Thursday, April 21, 2016

Q&A: Combining projects when you start your post-doc

Some time ago, a reader wrote me an interesting comment, and I think the discussion that followed from this comment can be of interest to all of you out there who are transitioning from PhD to post-doc to your academic career.

Dear Eva,

first of all, thank you so much for keeping the blog and for the very good posts. Whenever I feel the need for a motivation boost or am looking for inspiration or academic strategy, your blog is the place to go to.

I need your advice! My question is: How many writing projects and research/admin projects at a time do you think would be best to keep being productive? I realize people are different, but I would really appreciate your opinion.

Here is a little context:

I am currently in the process of adjusting to a new lab and city, as I have started a postdoc abroad. On top of all the new things I need to learn and set up here, I also need to finish some old or ongoing projects from my old workplace.

I am feeling a bit overwhelmed, but I made a plan, read your posts, such as "What I wish I'd known one year ago when I started as a professor " and "Finding an Academic Schedule that Works " and started using Google calender and Todoist. It's going really well for about two weeks now. I'm thinking of keeping a document to track the progress of my publications, similar to you.

But because I have so many projects, I get to work on them for only a short amount of time per week, until next week comes again and I get to work on it again. I currently have 4 major writing projects and 2 small ones, as well as 3 research/admin projects. For the two most important major writing projects I get to about 4 hours per week, for the other ones, 2h. It certainly is going forward, but I also feel I might be merely trying to fill a swimming pool with a spoon. The other options would be using all slots for writing one project which alternates each week, or prioritizing and leaving some projects for only after I finish the first ones. However, I really feel that those are no real options for me.

I would be happy even with a oneliner from you (I realize you must be really busy), saying what you found a healthy workload in terms of "projects" at a time would be. In the second picture I notice you use most of the writing slots for only one project? Thank you very much in advance for your help!

Here's what I replied:


Thanks for your kind words on my blog :)

My situation is a little different since I have teaching duties; typically 3 courses per semester, and this semester a reduction to 2 courses.

I typically work on one paper at a time, and try to write 2 hours a day on the paper. Then, I try to work 2 hours on research. I've had times in which I am juggling more than 1 research project, but usually I have one that is my main project. For the other projects, I could be just supervising students, and not be doing the number crunching myself. But in terms of really pushing the boundaries in my field forward, I try to limit myself to maximum 2 research projects at the same time. Then, depending on the day, I might be able to squeeze in another hour of research, but that's about it.

The rest of my time goes into teaching, and email. I do am involved with a number of collaborative efforts, so my comments and work on that get lumped into my email time. I try to set aside a few hours a week as well for reading, and in that time I also do the reviews of papers that I get assigned.

And thinking of it - when I say that I work on 1 paper at a time, I mean the first draft. Once the first draft is off to my co-authors, I wait until I get their feedback, and then might use one 2-hour time slot in the morning to implement their comments before submitting. I also have the papers of my students that I spend a fair amount of time on, especially since often they have never written a paper before. So, just as with my research, I have one main paper (new draft) that I am working on, and then smaller loose strands that are on the backburner.

I hope that gives you some ideas! Feel free to shoot me more questions.


The discussion continued as follows:

Dear Eva,

thank you for the long and extremely helpful comment!

I think your workload seems like a whole lot but at the same time your judgement is absolutely sensible. I also have the luxury of not having to teach, but I do have four students to supervise.

I like the schedule and working in slots very much. In fact, even with a whole lot of projects, I find such a schedule really beneficial, because it prevents me from getting bored and it helps me see even the smallest progress in each domain, which otherwise would have hung like a heavy shadow over my head. It also gives me a long breath and doesn't get me bored of any one task, because there is a lot of switching throughout the day. Like you, I realized that trying to schedule to the minute or making slots that are too long or too short are not good ideas.

So you made me realize that what I was planning was not very efficient (filling swimming pools with one spoon, haha). So I decided to give that priority matrix a try and see whether I can find a importance/urgency hierarchy for my projects. It was difficult, because, in addition to importance and urgency there is another factor which is called maybe "feasibility". This involves for example some projects depending on other people or resources that are out of my control. Therefore, even though such a project might be important and even urgent, I might choose to prioritize a project that is important and not urgent, just because I am the sole participant or maybe even have some previous work to build on, therefore knowing I will finish it much sooner (getting publications out atm is the main goal). I am not sure how to judge when this "feasibility" (maybe not the best name) comes into the matrix. Nevertheless, you helped me realize that I should prioritize two writing projects and once they are finished, I should then start the other two. Since I could not really do the matrix strategy, I went by intuition. Let's see how it goes. I am feeling motivated!

Another good idea I received from a friend was: to work in the morning for projects for myself, after that for projects where I collaborate and only in the evening for other people's projects (e.g. students). I have come to realize that this indeed is also a sensible way of prioritizing (if applicable - in my case, it is :)


P.S. When I said "I also have the luxury of not having to teach, but I do have four students to supervise" - I meant the sentence without the "also" ;)

I went back with the following reply:


Sounds like you have some good plans and ideas in there :)

I have a few projects in which I collaborate with others. For these, I do my share on the work during my allotted time for writing or research, and then put it on the backburner of my imaginary stove while I wait for my collaborator's reaction. If your focus is indeed to get your papers out, I would give that all the attention it needs. Do keep in mind that it looks better to have published with different people from different institutions (my current "weakness" - all my publications are with the same coauthors who supervised my PhD).

I guess your "feasibility" factor comes down to making smart choices in what to work on first. I think it is indeed an important factor.

The tip from your friend resonates with me too: I keep my mornings for my writing and research and try to avoid getting teaching duties or meetings in the morning. So far that works out, because most of my colleagues prefer to teach in the morning, but it all depends on the goodwill of the Authorities (as they call themselves, including the capital letter ;) ) of my university.


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