How I Work: Beck Strauss

Ph.D. student, School of Earth Sciences

Beck Strauss

What do you do?

I’m a Ph.D. student and research assistant at the Institute for Rock Magnetism, where I study the mechanisms by which geological materials record magnetic fields. Sometimes I’m at my desk, writing and coding and doing calculations; sometimes I’m migrating around the lab to run samples on a variety of magnetometers.

What tools/software/hardware/etc. do you use to do your work?

I work on two screens simultaneously (my laptop and an external monitor) and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to make my workspace as ergonomic as possible. Last year I developed problems with cubital tunnel syndrome, which is like carpal tunnel except the pinched nerve is in the elbow instead of the wrist. (Imagine what it feels like when you hit your funny bone. Now imagine your arm feels like that all the time.) Raising my screens to the right height and realigning my entire space has been the only way to alleviate that pinch and stay productive!

Right now I’m primarily working on writing my Ph.D. thesis. I write in LaTeX, manage citations in Mendeley, and occasionally print the whole thing out to edit in hard copy. For editing, I use a multicolored set of Staedtler triplus fineliner markers to keep track of which day or phase of marks is which by color.

In terms of activity management, I have a series of systems:

  • Mini whiteboard for my long-term to-do list
  • Pad of graph paper next to my keyboard for quick notes and short-term to-do lists
  • Gmail tags (“TO DO NOW” and “TO DO LATER”) that automatically pin important emails to the top of my screen
  • Google Calendar on my computer and smartphone

…and I still forget what I’m supposed to be doing half the time! I keep a lot of scratch paper around. I can’t do a single thing without a list.

And for focus tools:

The single biggest improvement to my productivity in the last four and a half years happened last month, when I moved down the hall from a very cold office to a very warm office. I can feel my fingers. When I can feel my fingers, I can write.

Photograph of Becky Strauss's desk setup.
You can see my mini whiteboard and (newly added, totally live-saving) file folder rack to the right, and an array of stands and textbooks under each screen. My desk is set up to mouse lefty and write rightie. It helps with arm strain, but the ambidexterity learning curve is steep!

What do you use that you love? What do you use that you wish worked better?

I really love my mini whiteboard! It’s silly and low-tech but it works, and without that sense of doom and permanence that comes with other task trackers. I also love having two screens, without which most of my work would be nearly impossible. (I have to see everything at once!)

I wish I had a better lab notebook system. Right now I have a five-subject notebook with a series of post-it note tabs marking where each project begins, and it’s a mess. Better than a single-block notebook, but… there’s got to be a better way.

Any final thoughts?

Dear fellow graduate students: your health is important, posture matters, and it’s hard to get help if nobody’s talking. Only you can prevent repetitive strain injuries.

Research Page
@BeckEStrauss on Twitter


A note from the librarian:

STE_2131
Carolyn Bishoff

I love the mini-whiteboard task list. Can’t beat a good analog solution!

Librarians can help you find tools to manage your citations and other publications, and we’re also currently working on a project to support researchers who are interested in Electronic Lab Notebooks. If you’re part of a research group that can go digital and is looking for a different lab notebook system, we can provide a few recommendations.

—Carolyn Bishoff

Contact Carolyn

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