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I am Joni Gilissen, and This is How I Work

Today, I am interviewing Joni Gilissen in the “How I Work” series. Joni (°1990) holds a degree in Social Work, a master’s degree in Social Policy and a postgraduate degree in Social Profit and Public Management. She is working for 4 years within the inter-university and interdisciplinary End-of-life Care Research Group (Belgium) on a project in which she will develop and evaluate an Advance Care Planning intervention in the nursing home setting. Furthermore, she co-coordinates the Twitter page of the research group and is responsible for the monthly newsletter.

Current Job: Joint PhD Candidate in Social Health Sciences and Biomedical Sciences
Current Location: Brussels, Belgium
Current mobile device: iPhone 6S
Current computer: Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (Azerty)

Can you briefly explain your current situation and research to us?
I am a fourth year PhD candidate in a joint PhD program in Social Health Sciences at the Vrije University Brussels and Biomedical Sciences at the Catholic University Leuven. I currently carry out a large study within the End-of-Life Care Research Group of which the focus is on advance care planning for people in nursing homes, including residents living with dementia. Advance care planning focuses on one central question: “What type of health care would you want if you became too sick to tell the doctor or the involved healthcare professionals yourself?”. Advance care planning provides the opportunity to define goals and preferences for future medical treatment and care, to discuss these goals and preferences with family and healthcare providers, and to record and review these preferences in documents such as a ‘living will’ (or advance directive).

To this respect I am evaluating the effects of such a process of advance care planning in a cluster randomized controlled trial in a large number of nursing home settings in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium. My current situation involves running this trial (eg. making sure advance care planning is implemented according to protocol, planning meetings, observing practice, doing interviews), preparing for final follow-up measurement of the primary outcome to evaluate effectiveness, applying for follow up funding and hoping to publish my work before the term of my PhD trajectory ends.

What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow?
To schedule my day and meetings I use Google Agenda. Evernote keeps track of my to do lists and ideas, which are synced on my phone and computers, so I’m always able to follow-up wherever I am. Same with my Dropbox files and Zotero. Running the trial, I spend a lot of time in my car and such apps make it possible to follow up work, even if I don’t have my computer with me. For my writing I started using Outliner and InDesign to graphically outline my PhD thesis. To draw diagrams for my papers, I use Lucidchart, an online program which I really love. When I work from home I Skype or Zoom a lot with colleagues or supervisors. And then you have the regulars in research, such as SPSS, Nvivo and LimeSurvey. I also use Google Forms a lot to help me schedule workshops and send out short training surveys or attendance lists.

What does your workspace setup look like?
I tell everyone I am really into the clean desk policy but after four years I still don’t manage to keep my desk spotless. However, besides my daily fruit, some photographs from parties with colleagues or from travels and the papers I am actively reading or working on, I manage quite well. We just got new offices in Brussels, where I am sharing an office with five other PhD candidates. When I don’t need my two screens and I have to write, I love working from home. At home, I am trying to only use my laptop and I usually sit at the dinner table. The year that passed was a bit chaotic and inferior for my work place environment but it also has its perks. Because I spend a lot of my time on the road, traveling between nursing home facilities, I have these short blocks of time between meetings, providing me with just enough time to write a short paragraph or check up with my e-mails in a coffee shop nearby. A bit of coffee bar hopping didn’t hurt anyone! And I have the benefit I like working in crowded places. When I was a grad student I always studied in the overcrowded student library. There are even studies that have proven that a moderate level of ambient noise is conductive and stimulates creativity, and I even found an app that recreates coffee shop background noise. I haven’t used it yet though.

Workplace 1 (End-of-Life Care Research Group offices in Brussels):

Workplace 2 (Our house, currently being renovated):

What is your best advice for productive academic work?
After four years of working as a researcher, I found out that it depends on the kind of task you need to do. It helps me a lot to block out shucks of my agenda (eg. one afternoon) for a specific task and reorganize my working environment and schedule depending on the task. It took some time before I figured this out and my advice is to try several things to find out what suits you best. For my writing I usually block the whole day, if possible two, to come into the workflow. However, I have to force myself to stop writing which can be tempting at some point. I’ve learned I always have new insights after a day or two of writing-rest. The same with data analysis and protocol writing. The tasks that I don’t like, such as folding envelopes, arranging meetings, doing the necessary telephone calls I usually do in the mornings so that after lunch I can move on to the things I like, ending the day with a good temper.
Two more advices: don’t schedule important work meetings after 3pm, people will be tired, and keep the Friday afternoons for long-term “important but not urgent tasks” (such as arranging your folders, organizing your agenda, follow-up on e-mails, etc.).

