Productivity, planning, and self-care: work-life balance requires planning ahead

As I’ve done work related to Michigan’s Grad Student Mental Health task force, and done my own “regular” work this semester, I’ve realized that discussions related to self-care and work/life balance often focus on things like making sure you get enough sleep or leaving time to go for a run or do yoga or things like that, but they leave out something important: if you want to do all those things (and I think they’re extremely important) and still submit manuscripts and proposals with deadlines, get feedback to lab folks in a timely manner, etc., you need to plan ahead. 

I’d been thinking about this for a while, but then had a really great conversation with a colleague about this that led to me coming up with this framework:

Top axis is "work-life balance/self care", right axis is "Plan ahead?" and left axis is "highly deadline motivated"

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When writing a grant proposal, do you first think of the topic? The experiments? The preliminary data? Something else?

Recently, a friend who was working on a grant proposal asked if I have the specific experiments in mind first and then come up with the framing from there, or if I have the big picture framing in mind and develop the specific experiments from there. I was a little stumped at first, then realized that was because I don’t really use either of those approaches. Instead, my initial motivation is usually preliminary data that I’m excited about and where it’s clear more work needs to be done to figure out what is really going on.

Here’s an example: As a graduate student, I carried out a study on a population where I tracked a parasite outbreak and host population dynamics and, at the same time, assayed the susceptibility of the population to that parasite at three time points. The results of the susceptibility assays were not at all what I expected at the start of the experiment:

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How much evidence is there that we should aim to write every day? And are their downsides to suggesting that people aim for that?

As a postdoc, I read Robert Boice’s Advice for New Faculty Members. I think it helped me a lot as I started my first faculty position: I blocked off time for writing, learned how to use short chunks of time productively, and tried to make sure I still got research done even while I was teaching new courses. Until fairly recently, I would have considered myself strongly on Team Boice. I have recommended his book and his approach to people over the years, including one of the ideas he’s best known for: That we should aim to write every day. Now, I’m less sure how strongly to recommend his books, and my advice on how to be a productive writer has changed.

So what changed?

First, I was on a panel with a colleague of mine who is very productive. The panel was for early career folks and there was a question about how to balance all the different demands on your time as an early career faculty member, including how to still maintain research productivity while doing all the other things new faculty need to do. I preached the Boice gospel: You have to learn how to work in small chunks of time, you have to block off time for writing regularly, you can’t wait until you have a full day to write, etc. My colleague was like “yeah, that doesn’t work for me. If I have a free half hour or even hour, I will waste it. I can’t write in that time.” Instead, he structures his weeks so that there’s at least one big chunk of time where he can write.

I was shocked – this was the wrong advice to be giving! He was leading them astray! This is not the way to get off to a strong start as an assistant professor!

Or maybe not? At that time, I would have said that I followed Boice’s advice, but, looking back, I realize I was only following parts of it. Most notably, I actually wasn’t really writing every day, and I’m not sure if I ever did that as a faculty member. I block off at least one morning a week for writing. Unlike my colleague, I do try to get some writing done in smaller blocks of time, too, though I am more likely these days to save up email for those small blocks of time and try to tackle as much of it then as I can. Overall, I do a lot of writing and editing by blocking off 2-4 hour blocks of time in my calendar.

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Who is doing interesting system-based research? And what is a model system anyway?

I will be organizing the American Society of Naturalists’ Vice Presidential Symposium next year, and think it would be fun to have the symposium focus on insights gained from system-based research. (Related: my old post on the merits of system-based research.) My thinking is to combine people who are working on well-established model systems (e.g., three spine sticklebacks, Arabidopsis, E. coli) with those working on more recently established systems (nascent model systems?). I’d like to include work that spans the breadth of the society (so, ecology, evolutionary biology, and behavior). I also want the symposium to feature the work of early career scientists. That’s where you come in! Tell me who you think is doing really interesting and exciting system-based research. I’m especially interested in hearing about early career folks, and am super duper interested in learning about early career folks who’ve done work to establish new model systems.

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Am I frantically juggling when I should be letting things go off the edge of a cliff?

When I started my first faculty position at Georgia Tech, I felt like I was juggling as fast as I could; every time it felt like I was starting to get a hang of things, a new ball would get tossed in. I mentioned this at some point to someone there who said: the key is to remember that some balls are glass and some are rubber.

I was thinking about that juggling metaphor again recently because I was involved in a discussion with other faculty about how we all have too much to do. There was some discussion of the root causes of this, including a major decline in administrative support and more expectations. Obviously those are huge issues that are worthy of much more thought and systemic solutions. But there was also a discussion of what we can do individually in the short term as we all struggle with this. At some point, someone said something to the effect of, “you need to accept that you are never going to be able to do it all, and you have to accept that some things are just going to go off the edge of the cliff”.

