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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.