The comprehensive examination is an important milestone for a PhD student. While its format varies depending on the school, degree, department, and most importantly, your supervisor, it is usually a pass/fail test of your cumulative knowledge after one or two years into the program. In Canada, after the comps, you are “promoted” from being a PhD student to being a PhD Candidate.
The format in my department is a take-home exam that lasts from Monday morning, when you receive the set of questions, until Friday at 5pm, when you need to submit your answers/papers to your committee members. One week later you meet them in an oral examination, where you clarify any questions they have about your answers and about the field in general.
So last June it was my turn. I received the questions on Monday and worked countless hours. On the third day, it happened: the Blue Screen Of Death!
No, I wasn’t doing anything weird, like calculating a huge matrix or running statistics on millions of records. I had just Word open where I was writing my answers, a lot of PDFs with relevant papers, EndNote, my personal wiki where I had written down my notes… Oh wait, was that too much? Well, apparently so, and the computer gave up!
I usually take a paranoid approach when it comes to backing up my work, particularly important ones like this document. For instance, every day before leaving the office I made sure I had an up-to-date copy on at least two cloud sync services, a USB drive and – of course – the master copy in my office’s computer. But I wasn’t 100% prepared for a BSOD…
It happened around noon on Wednesday, the symbolic halfway mark of my exam. The computer took about 30 minutes to be back in its full form. And I spent all these long minutes wondering how much work I had lost… When was the last time I had hit Ctrl+S? Did Word autosave it for me before crashing? Would I have to start the day from scratch?
In the end, it was not that bad – I had missed only about 30 minutes of work – therefore in total only 1 hour had been lost. But I couldn’t afford risking it happening again, so I switched my live writing to an online app, where my work would be saved to the cloud instantly as I typed. No more Ctrl+S, no more fear of the BSOD. Although these online apps have progressed in the past few years, they still do not offer the same rich set of features from MS Word. But instant saving was enough for me to make the switch for the remainder of the week – once everything was done, I just copied and pasted the content back to my main Word document.
While storage gets cheaper every year, we can afford to have multiple copies of our work in different locations in order to minimize the risks of losing precious data. A while back, I was getting frustrated for having a huge amount of duplicate data without syncing – and never knowing which version should be kept. Therefore I decided it was time to organize a backup plan that would have the following characteristics:
- Seamless sync: no more manual comparisons to determine which file was the good one.
- Cloud sync: backup in a remote location with a third-party provider and accessible from every machine
- Physical sync: local disk encrypted backup
I use a combination of different services, but basically you can achieve the same with two things: Dropbox and Apple’s Time Machine (there are alternatives for Windows as well). I agree Dropbox might lose my data, in which case I should have a recent copy in the hard drives of all my computers. If my Dropbox account is compromised (less likely after they implemented 2-step verification – I recommend you activate it!), I will still have my data in the local backup. If my backup hard drive fails… Well, what are the odds of all that happening at the same time? 🙂
What is your backup strategy?