Working deeply towards a more balanced life in academia

Sara Wilbur is a second-year master’s student studying hibernation physiology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In her previous life, she toured the country as a violinist with a folk orchestra called Patchy Sanders. Sara recently returned to her hometown of Fairbanks to be with family and to unlock the mysteries of telomere dynamics in arctic ground squirrels. She also enjoys delicious beer, knitting, and skijoring with her husky mutt.

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Deep Work by Cal Newport was introduced to me by Dr. Kevin Winker, curator of birds at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Museum of the North. I took a course from him in spring 2017 called Advanced Explorations in Genomics. In our last class of the semester, Kevin recommended the book to us nine graduate students and I followed his suggestion. The central message of the book is that focused, undistracted effort devoted to mastering difficult concepts efficiently produces work of true quality and value. In it, Newport discusses the social media time sink, busyness as a mask for true productivity, and how the ability to work deeply is a valuable skill in today’s economy.

I felt so inspired by Deep Work that I interviewed Kevin late July 2017 to discuss Newport’s ideas. Kevin is a kind, thoughtful person who provides an invigorating balance of support and challenge in conversation; talking with him was a pleasure. I left our chat feeling inspired to continue honing my focused working habits.

Sara Wilbur: Can you paraphrase Cal Newport’s definition of deep work? 

Kevin Winker: Scheduled periods of intense focus on a topic of interest. [Newport] is certainly not the first to recognize the importance of regular scheduling of intense focus to achieve a refined product when tackling complex mental tasks.

SW: If he’s not the first to describe this sort of work, why now write an entire book about it? 

KW: With increased electronic access to things like social media, computers, Google, etc., our lives and our attention spans have become much more fractured and there is a cost to be paid for that. We are constantly distracted and we are always interested in the next shiny object that passes by. Those environmental effects and that fracturing cause us to lose the ability to focus intensely on a single topic. And our brains love to be distracted, they love instant gratification, and that is something that has to be fought against to enhance quantity and quality of product.

SW: On your note that we’re predisposed to distraction, what I think, and what Newport describes, is that society actually encourages distraction via the importance placed on social media, instant email responses, etc. 

KW: Absolutely. You have to have the ability to control your immersion in it. It is difficult to control how much time you spend with those distracting things. Twitter is a fantastic tool for science and for social aspects. However, there is only so much time in a day, and how, in our business, are you going to be successful in producing the product that brings that success? Rigorously holding back those distractions becomes a critical skill. And it’s really hard.

SW: Newport has a section detailing how you can fit deep work into your life no matter what your schedule, lifestyle, or career. He thinks that no matter what your obligations are there is a way to regularly fit in periods of deep work.

KW: Yes. Schedule your time and follow through. It can be tough, especially with so many distractions. One of my career’s most important papers took nearly ten years to complete because it was an incredibly complicated problem. Simply beating my head against for years wasn’t necessarily solving it. That’s a nice thing I like about multitasking projects. Having Task “A” percolating in your brain when you switch to Task “B” can be quite helpful because it’s just sitting there, stewing, and sometimes new insights can just pop into your head.

SW: Yes. Newport is a big advocate for focusing singularly on a project. However, some complex problems get solved in your unconscious. You can pop it in back there and trust that your unconscious is going to work on it even after you’ve shifted your conscious focus to another project.

One thing I really like about the book is that Newport convinces us that deep work produces work of value.

KW: Yes, and quality of work is higher. You can still produce things of value in a fractured existence. I tend to reserve things like making tables and figures for times when my brain isn’t at its best. You can also create product of quality in a more fractured existence, but not product of complex quality.

Speaking of a more fractured existence, email is potentially a bottomless sink of potentially important and unimportant communication. I try to look at it just a few times a day.

SW: That can be hard to do. You have to turn off all the little dings that let you know when something new comes in.

KW: Never use them. Never use those. Ever! The first thing you do when you pick up a new piece of software is figure out how to prevent it from badgering you.

SW: I think email is a perfect example of what Newport calls “busyness as a proxy for productivity.” I could be sending high-quality, well-written emails all day. I would be making progress in terms of my communication with colleagues, but I wouldn’t be making progress with the nuts and bolts of my research.

KW: Right. Critical to recognize that.

I’m still learning how to be more productive, and how to be a better writer. I remember sitting down, talking with Terry Chapin [Professor Emeritus, University of Alaska Fairbanks], and I said, Terry, how are you so productive? He said, well, I keep a list. I said, gee, I keep a list too! [Pulls list out of pocket]. And I said, but how do you get so many papers done? And Terry said, I always keep something of mine at the top.

