Tag: productivity

Project Management for Scientists

project management notesToday’s topic in my group lab meeting is project management. It took me a long time as a scientist to believe that research projects could actually be managed. I think that I felt this way given the uncertain nature of scientific research; you never know if an experiment will actually work and you often can’t predict in which direction the research will go next. I’ve always been an organized person and it turns out that managing a research project isn’t all that different from other projects that you do in your day to day life such as go grocery shopping, clean out the garage, and plant a vegetable garden. Once I started thinking about science in the same way it’s like a light bulb went on.

I don’t recall ever having explicit conversations with my research mentors and supervisors about project management. That may be because I was fairly productive and am a planner by nature, but these are skills that don’t naturally come to everyone and that can be learned and improved over time. As a purely ridiculous example, I explicitly tell students that they should do something else with their time while PCR is running or they are incubating a sample for an hour. I’d like to think that they know this, but I have heard stories from colleagues, of students who will literally sit there for the duration of the incubation thereby wasting precious time that they could have used doing anything else. It’s like the science equivalent of watching paint dry.

Here are some thoughts on how I approach project management in laboratory science:

1) My first step is to define the project clearly and to determine what success looks like. If you skip this step you’ll never know when the project is done, nor will you know if you did it well. You need to identify the full scope of the work, what resources you’ll need (reagents, people, literature, etc.), and the time that you have available to do it in. Thinking about these limitations up front will decrease the amount of frustration that you and others experience later. At the same time, there is room for flexibility, which I will talk about later.

2) My next step is to think about the major milestones that need to be completed in order for the project to be finished. For even the most basic science experiment this will include things like generation of hypotheses and predictions, experimental design, ordering of reagents, allocation of people, doing the experiments, data collection and analyses, data presentation and communication (i.e. making figures, tables, diagrams, etc.), and generating a manuscript, poster, or talk to communicate your findings. That’s a lot of stuff to complete in order to successfully finish your project! One of the major things that I struggle with is maintaining an interest in projects that span several years of work; I often get bored part way through and struggle with staying motivated to finish.

3) Up next is thinking about the flow of tasks and their relationships to one another in your project. I like to think of the major milestones in a project as parts of a puzzle that need to be put together. When I build puzzles, I always start with the edge pieces first, and then work my way in; this means that the connection of some pieces requires the presence of other pieces first. With your project you want to determine whether some of your milestones are interconnected and have to happen sequentially, or whether some of your milestones are independent and could be worked on in parallel at the same time. For example, if you wanted to clone a particular gene in your critter of interest, you would first want to obtain the DNA sequence from a molecular database, you’d then design and order gene specific primers, you’d then perform PCR with your primers, purify your amplified DNA via gel electrophoresis and a gel extraction kit, clone your DNA product into a plasmid, and sequence the plasmid to ensure that the DNA sequence matched the one in the database. These tasks are sequential and one needs to happen before you move on to the next. Other projects have milestones that could be completed at the same time because one doesn’t depend on the completion of the other. This is also the time to identify what could go wrong. Where might your project go off the rails? Can you come up with a back-up plan to get around the problem should it arise? Can you plan ahead to avoid the problem? Can you ask for help?

4) Now you need to break your project milestones into smaller mini-projects that contain a small number of discrete steps. Ideally, you’d aim to complete a few of the small tasks every day and one of the mini-projects each week in the lab. This will help to keep you motivated as you’ll be able to measure your progress on the project and you will build up lots of little wins and that will keep your mental and emotional state positive.

5) The final step is putting together a timeline for completion. I like to set a deadline that I think is realistic, but I usually add several extra weeks and expect that something will go wrong during the course of the project. I then work backwards from that date when planning my time. I schedule in my major project milestones, my mini-projects, and my smaller tasks at a level of detail that I’m comfortable with. Some projects are tricky and it will be difficult to easily identify all of the mini-projects and small tasks up front. Do your best and don’t get off target because that can lead to project creep where the scope of the project balloons out and doesn’t resemble the scope of what you originally set out to do. You need to be flexible because plans can sometimes change mid-project, but head back up to what you defined in Step 1 if you feel that your project is getting out of control. You’ll often find that you reimagined the scope of the project without really thinking things through because you got excited by a neat result or finding. Think extra hard about whether you really want to commit to expanding the scope or redefining the success of your project before you leap in! That being said, there will be times when you need to retool your plans and timeline due to the unpredictability of lab research, but hopefully because you’ve identified the possible trouble spots in advance (Step 3) this will be minimal.

