Turn Up the Heat


Midsummer, and our lab is hotter than a heating block with the dial stuck on max. Despite the quiet and extra elbow room in the lab, those mad fools who aren't away on holiday or chilling out at home are rapidly flagging in the heat. I've decided to ignore the call of the beach (at least for now) and exchange the unbearable heat of the lab for the unbearable heat of my air conditioning-free office. You see, I'm doing that paper-writing thing again.

In spite of the sweltering conditions, all of a sudden I feel productive. And I have the sneaking feeling that if you can write even though you are hot, tired, and maybe sick of writing, and still do it well, then maybe you've got what it takes to go all the way in this crazy, wonderful game called research.

Writing papers as a postdoc feels radically different from when I was a Ph.D. student. It is more like a dreamtime when I immerse myself in the depths of my (almost) completed experiments with the hope of realising exactly what it is I've discovered and where on earth I should submit my results. Powerful stuff. And now that I've got myself a nice little career as a scientist (I use the word "little" literally--I have only 15 months left on my contract), I am much more excited at the prospect of getting published. I don't know, call it ownership: I had the idea, I co-wrote the grant, I did the work, and now I've virtually sweated the paper out. I want to get my reward.

Aside from this new buzz, there is also more pressure on me to get my results out. For one, I know that if I don't I'll be the one to suffer most. I want to land a permanent job, and soon. What's more, my boss is breathing down my neck, as he can smell success (i.e., high-impact paper) at 30 paces.

There is also increased pressure for things to be spot on. I confess that this is self-imposed. Not that my previous work was in any way slack; it's just that my standards have risen even higher. OK, I need to build my reputation, but deep down it's not only other people's opinion I seek to culture. The way I value myself is also key to feeling like I have become a proper scientist. Another difference is how committed I now am to picking and sticking to a very tight deadline for submitting the paper. This way, I leave myself with no choice but to drop everything else and plough on. It also forces me to identify those nasty little gaps in my results and focus on filling them in a bit sharpish--keeping me away from the ever-present temptation to wander down related experimental paths.

I've also got much faster at writing papers. I realise with astonishment that I've got the first draft ready in only 7 days. I guess it's about cutting corners where you know you can and sussing when it's appropriate to rely on your co-authors. For my first paper, I tried to send a flawless manuscript to my collaborators for their approval. Needless to say, I didn't. This time around I sent no more than the figures, along with a draft manuscript full of notes explaining what I meant, queries on suitable references, and requests for gaps to be filled. This may sound a bit on the light side, but it guarantees that you are working on all, and no more, of the essential ingredients that need to be incorporated in your paper. This first draft is also about you, the first author, deciding on the feel of the piece.

This all saves me time and brings forward the date of receiving first feedback from my co-authors. This feedback is the fire that refines the paper, burning up the chaff that inevitably accumulates when you write something big and complex on your own. Never forget that objectivity decreases exponentially with increasing solo effort. In other words, you waste more time and achieve less the longer you plough on without external input.

So in practical terms, don't waste time perfecting the alignment of each panel in a figure until you know the figure is approved to stay in the paper at all. Leave the completion of your reference list and the writing of your abstract for later. All you want at the first stage is to make sure you and your co-authors agree on what will form the skeleton of your article. So if I have any specific requests, I target particular co-authors by using coloured fonts at the relevant points in the text. I find input from my more experienced and better connected co-authors particularly invaluable in the Discussion. They usually extract more scientific juice from the pulp of my unexplained results than I would ever think possible.

As I see my list of publications grow, I'm left feeling thirsty for more. But while I am waiting for that e-mail from my boss entitled "First draft--comments," I feel like there are other priorities. I'm off to the beach to cool off and dream of submission, acceptance, and publication.

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