Producing a lot of research (without sacrificing quality): how not to suck in graduate school

In January’s blog post, I put together a meditation on what it means to be a successful academic. I received a lot of positive feedback on that post. However, there were several people who like the idea of redefining success as an academic, but stated that the ideas presented did not reflect their reality. It is possible to be a productive scholar with a strong sense of perspectives and priorities. This month I will get into the weeds of detail and provide some basic information on the day-to-day activities of being an efficient and extremely productive academic.

With current pressures on publishing a lot of papers in refereed journals growing every year, as if academics are simply producing widgets, there is a need to provide survival tools for this environment. I am a pro-science academic. To me this means that scientific thought, data-driven decisions, theory testing and improvement, and consistently making advancements and contributions to the field are more important than producing more words in print. As an editor, the most common type of paper I see are extremely well-done and well-designed projects that make absolutely no contribution to the field. Well-designed minutia is still minutia. More seriously, the pressure to publish a lot of papers has resulted in intentional or unintentional plagiarism, p-hacking, slicing data sets into least publishable units, data falsification, lack of transparency, and a host of other issues that not only fail to make a contribution to science; but actively diminish the quality of scientific thought and communication.

Publishing a large amount of work in the most efficient way possible does not necessarily mean that scientific thought and communications must suffer. There are simple ways to increase the number of publications that one produces without working 90 hours a week or taking shortcuts that reduce quality. In terms of writing and manuscript production efficiency, there is no better book than Paul Silvia’s How to Write a Lot. No matter how busy you are, this book is a short and worthy read on efficiency and writing discipline. I use several ideas taken directly from Dr. Silvia’s work. But assuming you are writing at maximum efficiency, how does one produce a lot of publications without going crazy?

I read that the average millionaire has seven income sources. I am not sure that this is true, but the concept is an important one. If your productivity depends entirely on you and a couple of students designing, carrying out, analysing, and writing up one study at a time; then you are necessarily limited. No matter how efficient your team is, this is only one productivity stream. This might be enough. You may have one productivity stream that produces all of the publications that you need. But for maximum efficiency and productivity, I recommend nurturing and developing multiple simultaneous sources of productivity.

There are many ways to do this and I will just describe how I do it solely for purposes of illustration. The primary challenge is to create a team of students and colleagues with expectations of productivity. My overly simple idea is that my lab will produce 12 major projects (papers for refereed journals, grant proposals, book chapters, grant reports) in the calendar year and that each graduate student is expected to be a co-author on at least two manuscripts submitted for publication every academic year. Every field and university has their own norms. In my field and my university, this is a fairly reasonable number of projects and expectations. Given that, what are my productivity streams?

  • Solo work. My goal is to produce a minimum of one solo project every year. Usually this is a creative, theoretical, major literature review, or book project. For 2017 it is a book to be published by Springer publications. One big project per year is the only expectation here.
  • Student work. Students in my lab are strongly encouraged to develop side projects that are independent of or tangentially related to their thesis projects. These are typically small scale pilot projects or testing some detailed methodology or component of a theory. This year I have a couple of students who are extremely independent and have developed their own projects with absolutely no input from me other than some copy editing. They will be solo authors on those papers because I know it will improve the probability of them receiving fellowships, high prestige internships, or faculty positions. However, most side projects have 2 to 3 co-authors and are the result of teamwork. We expect two to four papers to come out of this work.
  • Thesis follow-up. Students do their best work on their masters and doctoral theses. Master’s theses are usually one project of the scope to be appropriate for article for publication. Sometimes data can be reanalysed to produce a second publication. We tend to write our doctoral theses as three or four related publishable manuscripts. As these manuscripts are completed, we send the best papers for publication even if it is prior to the defence of the doctoral thesis. We expect 4 to 6 papers to come out of this work.
  • Invited work. One of the nice parts about being old and hanging around my profession for a long time is that I am frequently invited to contribute articles to special issues of journals, book chapters, or other contributions to literature (this does not count predatory and/or open access invitations, which I always decline and insist that my students do the same). I accept about 75% of these offers. I would probably accept only about 25%, but many of them are great opportunities for my students to co-author relatively simple and high probability of publication papers. In general, the criteria I use for accepting these projects are: I can actually make a contribution, I believe strongly in the purpose of the book or special issue, my contribution helps or supports a friend, or it is a strong interest of one of my students. Honestly, I do not like writing book chapters, but there are times that it is worth doing. Another confession, sometimes I write contributions to books because I get a free copy of an extremely expensive book and am too cheap to buy it myself. We can expect 2 to 4 papers to come out of this work.
  • Collaborative work. Quite often I will have a colleague who wants to work with me for whatever reason. Usually, it is when a colleague has one half of a brilliant idea for a paper and knows that I have the skills to write the other half. Sometimes I initiate these activities when I have an idea that is not fully baked and know an expert to help me carry out the plan. Quite often this happens with a junior colleague who has brilliant ideas, but may lack the confidence or specific skills to carry out a complex manuscript. This usually happens about once a year.
  • Specialized contributions. It helps to be fairly well-known for some specific and valued skills. As such, I am frequently invited into projects that are not really of interest to me, but the principal investigator knows that I have a specific skill that they need. For me, my specific skills are the ability to implement innovations into school systems, program evaluation, professional development in psychology and education, and integrating medical issues with learning and schooling. So I am often asked to be on a grant proposal or to co-author a paper. The best part about this, is that my actual contribution is extremely limited. I may write two or three paragraphs in a manuscript and become a co-author, teach graduate students how to conduct a specific type of data analysis, be a liaison between a school system and a team of researchers, and work on connecting medical and educational professionals. I may be third or fourth author on a manuscript or parlay my coinvestigator status on a grant to provide a little bit of funding for some of my students, but these activities rarely take much time. I refer to these as “glomming on” to smart people. My name appears on 1 to 3 papers per year and usually one new grant per year while spending little time or energy.
  • Special issue editor (a great pre-tenure trick). My favourite pre-tenure trick is to edit a special issue of a journal. Some journals are designed so that it is actually easier and has a higher probability of success to propose a special volume than it is to have an unsolicited manuscript accepted. If you have several colleagues with expertise on a specific topic, then collecting 6 to 8 topics and abstracts for related papers to propose a special issue is a wonderful idea. Here is why this is an excellent trick for expanding your CV: you receive credit as an editor of a special issue, typically you can receive credit for two publications (a brief introduction paper to the special issue and one full content-based paper), the probability of acceptance of the paper and special issues is much higher than an unsolicited manuscript, your friends who have contributed to the special issue feel as if they owe you a favour, depending on the publication you may develop a reputation as a leading scholar on that specific topic, and sometimes special issues are so popular and so important that a publishing company will invite you to expand on the special issue to edit a book volume. I did three of these special issues pre-tenure and it was quite valuable for producing a lot of publications. I have no immediate plans to use this production stream in the near future, but I may put one together next year.

