Not as easy as apple pie: Running the research conveyor belt while publishing apace

red apples

Photo by Tom Gill on Flickr. Used under a CC license.

It’s apple season. I’ve got apple sauce, apple crisp, and a crust waiting for apple pie. I’ve also got apples in the fridge, apples on the counter, and apples on my desk at work. Unfortunately, there are also apples going bad, and apples in the compost bin. I don’t have enough time to turn all of the apples into their delicious conclusions.

I’ve also got a lot of professional projects going on. There are grants and papers to write, students to advise, data to analyze, and unfortunately, some of those projects aren’t moving as quickly as I would wish. In fact, there’s the real risk that some of them will “go bad” while waiting for attention from me.

So I’ve been thinking a lot…about apples…and about prioritizing my research efforts. It turns out that when peeling apples, you’ve got some time to think.

I’ve been envisioning research as a sort of conveyor belt. You start with an idea, and then you write a grant. After a try or two, when the grant gets funded, you collect the data, analyze it, get a student thesis out of it, and then publish it. Working on the project at any stage moves it along the conveyor belt to its delicious conclusion – publication. Of course, as a tenure-track faculty member, I don’t just have one project. Instead, different projects are at different positions on the conveyor belt. Some are rolling off as publications, others are getting loaded as grants written, and still others are someplace in the middle of their journey. It’s clear that in order to have a steady output of publications, I can’t just wait for things to roll off the conveyor belt ready to be written up for a journal. Instead, I need to keep feeding the input to the conveyor belt and making sure that projects are moving along. And that’s the approach I’ve taken for years – dividing my research time between grant writing, mentoring students through data collection, analysis and thesis writing, and publishing. It’s the only logical approach.


The conveyor belt isn’t so linear. It’s more like an apple growing, picking, sorting, processing conveyor system than a simple machine. And, even worse, there are lots of recursive loops in the system. This is where, if I had any artistic talent whatsoever, I’d draw this machine. Instead, you’ll have to put up with text.

Apples on a branch.

Photo by Fiona Shields on Flickr. Used under a CC license.

It starts with the apple tree. Years after planting, with continual nourishment from soil, air, and water, the tree starts to flower and bear fruit. The apple tree is the scientist – the growth period is our scientific training and the nourishment is the literature, seminars, and conversations we absorb. The flowers are our ideas (“Hey, that would make a great project!”) and many of them get dashed before they ever go farther. Maybe the blossom gets wrecked by an untimely rainstorm or late frost, or it is simply never reached by a pollinator. Eventually, it withers without bearing fruit. But some ideas bear fruit – usually in the form of a grant proposal. Lots and lots of energy goes into turning a flower into a fruit, and some of those fruit still end up looking worse for the wear. But the fruit ripens. When our scientific apple ripens, that’s like sending a grant proposal out for review. In our case, something like 90% of those proposals won’t get funded. We could say they fall from the tree without getting picked. Yes, we can revise and try again, but there’s at least a season’s delay each time. The remaining 10% of apples/proposals get picked…And dumped on the conveyor belt.

Red conveyor belt going into a red barn.

Photo by Nedra on Flickr. Used under a CC license.

At the beginning of the conveyor belt then, are the funded projects. And maybe a few apples/projects that got picked off the ground, brushed off, and placed on the belt. These could be projects that we can fund from start-up or that cost very little money to execute. We might also get some apples on the belt from other apple trees. Science is a collaborative process after all, so we might end up with some projects where the ideas came from students or colleagues, but they still end up on our conveyor.

These projects then move to the data collection portion of the belt. But unlike a mechanical conveyor belt, here our metaphorical research conveyor belt moves at different speeds for different projects. Some projects take a few months, while others might take years to generate enough data for a publication. This can be either a result of the nature of the science or the virtue of the students and people involved. Mistakes can be made in the data collection. Equipment can fail. So sometimes, a project apple gets sucked onto a side conveyor belt that takes it back upstream to begin some earlier phase of data collection again. And sometimes, a project apple might fall off the conveyor belt completely at this stage. A student can quit with indecipherable field notes or a political revolution can keep us from our field sites.

Apples rolling down a conveyor belt.

Photo by Watershed Post on Flickr. Used under a CC license.

Similarly, different speeds, backtracks, and fall offs can occur in the data analysis conveyor belt realm. Our data can be too noisy, or our results can be null, or our model can fail to simulate reality. Backtracks here can be short (just a few tweaked data analysis steps) or take us back all they way into data collection territory again. On our apple conveyor belt, this might be sorting of apples by size and grade. Inevitably some apples get a bit bruised along the way.

(In my field, there’s often an additional section of the conveyor belt where projects go to wait for students to write their theses. Sometimes projects can fall off the belt here, but more often backtracks occur to data analysis and the overall belt speed slows.)