How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks?
On Friday afternoon I check my Google Agenda to get an overview of the week that is ahead, so I have a clear idea of what the upcoming week will look like and how I can optimize it. If it is really busy, even my sport activities and social life will be scheduled around my PhD work. In three main Excel files I keep track of 1) the trial I am running, 2) my publication record (the papers I am working on, for which I haven’t received feedback, for which data analysis will start, etc.) and 3) my PhD trajectory (which provides me with an overview of when funding ends, important calls and deadlines for grant applications for future research, etc). For each work package within the trial (such as ‘recruitment’, ‘baseline measurement’, ‘first training of healthcare professionals’) I use Evernote. One note tab, for each work package. Both in my Google Agenda and Microsoft Outlook, all work packages have different colors or folders.

Besides phone and computer, do you use other technological tools in work and daily life?
My coffee machine or hot water boiler for lots of tea or coffee? No, seriously, I use an extra monitor (BenQ) for when I am writing papers or performing data analysis. I use Bluetooth to listen to music on the wireless speakers at home. I am saving up money to buy a Garmin watch so I can follow-up my sport activities like swimming, biking and running. I’m almost there.

Which skill makes you stand out as an academic?
I can manage a lot of pressure and a busy life. Because I am really dedicated to the research I am performing, I have never seen my PhD as ‘working’ but as an opportunity to learn and I have clear goals for this and future research. In addition, I am quite sociable and I like to believe I am a team player that strives to a cohesive working environment. Every first Thursday of the month I try to organize an ‘out-of-office’ lunch at a restaurant nearby, with the other PhD students (we are 20 PhD’s btw) or a ‘potluck’ at which every PhD student brings one dish we eventually share.

What do you listen to when you work?
I only listen to music when I am writing the discussion section of a paper. I don’t know why but that is the only time I feel it can be helpful. When I’m driving to the nursing home facilities that are involved in my research, I use Spotify to listen to music in my car. Currently I listen to Luluc, an Australian band I recently discovered on Spotify, and all kinds of Jazz. Always Jazz.

What are you currently reading? How do you find time for reading?
I am reading Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami, which I borrowed from one of my colleagues. So good! I don’t have that much time to read though. I read mostly while I am travelling, on rare quite Sundays or on the scarce moments I take the train.

Are you more of an introvert or extrovert? How does this influence your working habits?
I am definitely an extrovert. Ask my colleagues or my friends. I do believe it has its advantages in presenting my work to others, recruitment participants or involving partners for my research and in networking on conferences.

What’s your sleep routine like?

I have a normal sleep routine. I sleep from 10 or 11 pm to 6 or 7 am. Unless I have a deadline or at times I struggle with work, I tend to get slightly nervous and this always affects my sleep quality. I love to wake up early for a morning swim or end the day with some ‘Yoga with Adriene’ on Youtube. Try it! It’s really nice!

What’s your work routine like?
Your work routine should not focus on the number of hours you spend working but on the productive ones. That is why my work routine really changes depending on the week and the task I scheduled. This week for example, I am working until 7 pm because I am following up on my publications, at the same time I am applying for a grant and during the day I have to run the trial and prepare the online database for data-entry. Other weeks I work from 8am to 5pm because my work is well scheduled and I make sure I have time to spend with my friends or doing sports. There are even weeks I work from 10am to 3pm, stop early to take a swim or work on the house and start working again at 7pm. I also work in the weekend sometimes if I have a free Saturday and I feel inspired or if I want to start fresh on Mondays and I feel I haven’t finished all the tasks from the week before. My advice? If you feel like nothing relevant is coming out of you sitting behind your computer, take a walk or go running and start over. Don’t feel bad against your colleagues. It is not a competition about who can work the most.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

“Search for a job that combines something you love to do, something you are good at and something that adds value to society” (Toon, my boyfriend)

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