We hope that all of the papers are of high quality and have professional and scientific merit. These are good methods to keep multiple streams of productivity moving simultaneously. The challenge is to always to keep these streams focused on a consistent and coherent research program rather than scattered. You must be able to say no when the project does not meet your needs. It is also clear that some of these streams do not work for some fields of study. However, the logic remains and is useful for almost every field, have simultaneous multiple streams of productivity always moving in the same direction. In this fashion, we can meet the reality of efficiently producing a lot of high quality widgets for purposes of accountability, desirability for funding, and moving ahead in your career.

 

SRShaw

@Shawpsych

Advertisements

What Does It Mean to Be a Successful Academic? And How Not to Suck at Achieving It

What Does It Mean to Be a Successful Academic? And How Not to Suck at Achieving It

One of the most common conversations among junior faculty, postdocs, and graduate students revolves around the question, “What does it take to be a successful academic?” The most common follow-up question is, “Is the cost worth it?” We are inundated with stories and experiences involving wise and senior academics who speak of 80 to 90-hour work weeks, lack of a family, no hobbies, no social life, and 100% devotion to all things scientific and career as if this approach to life was required for any success in the academic world.

I was inspired by a tweet from one of my colleagues, Dr. J. D. Farrell-Campbell (@Campbell_JD_), who wrote in response to a conversation concerning expected work hours among academics with, “If this is the cost to publish in @nature or @sciencemagazine it is not worth it. @raulpacheco & @Shawpsych are both successful & have a life.” It is extraordinarily kind of Dr. Farrell Campbell to both include me in the company of Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega, and number me among successful academics. But thanks to Dr. Farrell-Campbell, I feel the need to create a meditation on success in academia.

I have written elsewhere in this blog that I may not be a typical academic because I have no real ambition and I simply enjoy the work. I actually learned only two years ago that the vast majority of awards won in academia are self-nominated — I had no idea that was an option. As someone who came to academia relatively late in life (my tenure track job started when I was 42-years-old after having a career as a psychologist for 16 years), I don’t have particularly good socialization as an academic and am used to a different professional culture. I’m just happy to have a job with no heavy lifting.

I do not understand discussions of academic success in general. There are so many roles and functions that an academic can fill that there appears to be little overlap. For example, the environments are dramatically different. Working at a community college (or CEGEP), liberal arts school, state school, R1 institution, or research institute all constitute being an academic, but have few skill sets in common. Roles and expectations also vary among fields of study. The skills required in philosophy, medical education, social work, drama, genetics, and many others are widely different; as are the criteria used to measure success. Research output is a widely agreed upon metric for success. But even within the same university and the same field of study, some academics are successful for being leaders in university governance, outstanding teachers and mentors, involvement in student life, consultation and business partnerships, university-community partnership, and many other measures of success. There are so many metrics for measuring academic success that I am not really sure how success is defined.

There is also an individual perception of success. I am always surprised by how many people are driven to achieve by anger, ego, money, making one’s parents proud, to prove to others that they are not a failure, and other external factors. Most fields even have rankings of the most influential or most productive scholars in each specific field. Convoluted metrics of journal impact are used to quantify and rank scholars. It makes me giggle a little bit that some scholars are competing to be tops in the field of creating new journal impact factors and ranking other scholars (that should be called meta-scholarly studies, if it isn’t already). Different people have different needs for objective success in their field.

