Dr. Mary Konkle is back this week with a blog update and a reflection on progress in her summer research lab. She reminds us that research…well – it’s one step forward and two steps back. Keep smiling and forge ahead.
Data production relativism. This happens every summer, and yet I let it sneak up on me every time. I spend nine months as a PI straining to contain the productivity expectations for my students and myself. The reality of the academic year with studying, grading, and other demands limit the efforts we can dedicate to research. So I begrudgingly settle for moving along at what seems like a snail’s pace.
…the first week of Summer Research I am astounded at how much progress we are making. I get more data from my students over three days than I get in half of an academic semester!
Then comes Summer….the first week of Summer Research I am astounded at how much progress we are making. I get more data from my students over three days than I get in half of an academic semester! At this pace we can conquer the world for sure! My expectations undergo an adjustment and I consider new benchmarks for progress.
About Week 2.5 is when things start to go terribly wrong. Why haven’t we made the progress I thought we would? Why is that instrument giving us trouble? Why do I feel like I might as well just wear a fire helmet to work every day for all the fires I need to put out? There are those mornings when you get to lab at 8 and don’t check your email until after noon because you haven’t sat down long enough at your desk to do so. I start to feel panic rising in my throat because I realize that a significant portion of Summer has already passed us by. Every moment lost to progress breeds desperation. All of this anxiety and pressure leads to a cranky PI and nervous students. The environment created is in opposition to creativity, learning, and progress.
Every moment lost to progress breeds desperation. All of this anxiety and pressure leads to a cranky PI and nervous students.
After six Summer Research experiences, at least I now recognize this process. That’s progress, right? I need an adjustment and quick. Why aren’t we making progress? We are, but it isn’t going at the idealized lightning pace envisioned during the first week of research. It is still going to be two steps forward, one step back. That’s research.
It is still going to be two steps forward, one step back. That’s research.
For example, Audrey found a new way to characterize the protein we work with that is definitely publishable. However, she couldn’t complete the full experiment because we ran out of protein. Why is the instrument giving us trouble? Because it is getting used for more hours and by more people, so filters clog, pumps lose their prime, and time has to be invested to fix it. How can I be productive when attending to students, instruments, and colleagues? An excellent coping mechanism is to start work a couple of hours before student’s report to work. I have done this both by working at home prior to coming to work (this was before my life had a toddler in it!) or being at work at 7 (and then I can start to thaw protein for my students) and having the students start at 9. During this time, I can do some writing but more importantly it gives me time to reflect on what students have reported to me in the previous day(s) and integrate that information into research plans moving forward. This is key to optimizing the time my students, and I have committed to making Research our highest priority. Most of all, relax and smile by believing that if you are doing the right things every day, on a minute-by-minute basis that it will be enough.
*Special thanks to http://phdcomics.com/comics.php
~Dr. Mary Konkle is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Eastern Illinois University where she works with undergraduates on making small chemical changes to elicit large biological impacts.