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I am Jaime, and This is How I Work

Today, I am interviewing Jaime for the “How I Work” series. She is a third year PhD student at a US-based university studying biological engineering. Though most of her free time is consumed spending time with her three young children, she am passionate about running and lifting weights and actively participates in local science education and communication events. She blogs about life as a mom and PhD student at

Current Job: PhD Candidate in Biological Engineering
Current Location: US

Can you briefly explain your current situation and research to us?
I am a third year PhD candidate in Biological Engineering in the US. My work is focused on computer simulations of bilayer remodeling. My work days are mostly consumed with research and I am currently enrolled in two classes. Luckily, my work is almost all computer-based and therefore portable, so I do 60% of my work from my university office and 40% from home.

What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow?
My calendar is my most important tool. I try to keep dates on my calendar as much as possible so I can easily glimpse at what I have to do for the next week or next month. After that, my trusty notebook is my best friend. Every Monday I sit down and make a list of the tasks I would like to get completed during the week. These tasks sometimes get moved to the next week or look identical to last week, but I still sit down and write them down every Monday.
I use Mendeley to organize research papers effectively. I honestly don’t know how I would keep my papers organized without it.

What does your workspace setup look like? Do you have a fixed workspace, or do you alternate between a home office, university office and lab?

My office desk is relatively clean. My advisor once got upset that my desk did not “look like a grad student desk”. I’m still not sure what this meant but I need to keep things organized to be able to work efficiently. I have since put a pile of papers in the corner of my desk to make it more “grad-student-like” but the papers I am actively reading and working on stay neatly in my folder at all times.
Though I have a desk at home I typically use my kitchen table to do my work. I enjoy having so much room to put things during the course of my work day. It also forces me to clean up my work when I am done which feels like a clear end to my work day. I initially struggled at delineating my work day from my rest time when working from home and this is one small way I have moved towards a better work-life balance.

What is your best advice for productive academic work?
Keep a schedule and task list. When you write tasks down, it gets them out of your brain and on paper. You cannot fully focus on one task if you are thinking about everything else that needs to get done.
Set deadlines. I like to have a deadline for each portion of my project so that I feel some pressure to complete one task and not just bounce between projects.

How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks?
Paper and pencil. I have a notebook that never leaves my side and has everything I have thought or done written in it.

Which skill makes you stand out as an academic?
My organization and initiative. I am in control of my own experience at university and actively work to get what I need out of my time as a student. I have clear goals for during and after my PhD. I am also reliable, I do tasks quickly and efficiently. I have the motto that if it takes less than 5 minutes to complete, do it now. I also stay on top developments in my research topic and initiate new ideas with my PI without being asked.

What do you listen to when you work?
Nothing. I am not a big fan of listening to music while working, it is distracting to me.

What are you currently reading? How do you find time for reading?
I am reading The Stand my Stephen King. I read mostly at night in bed or during lunch if I don’t feel like socializing.

Are you more of an introvert or extrovert? How does this influence your working habits?
I am an introvert though I do like having friends and acquaintances. This is a tricky question because sometimes people think that introverts don’t like being around other people. I enjoy regular socializing but it can leave me feeling drained. I think this attribute is helpful to me as my PhD work is very independent so an extrovert could very well feel isolated. I try to socialize every day at lunch but also don’t feel like I am missing out if I am not chatting constantly.

What’s your sleep routine like?

10PM – 5:30 AM every day. Sleep is very important to me. I don’t do well with less sleep and as a mother it is very hard to just “catch up” on sleep.

What’s your work routine like?
I work 8-5 every week day. Sometimes I have to work on weekends but only if I have a presentation on Monday and it is usually my fault for not getting it done earlier. I will also sometimes work on weekends if I have to take time off for some reason during the week.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Show your worth with your productivity, not work hours. A lot of PhD students think they are in a competition for who can work the most. I never carried that idea because I don’t want to work 80 hours a week and I know 80 hours of mediocre work will be less productive than 40 hours of good work for me. Being productive is not about working a lot; it is about working efficiently and effectively.

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