Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Postdoctoral Multitasking

A colleague recently complained to me about a postdoc of his who is still spending most of his/her time working on manuscripts related to Ph.D. research, even after being a postdoc for 2 years, and seems unable to do that and postdoctoral research.

I certainly spent postdoctoral time writing papers from my Ph.D. research, but I also worked on my new research projects and I enjoyed doing both. This fondness for having simultaneous projects at different stages of 'completion' has been a characteristic of my career, but I first discovered this during my postdoc.

For me, being a postdoc was an excellent time to do research and learn new things, without the time-consuming ancillary aspects of being a student (classes, exams) or the time-consuming administrative and teaching responsibilities of being a professor. (For this discussion, I am ignoring the harassment and discrimination I experienced as a postdoc; I enjoyed my work, but I did not like my work environment.)

I like having some research projects that are at the initial (crazy idea) stage, others that are just getting underway (with all the promise of discovering something interesting yet to come), others that are deep into the data/analysis stage (with all the intrigue and confusion of figuring things out), and others that are at various stages of being written up and coming together as manuscripts.

None of this is linear. Some projects go in unexpected directions. Some projects sprout one or more new projects. Others end up being kind of circular. Some terminate (after months, years, decades).

When I was a postdoc, I learned that I liked this, but I also started learning how to do this. Whether you end up balancing multiple research projects and teaching and administrative tasks, or some subset of research-teaching-service, being a postdoc is a good time to get more experience with multitasking of the sort required for your later career.

I don't believe that you have to work 24/7 to do this, but you do need to find a way of making progress on various projects simultaneously. The process is probably similar to the way that we figure out how to balance career and personal life.

As for my colleague, I told him to talk to his postdoc and make sure that his expectations are clear. They can probably work out various short- and long-range goals that will help them both. Most postdocs work on projects from previous positions -- Ph.D. research or a previous postdoc -- so this is an important issue that postdoc and supervisor should work out through discussion, ideally at the start of the postdoctoral appointment.

14 comments:

PhysioProf said...

If you don't learn how to multitask as a post-doc, you are never ever ever going to have a successful independent career as a PI. In fact, when I assess job candidates for faculty positions, one of the things I look for is evidence of a capacity for multitasking. Post-docs who spent virtually all of their time sitting in front of one particular piece of equipment all day every day start with a presumption to overcome.

Anonymous said...

FSP, I think this is another one of your skills that others falter on. As physioprof says, this is a faculty skill, the ability to keep multiple projects in mind, and make them move forward as necessary, while simultaneously making progress in other areas (teaching, grant proposals, committee meetings). It is not a skill that comes naturally to all, and one that needs to be taught if people are planning on being PIs.

(The problem, though, is that sometimes this does mean working 24/7, depending on your research area, it's possible that spending all day sitting in front of a piece of an equipment is necessary in order to make the experimental progress, as a post-doc. As a PI, you have post-docs to do that, but as a post-doc, you can't so, often your multi-tasking has to be done as an add-on).

Jennie said...

Although I believe that I am a great multitasker in my "normal" life this is one aspect I dislike in science. I feel like I need time to sit and focus on one project but then when I get back to another project (weeks later) I've forgotten where I was or where I am in the process. This is also why I have trouble working in short time frames. I don't feel like if I have 20 mins I can sit and accomplish anything on a specific paper/project. Maybe this is all confirming my lack of interest to be a PI.

Doctor Pion said...

This is, without any question, the most important skill to develop as a post doc if the PhD process did not include much diversity.

What will that post doc do a year from now when all of the spin off papers from the diss are published? Work for three years and then start publishing papers again? Too late.

Professor in Training said...

Out of the 7 postdocs in our lab, I seem to be the only one that has more than one study underway at any one time ... am currently trying to wrap up 4 studies before finishing my postdoc. The others are each choosing to "specialize" in one particular technique (similar to what Physioprof was talking about) whereas I have always insisted that I wanted to learn everything. So, while I will end up with more first author papers than any of the others, they are all coauthors on each other's papers yet none will have any idea about how to do anything outside of their one piece of equipment. I'm about to start my dream tt job and it will be interesting to see if any of the others can do the same (at the moment, I'm guessing not) and even if they do, how can they expect to be able to set up their own lab if they only know how to do one technique???

Female Science Professor said...

Multitasking doesn't mean working on a different thing every 20 minutes. Some people I know make this work by focusing on one project a day/week/month, or half a day on one and half a day on another. There are many effective ways to multitask.

another female postdoc said...

I am waiting for your post about harassments and humiliation as a post-doc. Before coming to the US, I didn't have any such experience and it was a shock for me. This seems to be fairly common here and I think it is gender independent as I see harassment of my male colleagues as well irrespectively. Also, if you happen to be foreigner dependent of visa etc., this can be many fold in some groups.