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Guest post: Strategies for helping your research reach a wider audience

Note from Meghan:  This is a guest post from Richard B. Primack and Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie; Richard has written guest posts for us before, including one on using a professional editor. This guest post is on a topic that I get asked about regularly when I travel for seminar trips, so I suspect it will be of interest to readers. I’ve added some thoughts of my own throughout the post below.

 

As scientists, we love our research and want to share our findings far and wide. As ecologists and conservation biologists, we especially hope that our findings affect policy, management, or everyday stewardship. And funding agencies remind us that we must ensure our research has broader impacts that benefit society, beyond just publishing scientific papers. But how do we effectively communicate our research? Here, we share some tips about how researchers can communicate research to the media, and reach audiences beyond peer-reviewed journal readers. We use examples from a recent paper of ours published with co-authors.

Make your research exciting—identify your hook. In our recent paper, Phenological mismatch with trees reduces wildflower carbon budgets, published in Ecology Letters, we emphasized that we are building on the observations of Henry David Thoreau; Thoreau was the “hook” that we use to attract much of the interest in our research.

Make the message easy to understand—tell a story. We wrote a press release that told a story about our research and highlighted key points in non-technical language and without jargon. Even though Richard’s academic home of Boston University does not generally issue press releases about scientific papers, our summary helped reporters quickly understand our work, its significance, and potential angles that could interest readers or listeners.

(From Meghan: if you’re having a hard time finding your hook or story, there are some great resources. Randy Olsen’s And, But, Therefore structure is great, and laid out in detail in his book, Houston, We Have a Narrative. The Aurbach et al. “half life” activity (described here) is also a helpful way to find your message.)

Provide informative, high-quality photos. We take many photos to illustrate our research and the key results. Sometimes these photos are carefully staged to illustrate the research process or results. Reporters are more likely to write a story if excellent photos are available.

A man wearing a baseball cap is crouched down in a field. In one hand, he is holding a field notebook. The other hand is reaching out towards a plant with yellow flowers.

Having good photos, such as this carefully arranged shot of Primack working in the field, helps to create media interest.

(From Meghan: these are so important, and often people forget to take them! I agree that carefully staged photos are valuable. Getting videos is very helpful, too, including for reporters to use as “B roll”. I recently shared various short snippets with a reporter—I was glad to have them, but also wished I had more! Another example of how videos can be helpful comes from this recent story by some of my colleagues at Michigan, which went viral because a student on the trip, Maggie Grundler, thought to pull out her phone and capture a quick video of a very cool interaction.)

Reach out to the media and be responsive.  We emailed our press release and eye-catching photos to contacts in the media. One of them liked the story and wrote an article about our work for the Boston Globe. He was writing the article on tight deadline, so we promptly answered his numerous questions.

(From Meghan: A couple of things related to this: first, reporters are often working on much, much tighter deadlines than we are used to—they might need to file the story by the end of the day they contact you. So, you need to be quick about responding to them, but it also helps to give them as much lead time as possible. Second, reporters generally will not share their story with you ahead of time for you to review. It’s very different than working with a university press officer!)

One thing can lead to another. The Boston Globe writer pitched the story to National Public Radio, and he will interview us for a radio program in April.

(From Meghan: One thing can lead to another….or not, or maybe it does but with a big delay. One of the things I didn’t really appreciate when I first started doing more science communication is that you can spend a lot of time talking to a reporter and it can end up going nowhere. [example 1, example 2] It can be really frustrating! If anyone has advice on how to make this less likely, I’d love to hear it!)

Get with social media. Caitlin tweeted about the article, creating buzz in the twittersphere. We wrote a short summary of our paper for our lab blog—essentially a shorter, more conversational version of the press release—with links to a pdf of our article. Our lab blog has been viewed around 100,000 times in 6 years, so we estimate that this will be 500 views of this story, a nice complement to the Twitter buzz.

Publish on-line. To generate publicity within our Boston University community, we wrote an article for BU Research, using the press release as a starting point. This article further widened the audience who will hear about the research, with relatively little additional effort on our part.

Leverage institutional networks.  The other co-authors of our paper reached out to their universities and media contacts, sharing our press release. The paper received added coverage in institutional publications and websites of the University of Maine and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

(From Meghan: another reason this can be useful: one press officer might not be interested or might not have the time, but someone else’s might.)

Send out pdfs.  We emailed a pdf of our paper to 100 colleagues in our field, along with a very short email summarizing the key points of the article, again pulling from the same basic story in the press release and blog and Twitter posts.

Each paper and project are different, but hopefully this post has given you some ideas of things to try.

Other resources:

Compass – https://www.compassscicomm.org

The Op Ed Project – https://www.theopedproject.org/pitching

Cahill Jr, J. F., Lyons, D., & Karst, J. (2011). Finding the “pitch” in ecological writing. The Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America92(2), 196-205.

Merkle, B. G. (2018). Tips for Communicating Your Science with the Press: Approaching Journalists. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America99(4), 1-4.

