Back in work whirlpool…

…where days pass and suddenly you realize it’s the next week already, next month already, and you still keep planning but haven’t done any experiments yet, so it has to be a long hard-working day tomorrow and you’ll finally move it and rock it, and get stuff done, and then… then you get proofs of your paper, due in 2 working days. As always in science: it’s ying-yang, it’s “yey my paper’s getting out there” and it’s “oh no, another urgent thing to do ASAP and to postpone some other important things”.

Conclusions: I’m busy. But I have to write here more often: some good ideas I incubate might be lost in the end if I don’t.

Wish some people pushing for scientists to communicate more tried the scientific work whirlpool for a week.

Speaking of which, there’s a piece on science communication in my pipeline. Coming soon. Soonish. Ok, honestly, a bit later, when I breathe again…

Procrastination, flavour I: The fear of the unknown, or the scientist block

If you did a PhD, you are familiar with all the shades and flavours of procrastination.

I am planning a longer piece dealing with it, but for today just a short note on the one, perhaps most difficult type of procrastination that touches our academic lifes.

The block of the unknown.

Yes, we strive to answer all those new questions, we are curious, we are motivated, we crave to discover, optimize, measure, find out! And yet.

Just like all human beings, we like our little routines. We like to repeat techniques and experiments that already work well in our hands.

I have recently observed I tend to postpone and struggle before trying a new protocol. The need to read through every step and prepare all the small reagents and buffers, as opposed to the smooth sailing across the known protocols, has been quite paralyzing. It might be because in my new job I need to optimize a lot. I mean: a lot. Trying a new thing occasionally is easier than having to try new things all the time… One really starts to miss the comfort of a routine experiment.

And yet, truth is that once I finally get set to it and do the new thing, it feels exciting, relieving, it brings on all the enthusiasm of learning something new and different.

And it is not only the labwork that suffers from this little block. Just today I finally launched a submission of a dataset I’ve been working with to a database – something I have feared for weeks just because the first time I looked into it, it seemed so complicated. Well, in the end it took one evening to sort out. And, I’m feeling happy now, because I just learnt something new and I managed.

So, conclusions of today:

  • This new thing you have to do and you feel stuck and blocked about – get out there and start doing it! And you will soon see that you actually can! It might even be fun 🙂
  • What’s more, this new thing, repeated twice or thrice, will actually become an old, comfortable, routine thing 🙂 So, it’s time to tame it.

How writing an anonymous blog makes you appreciate your network

As exciting as it has been to start writing this blog, one thing is more than scary – the traffic.

And I’ve gone quite (I thought) ambitious about it: there’s a Twitter and Facebook page, I try to spread the word. Silence.

And one thing I really miss, and will even more in future as things get more serious and posts more structured, is the dialogue and feedback, the conversation with whoever’s on the other side.

But one thing it made me realize is how great my non-anonymous network is! I am certainly not great at networking nor is my Facebook or LinkedIn network that large (though it’s quite all right). But it rarely happens that a Facebook or LinkedIn post, or even update, remains without a like or comment, sometimes from people I know care, sometimes from those I almost forgot myself. If I could only drop my idea of being anonymous here, and post this blog to my personal network, it would feel like such a relief!

But, I’m still going to try it the hard way!

As a reflection, I think that starting an anonymous page like this would be a wonderful exercise at all those workshops where people complain they have hundreds of LinkedIn contacts or Facebook friends, and yet they find their network dead and useless (“my friends don’t have a job for me!” I once heard). Well, network is, I believe, more about the possibility to reach out. And those hundreds of people who will see your next post, with few of them who’ll click a Like below it – they are quite a treasure you can reach with just one click of your mouse! What if they weren’t there?

Conclusions hmm:

  • Do appreciate your network!
  • Next time you post a picture of your cat on Fb or a new paper on LI, and get all those likes – think of what if your post had NO reaction at all, what if there was only black darkness behind your screen into which your message falls? what if you were unconnected, all alone?
  • See the parallel – if you do post you look for a job, or send a message asking about a company somebody works in, you will get answers! Now imagine not being able to do it at all. Network might not GET you the job, but it will teach you, inform you, and get you so much closer to it.

Well, this blog is still deep in the internet darkness. But, chins up, I’m waiting bravely for my first comment 😀

Work-life (im)balance, or where’s my creativity?

This blog is an effect of procrastination. Here’s how.

It’s been tough few weeks filled up to the roof with labwork, with my agenda featuring twice as much anyway. While at the beginning the fast pace kept me motivated and happy with completing a lot of tasks, in the long run it turned into a frustration. Rescheduling one experiment after another, I started to feel unappreciated, thinking: I have so much to do and nobody even cares, my boss should get me a student or more help on the project. My collegues became unusually frustrating, inquiries on my order details made me feel angry for not trusting my professional judgment. I kept planning all the labwork during the days and leaving writing to the evenings, which then never happened due to the labwork eventually taking up the evening time as well. Hence, the writing on my to do list became a dark heavy cloud following me day after day, unresolved. I knew I worked hard, but I was chronically dissatisfied, because I only thought of the things still on the to do list.

I realized I expected more and more from my surroundings, while my own efficiency seemed to hit the rock bottom. I went to work expecting already I’d stay there for the rest of the day and evening, and I noticed my motivation levels tumbling down.