6) Execute your project management plan. Enter specific tasks and mini-projects in your daily and weekly calendar and set deadlines for your project milestones.

Some great resources:

If you need help with bigger project management concepts, Melanie Nelson’s blog Beyond Managing is great!

If you find that scheduling, prioritizing, and keeping up with your to-do list is a challenge, I recommend reading David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done” . It will change your life – I kid you not!

What tips and resources do you give to your trainees in order to help them manage their research projects?

Book Review: Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin

Better Than Before book

This book is a fascinating exploration of habits and how one uses them for change and potentially improvement of our lives. There are some pretty interesting insights on offer here in terms of what the author calls “the four tendencies” that could be used to describe how a person deals with outer expectations (those in the environment) and inner expectations (the ones we have for ourselves). This part of the book was really interesting to me as I had no trouble identifying my tendency and the tendencies of some of the people I work and live with. This has given me a lot to think about in terms of managing my lab trainees and my approach to interpersonal relationships with my family, friends, and colleagues. I’m not sure I buy into the idea completely, but it’s a different way of thinking about personality and motivation than anything that I’ve come across before. She also talks a fair bit about “distinctions” which are personal preferences that are hardwired by biology or previous experience (e.g. early risers vs. night owls).

She offers some strategies on how you might try to form and maintain a particular habit. These including monitoring (e.g. using a Fitbit or the app MyFitnessPal to form health habits), scheduling (i.e. setting aside a particular time for a habit), accountability (e.g. telling someone about your habit goals). She talks about getting started, dealing with set-backs or “falling off the wagon”, being struck by “lightning bolts” that cause you to start or give up a habit (e.g. quitting drinking if you find out you’re pregnant), and abstaining vs. moderation in the formation of habits. She describes the various ways that we sabotage ourselves with regards to habits by making things too convenient or inconvenient and failing to set safeguards and distractions from temptation. The section on creating loopholes that allow us to make excuses was especially amusing and insightful. She argues that rewards are not particularly effective because setting a finish line might not yield the positive outcome we expect and that small little treats might be better (this reminded me of training a dog). One of the neatest strategies is pairing where you pair something you don’t like to do with something that you do. A great example was forcing yourself to exercise on the treadmill by pairing it with watching a favourite show or listening to a podcast. The constant theme throughout the book was that each person is different and that what works for one person won’t work for someone else.

This book will be interesting to someone looking to start positive habits or stop negative habits. This might be particularly relevant now for academics as September is just around the corner and heralds in a new beginning.

DoctorAl Digest 3

Interesting reads and posts that I’ve stumbled across this week…

DoctorAl Digest 3

Thinking about having kids as an academic and want to do it with a partner? Yes, yes, yes to everything in this article! One of the most honest and frank articles that I have read on this topic.

During graduate school I participated in the thesis support group that was helpful in so many ways. I’m thinking that I might need to start a faculty writing group where I am.

A great overview of social media tools by Bonnie Zink that has been helpful to me as I become more savvy with these platforms.

A good, quick article on disruptions and distractions (and the differences between them) and some strategies on how to deal with them by Natalie Houston.

Having been at the cottage last week and thinking about West Nile Virus, here is a great blog post on how mosquitos look for their next meal by Betty Zou. Her summaries of scientific papers are always well written and interesting!

Happy reading!

Open vs. Closed Office Door

Interruptions are the bane of my existence. When I’m in the zone working on something it is very disruptive to be interrupted. As I do most of my work in my office on campus and my office is located directly across from the departmental office, there are plenty of sources of interruption throughout any given day. This can include people who pop by to specifically see me, loud conversations or noises in the hallway, and the persistent buzz of the door at the end of the hall every time someone uses their access card to open it.

