Category: mentoring

Burnout and Errand Paralysis

I read a great article last month that has been getting a lot of attention online, and eventually the piece went viral. The essay is on Buzzfeed and is entitled “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation” and is definitely worth the read if you are a millennial yourself, or work with or teach millennials. I found a lot of the ideas in this article resonated with me despite the fact that I’m part of Gen-X.

I think that we’ve reached a tipping point where many of us are starting to push back on the idea that exceptional optimization is a good thing. Life shouldn’t be a video game where you are constantly trying to level up; some hours in your day should be savoured for their inefficiency and slowness. In my experience, it usually takes a big wake-up call (e.g. health crisis, death of a loved one, etc.) to come to that realization.

The other point made in this article that was really interesting is that millennials have been molded to believe that hard work will pay off in the end and that they can “win” at life by constantly striving to be better. They have a general sense (and have been told) that life is a meritocracy and that if you only work hard enough to be the best that everything else will follow. As a Gen-Xer I learned pretty early on in life that the above is a false premise. We knew that we would have to work hard essentially to stay in place, but that there was no guarantee that success would be waiting on the other side of that labour. It’s a pretty cynical world-view, but it has served me well. Part of it is perhaps personality; I always plan for the worst and then can enjoy being pleasantly surprised when the worst doesn’t come to pass. My childhood was pretty free-range; lots of time to be bored (and to find ways to amuse myself) and few scheduled athletic or academic activities (my parents insisted on swimming lessons so that I wouldn’t inadvertently drown). In contrast, millennials have been subjected to a high rate of academic and athletic programming, with every moment of their lives mapped out and the message that one misstep would bring the whole house of cards crashing down.

The author of the article, Anne Helen Petersen, was recently on the Hurry Slowly podcast and the conversation between her and the host, Jocelyn K. Glei is very engaging and insightful.

I highly recommend reading the article and listening to the podcast.

Service to Professional Societies

I have recently finished a fair amount of service to two professional scientific societies and wanted to write a post about what I have found valuable and challenging about these experiences.

I did my first stint of professional society service as a post-doctoral fellow and represented both students and post-docs on the executive of that society. I was a valuable experience and similar in many ways to the various student governments and committees that I’d been a part of in graduate school. It was a fantastic opportunity to network and be involved in selecting the professional development opportunities offered to our early career members.

For the next several years and continuing up to most recently, I’ve served as a judge for various student presentation, poster, and best paper awards. This has allowed me to gain an understanding of what constitutes a great research story and how it can be communicated effectively. I’ve learned a huge amount doing these activities that I now use in my own work and that I pass along to my own lab students.

This was followed by several opportunities to serve as a session chair and the chairperson of several committees in these organizations. This has gained me a subset of very specific organizational skills and allowed me to work with some wonderful colleagues. This work was also very fulfilling as it allowed for the opportunity to overhaul several outdated policies and procedures that we hampering equity, inclusivity, and diversity efforts of the organizations.

I’ve also had the opportunity to contribute to the organization of two scientific conferences which led to the development of a whole host of new professional skills. In hindsight, conferences are a huge amount of work and I would recommend that you wait until you are more than 2 years into your tenure-track job before you take on the task of organizing one!

Most recently, I served on a society’s executive council for three years and this last year I served as the chair for a major section of one of the scientific societies. It was very rewarding, but was more work than I was anticipating, and I’ve therefore made the conscious choice to step back from scientific society service for a few years in order to give myself a break and to allow for alternative perspectives to have a voice.

My take-home messages are:

1) Take the initiative. Sometimes you will be approached to participate, but your contribution will be very welcome if you volunteer through self-nomination.

2) Start small and get your feet wet with some reasonable commitments before diving into duties that are more challenging.

3) Do service that is personally and professionally meaningful for you. I especially liked assignments where I had a fair degree of autonomy and flexibility where I could make a meaningful and long lasting impact on the society.

4) If the timing isn’t right, you should decline opportunities without guilt and take breaks as needed.

5) If you recognize the potential to contribute in others, plant a seed by suggesting that their skills would be valuable and encourage them to get involved.