Two apple pies in prep. Board and rolling pin in background.

Photo by Pollyalida on Flickr. Used under a CC license.

Finally, the project funded, data collected, data analyzed, student degreed, and the project is ready for publication. It’s ready to go from being an apple to being apple pie – project to pie. Yum yum. This is the almost-magical stage where we transform a round, crisp fruit into a moist and mushy filling. We might need a couple of apples to form one pie, or perhaps one apple gets spread into a few pies. We need to put some crust (introduction and references cited) on it and bake it for a few months in the review process. Sometimes this pie making process takes longer than expected, and occasionally disaster occurs and the pie burns in the oven. (We’re looking at you, reviewer #3.) But most of the time, if an apple reaches the pie-making stage, in the end, we’re going to have pretty good pie.

I’m ravenous for pie now.

It’s a lot for one person to do – whether it’s research or apple pie. Nourishing the tree, developing the flowers, growing the fruit, picking the fruit, running it through the conveyor system, and baking the pie. It’s easy to see how some apples, no matter how juicy and beautiful could get lost along the way. It’s also easy to see how apples could pile up at the end of the conveyor belt, waiting for their turn to be made into pie.

So it seems to be for me and publications. My publication rate is not what I want it to be, and I’ve got a pile of projects waiting for me to finish up data analysis and write. Or simply write. But I’m frantically busy, mostly on research. I’m writing grants, mentoring students, running a lab…all the things I need to do to keep my conveyor belt full. All the things I need to do to progress toward tenure. Except publish as much as I can.

I’m starting to question the logic of the conveyor belt approach. What good is it to have a full conveyor belt if I’m not getting the pie at the end? But, equally, it seems suicidal to ignore the conveyor belt and focus on clearing the publication backlog (which could take a year or more), because at the end of that backlog I won’t have any more apples coming down the belt and I’ll have a long time of before I can bake more pie. Even if I get tenure before the apple famine reaches me, it wouldn’t be good to have a funding and publication dry spell for a couple of years afterwards.

I haven’t got this one figured out. It’s clear I need to be rebalance. But I can’t stop the conveyor belt with students, collaborators, and obligations to funders already on the line. (Plus, I need some more funding to meet my tenure requirements.) So how do I stop frantically tending everything equally and find more time to bake publications? Your input is welcomed. As are your favorite apple recipes.

21 thoughts on “Not as easy as apple pie: Running the research conveyor belt while publishing apace

  1. This recipe will help you do several things at once – cook dessert, use up a couple of apples and (because it is so quick) give you an extra few minutes for research or writing. d.

    1 large cup self-raising flour
    ½ cup sugar
    2 oz butter
    1 egg
    ½ cup milk
    2 large apples

    Sift flour, add sugar, cut in butter.
    Break egg into milk and beat, add to mixture.
    Slice apples into greased dish and pour mixture over.
    Bake for 20 minutes.

  2. …. it seems to me that, as with any machine or animal, if you don’t clear the outlet sometimes then the machine will eventually grind to a halt. Might be time to stop for some maintenance and get that stuff published, then start afresh … there will still be some projects in the pipeline when you come up again for air, they won’t all stop. And take two deep breaths, one is never enough.

  3. This reminds me of the post on this blog where the writer was super awesome and was constantly being asked if she was going to leave for a better university. What a horrible PROBLEM. Just like you having too many publishable results and too many awesome new projects to keep up with it all. How terrible. These self-celebratory posts are fine – it’s nice to hear about success in academics – but presenting it as a contrived problem is actually annoying. Prioritize. Find some balance.

    • First, I removed the last three words of your comment because of its abusive language. If you expect to comment here in the future, I encourage you to read and abide by our comment policy.

      Second, I can see how this post can come off as self-congratulatory to a someone job searching or a new faculty member struggling to get her first publishable dataset. I was that person once too. Based on conversations I’ve had in person and on line (in fact, see the comment from DeevyBee below), a backlog on the research conveyor is an incredibly common problem for people more than a few years into the tenure track, so it was a fitting topic for a post.

      After all, TSW is “devoted to chronicling the (mis)adventures of women in academia, from undergraduate to Full Professor. We’re a diverse group representing many walks of life, career stages, institutional affiliations, disciplines, and opinions.” (That’s the first FAQ.) What that means is that not every post is going to be written from the perspective of a flailing post-doc or first-year professor. If that’s the only perspective you want to read, there are plenty of single-author blogs where you can read all about that. Don’t waste your time complaining about having to read other perspectives on a blog explicitly designed to showcase them. But, I’ll let you in a little secret, if you read one of those single author, first year professor blogs for long enough…she will no longer be a first year professor either and will likely move on from complaining about too little data to other challenges as well. With luck, and the right perspective, so will you.