When I left clinical work to try academia, my close friend, former partner, and respected colleague berated me for over one hour for abandoning children who need me so that I could write papers for the judgment and entertainment of other people who write papers. That hit a little close to home and hurt, but was a valuable perspective. I have a fairly simple view of success as an academic that revolves around two criteria: I want my students to meet their professional goals and for everyone else to leave me alone. Honestly, there are no publications in Nature or Science, no awards, and no other status that are as productive and valuable as making small contributions and supporting the success of students. A lot of people do not believe me on that one (yes, I acknowledge that this is part of the privilege of tenure), but it is true. And I want to publish enough papers that make contributions to my field, have enough grant money, and have enough academic accomplishments so that I do not become an embarrassment to the department and require the attention of the department chair. I know that I have an h-index, but I do not know what it is and I do not know how many refereed publications I have written. I want to study what I want and with whom I want. Ultimately, the goal is to indirectly influence future professionals and improve the outcomes for many more children than I could ever help by myself. That is success as an academic for me.

There is the second part of the equation. Is it worth it? Do I actually have a life? I work fairly long hours, but I don’t keep track because that would probably be a little bit depressing. About 50-60 hours per week, I guess. I come home every night to cook dinner for my family (my wife doesn’t cook). I am still married after 25 years. My children still seem to like me and we have conversations every day. My dog is probably little bit undertrained and I do not socialize much, but have good friends. I have simple hobbies of training judo three hours per week along with my younger daughter and I go to the gym three days per week. So that’s enough for me.

Many thanks to Dr. J. D. Farrell-Campbell for considering me a successful academic with a life. By objective measures, I am a fairly mediocre academic and I am okay with that. Yet, I believe that I am successful and the work is worth it to me; but only for my context, specific definition of success, and desired quality of life.

SRShaw

@Shawpsych

 

 

 

Trying Not to Suck: New Year’s Edition 2017

About a year ago I wrote a blog post about how to function one life seems to be falling apart. I mentioned that my wife had been diagnosed with cancer. After 13 months, we are finally finished with all of the treatments. Everything looks good for her continued health. There are never guarantees, but all news has been positive. In addition, she is back to exercising and regaining her strength. She is a pretty incredible person. We are both ready to resume our family life and career. Many thanks to so many of you who have been supportive and helpful over the last year.

In addition to fewer stressors and medical appointments, I am also ending my term as a journal editor at the end of 2016 and my term as program director ends on June 1, 2017; so I will have far fewer time and energy demands to interfere with achieving outcomes.

So let’s move forward in the tradition of creating New Year’s resolutions:

  • I have a few personal goals for the year
    • 2016 was an excellent year for going to the gym. I went to the gym for full workouts nearly 4 days per week on average. I also had weekly judo training. These were great therapies when I was stressed. I want to continue this pace of exercise.
    • For 2017 judo training will increase to twice per week
    • The big change this year will be in the kitchen. I need to take the discipline that I use for getting to the gym and apply that to eating. I have become extremely muscular, but have too much weight for somebody of my age and it is time to get lean.
  • The theme of this year’s work is making personal connections and professional trouble
    • I was too busy and stressed to be a good supervisor this year. I barely know my students. I want to improve the relationships with the students under my supervision.
    • I would like to improve partnerships and co-authored projects with colleagues from around the world.
    • I will be working toward creating a stronger professional identity for Canadian school psychologists
    • I would like to disrupt the methods and assumptions currently used in clinical research in all fields. We are now ready to make trouble by publishing work on a new model that enhances evidence-based practices, addresses research problems in psychology, improves implementation, and advances theory in productive directions. Yup, it is a pretty cool idea and you are just gonna have to wait for it.

Goals are not useful without measurables and timelines.

  1. Finish book contract with Springer publishing by delivering the finished product by March 31.
  2. Submit one major project (manuscript for refereed journal or grant proposal) per month for the 2017 calendar year. All of these projects are to be co-authored with students or colleagues.
  3. Monthly lab happy hours for the 2017 calendar year.
  4. Submit new book series proposal by June 1.
  5. Reduce by 4 pounds per month.
  6. Take my wife on two vacations this year.

I also wish health, wisdom, compassion, justice, and friendship to you all.

SR Shaw

Scholarly Journal Participation: How Much and How Not to Suck at it?

Professional scholarly journals have become a source of controversy in the academic world. There are a host of issues concerning the appropriateness and quality of peer review, decision-making in publishing, exorbitant profit margins by publishing companies, exploitation of free labor, varying metrics of the status and importance of each journal, and endless efforts to quantify contributions to research. Many scholars believe that scholarly journals are no longer an effective method of disseminating research findings. All of these are legitimate concerns, but until we have an adequate replacement, scholarly journals will continue to be the primary method for dissemination for research to international audiences. Publications in scholarly journals will continue to be the currency by which funding, promotion, tenure, and status are granted. All scholars need to decide for themselves exactly how much and how to participate in supporting and maintaining scholarly journals.

I am just finishing a seven-year editorship of a journal, am an associate editor of a second journal, and am on the editorial review board of seven international journals. I try to be mindful about the tasks I accept, decline, and how this work assists me in meeting my scholarly and professional goals. I spend too much time thinking about the process and value of reviewing, editing, and supporting scholarly journals. Here are some of my musings about the topic.

Development

Participating in the editorial process for scholarly journals is a leadership activity. There has to be a mastery of a breath of methodologies, theory, and understanding of the purpose of the specific scholarly journal in order to provide this level of leadership. As such, the skills need to be developed over time.