I agree with your comments about multi-tasking, but many things comes with time and responsibility. If you can judge everything form the faculty candidate interview as physio prof said, there would not be so many rejection of tenure track cases.

JJacobs said...

How about multitasking as it relates to non-research activities?

I'm a postdoc in well paced lab, and I feel fortunate to have two projects I'm working on. However, I'm a big advocate of getting diverse training in OTHER things, not related to bench work. I'm talking about sitting on committees, ad hoc editing, teaching as an adjunct, getting involved in other science related groups for networking, etc. etc.

Now... I fully recognize that its easy to get buried in your non-research projects as well (which is not good), but there can be a balance. Some of my postdoc colleagues think I'm taking a risk (e.g. lost time, mad PI, non-focused CV), but generally I take the opposite position. I'm also fortunate that my PI has been very supportive thus far.

What do you think about multitasking beyond just a couple of projects?

Ms.PhD said...

First off, if I were the PI, I wouldn't hire a postdoc with outstanding unpublished papers. But that's just me.

But my guess, which it sounds like neither of you considered, is that the postdoc is probably equally frustrated that these papers aren't done, and might need more mentoring (but might not know that).

Perhaps current PI should be added as a co-author in exchange for expediting these publications.

My publications have been delayed for a variety of reasons, and I've only learned how to get past these roadblocks by getting outside help.

It is easy to blame the first author for any delays, and credit the last author for any success. The reality in the trenches is more complicated.

Physioprof makes a good point, I wish more departments would hire this way. In my field, there are one or two techniques that guarantee faculty positions, but not necessarily good faculty. Somehow nobody seems to have noticed this pattern.

Anonymous said...

I am starting my second year as a postdoc, and the last manuscript from my graduate work was submitted exactly a year after starting my postdoc, because my graduate adviser felt we had to do "one more experiment..." to submit, which became many more experiments that were done by the tech I trained before I left (who is excellent, so I have no qualms about him doing them, and he earned an authorship for some great contributions that will help him when he starts grad school next year). At the same time, I found myself in the position of having to write postdoc fellowship applications within a month of joining my new lab because my PI's funding situation was not as good as I had been told when I was hired. So, yes, I was stressed out - for all the talk about multitasking, you try shifting your brain from graduate work to deal with every phone call or email from a harried graduate mentor, to learning just enough about a new research project/system to write a decent proposal. Multitasking is a very important skill, but it can also be stressful. I set high expectations for myself, but am left feeling like a failure. Now that I put my graduate work behind me (finally) and can focus 100% on my postdoc projects, I hope things will improve - they certainly can't get worse.

amanda said...

I'm heading off to my first postdoc in a couple of months and I'd be interested in a post about post-doc multitasking strategies.

FemaleChemEProf said...

First I should tell you how much I enjoy reading your blogs. I can see why you enjoy writing grants and get them funded successfully. It must be a joy for the reviewer to read your proposals/papers if you write them in the same story-telling manner as you write each of these posts.

I have to say my experience with the PhD and postdoc is different. As a graduate student I worked day and night and multi-tasked on many projects, published them all in good journals, worked on proposals with my advisor, taught a few lectures and networked+presented at many conferences. With my PhD research I achieved the "depth" in 1 specific technique and "breadth" by applying that to many different areas. So as a postdoc I decided to focus on learning ONE completely new technique and applied to 2 projects in 2 years, one project at a time. I have published/will be publishing ~5 papers out of this work. I did not multi-task as postdoc mainly because I had done that a graduate student. Working on ONE technique applied to ONE project at a time allowed me to learn the new technique in depth. Furthermore, this gave me free time to work on my future research proposal, faculty application, and also gave me a break from working day and night (which I did for 5.5 years as a grad student). This way I ensured I was not completely burnt out when I started as an assistant professor.

PhysioProf said...

Physioprof makes a good point, I wish more departments would hire this way. In my field, there are one or two techniques that guarantee faculty positions, but not necessarily good faculty. Somehow nobody seems to have noticed this pattern.

Hiring junior faculty because they "know a technique" is a recipe for disaster, although if they invented the technique, that can be a mitigating factor.

Anonymous said...

Dear FSP,
I have been reading your blog for the last 6 months and I find it inspiring and thought provoking. I don't feel that I am beavering away in isolation any more as a woman scientist with dreams and ambitions.

I have been doing a lot of multitasking as a postdoc. In the 2 years since my PhD completion, I have published several papers from my PhD, but I have two more that I still want to complete; I am also involved in current research, data analysis and writing research proposals, and applying for jobs. I have felt quite insane at times and wondered if I was such a poor manager that I ended up doing so much at once. It is refreshing and affirming to realise that not only is it normal (to some extent), but also a required skill for the future. This discussion has definitely helped me understand my work efforts more positively.