A day in the life…

As a post-doc, I did three things: I did research, analyzed data, and I wrote. I ran behavioral experiments and western blots, I did a lot of data analysis.

There were other things – I worked with students in the lab, and I organized events with the Post-doc Association at the post-doc institution. Later I applied for jobs, a significant time commitment, especially in the second year. It isn’t that I had a lot of free time, but I did have a lot of flexibility. When a grant deadline was coming up, or a set of experiments to (hopefully) finish off a paper, I could clear blocks of time and focus on that one thing. This – and my friends in that town – are the only things that I’m nostalgic about from my postdoc.

That is not what my days look like anymore. Now I have a few other things on my plate. Now there is teaching, routine meetings, and the ongoing administrative work of running a lab, not to mention grant writing and trying to stay on top of the literature. Coming up is graduate admissions season, and a couple of deadlines for training grants for my lab peeps. This increase in the number-of-things wasn’t unexpected, I had watched and spoken with my grad school and post-doc mentors, not to mention other people both IRL and online, enough to know better. And the amount of work is a lot, but it’s not unbearable. What I am finding difficult is the fragmentation of my time.

This year – my second – is far, far busier, and far more fun than last year. Most of that is due to the increase in the number of new people in the lab. Last year it was mostly me and my technician, together with a handful of undergraduates.  This year we’ve grown to include a graduate student and a post-doc. What this means that I currently spend a lot of time troubleshooting experiments and equipment, going through experimental designs, discussing papers (or cajoling people to read research papers, not reviews), and generally staying on top of what’s going on in the lab.

I’ve always been in labs where there was someone other than the PI who knew exactly how everything worked, so there was always someone in the lab to turn to for routine questions, either a post-doc or a long-term technician. This is how most labs function, with senior personnel (or senior in time if not in rank) teaching the n00bs where things are and how things are done. But in a brand new lab, when no-one else knows exactly what is going on, all questions come to me, which means a lot of unplanned disruptions. Don’t get me wrong – I’m very happy that people do ask me questions, for an experiment that someone is running, about equipment, about planning an experiment. I do not want to discourage this in any way, but these impromptu meetings are very disruptive in terms of what I am working on at that minute.

What has helped, so far, is planning to get the things done that I can do in fits and starts. Like lecture writing. I usually have most of it done (or have the lecture from last year), and use time during the day to fill in gaps, find images etc. Reviewing papers, when I have them, is something else that I can get done in the choppiness of the day. This frees up other time when I can have those prolonged stretches of time.

Unfortunately this means that the time I have to sit down and write is in the evening. This has a definite upside – typically I have always worked better in the late evening.  The downside these days is that after another hectic day, I’m exhausted. For a while I would spend a couple of hours in my office in the early evening writing after most people were gone. It was very productive, but got shattered by renovations nearby that start in the evening, so now I’m looking for alternatives.

There are other things that are making things easier. Employing a post-doc has helped enormously. Although she is still getting up to speed (it’s only been a month!) there are many things that she already has experience in that I am able to hand off to her. Troubleshooting techniques, for example, and a programming project that I have been putting off (and that she will need). Between the post-doc and my technician, the lab is now mostly self sufficient – at least until something goes wrong. My tech manages the undergraduates, the animals, ordering, and does experiments for me. If it’s on his list, it will get done. There are still a lot of small decisions that fall on me, but this is vanishingly small. This means that most of the lab-business can get dealt with at one time, during lab meeting or a scheduled meeting with my technician.

There is also a definite camaraderie forming in the lab, people are working together – the undergrads are showing the grad student and post-doc how to run equipment, the post-doc has been teaching the background on one technique to the undergrads and  learning another from the tech. This is an awesome thing to watch, even when it doesn’t always work perfectly.

Another improvement has been letting go a little – letting people make their own mistakes. Unfortunately, it is still faster (and results in less disruptions) for me to just plan an experiment, explain it and hand it off to someone to do. But I know that this is undermining myself and my trainees in the long run. I know that they need to learn to do this for themselves, and I need them to take on that part of the work. So we discuss the experiment, they go and make a plan, and we go through it for errors. I know that this process will shrink in terms of the requirement for my input on all of the details, and become more contained within lab meetings, which we often use for discussing results and planning for the next week.

Where I really need improvement is learning to get serious, high quality work done in short chunks of time, and  not getting thoroughly derailed from my line of thought whenever I have to step away to answer questions, head into a meeting, or go and teach. Far too many of these broken up days end up with me wondering what grant writing (or whatever else is on top of my pile of things with looming deadlines) I managed to get done by the time I leave my office, and far too often the answer is “none”.

The flip side to this is that even with disruptions I am very productive. I schedule my time more efficiently and I make sure that scheduled meetings are either all in the morning or the afternoon. I get more done than when I was a post-doc (although how does one quantify this? it’s like comparing apples to oranges!), and though I periodically drop one, I am certainly keeping more balls in the air. But this juggling – teaching, the various projects in the lab, trying to keep my student on track, grant writing, admin, my own personal life – leaves me feeling scatterbrained and breathless.

How do you organize your time? How have you learned to work in short chunks of time or prevent disruptions for longer stretches of time to concentrate? What advice really helped, and what really failed? How do you avoid the scatterbrained, overwhelmed feeling?  More importantly, someone, please reassure me that that gets easier!

7 thoughts on “A day in the life…

  1. I’m an undergrad, but I’m currently balancing 2 research projects (almost completely unrelated) and a full courseload with trying to graduate. I have a very choppy schedule- and find the pomodoro technique the best way to help me be productive in small focused bursts. (:

  2. It’s called being a manager rather than an underling. I have seen it happen to many friends and acquaintances in all professions, not just academia. Me, I never learnt to manage my time to my own satisfaction, I just learnt to live with what I could get done in the chunks available to me, and I have had to be satisfied that I have had a ‘broad’ set of experiences in life, not a ‘narrow, upwardly pointing’ career.

    I did learn something valuabel at one time when I was totally stressed: I learnt to say ‘no’ when people knocked on my door, as long as it wasn’t an emergency. Not only that, but they seemed to have more respect for me. Actually, I tell a white lie – I never said ‘no’, I said ‘come back at x o’clock please and I’ll give you 20 mins then’.

  3. I’m one of my adviser’s first students. I think he started working from home a lot, or at least works with his office door closed. I’m now more likely to email him questions if they’re not urgent so that he can respond when he’s free.

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