phases of a project

I am still in that critical phase of assimilating a new project and all that encompasses. There appear to be at least three different levels of complexity.

1.  Reading

The background forms the backbone if you will of your understanding on a subject. To acquire both depth and breadth of a subject, you need to approach a topic from all angles. Consider the complete picture first and then break it into compartments that can be explored in greater detail. Luckily, the project that I am working on is really a parallel example of this reference process. One of my responsibilities as both a graduate student as well as participant in a longer term data study is to compile the literature. This serves multiple purposes: 1) to organize the collected publications and knowledge base on a specific topic (this particular long term data series for example), 2) provide a framework within the existing scope of the project from which to move forward and 3) provide valuable training to myself as a graduate student embarking on the process of integrating a complex set of factors into a cohesive picture.

This first portion of the phases is not meant to present the idea that once you’ve read the background, then you’re done. In fact, it seems to increase exponentially over time as one refines the literature and coverage of a particular topic area. In science, the notion that there is an end in sight for reading is inconceivable. Research implies that it is an ever-evolving, ongoing continuum which is rarely in steady-state. For a more comprehensive discussion of the theory of steady state (related to phytoplankton of course) one needs to look no further than:

Reference: A General Theory of Steady State Phytoplankton Growth in a Nutrient Saturated Mixed Layer

T. T. Bannister

Limnology and Oceanography
Vol. 19, No. 1 (Jan., 1974), pp. 13-30
(article consists of 18 pages)

Published by: American Society of Limnology and Oceanography

2.  Software

Since I started my project nearly a month ago, I have installed and started using several new software programs. In case the references and other obligatory links were not obvious, a major objective is to learn and utilize the statistical analysis package R. I have attempted this several times prior to this project including a moderately successful use of the basic graphing and stats analysis tools, but this will be a much more challenging application.

  • R
  • LaTeX
  • EndNote (I know this one seems trivial, but when you have either not had access to this program before or used an alternative substitution such as Zotero, this also presents a small learning curve) ultimately, the current bibliography is contained within an Endnote file and shared communally between the members of this research group. Therefore, despite my resistance, I have submitted to using this Microsoft product.
  • Notepad++ (a text editor for LaTeX scripts)
  • JabRef – this is a complimentary bibliographic management tool that works with LaTeX. At the moment, I am not writing in LaTeX so I haven’t started using it. My understanding is that I can export an Endnote library in Bib or BibTeX format and insert it from JabRef into my LaTeX document – eg.thesis.

There is a learning curve associated with each one of these applications. Thankfully, as a graduate student, I am afforded a bit more time to acquire the skills I need with each program. Translation: It may take me a bit longer in some cases to learn some of the programs, but I have the luxury of still learning them and not being expected to already know them. Unfortunately, it would be too easy to arrive with all the tools within one’s toolbox, and so we are always adding to it in the hopes that it finishes the job.

3. Writing

This phase of the project also relates back to the concept of reading in this initial phase of the project. Is writing truly ever done? I hope not, or else it would be boring and we would have to rely upon a different per-reviewed process. A big goal of mine is to publish a paper this coming year. There is really no reason why I haven’t up until this point. There are some factors that have compounded the situation, but let’s just say that it is time to put forth results into a critical arena. If we were always right, there would be no need for the peer-review process. We (as scientists and humans) are not always right in fact, we are rarely right on. Our approximations may come close to the solution, but rarely does one manuscript present a packaged solution to the diverse array of complex environmental, health and socio-economic problems we face in today’s society. The synthesis of many viewpoints, the culmination of different research projects and many minds usually results in a fruitful solution to many problems. By nature, we must collaborate on different levels, to understand how we are inter-connected.

Although it may seem trivial at this point, I will highlight my earlier post regarding the Top 19 reasons why grad students should blog. All writing is helpful though bad writing is not necessarily helpful in terms of progressing one’s scientific career. I defer to a most eloquent blog post by the intelligentsia at Small Things considered:

“Good Writing Beats Bad Writing, Most Any Day” -Moselio Schaechter

Putting coherent thoughts together whether it be written, presented or blogged is still a vital skill to cultivate. I have seen examples of poor writing in some of the most prestigious scientific journals. This is unfortunate and only serves to perpetuate the attitude that scientists are not effective communicators. To dispel this rumor, scientists have the unique opportunity (and quite frankly, responsibility) to serve the greater public in an act of unselfish, open dialogue. What could be greater than sharing your interesting work with 30 young minds that act like sponges? Perhaps, my background in teaching affords me this humble perspective, but on an academic level I also firmly believe that it is our duty as scientists to train, teach, share and instill a passion for and understanding of one’s field.

So, those are the three levels encompassing my current approach. Within these (ongoing) tasks, is the daily routine. I have discovered that I cannot maintain the same approach each day. In other words, I respond naturally to what the next logical thought process flows towards. For example, I have discovered that it may be rotational.


a.m. 3 hours of R routines and practice with software

p.m. reading papers on background literature and summarizing the references in written and typed form


a.m. 3 hours reading by picking up where I left off with readings and summaries, because it was the last thing on my mind when I left on Monday, it seemed natural to start here

p.m. 3 hours of writing and summarizing morning readings, blog post regarding these three central phases (which is helping me focus my daily tasks) and then 2 hours of catching up on R by implementing suggestions in a correspondence with a colleague on the project. I find it is critical to maintain a working dialogue with someone when you are on a project so that it does not stalemate.


Ah! An example of the flexibility we all must have on a daily basis. I have an important appointment in the morning at the Italian Questura. Therefore, I anticipate not arriving to my desk until noonish. I may have to pick up where I leave off with R

So, you get the idea – this is how I balance the different aspects of my research project at the moment. It is important to me to allow enough time to process each compartment and reflect as I go. One mistake that you could make as a student is to put off writing until the end. Have something to say? Write it down. Even if it is just a research journal. I currently keep three different research notebooks as well. One is for summarizing background material in my current project, so I use it to record references and summarize readings. The second is a journal that I started during my MSc project an which also contains ongoing research that I completed this summer. I consider it my own reference research for learning software. It contains the important details of sampling and specific instructions on how to open files and work with them. Finally, the third notebook/journal that I have is really a meeting book. It’s equivalent to a diary of daily notes and contacts as a research student. It’s my catch all book for taking notes at a meeting, interview, conference seminar, etc. I don’t leave home without it… In each one of these journals/notebooks is an indexed list of topics, page numbers dates for important entries. I have had to modify the existing pages somewhat to create my own indexing system, but it’s important if you’re looking for that person you met at a meeting in February. If you recall the meeting and the person’s name, there’s good chance you probably wrote it down. As with anything my methods and suggestions are merely what works for me. It’s important that you find your own method that works for you!


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About hawright

marine ecologist

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