First cut results of poll on manuscript rejections: we deal with a lot of rejection

I recently did a poll asking readers about their experiences with manuscript rejections. This was based on thinking about different submission strategies, including wondering about what the “right” amount of rejection is. In this post, I lay out the big picture results, and then end by asking about what further analyses you’re interested in.

There are lots of figures below, but here’s my summary of the key results:

  • respondents to this poll reported a lower acceptance rate at the first journal to which they submitted a manuscript (48.4%) than in the recent Paine & Fox survey (64.8%). They had vastly more respondents (over 12,000!!!), so I trust their number more; other potential factors that might also contribute are discussed below.
  • it’s not uncommon for people to need to submit a paper to 3 or more journals before it’s accepted.
  • it’s surprisingly common (at least to me) for people to take the “aim high, then drop if rejected” strategy
  • people are submitting to stretch journals pretty often—and sometimes it pays off
  • there’s a decent amount of uncertainty in terms of how well a manuscript fits a particular journal (on the part of authors, reviewers, and/or editors). This suggests that the concluding advice of Paine & Fox (“We therefore recommend that authors reduce publication delays by choosing journals appropriate to the significance of their research.”) is sometimes easier said than done.
  • people aren’t totally giving up on manuscripts as often as I might have thought they might (but this might be explained by the demographics of the poll respondents)

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If your field experiment has few replicates (and it probably does), intersperse your treatments rather than randomizing them

The last experiment I did as a graduate student was one where I wanted to experimentally test the effect of predation on parasitism. To do this, I set up large (5,000 L) whole water column enclosures (more commonly called “bags”) in a local lake. These are really labor intensive, meaning I could only have about 10 experimental units. I decided to use a replicated regression design, with two replicates of each of five predation levels. These were going to be arranged in two spatial blocks (linear “rafts” of bags), each with one replicate of each predation level treatment.

left picture shows two objects in the distance in a lake; the most obvious thing about them is fencing at the surface; the left picture shows a close up of one of them where you can see five individual bag enclosures

Left: two experimental rafts; right: a close up of one of the rafts, showing the five different bag enclosures

As I got ready to set up the experiment, my advisor asked me how I was going to decide how to arrange the bags. I confidently replied that I was going to randomize them within each block. I mean, that’s obviously how you should assign treatments for an experiment, right? My advisor then asked what I would do if I ended up with the two lowest predation treatments at one end and the two highest predation treatments at the other end of the raft. I paused, and then said something like, “Um, I guess I’d re-randomize?”

This taught me an important experimental design lesson: interspersing treatments is more important than randomizing them. This is especially true when there are relatively small numbers of experimental units*, which is often the case for field experiments. In this case, randomly assigning things is likely to lead to clustering of treatments in a way that could be problematic.

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Building confidence, building resilience, and building CVs

When I was at the biology19 meetings recently, someone said something to me that I can’t stop thinking about: a student’s first manuscript should get sent to a journal where it will be accepted without much of a struggle; the second submission should be more of a struggle, but should get accepted at the first journal to which it was submitted; the third should go somewhere where it gets rejected. The person who said this, Hanna Kokko, acknowledged this was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, and that many factors will end up influencing where someone submits a given manuscript; her real approach is to respect the first author’s own wishes, after a discussion of the pros and cons of different options. But her tongue-in-cheek recommendation is motivated by the recognition that rejections can be a huge hit to one’s confidence, especially when someone is just starting out. I’ve seen (and personally experienced) the enormous confidence hit that can come from serial rejections of a manuscript, again, especially when one is just starting out. So, trying to figure out a strategy to reduce the potential for a big ego blow (while learning to deal with rejection too—but not before one has succeeded twice) makes a lot of sense to me.

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In which my ink runs out and I realize there are lots of things that are interesting and important, and I cannot do them all

Last Monday, I faced a post-travel inbox filled with emails that needed replies. Some of them were invitations for things that would take up my time, but that seemed interesting or important or valuable or all three. And, then, of course, there were all the other things I needed to do as part of my job – editing manuscripts, writing letters of recommendation, sending emails to get people access to the lab, analyzing data, etc. And it was also the day where my post on seeing a therapist appeared, which led to lots of interactions on social media, via text, and through email. All of that led me to revisit a question that I am constantly asking myself, and that I surely will never stop asking myself: how should I spend my work time?

I couldn’t get this out of my head, and, as I walked to daycare, I realized that there are three questions I should consider as I evaluate whether to do something:

  • Is it officially part of my job?
  • Am I particularly good at it?
  • Do I enjoy doing it?

I thought about how, ideally, I should try to prioritize things where the answer would be “yes” for all three. And I thought about how I spend a lot of time on things where the answer to all three of those questions is “no”.

When I got to daycare, I knew I wanted to think about this more, and was worried I would forget it. So, I pulled out my notebook in the daycare lobby, propped it on top of the stroller, and drew this:

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