Tag Archives: Work



Ever since I graduated I’ve always wanted to learn new things and for that reason I’ve pretty much always had at least three different types books on the go at any given time.  Typically I have a fiction book to read when my brain is really tired, a technical book linked to engineering, maths, or programming, and some sort of self-improvement book.   I want to be the best I can be, to reach my full potential and not be limited by my lack of understanding.

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Over the past few years I’ve been spending quite a bit of time thinking about how mentoring (and what I believe to be the lack of) is affecting the environment for modern graduates in industry.  As margins become tighter and tighter in industry, the experienced engineers have less and less wriggle room to spend mentoring graduates.  Instead the experienced engineers merely push the less-experienced engineers to a quick solution so that deadlines are met and fee structures are not blown – resulting in a shallow learning experience.

I’ve always tried to make time to help less experienced engineers understand new concepts, even if I think they should know them already from University.  This has meant frequently giving up my dinner hour and time after work to help someone understand a new concept.  I’ve not always been successful and that’s a limitation of my skill and something that I’m getting better at with time as I improve as a mentor, but as time goes by I wonder if my approach is mentoring or coaching?

Most of the time I spend on a 1 to 1 basis with students takes the form of conversations and specific questioning to change the way they think about things.  To change or reinforce their perceptions about how something can be improved in the future.  This is the commonest form of mentoring that I’ve taken over the years, but through what I’ve read of Starr (2010) this approach isn’t mentoring at all, it’s more like coaching.  It’s essentially a series of conversations to help change a future outcome.  One of the favourite activities I teach is the supervision of dissertations, this is the module I can see the biggest leap in a student’s abilities, particularly with regards critical thinking and it presents the biggest opportunity that I get to mentor and build a connection with the students.  It’s the one area that probably sucks a disproportionate amount of time out of my week but it’s definitely where my mojo (Goldsmith, 2010, p17) lies when I’m teaching.

It’s this connection with the students and their topics I think that I enjoy the most, especially as I watch them grow and I still get emails and calls from some of the students that I supervised a few years ago simply so they can let me know what they’re up to.  Of course quite a few students only get in touch when they’re chasing a reference or contacting me because they want something from me but when someone drops you a note to say hi or let you know what they’re up to now without wanting anything from you it’s personally very rewarding and it’s this type of contact that I treasure as it’s then that you know you’ve made a real impact on someone’s perspective on life.

Dissertations are also one of the key activities that is keeping me in academia, as it’s giving me an opportunity to continually learn and grow on a personal level although the longer I stay in academia the lower my career progression opportunities and the lower my earning potential become…. Perhaps Robert Greene (2012) is right, when looking back on my life nobody will remember the wonderful report I sacrificed weekends and evenings to complete, but perhaps they’ll remember the time I gave them to help improve their critical thinking skills and understanding of structural behaviour and I know my kids will hopefully appreciate the time we have together now I’m no longer being continually shipped out all over the place to design buildings.

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After all I’ve changed quite a few skylines around the world when I had a proper job, maybe there’s more satisfaction to be had creating brilliant engineers to create even more radical designs.  Or perhaps there’s a compromise to be had by spending some of my time teaching and another chunk of my time working with brilliant engineers and architects to design really radical and life-changing designs… I think this could be where my future lies in all honesty, it’s about time I seized the steering wheel again as these things don’t happen by themselves.


Goldsmith, M. (2010). Mojo. London: Profile Books.

Greene, R. (2012). Mastery. London: Profile Books.

Starr, J. (2010). The Coaching Manual (Third ed.). London: Pearson Business.





Now that I’m through the massive pile of end of term marking and I’m starting to think about getting some research done through the summer, this goes hand in hand with time management skills.  I spend a great deal of my time in unstructured activities supporting students during term time, so during semester 3 I become quite hard nosed about the time slots with students.   Once I’ve made my list of things that I’ve got to do, then I’ll typically I’ll go for a quick win and tick off some of the easier things to give myself a sense of initial progress. With the remaining tasks then I create a Gantt chart to programme out the works through the summer period to see if I’m being overly ambitious with my intentions.

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Once I’ve protected my time and planned out my summer work, then the next step is simply doing it…

I have to confess to being one of the great procrastinators and I have a couple of techniques that work well in getting me up and started on tasks and I encourage my students to make use of these techniques to help them keep on top of their dissertation writing, the two techniques I use are: the pomodoro technique & breaking the chain.

The pomodoro technique makes strategic use of an egg timer when working on tasks.  The notion is that you set the timer for an initial 25 minutes and then work single mindedly on your selected task for those 25 minutes, nothing else is allowed to distract you from that single task, no telephone calls, facebook, twitter, house fires (well maybe house fires)… but on the whole you just work on that one single task until you hear your bell ring.  Once the bell has rung then you can give yourself a five minute break, make a brew, make a quick phone call, whatever you need to do… but then you set the timer again for 25 minutes and crack on with the next step of your task, or the next task and repeat this process 4 times.

Once you’ve completed 4 sessions, give yourself a longer break, half an hour, an hour… that part’s up to you, but what you’re likely to find is that you’ve been super productive for the two hours that you’ve running the pomodoro technique and actually taking an hour off at this point might be needed to let your brain cool down… it just depends how hardcore the tasks are that you’ve been doing.  One tip here though is to set a timer for your breaks, otherwise they will over run.

