The art of Juggling by Dr James Grecian, University of Glasgow

I’m a terrible juggler … by Dr James Grecian, University of Glasgow

The main problem I have as a fledgling academic is time management, and at a guess I’m not alone.

I’m not talking about procrastination, although that can play a part. I’m saying that it takes time to form a scientific idea, and even longer to transfer those thoughts into cogent prose on a page.

This is an issue because after several years of post-doc contracts, I’m now followed everywhere by the ghost of papers past. This sceptre began as a small niggle when submitting my PhD, and over the last couple of years has ballooned into an academic version of the giant lumbering Ghostbusters marshmallow man.

I was lucky enough to land a post-doc quickly after my PhD. My supervisor bribed me with the promise of a (short-term) contract if I handed in my thesis before the start date. The guarantee of work was a great incentive to write up quickly, and gave me the opportunity for a month or two of summer fieldwork, which is why I became an ecologist in the first place.

This was followed by the offer of another short-term post-doc position (this time 9 months instead of 4 months) at a different institution. With my student debt racking up after 10 years in education (BSc, then MSc, and finally PhD) I was under pressure to find something and so made the moveto the opposite end of the country, far from family and friends.

cartoon grecian

Within a couple of months I was on the move again. When faced with short–term contracts, the offer of a 2.5-year position elsewhere was too tempting, so I upped and moved again, for the third time in six months.

At this stage I had a few papers under my belt, and thought I would be able to get a paper or two from the short-term posts that would set me up nicely. What I actually found was that during this time I became more familiar with removal van hire, motorway miles, and university HR systems.

With hindsight I think continuity breeds productivity. Moving to different institutions can open up new collaborations, ideas and opportunities, but you also have to learn new approaches, attitudes and writing styles that may make those new collaborations more difficult, and slow the writing process down.

Through all this, I’ve been followed by the guilt of unfinished thesis papers, which in turn is superseded by the guilt of unfinished post-doc papers. The old adage “publish or perish” is never far from my mind.

But how do you juggle current work commitments with finishing papers from a previous post, or writing grants for your next position? A colleague once told me to break down the week, and spend a morning or two a week on older projects so that you are always progressing (even if slowly). My issue is that I’m not good at switching between projects. It takes me a day or two to get my head around a particular approach or idea, then a day or two to put those ideas into practice, and another day or two for writing that up, by which point the week is over and I’ve spent it entirely on one idea (which may not have even worked!). Of course I’m then filled with guilt that I’ve either spent a whole week on a) my post-doc project and not really got anywhere, or b) an old paper idea that means I’ve not been working on a).

Friends and colleagues joke that the current post-doc is for writing up the papers from the previous post-doc, but how are we supposed to do this in reality? I’ve met a few people on writing scholarships, who have pots of money to simply write up thesis papers. This approach makes sense, research from the PhD project gets published more quickly and the student becomes more competitive when applying for future funding, ensuring decent outcomes from the grant. It’s an interesting model, but I’m not sure how often it’s put into practice.

I’m now approaching the end of my post here in Glasgow, and have lost count of the number of people who ask me “so what’s next?”

In truth I don’t know. It’s not a lack of project ideas on my part, but a feeling that I don’t have time to think about the future when I should be chipping away at all these papers to make myself more competitive.

Managing different projects, and colleague’s expectations of the outcomes is a key part of academic development, but not one I’m sure receives that much attention. Too much reliance is put on supervisors to train students, when not all are willing to offer tips on writing and reviewing papers or research grants. Early career scientists are crying out for a training structure to guide us through this minefield.

As it is, I guess I’ll need to learn to juggle before I can join the circus…