During my first several years as a professor I had an open door policy. I didn’t have a great sense of the culture in my department yet and I felt that being seen as more available would be a good idea. This was a great decision as it allowed me to get to know my colleagues and made me accessible to students. Generally speaking, I would say that in my department most of my colleagues leave their doors slightly open if they are in their office working.

A few years into my position, I realized that I was losing quite a bit of time to interruptions. Some of these were a consequence of the location of my office. If the departmental office staff were on lunch or when the office was closed I would sometimes have to sign for deliveries or field inquiries from students or visitors. These interruptions didn’t take up much time, but they definitely disrupted my work flow. I also noticed that some of my lab trainees would pop by with quick questions that they could have solved themselves and realized that perhaps I’d made myself a little too readily available.

Since April of this year I have started an experiment. I’ve purposely closed my office door when I am completing a task that requires a high degree of concentration, and only open it when an interruption would not be detrimental. Part way through the past academic year I also booked weekly appointments with each of my trainees so that they knew that they would have scheduled one-on-one time with me when they would have my full attention. Both of these decisions have greatly reduced the number of interruptions during the course of a day and I feel that I am more focused and productive while at work. The only drawback to this approach so far is that several of my colleagues have noticed that I’m coming in to work, but that I’m closing my door and have commented on it (not in a judgemental way, but because they have noticed a change in my behaviour).

It’s a pretty tough balance between being accessible and friendly vs. productive and cloistered. I think that this is something that a lot of faculty members struggle with and I think is very dependent on your departmental culture. I’d be interested to hear how others approach this decision. Do you have a personal policy about open vs. closed office doors?

Book Review: Getting Things Done, David Allen, 2015 Edition

I first stumbled across an earlier version of this book while looking for ways to become more productive and efficient in my personal and professional lives. I have always been a Type A personality and a compulsive list maker which had served me well during my early education and undergrad degree. Once I transitioned to graduate school and a post-doc the number of projects that I had on the go simultaneously got to be a bit overwhelming. My primary frustration is that I would make awesome lists of things to do, and I would get a lot of the things on these lists completed. But at the end of everyday there would be several tasks that would keep getting punted onto the list for the next day. For some tasks that I frankly didn’t want to do, the shunting of particular tasks from one day to the next could go on for weeks. This was incredibly frustrating, but I couldn’t readily identify what wasn’t working.

When I read the first edition of David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” it was an epiphany! The book really spoke to me and was directly responsible for improving my productivity several fold by implementing his methodology. What is described in the book isn’t rocket science and is in fact quite simple, but the way that it is laid out communicates the ideas very effectively. The other thing that I liked about the approach in the book is that you don’t have to do everything all at once and you can ease into this way of doing things. There are several tips throughout the book that will save you huge amounts of time if implemented. I’ve probably read the first edition of David’s book 3 or 4 times and I always pick up something new to try when I do.

I was therefore excited to check out the revised 2015 edition of this book given how helpful it has been to me in the past. A lot of the material is not new, but has been updated for today’s world. For example, in the original book personal organizing devices like the Palm Pilot were big sellers and email was just starting to transition from being cool and new to overwhelming. Although David doesn’t make explicit recommendations about personal tech (e.g. iPad, Blackberry, vs. Android platforms and apps), he does spend some time talking about organization and workflow in our electronic era which is helpful. There is also a new chapter on Cognitive Science which is interesting and backs up why David’s approach is so helpful for many people.

David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” is by far the most useful and practical productivity book that I have ever read and was life changing for me. If you have not read the book and are interested in trying out his methodology I would recommend purchasing the 2015 edition. You’ll be very glad that you did!

Office supplies and technologies that can improve faculty productivity

Below is a list of office supplies and technologies that I find useful in my job as a faculty member.

1) Coloured file folders

We once dreamed about a world where technology would make it possible to go completely paperless. We aren’t there yet and I strongly doubt that we ever really will be. I’ve found it helpful to organize projects into coloured file folders that relate to one particular role of my job as a faculty member. Anything related to administration is burgundy (e.g. service, financials, etc.), teaching is violet (e.g. course syllabi, student assignments, tests, etc.), blue is research (e.g. lab supplies, vendor catalogues, grant applications, etc.), and teal is current projects (e.g. manuscript writing, lab experiments, etc.). I find that this colour coding helps to keep me organized.