As a graduate student and post-doc there is rapid development in the understanding and application of research methods, learning about the publication process from an author perspective, and establishing a reputation in the field. Hopefully, PIs allow students to receive supervised experience in writing reviews of submitted manuscripts. Often PIs simply delegate their reviewing activities to students and often without credit. This scenario seems to have crossed the fine line between a productive learning activity and exploiting labour. Allowing students to assist the writing of manuscript reviews with increasing levels of autonomy is a helpful activity. Eventually, the PI contacts the editor in order to give credit for the work of the graduate student in preparing the manuscript review. Some journals go so far as to have student editorial boards in which the editor provides mentorship in the preparation of reviews. These are exciting opportunities for students to begin to understand the opaque and insider nature of the publication and scholarly journal production process.

As an assistant professor there is also a learning curve in determining how to spend your time and shape your career. No matter how well prepared you are for a tenure-track position, learning the expectations and culture of your new department takes time. There are many departments in which contributions to scholarly journals earn no credit and are not valued professionally. In other departments, reviewing papers and contributing to the editorial process of scholarly journals is considered a fundamental component of your job and a professional expectation. Many assistant professors obsess on how they should be spending their time. If reviewing papers and contributing to the editorial process is a valued part of your department culture, then find the time to review papers. Investigate journals to determine the norms for expected turnaround times for articles and how many articles you will receive for review per year. Being invited to serve on an editorial review board is an outstanding recognition of your professional status, but your decision on whether to accept the position depends largely on the details and expectations of that role.

As a tenured professor your contributions to science have changed. You are now an established leader, who helps to set the tone and agenda for your field of study. Reviewing manuscripts and contributing to the editorial direction of scholarly journals is now something that you are well qualified to do. The biggest risks for tenured professors is that often reviews and editorial decisions reflect protection of status quo, maintenance of the same voices within the field, and reifying the same assumptions that you have made in your own research. Keeping an open mind and welcoming new voices into the field is one of the challenges for experienced professors in the editorial process.

Review as Scholarship

Reviewing articles for professional journals is a form of scholarship. At the very least, reviewing new papers allows you to keep up on the latest issues and research that are involved in your field. I have read on Twitter that some scholars have as their goal to read one scholarly paper per day. As an editor and frequent reviewer, plus the work that I read in my own field of study, I have read 512 papers in 2016 (94 as editor, 12 as associate editor, 31 as reviewer, and the remainder to keep up on my own research). This is somewhat less than my productivity mantra of reading 100 pages and writing 1000 words per day. But serving as a reviewer enhances the depth and breadth of my professional reading.

Reviewing articles and making editorial decisions also is a contribution to your field of study. Most reviews focus entirely on the rigour and scholarship of submitted articles. If methodology is sound and internal consistency of the logic of the paper is adequate, then many papers are recommended for publication. To a large degree this is because methodology is something on which many reviewers can agree and for which there is a standard. A more important decision-making criterion is whether the article makes a significant contribution or advancement to that field of research. Because rigour is often valued more than contribution; many journals are filled with papers that are extremely well done, but are mostly minutia and of minimal importance to the profession. The appropriate use of post hoc tests is necessary for an effective evaluation of a paper, but whether that paper makes substantial theoretical, clinical, methodological, or instructional contributions are even more important criteria.

As an editor, there are three things that I value in a reviewer manuscript evaluation: timeliness, the mindset of assisting authors to make the manuscript and their overall work better, and accountability. Timeliness is obvious. About 55% of reviews for my journal were received past the deadline date. This is not only inconvenient for authors, but reflects poorly on the quality of the journal overall. The sooner the better. Rather than the mindset of a reviewer rejecting a paper because it is inadequate, a better approach is to provide information that will help authors improve the paper. Some articles have fatal flaws. In those cases, make suggestions as to how these papers can be redesigned to become effective communicators of important scholarly contributions to the field. This takes time, but it is part of the article review-as-scholarship approach. As editor, I frequently gave comments to reviewers on the quality of their review. Not simply the scholarship, but also the tone. Reviewers are instructed to be constructive and rigorous. As a reviewer, one method to increase accountability is that I always place my name on the bottom of reviews for the authors to view. There is no reason to be anonymous and I should be accountable for all of my scholarship, including manuscript evaluations. Some editors remove my name from the reviews in order to be consistent with the double-blind review procedure of the journal, but reviewers are accountable to the editors and to the authors. If reviewers cannot meet the criteria of review-as-scholarship and address timeliness, assist authors, and accountability, then it is not a problem to decline the review. However, if you must decline the review, then decline as quickly as possible so that another reviewer can be solicited for the evaluation.

Editorship

Should you be an associate editor or editor of a journal? Requirements of your time range widely from 5 to 20 hours per week as an editor of the Journal. This is a major cost. My criteria for whether to accept such costs are: Do I have the time to meet the duties of editor? Would editing this journal be consistent with my goals for professional leadership? And can I make a contribution to the editorial direction of the journal beyond serving as a caretaker and administrator? Journal editorship is a manifestation of professional leadership and assisting to develop a research direction for your field. There is an awesome responsibility to this task. My recommendation is that becoming an associate editor is ideal for a beginning associate professor (with tenure) establishing leadership in the profession. This position allows you to get a taste of what being an editor in chief looks like. Becoming an editor is an excellent task for an associate professor, who is preparing to advance to full professor, or a full professor.