And that emphasized the fact that we can be so accommodating to others that we bump our own priorities in favor of satisfying someone else’s request. Terry’s key words there are that your projects have just as much priority as anyone else’s. Since then, I’ve been unembarrassed about my priorities being equal to anyone else’s.

SW: I was recently listening to a podcast interview with Newport and he said he doesn’t let his mood affect how he works. He doesn’t let how he’s feeling compromise his preplanned work schedule. I was curious what you thought about that, and to what level this is realistic and how one can find a healthy work-life balance.

KW: I agree with him. Deep work and productivity of the kind we’ve been talking about require a very strong commitment. That time you’ve set for yourself to work on things of high priority is so precious and you can’t bump it around. Didn’t he talk about training yourself to do this kind of work?

SW: Yes, he calls it deliberate practice, [where] you’re consistently, every day, training your mind to avoid distractions and to become comfortable with boredom.

KW: I love that. I’ve become a big fan of boredom. What I do when I am in a boring situation is bring out the series of questions in my mind that I’ve been waiting to work through and use that time to solve complex problems. I now look forward to boring times!

When you schedule that time that you know is precious, and that you know enriches your life and your life’s success, and you enjoy spending it, yeah, maybe it doesn’t give you the instant gratification that Twitter and Facebook and the internet would give you, but you know it gives you long-term gratification. So, buckle up and do it. Part of that discipline, that deliberate practice, part of making that work is doing it every day. Even with one hour every day, you can move a mountain with a teaspoon. You just have to go at that thing every day, with your teaspoon. You’ll feel so good with your progress and with the amount of material you can move.

My interview with Kevin was engaging and insightful. Our discussion further convinced me that to produce work of real value, I need to dedicate regular periods of intense, focused work on tasks that will advance meaningful progress. However, I left the conversation still curious about how effective work leads to fulfillment that seeps into your non-working life. Since starting my masters in 2016, I’ve been an advocate for working smarter, rather than harder. Some part of me knew that it was possible to make progress while still having a happy life outside of the lab. However, I felt surrounded by supervisors and peers who practice unsustainable work habits. How could I be sure that it was acceptable to allow myself consistent free time in the evenings and on weekends?

I found my answer in Deep Work. Newport advocates focused, intelligent work in the office. He suggests laying your work to rest at a reasonable hour and picking it up the next morning with a fresh, relaxed mind. Interestingly, however, Kevin does not seem to heed this bit of Newport’s philosophy. I asked him if deep work constrained between 9 am and 5 pm improved his overall quality of life, and he neatly sidestepped my question before moving on to another subject. Although he values smart work while on the job, he works very long hours, works at home, and works on the weekends. Perhaps his immense time investment in his work is fulfilling in and of itself. For me, I prefer and seek a balance, and found support for this personal conviction in Deep Work.

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Interested in responsible gene editing? Join the (new) club

You had to see this coming. When we first started discussing the possibility of gene editing, our second thought was “oh shoot, this could get ethically complicated quickly”.

So it’s not surprise that as we continue down this path, many a voice is rising in caution.

Read about some of them here.

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Writing to reach your audience, where ever you come from

You’re research is only as good as your ability to communicate it.

That is a sad but true statement.

Which is why this awesome initiative, (Writing Support Across Global Research Communities: A Case Study for Public Health) to increase communication is so interesting and worth examining.

Read about it here.

High detailed globe with Europe, Africa, North and South America

Want to crowdfund your science? New study hints at who is successful

A study on how to best fund your studies. Very meta.

But seriously, as most governmental forms of funding are drying up, scientist are by necessity trying to figure out how to fund their research. And crowd funding has become an increasingly interesting option.

So, are you/your study well suited for this funding avenue? Read about it herecrowdfunding.jpg!

 

Defying writing conventions

“A good writer knows the conventions that their reader expects. Then they slavishly follow these conventions 95% of the time so the reader doesn’t get distracted by convention violations and instead keep their attention on what you’re trying to communicate. A good writer also occasionally and very deliberately violates these conventions as a sort of exclamation to highlight and emphasize points.”

Want to help figure out when it’s a good idea to defy and when it’s a good idea to fall in line?

Take this poll, or dread about it here.

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Let’s move beyond the rhetoric: it’s time to change how we judge research

Impact factors were never meant to be a metric for individual papers, let alone individual people. They’re an average of the skewed distribution of citations accumulated by papers in a given journal over two years. Not only do these averages hide huge variations between papers in the same journal, but citations are imperfect measures of quality and influence. High-impact-factor journals may publish a lot of top-notch science, but we should not outsource evaluation of individual researchers and their outputs to seductive journal metrics.