DoctorAl Digest 13

Yet another take-down of an ill-advised campaign to address the challenges faced by women in STEM. The problem is not getting girls and women interested in STEM.

A follow-up to Terry’s post last week on most scientists being good people; “If you have a bad advisor in grad school

A good summary of how setting small doable goals for academic writing can yield great results from the “This is what a computer scientist looks like” blog.

A thoughtful piece on the struggle for work-life balance in academia over at Tenure, She Wrote

The times they are a’ changing…and we need to change too! A neat article by Allison M. Vaillancourt at the Vitae website.



Thinking about our Ph.D. programs

Two interesting articles published in the past week that reflect on the value of a Ph.D. and suggestions on how to improve the experiences of students in our programs; particularly those who are not interested in pursuing a tenure-track faculty position.

First up, an article from the always thoughtful Melonie Fullick over at the Speculative Diction blog at University Affairs entitled “What’s a PhD for? Report raises more questions than it answers.”

The second article is written by Julie Gould over at Nature and talks a bit more about the nuts and bolts of reimagining the Ph.D.

Finally, my own previous blog post on “The Real Value of a Ph.D.”



DoctorAl Digest 12

This week’s edition focuses on mentoring and mental health.

Meghan Duffy talks about “How intensively do you mentor undergrads working in your lab? over at Dynamic Ecology.

Terry McGlynn believes that “A lot of scientists are kind, careful and caring at Small Pond Science.

Scitrigrrl speaks “On my role/effectiveness as a mentor at Tenure, She Wrote.

A very clear and honest list written by a student entitled “Dealing with mental health: A guide for professors” over at University Affairs.


Solid Advice on “How to Choose a Good Research Problem”

Running a lab and doing science are hard. I owe thanks to the Twitterverse for directing me to a thoughtful piece written by Uri Alon in 2009 which is still relevant today. The title is “How to choose a good scientific problemand it’s a very quick read, but it articulates very clearly the challenge in selecting scientific problems for yourself and your trainees. He relates that any scientific problem can be mapped out on two axes which are feasibility and interest. He argues that you want to avoid spending time in the quadrant containing problems that are hard and yield a small gain in knowledge. The efforts that you’d have to rustle up in order to solve a problem in that quadrant won’t pay off much. In contrast, putting a new student with little experience on a problem in the quadrant where the project is easy and produces a small gain in knowledge is a smart choice. As trainees gain experience and confidence (e.g. senior graduate students and post-docs), you can move them into solving problems that are a bit more challenging and lead to larger gains in knowledge. I really liked this approach for selecting good problems to work on and how to assign them to particular trainees. I also like his idea of making his trainees “take time”. He makes his trainees wait for 3 months or more before they commit to a particular problem. During this time his trainees read, plan, and question and come up with a solid problem to solve before they dive into research. I also take this approach with my trainees when they first enter the lab and there are certainly times when we both feel that we are wasting time by not producing results immediately. I will make the argument that this initial investment in time pays off in terms of my trainees better understanding their research and being more motivated and engaged in solving their defined problem. The other powerful observation that he makes is contrasting two different schema when it comes to visualizing what the research process looks like. The Scientific Method is taught in classes as a series of linear steps, which I think is wrong. Perhaps because of this false structure, many scientists view research as a series of sequential steps (e.g. that you must go directly from A to B). This leads to a lot of frustration because in my experience research never directly goes from A to B, but meanders all over the place. Alon suggests that it is better to start with a nurturing schema for research that expects that meandering will occur and takes steps to nurture students while they are stuck in “the cloud” (i.e. when everything goes wrong and your assumptions prove to be false). This schema accepts and embraces the possibilities for new research directions and personal and professional growth.

I’m often guilty of biting off more than I can chew with my own research problems, but I try to protect my students as best I can from this tendency. Alon’s short essay has given me some new things to think about and has confirmed some of my conclusions about choosing a good scientific problem that I have made during my first 5 years as the head of a research lab. I recommend reading his piece and seeing if it influences how you choose your future research problems.