This is a follow-up post to my earlier one and also weaves into my post on “success” (with a little overlap). I am sharing my thoughts on this topic of research management, because I try to always keep myself learning about doing and managing research, and this blog serves as a set of notes as I learn; so why not share them too? I tried editing the old post but it clearly was too much to add so I started a new post. It’s easy to just coast along and not reflect on what one is doing, caught up in the steady stream of science that needs to get done. Mistakes and mis-judgements can snowball if one doesn’t reflect. So here are my personal reflections, freshly thawed for your consideration, on how I approach doing research and growing older as I do it, adapting to life’s changes along the way.
Stomach-Churning Rating: 0/10, just words and ideas.
I realized that a theme in these rant-y posts on my blog is to Know Yourself, and, in the case of mentoring a team, Know Your Team. That knowledge is a reward from the struggles and challenges of seeking whatever one calls success. I critique some traits or practices here that I’ve seen in myself (and/or others), and perhaps managed to change. And I seek to change my environment by building a strong team (which I feel I have right now!) and by finding the best ways to work with them (which I am always learning about!). I also realized a word to describe a large part of what I seek and that is joy. The joy of discovery in the study of nature; the joy from the satisfaction of a job well done; the joy of seeing team members succeed in their careers and broader lives. I want to know that multifarious joy; the ripening of fulfilment.
We’re all busy in one way or another. Talking about being busy can just come across as (very) boring or self-absorbed or insecure. Talk about what you’re doing instead of how much you’re juggling. That’s more interesting. Avoid the Cult of Busy. I try to. It’s any easy complaint to default with in a conversation, so it takes some alertness… which keeps you busy. :-) I remember Undergrad-Me sighing wistfully to my advisor Dianna Padilla “I’m SO busy!” and her looking at me like I was an idiot. In that moment I realized that I was far from the only (or most) busy person in that conversation. Whether she was truly thinking that I was naïve, my imaginary version of her reaction is right. It was a foolish, presumptuously arrogant thing for me to declare. There surely are more interesting things to talk about than implied comparisons of the magnitudes of each other’s busy-ness. And so I move on…
Don’t count hours spent on work. That just leads to guilt of too much/too little time spent vs. how much was accomplished. Count successes. A paper/grant submitted is indeed a success, and acceptance/funding of it is another. A handy rule in science is that everything takes so much more time than you think it does that even trying to predict how long it will take is often foolish and maybe even time that could be better spent on doing something that progresses your work/life further.
Becoming older can slow you down and make you risk-averse, so you have to actively fight these tendencies. Ageing as a researcher needn’t always mandate becoming slower or less adventurous. But life will change, inevitably. One has to become more efficient at handling its demands as life goes on, and force oneself to try new things for the sake of the novelty, to think outside the box and avoid slipping into dogma or routine. We don’t want to be that stereotype of the doddering old professor, set in their ways, who stands in the way of change. The Old Guard is the villain of history. Lately I’ve been examining my own biases and challenging them, potentially re-defining myself as a scientist. I hope to report back on that topic.
The tone of life can darken as one becomes a senior researcher and “grows up”, accumulating grim experiences of reality. Some of my stories on this blog have illustrated that. In an attempt to distract me from that gloaming on the horizon, I try to do things at work that keep it FUN for me. This quest for fun applies well to my interactions with people, which dominate my work so much– I am seemingly always in meetings, less often in isolation at my desk. The nicer those meetings are, the happier I am. So I try to minimize exposure to people or interactions that are unpleasant, saving my energy for the battles that really matter. This can come across as dismissive or curt but in the end one has little choice sometimes. These days, nothing to me is more negatively emotive than sitting in an unproductive meeting and feeling my life slipping away as the clock ticks. I cherish my time. I don’t give it away wantonly to time-vampires and joy-vandals. They get kicked to the kerb– no room (or time) for them on this science-train. Choo choo!
Moreover, the No Asshole Rule is a great principle to try to follow at work. Don’t hire/support the hiring of people that you can’t stand socially, even if they are shit-hot researchers with a hugely promising career trajectory. Have a candidly private moment with someone who knows them well and get the inside scoop on what they’re like to work with. Try to get to know people you work with and collaborate more with people that you like to work with. Build a team of team-players (but not yes-men and yes-women; a good team challenges you to know them and yourself; so there must be some tension!). That can help you do better science because you enjoy doing it more, and you prioritize it more because of that, and you have more energy because of all that. Hence your life gets better as a result. I prefer that to a constant struggle in tense, competitive collaborations. One of the highest compliments I ever got was when someone described me to their friend as a “bon vivant”. I felt like they’d discovered who I was, and they’d helped me to discover it myself.
I wondered while writing this, would I hire 2003-Me, from when I was interviewing for my current job 12 years ago? I suppose so, but I’d give myself a stern scolding on day one at the job. “Chill the fuck out,” I’d say. “Focus on doing the good science and finding the other kinds of joy in life.” I like the more mellowed-out, introspective, focused, compassionate 2015-Me, and I think 2003-Me would agree with that assessment.
