Planning in research: from long-term strategy to a single experiment. Part 2: Tactics

Now that you’ve established what your high priority projects are, you should think about how to schedule the tasks within these projects to make the best of your time. Hopefully, you’ve come up with what the skeleton of your project is and how the tree of life is structured. These will be important in figuring out what is more and what is less urgent in terms of individual tasks. Once you have a decent idea of what must be done and in what order, you can start scheduling out your week. Here, I would strongly recommend using the “Big rocks” approach pioneered by Steve Covey (I highly recommend his “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” book by the way). Continue reading

Planning in research: from long-term strategy to a single experiment. Part 1: Strategy

Good planning is absolutely essential in research. It is what makes a difference between a competent scientist who does decent work, and an excellent one who really pushes the envelope. People with poor planning skills will waste tons of time on futile projects and so will not be able to focus on what really matters. While good planning is something that comes naturally with experience, I think it’s useful to have a framework you can refer to at any career stage. The framework I use can be divided into three levels: Strategic planning, tactical planning, and planning of single experiments. Single experiment planning was roughly summed up in my post about “the gory details“, and I will talk about tactical planning in my next post, so let’s get right into strategic planning. Continue reading

Project priorities – the skeleton vs the meat

In talking to many grad students and postdocs I have found that quite a few find it difficult to prioritize experiments in their projects. Creating a tree of life of a project should help some, but still, the tree has many branches, and in principle one could start with any of them to get to the root. What I found to be a simple solution was to divide the project into “skeleton” and “meat”. The skeleton is the parts of the project that really answer the key question that the project is all about. Think of it this way – would the title of your paper change if the experiment came out one way or the other? If it would, this is your skeleton experiment and it is your top priority. Continue reading

Lab size – is bigger always better?

A ton of blog posts and a few papers have been written on the issue of the optimal size of a biomedical research lab. If you would like a nice digest, see this Youtube video by Jon Lorsch, the director of one of the NIH institutes. Jon makes a very good case for smaller labs. They allow for more diversity, better mentoring, are more efficient with their use of funds. Unfortunately, almost all incentives in academia are for group leaders to have bigger labs. The PI of  a larger group has more security in terms of funding and employment, more prestige, more negotiating power in almost any situation. Almost no one in academia looks at how efficient in terms of output per dollar a group is – they invariably look at the total output of the lab, ie. the total number/prestige/citations of pubs where the PI is senior author. Similarly, no one looks at how well the PI’s trainees do on average – they only look at the few superstars that have come out of the lab.
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Advice about starting a lab

In case you missed it, here’s a storify of a twitter conversation about starting a new lab. It’s full of wisdom for all freshly minted PIs. Some of my favorites are (slightly paraphrased):

You are the best postdoc you will have for many years – stay active at the bench for 2+ years

and

Your first paper as group leader will be like your first pancake – half baked and lumpy. Don’t wait for the perfect story to emerge – publish quickly to establish credibility and secure funding.

Go read the whole storify if you are starting now or will be starting soon.

Poland’s higher education reform – new voices in the debate

I recently discussed some of the ideas presented by the Polish Science Minister Jarosław Gowin as foundations for the reform of research and higher education law in Poland. A couple of days ago, an article came out in “Polityka” (paywalled), a popular weekly journal, discussing the specific projects for the reform developed by three independent teams. The authors, Dariusz Jemielniak and Piotr Stec mostly talk about the weaknesses of these projects and the pitfalls that the lawmakers should avoid when implementing changes. I think that the most important take home message from the article is that whatever the final reform will be, it will have to be followed by a cultural change if it is to be effective. Otherwise, academics will just find ways to work around the reform and everything will remain the same. Continue reading

Objectivity

As smart as we think we are, we humans are hopeless at objectivity. This struck me as I was reading about peak oil on Wikipedia. I mean the issue is pretty serious. Within the next few decades we could potentially run out of the single most important natural resource that literally and figuratively fuels our civilization. And people, sometimes very smart people, cannot agree on whether something ought to be done right now or whether we have centuries of uninterrupted oil supply ahead of us. Continue reading

Research excellence in Poland

Research excellence is a very common theme that comes up in any discussion of science policy. Recently the Polish Science and Education Minister, Dr. Jarosław Gowin, talked about his views on this subject in Poznań. The venue was one of a series of conferences in preparation for the National Science Congress (Narodowy Kongress Nauki) later this year, where he will present the draft of his baby – the new research and education bill, so called Ustawa 2.0. I will do my best to sum up his views and give some short commentary. Continue reading

Polish research in the spotlight

Poland has just been highlighted in a Nature feature as an up and coming contender in the international research landscape. The piece was well-researched and I think it pretty much sums up all the pros and cons of Poland as a destination for international talent. The pros are the relatively plentiful funding, and lots of newly constructed modern labs and institutes that have many vacancies. The cons are the sometimes hierarchical power structure, the resistance to change on the structural level by the established “old guard”, and the sometimes inadequate logistical support for researchers from abroad. Continue reading

On the 40h work week in academia

There has been a bit of talk on Twitter and among my colleagues IRL and online about work-life balance in academia. See for example this excellent post by @TheNewPI. The gist of it is: is a normal 40h work week, which is the norm everywhere, feasible for academics? I think the answer is yes and no. It really depends on what your goals and priorities are. If you really want to develop an independent research program as PI of a lab at a decent research university or institute, then I don’t think sticking to a strict 9-5 schedule will serve you very well. The more time (up to a certain limit) you put into your work, the better you will become, the more you will accomplish. However, I think there are a few points worth elaborating on here. Continue reading