I use a mixture of timers when working with the pomodoro technique, either a cheap mechanical timer from Sainsbury’s which cost £3, a pomodoro mac app that puts completed pomodoros into iCal that I can’t link too here as it’s no longer available in the UK for some reason, or pomodroido on my phone.  If you’re the sharing type, you’re likely to want to broadcast your pomodoro sessions over Twitter or your social media network of choice… please be aware though, this is really annoying for those of us not working on your tasks so please exercise some discretion.

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The next technique I use is called ‘break the chain’ essentially this is about doing a little and often and requires you to have a big wall planner or calendar on your wall to be the most effective.  Say there are long term goals that would benefit from doing a little work on them, but regularly.  If your task would benefit from doing a little and often, and you can slowly work your way through to completing the whole task in this fashion, then the break the chain technique is perfect.  I first heard about this from a LifeHacker article I read which attributes this technique to Jerry Seinfeld.  Basically if you want a tidy house, to progress your PhD thesis, and get fit each of these tasks require constant effort to achieve.  You can’t necessarily do them in monthly spurts, your house would become messy between bursts of effort, your thesis would become disjointed and rushed, and you’re likely to have a heart attack when attempting your monthly marathon.  However, if you were to break these down into smaller tasks, you’d be amazed at the results that you could develop.

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Firstly let’s say that every day you spend a minimum of 10 minutes cleaning, 30 minutes writing, and 20 minutes doing exercise… that’s an hour you need to squeeze in every day.  But when you do these three tasks you are allowed to put a big fat black cross on your calendar, preferably in a fat marker pen to be highly visible.  Every day you do these tasks, you earn a big fat black cross on your calendar… the key is to make the longest chain of crosses possible…  Try and keep your daily tasks below 60 minutes to allow them to be achievable, but simply do them… 10 minutes of tidying every day will strangely make a large difference to the tidiness of your house and 30 minutes of writing, whilst in itself isn’t a lot… but it helps to keep your hand in on writing and stops you going a whole week without having done any!  ( A common curse for PhD students).  20 minutes of exercise every day could be something as simple as heading out for a walk that day, you can vary the level of intensity to suit.

I’m not pretending that this would be all you’d need to do to keep the writing up, but by doing 30 minutes every day that’s 3.5 hours of writing per week, that could be a few thousand words you never would have had being there in your thesis ready to edit and sculpt into some sort of tangible form when you’ve time to edit.  You’re still going to need to make writing a priority during your working week, but at least your brain and fingers will be well trained in making a start after your core sessions each day.

I’m hoping this helps someone a little out there, either through sharing the apps that I use, or giving some food for thought on how a little and often can be a real boost to your productivity.  If you’ve found anything helpful, please drop me a line or leave me a comment.. if you’ve another technique that works for you or have an immunisation for procrastination I’d REALLY like to hear from you…


Summer loving…

Well, having completed my first complete academic year, I’m now entering into semester 3 and I need to start planning what it is that I want to achieve over the summer whilst most of the students are away.  There’s a common misconception it would appear, that academics all bugger off to Tuscany for the summer running care free and naked through the hills with the wind blowing through their hair, finally returning in September to teach again.

Macclesfield Forest Panorama...

The truth of the matter is that this is perhaps the only time in the year when we can actually get stuff done that we want to, we’ve access to the laboratory and we’re able to crank through all of those things that we’ve just not had opportunity to get round to through the academic year due to other pressures.  The key to getting things done though is to create a list of what it is that you want to achieve… so here’s my list (in no particular order yet as I need to put timescales next to them).

  • Review COMSOL and attend a training session.
  • Develop a series of Mathematica sheets for calculating geometry.
  • Learn ANSYS.
  • Learn Inventor.
  • Update lecture materials for the MSc and some of the first year modules.
  • Write 2 chapters for my PhD.
  • Complete my Lynda.com training session for Blackboard 9.1.
  • Completely re-populate all of my Blackboard area, embedding Mathematica.
  • Complete WriteTEL2 programme with Napier.
  • Write resit papers and mark any resubmissions from repeating students.
  • Obtain ethics approval for my innovative structures teaching programme.
  • Finish two journal papers.
  • Become registered as a STEM ambassador.
  • Complete a ‘Meet the Engineer’ session at MOSI.
  • Arrange next year’s Technical Lecture Programme for the IStructE
  • Complete my examination marking for the IStructE
  • Complete the Advanced Structural Behaviour Exam paper for the IStructE.
  • Submit draft textbook outline to McGraw Hill.
  • Define a solid workflow for creating technical illustrations, MS Visio or Adobe Illustrator.
  • Explore Wolfram SystemModeller.
  • Find and create a pool of study buddies…

In amongst this I’ve also a significant build on with our new house, although we’ve a good builder on board so hopefully it shouldn’t drain too much of my time.  I also intend to take some time out for a holiday, as well as doing some hill walking with a little landscape photography thrown in too…. but here’s the rub… when I look at the list above I find myself thinking that’s quite a lot of stuff to fit in through the summer months, but the difference being that actually I find the activities listed above good fun and I’ve actively taken on board these activities through my own volition… they’re not crap that has been dumped on me by an inconsiderate boss.

This ability to be highly self-indulgent is perhaps the thing I like the most having joined academia, although I still feel guilty come every Friday when I’ve not completed a timesheet… but just to be able to make time in my own diary to head off and read about something I find interesting is incredibly liberating…