Organizing your research life

Melanie said she was always working, though she wasn’t always at the lab. How, if you are a scientist, can you just stop thinking about ideas? Of course you can’t. Some of the best ideas get written in those little notebooks, or in EverNote on your phone. I suppose that’s why my creativity course, sadly now over, told me always to carry a way of recording ideas. A break in routine can allow those new ideas to flourish. We may be in Oxford, Melanie may be visiting her home country, but with a computer and a notebook, work comes along.

Melanie Ghoul in Darwin’s Cafeteria

Organizing research, writing, and planning is a challenge, so I’m always interested in how other people do it. I know that night and day at the lab bench is not the best way, but it is hard not to admire people always at the bench. I asked Melanie Ghoul how she organized her time between her microbial experiments and the very interesting review on cheating that she is writing with her mentor, Ashleigh Griffin and Stuart West. She said that right now she worked on the review in scraps of time when she was not in the lab, but that sometimes she would take as much as a month away from the lab to plan a set of experiments, read, and work on the review. For me, that inspired a lovely image of a huge piece of paper with different experiments and flow diagrams whose details addressed all the challenges of research. I imagined the time to actually read the papers necessary for the best plan, perhaps between strolls along a windy beach, or up steep mountain trails. I imagined the time to think of all the caveats that might come along. I imagined a plan that made sure all the materials were on hand, the sample size deemed adequate with power analyses. Of course, you should always do this, plan as much as possible, and abandon any plan as soon as it doesn’t fit.

For us, it was fun to hear of Melanie’s plans and work, and to see she was completing a paper on a topic we had begun many years ago and jettisoned when complexities overwhelmed us and other things were pressing. I wondered why we quit, but had to remember one of the hardest and most important things is knowing when to leave a project and move on. Working on something just because you began it and invested a lot is not a good reason, though it is a common failing. It is called the Concord Fallacy. I wonder what I’m working on right now that should be abandoned in the future. Worrying about this is why we try hard to stick to big ideas and tractable plans. Leaving hard work behind is painful.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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