New Year’s Resolutions for Early-Career Scientists


Credit: rlerdorf on flickr. Distributed under a CC BY 2.0 license.

It’s that time of year again. After (at least) a month of overindulging bad habits, January brings with it the urge to start anew and make positive changes.

Good intentions notwithstanding, most New Year's resolutions are broken before the holiday decorations are back in their boxes. But, as with most things in life, concrete strategies increase the odds that we will achieve our goals. As we enter 2014, my challenge to early-career scientists is to put a science twist on this year’s resolutions and to set some strategies for sticking to them.

Rekindle your relationship. Fall back in love.

1. Be healthier

Forget the hot yoga and the kale and spinach smoothies; before we can step into the gym, we first need to leave the lab. Maintaining an appropriate work-life balance is the first step toward avoiding burnout and becoming a healthier, happier scientist.  

Keep regular hours. Try and treat graduate school or your postdoc like a 9-to-5 job. People who work jobs with long or irregular hours tend to suffer from a variety of health problems, including anxiety, insomnia, hypertension, and depression; there is plenty of real research on this. Research also shows that people who work irregular hours are less effective, efficient, and creative than their peers with regular work hours.

Of course, there will always be occasions when you have to work late and experiments that require nocturnal visits to the lab. Just do the best you can, and don't make it a habit to work nights and on weekends. Work with your circadian rhythms and not against them.

When looking at labs you might work in, ask current or past Ph.D. students and postdocs about the hours the principal investigator (PI) expects them to keep. Try to avoid labs where the scientists have dark circles around their eyes. Be efficient and focused when you are at work (see resolution 4) and spend at least some of your newly liberated time—liberated by your newfound efficiency—engaging in stress-busting activities like mindfulness meditation or, yes, hot yoga.

2. Make new friends

We all know that networking is important, but many of us have too narrow a definition. Chatting during poster sessions at conferences is well and good, but as attendance fees expand and research funds shrink, opportunities to mingle with the leaders of our field are becoming less frequent. Luckily, there are other ways to form new connections that don’t require travel or even face-to-face meetings.

As we pursue our highly focused scientific projects, it's easy to forget that we—most of the people reading this—work within a great research institution, full of smart people doing interesting things. Try to find ways to escape your little scientific circle and engage with some of those other smart people. Don't worry at first about collaborations or specific proposals; those have a way of developing once relationships have been struck up. First, lay the groundwork for the relationship.

Connecting with far-away scientists has never been easier. Lately, there has been a proliferation of new online tools to facilitate scientific collaboration; I liken them to a kind of for scientists. In addition to the obvious candidates, such as LinkedIn and ResearchGate, online platforms like VIVO and HUBzero allow scientists with similar interests to find each other and collaborate remotely. Also, while it may not get your article more citations, tweeting is nevertheless a useful way to make yourself more visible to other scientists and to communicate your science to wider audiences.  

Finally, don't underestimate the potential of unsolicited e-mail. I know people who have coauthored papers, coedited journal special issues, and even applied for grants together as co-PIs without having met face-to-face. So, e-mail scientists whose research you admire. An expression of admiration and interest in their work is sufficient; everyone likes compliments, don’t they?  The worst that can happen is that you don’t get a reply, but usually you will, and who knows what a dialogue might lead to?

3. Learn something new

Last year I resolved to learn a new language. I got to the point where I could introduce myself and my cat and ask for directions to the train station.

When time is in short supply—and it always is—it is hard to stick to tasks that are neither necessary nor fun and relaxing. So, after you have worked out what you need to do to succeed (see resolution 4), look for things you can do and learn that are interesting and novel but also beneficial for your career. Find out what workshops and seminars your institution offers that graduate students and postdocs can participate in, or maybe you can take or sit in on a course in another department. Learn a useful programming language, a new software package, or some relevant new wet-lab skills.

Another new thing to learn about is nontraditional career options and the skills you will need to pursue them. The ratio of Ph.D. scientists to open tenure-track faculty posts is something like 7:1 these days; most of us will end up working outside of academia, so look for opportunities to expand your 'translational' skill set. The University of California, San Francisco's Graduate Student Internships for Career Exploration program facilitates nonacademic work placements for graduate students; look for a similar program wherever you are. And if your institution doesn't have one, just set up your own work experience. It doesn't have to be a formal internship, and doing a little unpaid work with a patent firm or tech-transfer office, or assisting a science editor, might be enough to acquire new skills and help you realize whether a career path is right for you.

4. Get organized

There's no time like the present to plan for the future, so take steps to work out what career best suits your skill set and interests. myIDP is a great tool to this end. Those New Year's resolutions don't need to end in January; think of your Individual Development Plan (IDP) as long-term structure for your New Year's resolutions. Also remember that an IDP is individual only in so far as it applies to your career. Sit down and talk with other people who play a role in shaping your decisions—mentors, peers, partners, family—to see what they think about your myIDP results.

Find ways to compartmentalize your time. Information technology has made multitasking a prominent contemporary theme, but the evidence suggests that focus is better. Think of multitasking as serial, not parallel; combine tasks over time and not at the same time. 

Unless you're currently engaged in active, online collaboration, limit time spent online and checking e-mail to perhaps an hour a day. Some effective people like to check their e-mail first thing in the morning and then at the end of the day. If you are worried about appearing rude or slow, set an automated reply that lets your colleagues know you are working offline.

Simon Williams

Simon Williams

Courtesy of Simon Williams

Courtesy of Simon Williams
Simon Williams

5. Fall in love

Remember that feeling you had in the beginning? The excitement, enthusiasm, and joy science brought you? Research shows that the young scientist's phenotype includes "[c]uriosity to discover the unknown," "[e]njoyment of problem solving," and "[t]he desire to help others indirectly through research." Sadly, by the time we get to the end of graduate school and into our postdocs, our doe-eyed enthusiasm has too often given way to cynicism about the lousy job market, faculty politics, and pressure to publish and get funded. Too often, the pursuit of research metrics replaces discovery as science's daily aim.

Rekindle your relationship. Fall back in love. Maybe that means spending more relaxed time together—just you and your science—tinkering in the laboratory or reading more widely and reengaging old texts. Maybe it means bouncing ideas off fellow scientists at the coffee shop or over a beer. Whatever it means for you specifically, you need more time away from the daily grind—to think, explore, and play—to go beyond your daily scientific obligations.

Science isn't about publishing and grant writing; those activities are the necessary means to science's true ends. It's about discovery and the childlike joy it brings.

Good luck with your New Year's resolutions!

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