Conclusions

Whatever one thinks about scholarly journals and the future of scholarly journals, the emphasis is on academics to ensure that the evaluation and publication of professional science and dissemination of science in journals is a productive and rigorous process. Rather than a task of drudgery and thankless service, involvement in professional journals is a form of scholarship. I strongly encourage my colleagues to take leadership roles in the dissemination of the highest quality scholarly research in all of its forms.

SR Shaw

What to Do When You Are Overwhelmed with Work: How Not to Suck in Grad School

Ambitious graduate students and academics inevitably run into a big problem, being overwhelmed with the volume and complexity of work. This happens to nearly everybody. Becoming overwhelmed will happen, even if you are the most disciplined, organized, meticulous, strategic, and well prioritized scholar. Efficiency is a useful characteristic, but it does not make one immune from being overwhelmed. The ability to say no frequently is another useful characteristic, yet becoming overwhelmed is still inevitable. It happens to everybody. The question is, what do we do when the sheer volume of work surrounds and suffocates.

Most academics are wise enough to adhere to the Linus Pauling adage, “the best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” That is, important and productive researchers have multiple projects ongoing at all times. There are additional papers and projects that are somewhere in the publication pipeline and require energy and time. All researchers working at universities also have time requirements for teaching, administration, university governance, and other supervisory or training with students. In addition, there are professional responsibilities such as journal editorship, engagement with professional organizations, reviewing papers, and evaluating grant proposals. The projects resemble a Jenga tower of precariously stacked projects that grow taller and taller. At some point the tower becomes too tall and collapses due to its inherent instability or the presentation of some external event (e.g., illness, a surprise or last-minute project, personal problems). The careful balance of multiple ideas and projects then becomes an incoherent mess of pieces that have buried you in a massive disorganized and chaotic jumble. The purpose served by balancing multiple projects and ideas is lost when the tower collapses.

Once your fragile tower of ideas collapses around you, it is time to rebuild. Even the most organized and disciplined scholar finds themselves in a cycle of building careful to-do lists and series of projects, which is followed by a collapse. Symptoms of the collapse include missed deadlines, the feeling of being spread so thin that nothing is done with high quality, there is no time to reflect and think about scholarly products and process, your day has become entirely about work, relationships and health again to suffer, and feelings of hopelessness and high anxiety are the norm. Rebuilding your tower mindlessly will result in repeating the process of building and collapse until there is burnout and intense frustration.

Step Back

The first instinct for most professionals when they become overwhelmed (after panic, tears, and hyperventilation) is to grab the first task available and begin working on it. Working extra hours, reducing sleep, sacrificing friends and family, and giving up exercise are frequent consequences of immediately beginning to work on a task. There are two major problems with this hard-working approach: one is that as you are working on a task, new tasks are accumulating and re-filling the bucket; and two is that there is an increased feeling of hopelessness as you work harder and harder while falling further and further behind.

The better first move (after panic, tears, and hyperventilation) is to step back and take stock of the situation. A mindful and well-organized plan of attack for reorganizing the to-do list and establishing a realistic timeframe for each task is required. Also consider what were the planning errors or events that created the circumstances for the overwhelming breakdown to have occurred in the first place. These are to be addressed if at all possible. Even when it comes to the overwhelming collapse of the to-do list, a thoughtful and mindful approach is more effective than haphazard busyness. Failing to plan is planning to fail.

Long Term Planning

Because there is so much to do, most conscientious scientist will begin working on tasks as quickly and efficiently as possible. This is a mistake. This is the ideal moment for long-term planning. Assess exactly what your one-year and five-year personal and professional goals are. Then review all of the pieces of the to-do list in order to determine if all tasks are consistent with professional goals. Items on the to-do list that are not consistent with professional goals need to be eliminated or given low priority.

The purpose of the long-term planning exercise just at the moment that things are most overwhelming is to ensure that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Simply working harder and longer without a goal or purpose can be discouraging, frustrating, and eventually self-defeating. By occasionally reconsidering whether the to-do list matches with long-term goals helps to avoid the cycle of massive to-do lists followed by inability to meet deadlines. The best time to audit your to-do list is when things become the most chaotic and you feel most overwhelmed.

Prioritize

As you survey the rubble of high priority tasks and try to figure out how to reestablish an orderly method of completing your work, you will need to prioritize tasks. The two primary methods of prioritizing tasks are by urgency and by importance. Urgent tasks tend to have rapidly approaching timelines or an expectation of rapid turnaround (e.g., emails, grading). The tendency is to immediately work on urgent tasks first. Timelines are to be respected, but tasks deemed to be most important in your long-term planning exercise must also receive immediate attention. In the most efficient approaches to addressing to-do lists there is always a tension between important task and urgent tasks. No matter how busy, it is always a good investment of time to allocate 20% of your energies towards tasks that are considered important, but not urgent.

Considering your priorities and long-term planning are also essential when it comes to considering which new tasks that you should say yes to and which opportunities need to be politely declined. Declining, then missing out on new opportunities is a common victim of the overwhelmed scholar. There is nothing wrong with taking on new tasks even when overwhelmed, but make sure that these task are consistent with your highest priorities and your long-term planning.

