How to be a productive scientist: what I’ve learned

I still remember the feeling after finishing my master’s thesis, 5 (!) years ago.  I felt like I had made my way through a trackless wilderness of data and literature searches and SAS code and finally organized that big heap of data into something coherent, a process during which I had little confidence in my own ability and was somewhat overcome with amazement when the file sat completed on my laptop.  I sent it off gleefully and went out for drinks, glad that I would be able to return to a normal job with normal deadlines and defined tasks and endpoints.

Well, that didn’t last long.  Five years later, I sit here with my fifth manuscript accepted for publication, about to submit another and starting to daydream about the next couple.  And I’m proud of how they’ve turned out- one has been cited 32 times by other scientists per Google Scholar and even been quoted in the New York Times.  And all of it with literally a fraction of the stress of that first masters thesis.  So clearly something has changed.  Part of it is just the confidence factor.  I really do believe in myself and my ideas now, and I have oodles more training and experience, thanks to wonderful supervisors and trainings.  But I’ve also learned a few hacks that I am thinking about now, at the tail end of my PhD.

  • Always have a plan.  At any given moment, I have a yearly goal and milestone spreadsheet, a monthly one, and a weekly one.  They are revised almost every week.  This type of organization is so, so key for a scientist.  No one is watching over your shoulder or telling you when something is due, making it far too easy to get bogged down for weeks in tasks.  My personal tactic when I realize that I’m getting stuck is figure out someone I can ask for help (such a great part of academia is the depth of the friendly brainpower around us!)  If that doesn’t work, maybe it’s time to brainstorm some new tactics.

 

  • The Pomodoro Method.  A productivity manager that has really helped me partition my time effectively.  Essentially, I divide my day into 25 minute intervals, with small 5 minute stretching breaks between each block (read more here).  I don’t adhere to it religiously, but find it especially helpful with writing large documents and other tasks that require high focus.  I put my phone in airplane mode during each block and don’t allow myself to stop writing/brainstorming/coding/whatever during that time.  I don’t use it at all for things like checking email or meetings so it keeps me really conscious of when those less productive things are eating up too much of my day.  It also tells me when I can quit- when writing something like a dissertation it can be hard to know when you’ve done “enough” work for the day.

 

  • Keep your storyline in mind.  We did a multi-day training the first year of my PhD that I have found endlessly useful.  It was a training on how to give an effective presentation, but I have found some of the things apply to almost every aspect of my job.  For example, what do you want your audience to remember when they think of your talk days later?  If you want them to remember anything, you had better make a compelling story out of your research, and even then they will at most remember 1-2 things overall.  What do you want those 1-2 things to be? Now, when I prepare for another talk or begin to write up a new analysis or design a new data visualization, I first sit down with a pen and paper and brainstorm 4-5 bullet points of how I want my “story” to go.  If I can’t distill my story down to a few bullet points that make a logical story, I know I’m not quite ready to start drafting.

 

  • Make time for networking.  No one does science in isolation any more.  Well, probably they do, but you have never heard of them because they don’t get the grants/write the papers/join the collaborations.  And it’s super fun!  I mostly apply for things like consortiums and workshops and conferences and join R Users Groups because they sound like fun, but I have learned so so much, widened my scientific horizons, and made so many great connections through them.  I’ve gotten really comfortable with emailing random people to ask them about their research, etc, and it can have big payoffs.  Also, it makes it much easier to find a position after graduation 😉

 

  • Set boundaries about your time.  This directly contradicts the last point, and I admit is one that took me a while to learn.  But people are always going to be asking you to help with writing grants and teaching classes and giving talks, stuff that is an important part of science but not the part that is most important during the PhD specifically.  During the PhD the most important thing is to build your track record by publishing.  Learning how to say no diplomatically has been a big part of my PhD.

I am curious if others have the same experience as me.  I’ve learned that everyone has a different PhD experience- I had very hands off supervisors in a lot of ways, which comes with a very specific set of challenges and also opportunities.  Like this week I’ve had a bad summer cold and decided to just work from home, a decision I don’t have to justify or run by anyone.  In fact it would probably take at least a month before my supervisors noticed I wasn’t coming in, no joke.  My friends certainly notice, so don’t feel too sorry for me 😉

P.S. Summer colds suck.

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How to be a productive scientist: what I’ve learned