post.

  1. Apply Defining Criteria:  By this point in your defining you should have culled down your thinking to a few definitions. The more specific you can get, the better. Analyze  them by means of these criterions:
    1. Specificity, or how specific the definition currently is , in terms both of details of observation and lack of  sentences linking the various elements of the concept (the fewer the better). The more general the definition the worse off you are. Examples:
      1. It is more useful to record that Jim-Bob “watched Channel 13 from 7 to 9 p.m. yesterday evening” than to say he “watched TV last night.”
      2. A definition of “dissonance” as “any cognitive discrepancy” is less helpful than an extended definition that catalogs the various kinds of cognitions that can be discrepant with one another, the various means by which they might be that way, etc.
    2. Non-reification, Ok we’re getting a bit more complex here. Nothing insane, just pay attention. Avoid giving names to attributes that you might imagine exist, but that cannot be observed. You may think that there is a key factor that has not been observed, but that could be given empirical meaning by careful research. If this is the case, you are proposing a hypothetical construct (the hypothesis being that it does, in fact, exist). If you really need to do this, the first task of your research should then be a “validity check” on its existence. When you provide evidence of a hypothetical construct, it attains the more secure status of as a variable. If a hypothetical construct remains unobserved, it is considered a reification (see, took me a while, but we got around to  the definition), and other researchers are unlikely to be persuaded by your reference to it. The important thing is to recognize that status of all elements of your definition, and to design research that will demonstrate their empirical content.  Examples:
      1. Some common reifications in communication research are terms “catharsis,” “dissonance,” “group cohesiveness,” “coorientation,” and “attitude.”  So far, none of these things has ever been observed, yet they hold important positions in certain theoretical formulations.  The danger is that they may not exist, except in the minds of the theoreticians.
      2. By careful research, some hypothetical constructs that have gradually been converted into variables include “empathy,” “understanding,” “learning,” and “conformity.”  However, these concepts are tied to very specific operational definitions, and when they are used to cover other kinds of situations they are simply reified terms.
    3. Invariance of usage.  This is a simple one – the same person should use a term consistently. Sadly, this isn’t always the case. Some writers use the same term to refer to different things at different times. Even more common is the switching levels of analysis without making any terminological distinction. Examples:
      1. Marshall McLuhan jumps from discussion of individual differences in perception to statements about national character, historical epochs, and other macroscopic concepts (no surprise there, McLuhan was a bit all over the place).
      2. The term “generation” is a term used appropriately for analyzing families and other kinship systems. It can be is misapplied to differences between age groups in society as a whole in the notion of a generation gap.
    4. Inter-observer invariance – the measure of scientific usage would be that everyone uses the concept to mean the same thing. This level of agreement is practically impossible to achieve. But it is a useful goal to strive for, and careful application of the concept criteria and explanation can move you toward that goal.
  2. Set boundaries.  Perhaps the most important step in explication is to decide on clear boundaries for your concept. In meaning analysis, this is simply a matter of considering whether of not to include various lower concepts in your definition. In empirical analysis, boundaries are set by understanding which conditions are necessary and/or sufficient, and which are neither necessary or sufficient. In both cases, this stage of explication consists of stripping the concept of extra meanings. Examples:
    1. A study shows that the strength of an expressed opinion can be increased by reinforcing it through social approval. The author’s conclusion is that reinforcement is a necessary condition for opinion formation. A later study demonstrates that there are conditions under which opinions change without reinforcement. So the definition is watered-down, in that reinforcement becomes a sufficient condition, rather than a necessary one. Finally, it is found that in some instances opinions shift in a direct opposite to the pattern of reinforcement.  So, the element of reinforcement is eliminated from the definition of opinion formation, because it is neither necessary or sufficient.
  3. Tentatively define. Try to develop a satisfactory definition via empirical analysis. You may find that it is surprisingly brief and simplified. Simpler is better as long as you are satisfied that it covers what you want the concept to mean, and does not cover anything else. If an empirical definition eludes you, more research may be needed. So turn to meaning analysis and work on a list of lower concepts. Keep in mind, though, that this is an intermediary stage in the development of your concept.
  4. Define operationally. For each element of each concept that you retain in your final definition, you must specify at least one operational definition. The more specific the better, and the more carefully each operation is linked to your conceptual definition by clear reduction statements the better. It is not necessary to attempt to list all operational definitions; indeed, if your concept is not trivial, it will be impossible to list them all.  But it is necessary to demonstrate that each element of your definition is amenable to observation in real world experiences. Operational definition consists of stating the observable indicators of the attributes (properties or relations) involved, so that someone else can “know one when he sees one.” Operational definitions might be contrived in the form of interview questions, experimental manipulations, unobtrusive observations, content categories, etc.  The key to this final stage of explication is that all your reasoning and linkages be spelled out explicitly, so that someone else reading your work will know what you have done, what you think it represents conceptually, and why.

In the early stages of planning a research project, it is unnecessary to reduce operational definitions to precise terms.  What is needed is to demonstrate conclusively that you can do so when the time comes to design an empirical study.

This was Part 2 and the thrilling conclusion to: How to Define Your Concept a.k.a. Concept Explication, be sure to read Part 1.

Citation: Hempel, C. G. (1952). Fundamentals of concept formation in empirical science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.