2) Post-it Notes

The glue used in post-it notes was a failed experiment which as a scientist I think is hilarious and is a good commentary on the importance of basic research and making mistakes while doing science. I use post-its for a wide variety of reasons and in a multitude of colours. For the past several months I’ve been using 3” x 3” post-its on my personal Kanban board in my office and I hope to write a future blog post on that topic. I also use yellow lined larger post-its for capturing lists or ideas that I need to flesh out in more detail.

3) Label maker

I have already waxed poetic about the label maker in a previous post . It is one of the greatest human inventions ever. Enough said.

4) Writing implements (a.k.a. pens)

I am a pen snob and am very particular about them. About a year ago I discovered the Pentel EnerGel Metal Tip 0.7 mm ball pen in black . No leaking, no smudging, quick drying, smooth…this pen has it all. “Borrow” my pens at your own peril!

5) Notebooks

I prefer to use the Hilroy 80 page 1 subject lined notebooks. Many of my colleagues use bound notebooks (e.g. Moleskine), but I write in my notebooks and then rip out the pages so these don’t work for me.

6) iPad

I use my iPad in my daily work as my calendar, task manager, timer, etc. and have previously written a post on several apps that I find useful .

7) Generic office supplies

I’ve got a stapler, staple remover, paperclips, scotch tape, scissors, and a calculator that I use regularly in a desk drawer. I also purchased a letter opener and the number of paper cuts that I receive has dropped exponentially. I also find that the “sign here” sticky flags have proven very useful for one up approval of grant applications, financial reconciliations, and various other documents that need approvals from my departmental Chair and Dean.

8) External hard drive

I back up my laptop regularly in case my computer decides to go nuclear or on the small chance that my computer gets stolen. I’ll likely migrate to a cloud back-up soon, but if the laptop is in my office then the external drive comes home with me and vice versa.

None of these items is particularly ground breaking or earth shattering, but I find that when used together in my everyday work activities they save me a lot of time and vastly increase my productivity.

Care to share the office supplies that you find useful as a professor?

Making word processing easier

When I was in Grade 8 my parents bought our first computer. It was a Tandy 1000 and it was awesome. My brother and I logged countless hours playing computer games like King’s Quest, Space Quest, Police Quest, and Hero’s Quest published by Sierra . We stayed away from Leisure Suit Larry because it was wildly inappropriate for kids. We also had a dot matrix printer hooked up to the computer that could be used with a very basic word processor and I used it a few times to do school assignments.

One skill that has proved very useful to me in my job as a scientist is the ability to type. I learned how to type in Grade 10 by taking a class for an entire semester. It is probably the most boring class that I have ever taken in my life, but it’s a skill that I use every day and it saves me tonnes of time. I learned to type on an electric typewriter and was pretty accurate and speedy; I rarely used the correction paper that we had to buy for class. I’m pretty sure that they don’t teaching typing in grade or high school anymore, perhaps assuming that kids these days use their computers so much that they pick up typing on their own. However, my own children who are 12 and 8 type using two fingers and appear mystified by the QWERTY keyboard. A few weeks ago there was a discussion on several blogs about whether scientists still left two spaces after periods at the end of sentences when they typed. It took me a while to break that particular habit since that is how I first learned to type sentences.

Since entering my undergraduate degree I’ve used several iterations of Microsoft Word as my word processing program. I was thrown quite a bit by the 2010 update and have recently switched over to the 2013 version. I’ve often wondered how other scientists do their word processing, since I know that some of my colleagues prefer to use LaTeX . Over the years I’ve picked up several tips and tricks for using Word, but I consider my skills to be merely adequate and I know that I don’t use the program to its full capacity or usefulness. I figure that improving my MS Word skills would be a good investment as it could serve to save me lots of time and improve my efficiency at doing certain aspects of my job. With that in mind I took out the book “Office 2013 (the missing manual)” from my local public library. I’ve only read up to page 83, but it’s been illuminating to say the least!

