Today, I am interviewing Rebecca Gelding for the “How I Work” series. Rebecca is a PhD student investigating music cognition, specifically what is going on in the brain as people imagine music. She began part time in Feb 2013, as she was also looking after her 2 small children. Said children are both now at school this year (hooray) and so she’s changed to full time. Prior to starting a family, she worked in the finance industry, but realised when she had kids that life is short: spend it doing something you are passionate about. She told me: “I’ve has always loved maths, music and the brain and now I get paid to discover and write about it every day, whilst still enjoying being a mother. Best of both worlds.”
Current Job: PhD Student in Cognitive Science. Aiming to submit mid-2018.
Current Location: Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.
Current mobile device: Samsung Galaxy S7
Current computer: Acer Aspire V5-431
Can you briefly explain your current situation and research to us?
I’m just over half way through my PhD which investigates what is going on in the brain as people image music; specifically imagining pitch and rhythm. To do this I use a technology called magnetoencephalography (MEG) which measures changes in magnetic flux from the outside of people’s heads. From this we can get an understanding of what brain regions are doing while imagining music compared to listening to music. It’s compelling research because while the experience of imagining music is universal, there is still a lot we don’t yet understand in the dynamics of our brains as we imagine.
What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow?
I use Word and Endnote for writing, and a variety of software packages for analysing and presenting data (BESA Research, MATLAB, R)
What does your workspace setup look like?
This year I’ve begun some new routines to try to develop writing as a habit, and I have three workspaces. Each morning when I arrive on campus around 9:20am after school drop-off, I will order a coffee from the brilliant coffee shop at the bottom of my building, and get out my laptop. While I savour that coffee, I’ll use my phone timer to do one pomodoro (25mins) session of nothing but writing.
Then I’ll head upstairs to my university desk and try to either do a few more pomodoros while I’m on a roll, or attend to whatever other work I need to do. I have a computer on campus which I will sometimes use, but for portability, most of my writing is done on my laptop.
I leave campus at 2:25pm to pick up the kids, and spend the next few hours with them, doing normal afternoon / dinner routines. Once they are off to sleep around 8pm, I’ll head to my home office (AKA desk in the corner of the lounge room) for a couple more hours of work. As it’s the end of the day I normally don’t do anything that is mentally taxing, but try to allocate tasks that are necessary but easy to these evening timeslots.
When need be I’ll use the analysis computers at university as well, but most of my work is on my laptop (and backed up on portable hard drives).
|Rebecca’s desk at home
|Rebecca’s desk at university
|Rebecca’s work setup at her favorite cafe
What is your best advice for productive academic work?
Work out how you work best. One of the biggest benefits of academia is flexibility. Use that to your advantage, to discover exactly when you are at your most alert, then organise your day around those times. Over Christmas last year I read “Rest” by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang and he discusses of a whole bunch of ways in which to increase productivity without working longer hours. Unsurprisingly prioritising rest was one of them.
How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks?
I love the idea of a bullet journal but I’m not disciplined enough to keep at it. I generally have an everything notebook that I keep in my compendium and take everywhere. For every major project on at a given time I’ll list the tasks that need to be done on each one. At the start of the year I did a term by term break down of the goals I wanted to achieve, and a weekly plan for this term. Each Sunday night I try to have a look at that to see how I’m tracking (eek…. I’m already behind due to unforeseen set-backs….) and to map out a rough guide for what I want to achieve in the coming week. I try to spend the bus ride on the way to university reviewing and planning for that day as well.
Besides phone and computer, do you use other technological tools in work and daily life?
Which skill makes you stand out as an academic?
I’ve inherited an optimistic outlook on life, which will usually see me putting my hand up for opportunities thinking, “what have I got to lose?” While an attitude might not technically qualify as a skill, in academia where rejection and setbacks are part of the landscape, it takes skill to maintain a positive attitude! During the PhD candidature, there are plenty of chances to do things outside of the direct “thesis” work. I’ve tried to make the most of these chances (eg three minute thesis competition, science communication outreach, writing for various outlets, teaching, blogging, etc). Some of these things have a snowball effect and bring more opportunities, but I think it has all stemmed from my optimism.
What do you listen to when you work?
I love the environmental noises of the coffee shop, or a noisy storm outside, but I can’t stand any music on when I’m trying to work – I just get too distracted, probably because I’ll want to sing along. Can’t have the TV on either when I’m working at home. I prefer to work in silence.
What are you currently reading? How do you find time for reading?
I’ve just started Steven Pinker’s “A Sense of Style” and I love it. I’m making a conscious effort to improve my writing. After all, if I’m going to be an academic, then I need to get a handle how to write. An obvious way to get better at writing is to read good writing! Funnily enough, now that I am full time I find I have more time for reading, as I’ll allow myself time on the weekend or some nights before bed to read for pleasure.
Are you more of an introvert or extrovert? How does this influence your working habits?
I find being around other people energising, so I’d say extrovert. I love making it to the department morning tea each Wednesday, and would sit and socialise through a whole hour of lunch if I could. But with such short hours on campus each day, I have to restrict myself and get back to work. It also means that the days I spend working from home are super lonely for me – even if it’s just 6 hours.
What’s your sleep routine like?
I’d love to be in bed by 10pm, but usually its more like 11pm. As part of my new year routine I set the alarm for 6am and get out first thing for a half hour run each week day morning. (Having said that I don’t think I’ve managed any week with 5/5 runs, but the intention is there!) I generally try to get at least 7 hours sleep. On the weekends I’ll get a bit more as my husband and I take it in turns for a sleep in (which is ~8am), while the other one gets up to make breakfast for the kids.
What’s your work routine like?
In addition to the routine I mentioned with the workspaces, once a week I’ll work from home for the day. That usually involves planning a series of chores that need to be done and allocating them 15 min slots during a break time. (ie writing for 45 mins, mop kitchen for 15 mins, writing for 45 mins, hang out washing & put another load on). It’s efficient, but quite tiring.
The main difference I’ve found from going part time to full time, is that now I have more time to work, I need to make sure I keep working smart so I don’t burn myself out. I allocate my hardest tasks (normally writing) for the first thing in the morning, and then between morning tea and lunch I’ll do something that requires attention to detail but not as hard. After lunch I’ll generally do administration tasks and other stuff that has to be done. Sometimes I find when I come to sit down in the evenings I’ve come up with a solution to a problem earlier in the day purely because I’ve had time to think (usually unconsciously) as I’ve been doing other things in the afternoon with my family. I am more tired as a full timer than a part timer though, so I’m making sure I spend quality time resting on the weekends, to be fresh for a new week.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
The best academic advice I have ever read came from twitter: “We are all smart. Distinguish yourself by being kind”. Anne Galloway was quoting Prof Charles Gordon, then Head of Department, Sociology & Anthropology, Carleton University.