Renegotiate

The overwhelming collapse of the to-do list is something like a financial bankruptcy. In order to get out from under the avalanche of impossible-to-complete tasks some sacrifices may need to be made. Tasks with hard deadlines (e.g., grant proposals and conference deadlines), may need to be sacrificed if they are not of highest importance. Semi-firm deadlines such as manuscript reviews, agreed-upon delivery of work with co-authors, grading, and other tasks can often be renegotiated to a later time. The major mistake is to hide from overdue work. Stand up and address each person you owe work to and negotiate a new deadline. Clearly, this is not an activity that you want to do often and it is not fun at all. Negotiating a new deadline date with a research partner, student, or journal editor is far more professional than being late with no warning. In addition, tasks that do not have a formal deadline are often ignored. These tasks, such as submission of journal manuscripts, can be extraordinarily important. Ignoring this writing because your to-do list is too full will result in minimizing your research productivity and will affect the trajectory of your research program.

What Not to Do

There is nothing wrong with increasing work rate. However, all nighters, skipping meals, avoiding exercise, and working with high levels of anxiety are recipes for burnout. Effective self-care is impossible when extra work replaces normal life and this becomes a permanent state of being. There is nothing wrong with high intensity long and hard work. There is a problem when work is no longer productive for achieving goals and work is a never-ending hamster wheel of busyness.

A Couple of Pointers

Even after stepping back, creating long-term plans, prioritizing, renegotiating, and avoiding maladaptive practices; there is still a lot of work to do. Quite often the avalanche of work is due to a personal problem, illness, or some other event that has made work difficult to complete. Moving from no work to full speed work can be a challenge. An exercise to get back into the habits and rituals that are necessary to be most productive can be valuable. It is not too difficult for frequent readers to determine that this is the purpose of my blog posts. A blog post does not take full and intense concentration like a manuscript for publication in refereed journal, but it requires the discipline and productivity skills necessary to jumpstart efficient work habits. So a brief and manageable task is often enough to get you back on track. The second pointer is to create only a mild increase in time spent working on to-do list tasks. Rarely do you ever want to increase the time spent on your to do tasks by more than 25%. Multiple all nighters and marathon sessions usually result in poor quality work and quality of life problems. The last pointer is to fully complete your first couple of tasks in one sitting. Completing a task and checking it off of the list is reinforcing and launches your reboot of the to-do list in a positive direction.

Conclusions

Far too many academics despair when the to-do list becomes overwhelming and collapses into a disorganized and insurmountable mess. This happens to everyone who is making every effort to take advantage of all the opportunities to become a productive scholar no matter how organized they may be. The mistake happens when becoming overwhelmed leads to panic and mindless busyness. This form of work crisis is an opportunity to reestablish priorities and to work most efficiently on the projects that are of highest importance. Taking the time to step back and be mindful about how you conduct your daily tasks goes a long way towards sustainable productivity.

SR Shaw

Stupid Idea Time: How Not to Suck at Being Creative in a Lab Setting

Running a lab as a principal investigator, postdoc, or lab coordinator can be a tedious job. Organizing personnel, managing data, running experiments, managing ethics proposals, maintaining and repairing equipment, paying personnel, managing and monitoring adherence to protocols, completing evaluations, preparing for audits, writing grant proposals, and preparing and managing manuscripts can seem like a treadmill of activity. The harder and more efficient a lab works the more likely they are to be producing scientific widgets like a factory. The high quality grind results in paper publications and grant money, but rarely big discoveries or major contributions. Becoming stuck in a rut of unimaginative studies that can be produced efficiently is real and common in research labs.

One of the problems is that work in such a lab is rarely fun or inspiring. Students often have a fear of fouling up the efficient assembly line with new and creative ideas. They become factory workers. Creativity, creative thinking, and creative mindsets lead to a fun environment that can produce high quality work without fear of failure. Most importantly, the probability of increasing innovative and important research conducted by highly motivated and creative students can be increased.

Establishing a professional culture that involves careful skills and exact following of the research protocol and a creative mindset is a challenging culture to create. Integrating volunteers and new students into an innovative, but exacting culture can be difficult. There are a host of exercises and activities that can be implemented to create an ideal environment for productivity, precision, and innovation

One of the basic exercises that we use in my lab is referred to as “Stupid Idea Time.” This concept is in large part inspired by Martin Schwartz’s 2008 article entitled, “The importance of stupidity in scientific research.” The goal of the exercise is to reduce the fear of being wrong that many students in lab members may have and to encourage consideration of new ideas. It is a suggestion box that comes to life in a group laboratory setting. The concept that there is no such thing as a stupid question is bizarre and incorrect. Of course, there are stupid questions. But these questions are not to be shamed or punished, but to be celebrated. The goal of stupid idea time is to challenge widely accepted assumptions and to say things like, “Why won’t this work?” “What if our assumptions are wrong?“ ”What if we examine this process from an entirely different perspective?” These novel, sometimes naïve, ideas are actually challenges to the status quo. The team needs to take these ideas seriously and come up with an explanation or play the “what if” game to imagine what the science would look like if these new ideas were integrated into the existing paradigm of a research lab.