Some highlights so far:

1) I’ve known for years that lots of other people regularly use keyboard shortcuts. I often use Ctrl + C to copy, Ctrl + P to paste, and Ctrl + A to select an entire document. This book explained shortcuts for bolding and italicizing text that should have been obvious to me before now; I’d been using my mouse and clicking on buttons to accomplish the same thing which is pretty clunky and often interrupted my flow of writing.

2) The start pane in Word 2013 was a bit disorienting at first. I’ve learned how to pin documents to the top of the list of recently used documents that will save me the time that I previously spent pulling them up from whatever folder I’d previously saved them in.

3) I recently switched to a dual monitor set-up in my office which was pretty amazing. Finally figuring out how to split the screen or show documents side by side has been mind-blowing and frankly is something that I should have figured out years ago.

4) I used to select text by highlighting it with my mouse and clicking and dragging the cursor. Evidently you can select words, paragraphs, or sections with a couple clicks of the mouse. Who knew? I certainly didn’t.

This book has been amazing so far and I look forward to the other gems of knowledge that I’ll pick up from it. It’s also been a very effective ego check and has served to highlight the fact that spending a bit of time figuring out how to really use a piece of software is time well spent.

What tricks have you picked up in the word processing programs that you use in your day to day work as a scientist? Feel free to share in the comments!

What it’s really like to be a pregnant grad student

Meg over at Dynamic Ecology has a great post up about “Sciencing during the first trimester”. First of all let me say that I love the term “sciencing”; it’s awesome! It’s a pretty hot topic as seen from the comments and I think it’s because there isn’t an obvious forum in which to discuss these topics and based on my experiences pregnant graduate students are a rare breed. I wanted to share my story in light of Meg’s post and the comments that it has generated.

I have two children; my son is 12 and my daughter is almost 8. I became pregnant with my son a year and a half into my Ph.D. program on purpose. I say on purpose because one of the more shocking things that happened to me during my first pregnancy as a graduate student was the number of people who seemed to think that it was an accidental pregnancy. The idea that a graduate student would choose to become pregnant during graduate school was pretty racy back then I guess; hopefully this is starting to change. I found out in February 2012 that I was pregnant and it is easily one of the most amazing and terrifying moments of my life. My first trimester was not very fun. Every morning like clockwork I was dry heaving at 7:30 a.m. and I had fairly constant nausea during the day. Eating small meals very frequently is excellent advice. During this time I was performing tissue dissections on oysters for my research project. The combination of the smell of oyster guts and pregnancy nausea was epic!

My husband and I decided not to tell anyone about the pregnancy until after the first trimester due to concerns about miscarriage. After I passed the three month mark I needed to decide who else needed to know and when I needed to disclose that I was pregnant. I decided to tell my supervisor just after the first trimester as a courtesy so that we could plan for my parental leave to minimize my absence from the lab. I worried and stressed about having that conversation for weeks. It doesn’t matter how well you think you know your supervisor and how you think that they’ll react to your news. All of us have heard stories about horrible PIs who eject pregnant graduate students and post-docs from their labs or who write them off once they become pregnant. Fortunately, although my supervisor was very surprised by my announcement, he was very supportive throughout my pregnancy and maternity leave. I was very fortunate to have in my department a graduate student who had recently had a child and a faculty member who was pregnant at the same time that I was. These women offered great advice and support during a time that was pretty alienating. At that time, nothing screamed “other” in academic science like a huge, swollen, pregnancy belly. I heard through the grapevine that other faculty members felt sorry for my PI as they viewed my pregnancy as evidence that I wasn’t serious about science. I expect that many members of the academy still think that way, even if they don’t verbalize it. Being pregnant as a graduate student was good from the perspective that I had a lot of flexibility in my schedule and that youth was on my side. I look at my fellow female faculty members who are pregnant or new mothers in awe as I cannot imagine doing this at my current age while just starting out on the tenure track. I worked in the lab throughout my pregnancy and continued to work with biohazards, chemicals, and radiation during this time. I took the usual safety precautions and wore a radiation counter ring on my hand during this period of time. Once the nausea went away during the second trimester, the biggest challenges were feeling tired, heartburn, carrying around an extra 40 pounds, and the swelling of various body parts. I went into labour 2 hours after TAing a lab and it took my son a few days to make an appearance. Having him is by far the most mentally and physically challenging thing that I have ever done. This helps to put grant writing, manuscript writing, and conference presentations into perspective.