So what can we do to combat this? What’s the solution? Read about it here!

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Surviving the pre-tenure years

Following up from yesterday’s post, here’s another When I Grow Up about surviving professorship. This week Joel McGlothlin talks about advice for new professors, and the pre-tenure stresses. Joel is an awesome evolutionary biologist who is currently at Virginia Tech. Also, he’s looking for graduate students

Back when I was a postdoc looking for a tenure-track job, sometimes I thought the search would never end. I had the disadvantage of being on the job market during the Great Recession. I submitted my first job application two days after the stock market collapsed in 2008, and it took me four years and 139 more applications to finally get job offers. Once I had secured a position, I felt like the hard part was over. After all, I had been a postdoc for five years, and had worked in a lab in some capacity for thirteen. I had done plenty of research, had written plenty of papers and grants, and had even taught a few lectures. I should be ready for this, right?

Now I have been an assistant professor for five years, and a few weeks ago, I turned in the final version of my tenure dossier. This document serves both as an excruciatingly detailed summary of everything I have done in my academic career and as yet another job application. This time, if the college tenure committee (and eventually higher levels of the university administration) reviews my application favorably, I get to keep my job. If they don’t…well, then I had better get busy submitting even more job applications.

Putting the dossier together forced me to reflect on my time as an assistant professor. The job has been extremely rewarding, but it has also been challenging in ways that I couldn’t have predicted five years ago. Fortunately, I’ve learned a lot from the experience. Below, I share a few of the lessons I’ve learned, which I hope will be helpful to others who find themselves in my position.

Lesson 1: There is no time

The biggest change a new assistant professor faces is the sheer number of things that are supposed to get done at any given time. As a postdoc, I didn’t keep a calendar, because I knew that I had one thing to do every day: get my research done. A faculty member’s time is split among research, teaching, and service (the percentages will vary depending on your institution). All of these categories hide a multitude of tasks and responsibilities. For example, research no longer means just doing your experiments and writing papers. On top of this, you need to get grants to keep the lab funded, purchase all the things the lab needs, keep the lab in compliance, and advise your students in their own research. With all of these other things to do, it often seems like there’s no time to do experiments and write papers anymore.

The first year was particularly hard for me. When I showed up, the lab was empty and I had to order everything it would take to get research cranking, from beakers to thermocyclers to computers. At the same time, I also had to teach my first lecture course. My department gives first-year faculty an extra semester off from teaching, but I elected to teach in the first semester while I waited for the completion of some animal space renovations, with the rationale that I should be able to get the lab set up and teach in the same semester. However, I severely underestimated the amount of time it would take to prepare to teach a course for the first time. By the end of the semester, I found that teaching your first class takes precisely all the time available. I managed to survive the class, but by December, most of the stuff in the lab was still in boxes. Even worse, the manuscripts I needed to work on hadn’t progressed at all.

The reality of being a faculty member is that whatever you’re doing at the moment, there’s always something else that you should be doing. There will always be more things to do than time to do them, and your to-do list will just keep getting longer. A colleague of mine has likened this to trying to juggle bricks—and people just keep throwing you more bricks.

If you’re like me, this reality quickly turns into guilt. It becomes hard to focus on getting any one thing done because of the weight of the to-do-list albatross around your neck. I wish I could say that I found some magical time management solution to balance tasks and get caught up, but I never did. What I did realize is that it’s possible to let go of the guilt. You can forgive yourself for not getting things done on time or done as well as you would like, or for prioritizing one task (sometimes the wrong one!) over another. Yes, I still apologize to others when I’m late or otherwise let them down, but I try to forgive myself, cut the albatross loose, and move on.

Lesson 2: Assembling a team takes a while

As Melissa Wilson Sayres noted recently, the first few years of a tenure-track job can be extremely lonely. In most places, you don’t start your faculty job with a cohort—you’re hired on your own, and you’re the new kid in town. (I was lucky enough to get hired in the same year as three other assistant professors, so the four of us were able to stumble through the darkness together.) For most people, this will also be their first experience leading a team. It will be the first time that there is no adviser to consult when there is a tough decision to make, which can be daunting at first.

Unless you’re lucky enough to find students or postdocs right away, when you start you will be leading a team of one. This can be a huge adjustment for people used to being part of a large lab, as I had been as a grad student and a postdoc. The first year, when you’re working solo in your office or in an empty lab, can be incredibly isolating.