So, in the middle of all this mess, overwhelmed and unmotivated, I decided to work… less. I worked out my eight hours a day and left home. I bought raw ingredients and cooked myself yummy homey dinners, which I ate sitting on the couch and watching a tv series. I told myself this is it, rescheduled my agenda to actually fit the writing in the daytime and dispatch this deadline-heavy dark cloud above my head. I postponed some of the labwork until it’s physically possible to manage. I started to breathe.

Good food, good sleep, good book in a free evening hour, and I calmed down. Motivation slowly crawled back in its place and I even embarked on the big bad rebuttal, which with every piece I tackle seems more friendly and bearable. Because sometimes the hardest is to start, look your monster in the eyes and see it’s scared of you too!

The other thing that happens when you finally take a break is this lovely curiosity and creativity boost. No matter if it’s within your career or hobby area, it makes you feel better. And in the flow of such a boost this blog was born, which will hopefully keep going on (provided somebody wanders by).

I would be lying if I said this is the first time my little burn out – break – remotivation circle happened to me. I tend to get myself overloaded with work, and while I can bear it very well for some time, getting great boost from things getting done at fast pace, after a while I dive into a dip.

One thing I learnt is that you need to diagnose it, remove yourself from the lab, and deliver yourself some quality time (or, sometimes, just crash on the couch and relax). You deserve it. You worked for it. A free evening after a 8h work day is not something to feel guilty about. Do you even remember that for people outside academia this is a normal thing? (Same being true for free weekends and reading books on trains instead of working…).

I don’t say this is a successful strategy for academic career. Perhaps some people can work around the clock and keep their minds intact. But I know a break does wonders to me. And the longer the break, the more curious, creative and daring I become. If it was up to me, I’d ordinate every scientist to take at least one full-month (if not two) vacation per year. The ideas you’d get afterwards – oh my! But, who has the time

Few conclusions:

  • We’re often over-optimistic when writing to-do lists. Try to remember how much time things really take. Or always add 30%.
  • Putting something in your already full agenda to force (ekhm, motivate) yourself to do it, will most likely not work and only make you feel guilty afterwards!
  • Celebrate the things you DID get done today, instead of feeling guilty about the ones you didn’t.  If there was not enough time, you did best you could and deserve a break. But be honest: if there was time and you goofed it away on youtube, ask yourself why and try to be more efficient.
  • Acknowledge that you do need breaks. In fact, acknowledge that taking breaks can make you more efficient in the long run.
  • Appreciate what you did and reward yourself with some quality time. Cook yourself a good dinner, have a glass of wine, relax. It is OK to have time not filled with work.
  • Give your mind a break (do something lazy or something out of the box for you), and it will suprise you! With new ideas, creativity, and likely some more caurage. Worst could happen, you’ll start a blog. No big deal 😉

At the end, a link to a great article with a brilliant take on the work-life balance in academia, from a different, a bit more advanced perspective. Strongly recommended!

Science Anyways

Once upon a time I started my studies in a Highly Promising Life-Sciences Programme, at my country’s Oldest and Best University. All that to the joy of my parents, who always said I should study whatever I love, but were nevertheless concerned with whether it will generate my daily bread.

So there I was, ready to get my Degree and land some Excitedly-Hyped Life Sciences-Related Job, which the Highly Promising Programme highly promised, even if I had little idea what that was supposed to be. (Years later, I have as little idea, only now we call it “Industry”).

But my fate was never to be fulfilled, because the Oldest and Best Universitites have this magical power of broadening your perspectives and changing your mindset. Or they have some good science going on and give you the bug as early as your Master project.

And so, while in my first naive years of studentship I cherished people with PhD degrees as some unreachable (and sporadically unbearable) geniuses, towards the end of the journey I was quite sure of two things: 1) some PhDs are far from being a genius, and 2) I’d like to get me a PhD too.

I briefly visited a couple of Foreign Labs for CV-Boosting and Tears-Squeezing (3 months of Western blotting and I won’t write a paper??!) Internships, did some solid Master research, graduated my Oldest and Best University, and embarked on my PhD adventure…

…what happens in Mordor, stays in Mordor. (We’ve all been there and we’ve all seen it. Tear-Squeezing Internships seem kindergarten afterwards).

Jokes aside, I did it all for love. Of science. But as fascinated and naive as I was at the beginning, and disillusioned at the end (which is the way love often evolves, of science in particular), I have always tried to keep my mind open. Make myself informed of alternatives. I visited career events, went to workshops praising my transferable skills, scratched a tad upon writing. But I always found myself returning. To the lab. To the familiar. To the… safe. I always remained fascinated by my projects, high after an exciting conference, thrilled giving talks, and even occasionally relaxed by a quiet evening of lonesome pipetting… And no matter how excitedly I saw myself in a role of scientific writer or a project manager, at the end of the day I’d often feel more excited about the academic science after all.

And so I rolled through the ups and downs of my PhD life with little idea where else to roll on. And all the good intentions of taking perspective, of cool judgment and career planning, went to hell one random evening when I procrastinately opened my ResearchGate account only to notice a job. A challenging job. A cool job. A “pretty much the dream job” for me back then, featuring all the things I wanted to learn and do next.

A post-doc job.

My current job.

And so, it’s Still Science. It’s Science Actually. It’s Science Anyways.