The first trimester of my second pregnancy was rougher than the first. I came home from the lab early one afternoon because I wasn’t feeling well and the nausea hit like a tidal wave. I spent the rest of the afternoon and the evening throwing up very violently. By the time it was done the force of my puking had ruptured several blood vessels in one eye. It was not a good look and there was no way that I could hide it. When I went back into work the next day I told all of my lab mates and my supervisor that I was pregnant. My second pregnancy forced me to disclose my condition much earlier than I wanted to and I ended up taking Diclectin until part way through my second trimester in an attempt to control the vomiting and nausea. The rest of my symptoms were similar to my first pregnancy and there was some comfort in knowing what to expect the second time around. I went into labour 2 weeks after defending my Ph.D. thesis and my daughter arrived in 4 hours start to finish.

Being pregnant as a graduate student taught me many things. Below I’ve listed the ones that are most important.

  • Know and accept your limitations. You can’t do it all and that’s o.k. Do your best. Great days, good days, bad days, and awful days will all average out. Work, sleep, and eat. You are growing a whole new person inside of you; that SDS-PAGE gel will wait.
  • Know your rights and the social supports and programs available to you. Be your own advocate and find allies. Ask for help when you need it; this is not a sign of weakness.
  • Being organized is great and it’s excellent to plan ahead, but you have to roll with the punches. Expect the unexpected. Your best laid plans will go up in flames, so it’s useful to have a Plan B, Plan C, and…you get the idea.
  • Mind the gap. Pregnancy will impact your productivity and so will raising small children. I managed to publish while pregnant and again soon after returning from maternity leave, so there is no gap in my CV.
  • Enjoy your pregnancy and your baby. You will feel guilty. Lock your guilt in a closet and throw away the key.

Gestating in STEM: Blending family with a tenure-track academic career

This past weekend I attended a scientific conference. As usually happens at these events, I had an opportunity to catch up with long-term friends and to make new acquaintances. Often when I’m speaking with young women in STEM the subject of having kids comes up in conversation. I take every one of these conversations as an opportunity to dismantle the myth that a tenure-track academic career is incompatible with having a family. I speak from experience.
For as long as I can remember I have loved biology. Biology makes sense to me intuitively and now permeates how I see the world. I conducted early scientific experiments in the creeks of small towns in Ontario where I grew up. It’s where I learned that crayfish will scoot backwards in order to evade capture. I was devastated when I accidentally killed tadpoles by feeding them bread. I got exceptionally good at catching frogs. I learned what skunk cabbage smelled like and was amazed that a plant can melt snow.
I entered my undergraduate degree in Sciences fully believing that I wanted to be a doctor. Most of my first year grades quickly disabused me of that notion, but biology made sense to me. I completed a fourth year research project and was hooked. I briefly toyed with the idea of becoming a lawyer after my undergrad, but decided that doing biology made me happy and I went on to complete a M.Sc. degree.
The M.Sc. degree was challenging academically, but was also challenging personally. I’d met my partner in the first year of my undergrad and we ended up having a long-distance relationship for 3 years while I completed my B.Sc. (Honours) and M.Sc. degrees. During one of our weekends together he proposed and I said yes. When it came time to do a Ph.D. degree we made a deal; I would do the Ph.D. in the city where he was kicking off his career and when it came time for the post-doc, he’d pick up and move where I needed to go. Life is about compromise, but it’s also about picking the right partner.
The Ph.D. was exceptionally rewarding and challenging at the same time. I made some amazing scientific discoveries and triumphed over some systemic hurdles. I got married and we made the conscious decision to start our family the next year. The statistics will tell you that it was a dumb move, but I wasn’t about to let graduate studies in science dictate my reproductive choices. It was an unconventional choice at the time and I had several people ask me if the pregnancy was planned; the implication being that only an idiot would become pregnant in grad school on purpose. The hardest part of the Ph.D. was the lack of support from public programs after the birth of my son. I took 9 months off from my program and it took me 6 years to complete my degree, but I finished it. I defended my dissertation 3 weeks before my daughter was born.
My post-doc was a great experience and by now I was an old pro at juggling science and family. Compared to many other jobs academia affords a great deal of flexibility in terms of how you spend your time. Life and career can never fully be separated and there will be many times that you have to improvise and come up with creative solutions to problems. I’ve found that having children early in my academic career was an excellent choice for me. I have a great deal of respect for colleagues who are just starting their families while on the tenure-track.
The aim of this post is to serve as encouragement to young women who are starting out in STEM. The statistics show us that the odds are stacked against you, especially if you choose to marry a partner and if you choose to have children and want an academic career. I am here to tell you that it can be done; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Here are some pearls of wisdom that I have picked up along the way:

1) If you choose to have a partner, make sure that they are a true partner in every sense of the word. If you both have careers, expect that one person’s career will take precedence during different stages of your life, however, you should not always be the one making career sacrifices. Your partner needs to fully support you in your career and needs to do their fair share of domestic chores and organization. If you have children with a partner, this person should be willing and able to care for your children (e.g. change diapers, clean up puke, play, feed, and clothe them) and not just “babysit” them.

2) If you decide to have a child or children, it is much easier to do this with a network of supportive people. Whether this is a partner, extended family, or friends there will be many times where you will need assistance. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Toss the myth of the Superwoman out the window. Life will never be perfect; let it go.

3) Availability of good child-care will make or break you. Whether this is provided by your partner, family, friends, an in-home daycare, or a daycare centre, if you are worried about the quality of care that your children are getting you will be unable to be productive at work. This may come at a steep financial cost, but it is worth every penny.

4) Be prepared for people to judge your personal and professional choices. Listen politely to their opinions, let it roll off your back, and move on. Everyone’s life is different and we are all dealing with challenges of our own, many of which are not visible to others. Your colleagues may not have children, but may be dealing with elder care issues, disability, chronic illness, etc.

5) Pay it forward. Share your wisdom with those who are coming up the Ivory Tower behind you. Give them a leg up when you can. Kindness is vastly underrated.

Time Management for Scientists

Over the years I’ve come to realize that science is an extremely creative enterprise. I am of the mind that I can be at my most creative when I have the time to think deeply about scientific questions and how I might approach answering those using various experimental approaches. I would argue that having time to think and plan is required to be a successful scientist.
With that in mind I’m always on the prowl for effective time management and productivity techniques. Below I list some tips and tricks that I’ve picked up over the years that might prove helpful to others.

1) Plan ahead. I can’t count the number of times that this mentality has saved my bacon over the years. I once heard that 3 hours in the library can save you 3 months in the lab and I absolutely believe it. I try to do some planning at higher levels (1-4 year time scale), medium levels (per term), and low levels (weekly and daily). I’ve found it useful to have weekly goals for what I want to accomplish and to plan which day I want to tackle particular tasks. I use Friday afternoons as my planning time as campus is quiet and I can reflect on the past week and then have a look at what’s on my plate for next week. Before I leave for the day I try to have 3-5 goals that I’m aiming to accomplish the following day.

2) Bundle tasks. As scientists we have to simultaneously complete multiple projects pertaining to research, teaching, service, and administration which have a tendency to fragment our days and have massive negative effects on our productivity. I’ve found that a good strategy is to group like tasks together and to complete them all in one go. For example, this term I was teaching Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and was therefore in a teaching mind-set on those days. As a consequence I made a conscious choice to offer office hours and to book my one-on-one update appointments with my lab trainees on those days. I also used those days to mark assignments and tests and to prepare for upcoming lectures and assignments. This left Tuesdays and Thursdays wide open for research focused tasks.

3) Wrestle email to the ground. Email is a time suck and it will take over your life and destroy your productivity if you let it. Humans see something new and shiny and are immediately drawn to it and forget what they were previously focused on. Your goal should be to only check email 2-3 times a day and to respond to messages during those times. Close your email program and turn off your notifications and get on with your tasks. Don’t leave emails sitting in your inbox as reminders to do something. Convert the contents of that email into a task that you can do and aim to get your inbox to zero. Easier said than done I know, but it works.