The process is not quite the same as brainstorming. In brainstorming, ideas on a specific topic are tossed out in a rapidfire fashion with no judgment. The goal is to generate via a group stream of consciousness as many possibilities and solutions as possible. Evaluation, discussion, and group interaction are not typically parts of brainstorming; but are used in subsequent meetings to consider the products of brainstorming at a later time.

Here is how we do it:

  • Try not to have stupid idea time very often. We may only do it once or twice per term. It is a useful idea when ideas have gone stale, there is low morale, when the energy of the lab is low, or there needs to be a shakeup in the dynamics of the lab. When you decide to use this method, give the students one-day notice that stupid idea time will be on the agenda. If you give people too much time, they will write formal list and make proposals and generally defeat the spontaneity of the exercise. But one day allows them to think about what they would like to change, or innovate; and allows the energy and anticipation of a fun session to grow.
  • Students are often reluctant to be the first to start with the ideas. It is a good idea for the PI or leading postdoc to provide the first of the ideas, just to get the ball rolling. Then challenge the others to come up with something weirder and more creative. Ideally, the first idea should be something that all of the other students in lab members laugh at. (e.g., so how would we analyze zombie DNA?)
  • Encourage discussion and reaction to new ideas. A general atmosphere of silliness is often helpful. The goal is to encourage lighthearted camaraderie, good humour, and allow the group to expand and clarify upon an idea.
  • Do not worry about feasibility of the stupid idea. Challenge other members of the lab to develop a more practical variation, how the new idea fits into the general theoretical concepts used by the lab, and generally keep the discussion going.
  • Because quite often a lot of people have ideas, it is okay to run with an idea for a limit of 10 minutes before moving on to the next idea. Everyone needs to be encouraged to engage in refining, judging, and even mocking of the idea. Whatever you do, dream and think big. Ultimately, the goal is to increase the excitement, novelty, and potential for breakthrough findings in your research lab.
  • Make sure that all the stupid ideas are recorded because some of the ideas might be mentioned, but do not register as especially notable until well after the meeting takes place.

For example, the idea arose that we remember that annoying little animated paper clip figure that would pop up and give you ideas from old versions of Microsoft Word. Someone thought an idea like that help with interactivity of our classroom-based lesson plans. We agreed that it should be a cat instead of a paper clip (Shaw sounds like chat, French for cat. Many of the children we work with believe that Dr. Shaw is actually a cat). And if we are going to increase interactivity, then why don’t we make our ideas applicable to be used on a SmartBoard in front of a classroom with strong graphics, video, and hyperlinks. Then we can code animation, voiceover, and teacher modifications into an interactive website. For several minutes, the ideas continued to escalate, refine, and develop into something that could be actionable. Most importantly, the atmosphere of the lab became more engaged, energetic, humorous, open, and creative. Although the specific idea may be extremely helpful, the process has reinforced the value of creativity and pushing limits of projects. Especially valuable in this exercise are undergraduate volunteers and new research assistants. They are often naïve to the background and history of projects and are not constrained by ingrained habits of thinking.

In an era of tight funding, novelty and thinking outside of the box can jump start a research program to gain attention of granting agencies and donors. Even if nothing actionable comes of the exercise, there is nothing wrong with fun and positive interactions in a lab meeting.

Losing Your Way as a Scientist: How Not to Suck

Nearly every researcher feels as if they have lost their way at one time or another. The big plans may not have worked out. The daily stressors and environment of their employment place are not conducive to achieving professional goals. A series of projects have worked themselves into an intellectual cul-de-sac that do not advance the big goals. Personal stressors and responsibilities restrict the time necessary to achieve professional goals. Work is tiring and tedious. There is a vague, but loud and persistent, feeling that what you are doing right now is not what you are meant to do with your career. These are not same as the day-to-day hassles of a researcher. Some of these hassles involve things like broken equipment, spoiled samples, difficult relationships with collaborators, data collection sites falling through, disagreements with supervisors, papers rejected, and grants unfunded. These day-to-day hassles are the price of admission to being a researcher. The big question is what to do when one finds that the big and slow moving ship of the research program and career are going in the wrong direction.

Frankly, many researchers do not have this dread because they never look up from their day-to-day work to see the big picture. They go from project to project with little mindfulness—usually conducting the research that is the most fundable. But many have goals, strategies, and an understanding of how their work fits into the big picture of scientific thought and discovery. Quite often these scientists survey the road map, find the point on the map that says “YOU ARE HERE,” locate the desired destination, and determine, “I cannot get there from here because I am on the wrong road.” Sometimes this conclusion is based on an analytical consideration, other times it is a feeling that things are just not going right. How does one get back on track?

Assessment

In any problem-solving situation, at least half of the time and energy needs to be spent identifying exactly what the problem is. There are three big questions that need to be asked before you determine that you have completely lost your way. First, is this a short-term or long-term problem? Success takes time and patience. Rarely are the big goals quick and easy. Also, estimating how long it takes to achieve goals is something that nearly everyone underestimates. Be patient. Making a radical change may result in deviating so far off of your career path that you may end up in the swamp. Second, is this simply a nonlinear path that is different than your expectations, but will take you to the same destination? Success is not a linear path. In our minds, achieving dreams and goals are always linear and stepwise. In reality, success is winding path with starts, bypasses, and stops. Step back and determine whether you are lost or have simply found a less direct way to travel to your goals. There is nothing wrong with the scenic route. What may seem to be a dead-end position, evil or ineffectual supervisors or colleagues, a series of failures, or a research program that is not as fruitful as desired; all may be opportunities in disguise. They can all get you to the same place. Third, are the original goals, plans, and paths that you set out for yourself the correct ones? We often cling to goals out of habit. The goals we made in our undergraduate days may not be realistic or useful anymore. You now have more experience. Changing goals is perfectly fine.

