OK so that title was really boring. Apologies. But on the upside, it’s super obvious what we’re going to talk about today. Inspirations for this one came from two things. A chat with a junior colleague (who will know who she is if she’s listening) and the amazing Lonely Pipette podcast episode with Jen Heemstra.
We’ll approach this in stages because I think what it’s important to note is that what you prioritize and how you prioritize will change throughout your career.
Let’s start with some wisdom from one of my favourites; Adam Grant. Grant says that when thinking about your day, and how you plan to use it, that it’s important to think about tasks rather than time. Rather than calling it ‘time management’ Grant likes to call it ‘attention management’. If we apply this to the larger picture of science and careers we can easily see how our attention at different career stages should be applied differently. A PhD student shouldn’t spend their time and energy doing lab admin, because that is part of their PIs job. But similarly, a PI – unless they have loads of time or are procrastinating – shouldn’t be washing up the histology glassware. (FYI I spend a LOT of time procrastinating with histology glassware).
Taking this attitude down to the individual level, we’re going to first think on a short, day-to-day timescale, rather than a big year-to-year career timescale. On a day-to-day basis, an important thing to think about when you’re setting up your time is when you work well and at what tasks. As a personal example I am extremely poor at anything requiring attention between the hours of about 11am and 4pm so for me, writing and thinking has to take place outside those hours unless it’s easy writing or editing. But it means I can shift my lab work so that it takes place when I can’t write well. I’ve chosen to prioritize my happiness and sanity over my career so despite the fact that I also actually write really well between 6 and 8 in the evening, I usually choose to spend that time cooking or doing nice things like walking the dog.
So let’s go into how you might think about prioritizing at each career stage.
At PhD stage your priority should be learning, especially at the start. Taking every opportunity to acquire new skills and that can be anything from a new technique in the lab, a new bit of software to use or new soft skills. You should talk to reps at conferences and learn to network, you should present your work and interact with your peers. You should be writing papers and your thesis and training students. All of these are things that will benefit your career in the long-term, and may even help you as you complete your PhD.
But as time passes there are going to be things you want to prioritize and for PhD students these are largely obvious. You might be thinking about your next steps, you might be thinking about papers, but there are things you’re also going to want to not think about. If you’ve had students, then you might want to de-prioritize them towards the end of your time. They tend to drain a lot of your attention which should be going on experiments because at this stage your priority should be simply to finish your thesis. Once you have a complete thesis, everything else you are probably thinking about is trickledown economics (but in a sense that should actually work). It’s much easier to find a job when you have your thesis complete, it’s much easier to write papers, etc.
Your next step will be as a junior post-doc. And, as my erstwhile colleague is now discovering, here is where it gets tricky. As we’ve mentioned in podcasts and probably in a number of blogs, now might be the time to think about your career a little. If you’re not sure about academia then really treat this as an extended PhD. Get a ton of experience, learn a bunch of new things and then move on. But if, after all the terrible warnings, you still think this career is for you then you might want to think about how you spend your time.
The way my friend described it was by saying she has to finish a couple of papers from her PhD, because her publication record is starting to matter, but there are also a ton of other things on her plate. She has to obviously keep her current boss happy, she is technically working for him right now, but she also has to think about breaking away a little and how to start to establish her own independence. She has to help train people in the lab whilst also doing her own experiments, and she has to figure out whether data analysis for a publication or the next set of experiments are more important.
At this stage what it’s important to think about is things which might be impactful for your career. Yes, supervising students and gaining soft leadership skills are great but they can also be acquired slightly later. Right now, you should be thinking about where you want to go and prioritizing tasks that help you get there. Harping back to previous podcasts and posts, this is where a really good boss will help you out. Their job should be to help you be the best version of yourself and so sitting them down and telling them you’re struggling, or asking them to help you prioritize, should be something you’re able to do. If they want to help you realise your potential in academia they should be pointing you in the direction of things that allow you to develop independence, like small grants. They should also have enough experience and breadth of knowledge to see where you could develop independent projects which still slightly overlap their own, allowing you both to develop.
But fundamentally, as an extremely wise colleague of mine said when I asked her what she did, it’s a juggling act. It depends on your circumstances, the type of work you do, the boss you have and your own career goals.
Now you’ve got past that first post-doc, maybe the first two or three post-docs. You’ve maybe got yourself some small pots of funding and a paper where you’re corresponding or even senior author. Here you have choices. A lot of people leap into lectureships. It’s often a very stable option and your priorities are clearly laid out for you. Your job is to lecture. Yes, you may only have a few lectures a week but that is your main job and research has to take a back seat. After a couple of years when you’ve established your routine it will become easier to know when you’re busy and when you’re more flexible so carrying out experiments, writing and networking will become easier.
Your other, less stable, option is the fellowship route. You’ve got enough independence and funding that you think you might be competitive so you go for it. You get it and hurrah! You now have money for yourself and other humans to do your science with you. Here, it is – as my wise colleague also said – about the greater good. It doesn’t matter how fun it would be to just do that experiment, because you have the money, the dull grant report is the thing that needs doing so that’s what should be done. You need to think about what tasks are best for the collective, not what’s best for you because fundamentally if the collective benefits, so do you. Remember, if you are mentoring people well, they should work well with and for you, so they will be able to help you out. Your newly minted technicians should crack on with all that tissue cutting you no longer have time to do, your fresh-faced post-doc is super keen to help you write that paper and your PhD student is overjoyed to be able to figure out that new technique you’ve been dying to try.
I have no collective, I just have me and this is the point where I confess I am not good at prioritizing. I’m currently writing this because I don’t know whether to try and finish a paper (which needs experiments), do some experiments (which would delay writing a fellowship but which are also essential data for said fellowship) or start writing fellowship and project grants. Now in reality I know that all of them hinge on the experiments so I should just do the damn experiments. But the fact that they significantly delay, and could potentially destroy, my chances at everything else is pretty terrifying and means I’d rather not start and have them fail, than start at all. All very depressing.
So the final thing you need to think about when it comes to prioritizing is you. What do you enjoy and what do you want to get out of life? Often spending some time just prioritizing things you enjoy will allow you, early in your career, to establish what you like doing and potentially what you’re good at doing. Enjoying the lab work but not the writing/managerial tasks? Perhaps a career in industry might suit better. Enjoying the writing but hating the lab work? Perhaps medical communications would be a better fit. Remember, following your passions and following your talents may not land you in the same place so if you have a choice, always follow your talents.
But even beyond that, life is short and there are things out there that are more important. Like dogs. Dogs are nice. And the more you prioritize your work, the less time you get to spend with your dog. The work will always be there, one day the dog may not.
Dr Yvonne Couch is an Alzheimer’s Research UK Fellow at the University of Oxford. Yvonne studies the role of extracellular vesicles and their role in changing the function of the vasculature after stroke, aiming to discover why the prevalence of dementia after stroke is three times higher than the average. It is her passion for problem solving and love of science that drives her, in advancing our knowledge of disease. Yvonne shares her opinions, talks about science and explores different careers topics in her monthly blogs – she does a great job of narrating too.