Finding the right people to work with is the most important part of establishing your research program. For me, it took a long time to get my lab going. I recruited one student who started my second year, but I failed to recruit anyone the next year. By my fourth year, I finally managed to recruit a second student and hire a postdoc, and I felt like the lab was gaining momentum. After a year, though, the student decided to leave science and the postdoc left to take a tenure-track job, so the lab was back to being tiny again.

This was not for a lack of trying. Every year, I advertised my lab and reached out to my network of colleagues trying to drum up applicants, but the applicant pool was always very small. One year, I received zero applicants for a graduate position that would have been funded by a NSF grant. Unless they are part of a small handful of programs that naturally get a lot of applicants, New PIs face an uphill battle when trying to grow their lab. When you’re just starting, no one knows who you are. If potential applicants do find you through your work, it’s often a safer bet for them to apply to work with your previous advisors, who already run established labs.

In year six, the lab is now back up to size and I have my best pool of applicants ever, so I feel like we’re now out of the slow growth phase. I wouldn’t have been able to make it through that phase if I hadn’t had sought out scientific interactions elsewhere. One good strategy is to team up with other people in the same situation as you. I’ve been lucky enough to get involved in some really productive collaborations with other early-career faculty. In the best case, these collaborations can drive both of your research programs forward. I’ve also been able to get a lot of work done with some very talented undergraduate students and lab techs.

Lesson 3: Say No

This is advice that everyone who mentors early-career faculty—including my mentors—will give. But it’s been hard advice for me to follow. When you get a request to review a manuscript, write a book chapter, or serve on a committee, it’s difficult to say no for many reasons. For one, when someone asks you to do something, it’s flattering. Less egotistically, you might be able to help, or at the very least learn something. In my first couple of years, I rarely said no to any request, and this led to a lot of problems. Occasionally, when buried under a pile of manuscripts or fellowship applications to review, I would lament the choices I had made. Recently, I have gotten better at figuring out what requests I can afford to turn down. Because time is limited (see Lesson 1), it’s an essential skill to develop. For example, now I try to say yes to only one manuscript review at a time, and I usually only take on the ones that I feel are going to teach me something important to my research. When you say no, it’s a good idea to do it with grace. Tell whoever is making the request why you’re saying no and suggest others who might be able to help out in your place.

Lesson 4: Say yes

On the other hand, it’s just as important to say yes now and then. I think it is crucial to get involved in one or two substantial commitments (beyond your research and teaching) that connect you somehow to your scientific community, society at large, or both. My most important commitment has been to my primary scientific society, Society for the Study of Evolution, where I have served on the Hamilton Award Committee since 2013. This experience has been richly rewarding for me. Each year, I get to facilitate a process that might help graduate students along in their careers, and as a bonus, I get to see some of the best talks at the annual meeting!

Lesson 5: Look for synergy

When you’re juggling a lot of bricks, it’s helpful to figure out ways to reduce the number of bricks as much as you can. One way to do this is to look for ways to accomplish two things by doing one. The easiest place to do this is in your teaching. Many of us have a huge amount of freedom in choosing the material we cover in class. If you’re not locked into a rigid curriculum, try to teach the kinds of courses and cover the type of material that will help you in your own research. This doesn’t mean you have to teach your students about the narrowest niche of your subfield. Rather, you can use the opportunity to teach a course to learn about the breadth of your field, making it easier to understand how your own research fits into the bigger picture. A NSF program officer once told me that to write a good grant, I should try to imagine how my research could serve as an example in a textbook. This was so much easier to do after a couple of years teaching evolution to undergraduates.

Lesson 6: Take care of yourself

Academics like to talk about how much they are working, and it’s often seen as a badge of honor to work long hours. I have never been able to sustain the workaholic pace of some academics. Sure, I occasionally work 80-hour weeks, most often around grant deadlines, but they’re usually followed by a week where I feel can barely function. A regular 40-hour schedule (punctuated by periods of insanity) is the steady state for me. I don’t want to tell anyone how many hours to work, but it’s important to find your groove. You want to be productive and do your job well, but you also don’t want to burn out. Try to find a work-life balance that works for you, and if you’re having a hard time doing that, refer to Lesson 3.

Final Reflections

Looking back over the last five years, I have made my share of mistakes, but in general, I feel good about how things have turned out. I’ve been fortunate to get to work with an excellent group of students and postdocs, and I’m proud of the work we’ve done together and excited about the research to come. I’ve also enjoyed my time in the classroom, and I have improved as a teacher after a bit of a rough start. Despite the stresses it sometimes brings, I love my job and I hope I get to keep it. I’m looking forward to tackling the unpredictable challenges that being an associate professor will bring.

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