    • I want to echo sciwo’s comments. We write about what we know, what we are celebrating, and what we are struggling with. These issues differ by person, by stage, by career, etc. My post about what to think/say when my peers ask me about moving to a new university, and this post by sciwo, aren’t meant to delegitimize anyone else’s issues, make anyone feel bad about themselves, or passive-aggressively self-celebrate. They are simply our attempts at verbalizing and thinking through our own issues, with the hopes of getting feedback from others. So thanks for the feedback that you see this as a “contrived problem”. I can assure you, it certainly doesn’t feel like one to me. Instead, your comment felt like an attempt to delegitimize the issues/feelings myself and sciwo are working through right now.

    • People who initiate blogs can write what they like. Other people do not have to read them if they don’t want to. I feel sad that both sciwo and drmsscientist felt the need to waste time and space justifying themselves. Others can think what they will, but don’t let them bother you. Just know you are helping others by airing your (mis)adventures.

  4. “My publication rate is not what I want it to be, and I’ve got a pile of projects waiting for me to finish up data analysis and write”. Yup. Join the club. The older you get, the worse it gets.
    I blogged about the ‘academic backlog’ a while ago: The problem is that it’s not just stressful for the researcher but it also starts to get unethical and wasteful if you have received funding to do a research project that never gets written up.
    I gather that in many institutions in the US you have to keep submitting grant proposals because your salary depends on it – the number of grants that people write seems extraordinary to me, and definitely not good for science. Just wastes people’s time and energy when they could be getting on and doing some thoughtful research.
    I don’t know what the answer is – except that it’s not just working harder! Good science needs time to reflect and think. I see the problem as a consequence of the current incentive system for researchers, which prioritises research income over demonstrating value for money from research income.
    We do need to rethink – it’s such a wasteful system and not good for one’s health.

    • Hear, hear! I feel particularly caught by this because the money-for-tenure pressure is something I’ve had to produce twice over, thanks to the job change. It’s another one of those downsides that I hadn’t fully anticipated when I moved. Plus, I had naively thought that the first year on my new job would give me time to clear the backlog. I do hope that post-tenure (if not sooner), I’ll be able to step back some from the grant race and refocus my time and energy.

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  6. “I had naively thought that the first year on my new job would give me time to clear the backlog.”
    I’m in this position. Its my first lecturing job, and I’m about half way through my first year. Most of my apples have fallen off the end of the conveyor belt and are in half made pies. In between my PhD and this job I had a teaching only position (like an adjunct I suppose) so I was excited to have a position where research time was given. But, new job with a short term contract, means that grant writing and starting new projects off on that conveyor belt has been the priority since starting here. And being currently unfunded, its a poorly cared for conveyor belt. So more apples pile up in that box and pies are barely making it into the oven.
    Thanks for the post, it really resonated with me.

  7. Perpetual problem (akin to the impossibility of perpetual motion): writing needs thinking time, and also large spaces of dedicated time all at once. Thinking time is difficult to schedule in to your life. Thinking time is also almost impossible to get a grant for. My long-term observation is that I and many of my colleagues didn’t get stuff written up until or unless we had a sabbatical of some sort. Even then, the output was often only about half what we had planned. This thinking is HARD and extremely time-consuming. Yet, on the other hand, thinking is the absolute crux of scientific research and production. That is the perpetual motion part.

    Occasionally, some of us managed to get a grant for ‘teaching relief’ so that we could employ a TA or someone to take some classes, so we could have that dedicated time each week to write … but usually it was in a specialised scheme and was a very limited and short-term opportunity.

    Is there any possibility of including some teaching relief or ‘thinking time’ within the budget of a normal research grant? Even if there is, there is the problem of using that allocated time as you intended, and not have it eaten up (excuse the apples pun) by other peoples’ demands.

    There should be more just sitting under the apple tree……. (whoops, that was an awkward allusion).

  8. I really liked this post. I hit this wall just as I was coming up for tenure. I feel that I am also stymying the careers of my students who are waiting for my comments on their manuscripts, so that they can move on, get jobs, etc. Common problem, and would love to hear some solutions!

  9. Thank you for this post! You really described the tension I have been feeling for the last several weeks, especially with the issue of grants vs. publications. It actually reached the point where I felt guilty taking time off from grant writing to do page proofs for a manuscript. I think too often, we feel isolated or that we are the only person trying to keep up with the conveyer belt and it is good to hear that this is an incredibly common concern and pressure. Thanks again!

    Also, Apple Gouda Cookies ( are a great use of apples and low enough in sugar you can eat a half dozen while writing or prepping.

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