There is a false dichotomy in a common narrative about research mentoring that I am coming to recognize: a tension between the fortunes of early career researchers and senior research managers. The dichotomy holds that once one is senior enough, ambition wanes and success is complete and one’s job is to support early career researchers to gain success (as recompense for their efforts in pushing forward the research team’s day-to-day science), and to step back out of the limelight.
The reality, I think, is that all these things are linked: early career researchers succeed in part because their mentors are successful (i.e. the pedigree concept; good scientists arise in part from a good mentoring environment), and research-active mentors need to keep seeking funding to support their teams, which means they need to keep showing evidence of their own success. Hence it never ends. One could even argue that senior researchers need to keep authoring papers and getting grants and awards and other kinds of satisfaction and joy in science that maintain reputations, and thus their responsibility to themselves and their team to keep pushing their research forward may not decrease or even may intensify. Here, a “team” ethos rather than an “us vs. them” mentality seems more beneficial to all—we’re in this together. Science is hard. We are all ambitious and want to achieve things to feel happy about. I don’t think the “it never ends” perspective is gloomy, either—if the false dichotomy were true, once one hit that plateau of success as a senior researcher, ambition and joy and personal growth would die. Now that’s gloomy. Nor does the underlying pressure mandate that researchers can’t have a “life outside of work”. I’ve discussed that enough in other posts.
Trust can be a big issue in managing research. If people act like they don’t trust you, it may be a sign that they’ve been traumatized by violated trust before. Be sensitive to that; gently inquire? And get multiple sides of the story from others if you can… gingerly. But it also might be a warning sign that they don’t deserve trust themselves. Trust goes both ways. Value trust, perhaps above all else. It is so much more pleasant than the lack thereof. Reputation regarding trustworthiness is a currency that a research manager should keep careful track of in themselves and others. Trust is the watchdog of joy.
Say “No” more often to invitations to collaborate as your research team grows. “Success breeds success” they say, and you’ll get more invitations to collaborate because you are viewed as successful — and/or nice. But everyone has their limits. If you say “Yes” too much, you’ll get overloaded and your stock as a researcher will drop– you’ll get a reputation for being overcommitted and unreliable. Your “Yes” should be able to prove its value. I try to only say “Yes” to work that grabs me because it is great, do-able science and with fun people that I enjoy collaborating with. This urge to say “No” must be balanced with the need to take risks and try new directions. “Yes” or “No” can be easy comfort zones to settle into. A “Yes” can be a longterm-noncommittal answer that avoids the conflict that a “No” might bring, even if the “No” is the more responsible answer. This is harder than it seems, but important.
An example: Saying “No” applies well to conference invitations/opportunities, too. I love going to scientific conferences, and it’s still easy enough to find funding to do it. Travel is a huge perk of academic research! But I try to stick to a rule of attending two major conferences/year. I used to aim for just one per year but I always broke that rule so I amended it. Two is sane. It is easy to go to four or more annual conferences, in most fields, but each one takes at least a week of your time; maybe even a month if you are preparing and presenting and de-jetlagging and catching up. Beware the trap of the wandering, unproductive, perennial conference-attendee if doing science is what brings you joy.
This reminds me of my post on “saying no to media over-coverage“– and the trap of the popularizer who claims to still be an active researcher, too. There is a zero-sum game at play; 35 or 50 hour work week notwithstanding. Maybe someday I’d want to go the route of the popularizer, but I’m enjoying doing science and discovering new things far too much. It is a matter of personal preference, of course, how much science communication one does vs. how much actual science.
The denouement of this post is about how research teams rise and fall. I’m now often thinking ahead to ~2016, when almost all of my research team of ~10 people is due to finish their contracts. If funding patterns don’t change — and I do have applications in the works but who knows if they will pan out — I may “just” have two or so people on my team in a year from now. I could push myself to apply like mad for grants, but I thought about it and decided that I’ll let the fates decide based on a few key grant submissions early in the year. There was too little time and too much potential stress at risk. If the funding gods smile upon me and I maintain a large-ish team, that’s great too, but I would also truly enjoy having a smaller, more focused team to work with. I said “No” to pushing myself to apply for All The Grants. I’ll always have diverse external collaborations (thanks to saying “Yes” enough), but I don’t define my own success as having a large research group (that would be a very precarious definition to live by!). I’m curious to see what fortune delivers.
Becoming comfortable with the uncertainty of science and life is something I’m finding interesting and enjoy talking about. It’s not all a good thing, to have that sense of comfort (“whatever happens, happens, and I’m OK with that”). I don’t want my ambition to dwindle, although it’s still far healthier than I am. There is no denying that it is a fortunate privilege to feel fine about possibly not drowning in grant funds. It just is what it is; a serenity that I welcome even if it is only temporary. There’s a lot of science left to be written about, and a smaller team should mean more time to do that writing.
Will I even be writing this blog a year from now? I hope so, but who knows. Blogs rise and fall, too. This one, like me, has seen its changes. And if I am not still writing it, it might resurface in the future anyway. What matters is that I still derive joy from blogging, and I only give in to my internal pressure to write something when the mood and inspiration seize me. I hope someone finds these words useful.