Implied in the above paragraph is that I do not find timelines for career goals useful, but once did. Things like, “Earn a PhD before the 25th birthday.” “Tenure track position before 30.” “Full prof by 40.” I had all of these types of goals. As a middle-ager in retrospect, the journey is infinitely more important than the destination. And if you have a destination, reaching it by a certain time is more stressful than helpful. This is your life, not a train schedule.

Analysis

Problem analysis involves careful consideration of the personal, environmental, and situational elements that are negatively influencing the trajectory toward your goals. Be brutally honest. Maybe you do not have the talent or drive to achieve your goals. Maybe your supervisor is not supporting you in a fashion that leads to excellence. Maybe you would prefer culinary school. What would need to change to get you back on the path to your goals? Are you willing to do those things?

I am a terrible person to give advice on this because I am completely without ambition as a scientist. I am not that smart, disciplined, or driven. I once missed a grant deadline to help my daughter study for an exam. Because my partner tends to burn food or cut herself, I try to be home early to cook dinner every night. I publish 3 to 6 papers per year and write a book every few years. I try to make the papers good and helpful to my profession. But I am never going to be a rock star academic. I have incredible respect for those who are and do not begrudge their ambition and skill. My goal is to ensure that upon graduation all of my students are better and more skilled than me. I have a pretty good idea what it would take for me to be a major scientist and I am not willing to that (even when entertaining the possibility that I have the requisite abilities).

Action

Once you are certain that you have fallen off of the desired path into a large ditch and are willing to do what it takes to get back on, then it is time for action. This is more than searching for greener pastures, this is about meeting essential professional goals and achieving what you desire as a professional. Nearly all academics I know are constantly searching for new and different academic posts. That is a normal activity. However, setting fire to the lab or otherwise rage quitting is not normal. Nearly as bad is breaking contracts and agreements. Not meeting your end of a contract is something that could shadow your entire career—and not in a good way. So do not walk away, except under extraordinary circumstances. New jobs, research programs, supervisors, employers all require massive and painful amounts of work. Are you sure you want to and need to make changes?  Once you are sure, then pull the trigger and give the new situation full and complete energy. Do not look back, just begin sprinting on your new path to your destination.

Emotions

All of the above recommendations are logical and reasonable. However, often the first signs that you are losing your way as a scientist are feelings of dread, confusion, frustration, anxiety, depression, hopelessness, disappointment, homesickness, and other emotions. Any solution to the idea of losing your way is not only a matter of career strategy, but emotional factors as well. Most scientists are passionate, serious, and conscientious. The negative side effect is that all career issues are heavy and fundamentally alter scientists’ self-image. Feeling that your science career is going in a bad direction almost by definition means that your life is going in a bad direction. For most scientists finding the right path to their professional goals is the essence of their being.

I am on the other end of the spectrum and tend to be light in being for a university professor. I take the work seriously, but not myself. If academics does not work out for me, then I am sure I will be happy as a school psychologist, window washer, farmer, or street sweeper. This sounds a bit silly, but it is far easier to experiment and try new paths when you do not feel the weight of the world on your professional shoulders.

The vast majority of times that a scholar feels lost, the issue is primarily that of emotional upset, frustration, or general unhappiness rather than a fundamental strategic career mistake that requires a dramatic course correction. I would make the case that the feelings of frustration and being on the wrong track is a sign of an impending positive major breakthrough. When engaging in difficult work, there are often setbacks, self-doubt, and frustration. Rather than despair, the best approach is to seek counsel, acknowledge the emotional component, take a short rest, and approach the problem from a new angle. This increases the likelihood of a reinvigorating breakthrough. Most often uncomfortable emotions related to scientific progress are signs to make very minor changes with the reinforcement of a major breakthrough on the way. If you have the major breakthrough or have a big success and still feel that you are going in the wrong career direction, then a change is justified. But dramatic change prior to success could disrupt the process and minimize the chance of scientific breakthrough.

This is where courage is necessary. When you believe that your entire professional life is at stake, you know that your situation requires a course correction, and your emotions are screaming that you are on the wrong track but are too scared to change; then a change is required because it is terrifying. By far the largest mistake you can make is failing to steer away from a path that is leading you in the wrong direction. But make absolutely sure that your direction is wrong first.

Conclusions

All scientists feel that they are going in the wrong direction at one time or another. There is a significant emotional component to this that needs to be addressed. Most importantly a scientist needs to step back from the emotions, make the best possible assessment of the current scientific trajectory, make a realistic assessment of goals; and then make a difficult decision. The majority of times a major course correction is not required — they are simply negative emotions to be processed with difficult, tedious work ahead before a major scientific breakthrough can be earned. However, if you are clear that the change is needed (preferably after a success), then make the leap quickly, completely and do not look back. The most difficult part is being honest with yourself.

SR Shaw

@Shawpsych