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And no, not as in the mirror kind.

In what’s becoming (or seeming to become) an increasingly frenetic research environment, where turn-around times at journals, strict (and too short) deadlines on studentships, and the drive (either from perceived need or desire) to “get papers out” are often thought of as the default. I’ve noticed it lately as I supervise students and collaborate on projects, and as a result, my list of “current projects” falls into a highly bimodal distribution: 1) languishing for months, 2) needed my attention yesterday.

It seems astonishing that this cultural emphasis has shifted to much (or perhaps just how I perceived it shifting) in the 8 years since I obtained my PhD. This also makes mentoring students today all the more challenging, because their experiences are already diverging from my own (and we all know the “I got a tenure-track professorship before I’d handed in my PhD and with only a paper in a mid-tier specialist journal” argument gets really old really fast).

Now, I am wary of this becoming a “when I was your age” post, written from the opulent luxury of a permanent job in my field. Jobs are seemingly getting harder to get, grants are most certainly more competitive, and the mighty Journal Impact Factor and h-index are (foolishly, in my view) used by those who make decisions about hiring, promotion, and funding. To say nothing of the biases some of my friends & colleagues experience (where it seems that nothing is ever enough to merit X). And this is all made easier by the electronic modes of communication (physically posting 3 copies of a paper to a journal, who posted it to reviewers took longer… and yes, I have indeed experienced it!).

From a PI perspective, this all manifests in how I prioritise the science I work on – student manuscripts, and funded work to the front. Which has relegated a great deal of “my science” to the back-burner. Projects from my postdoc that I had to shelve, important, but “low impact” research that I think needs done, and work that I would love to do, but is more often funnelled into student projects (which is a mixed blessing in the UK). In the past I’ve been too eager to say yes to things that were tangential to my focus or interests.

Sure, part of this is down to career progression as well as temporal effects (herein lies one of the main challenges of longitudinal studies!). But I wonder if two tools I’ve used frequently in the theatre might help, or at least not be a complete waste of time.

 

The first is an analogy to workshopping. In theatre, a playwright can often take a partially finished work to a theatre troupe and they work together in a methodical way to try different things out. It could be everything from new lines of dialogue to whole new directions of entire acts. The workshopping I’ve been involved in typically lasted 2-3 days and always resulted in a stronger work.

Some departments do something similar with a periodic external audit or “departmental review”, where outside peers assess criteria, speak with department members, and present a series of recommendations for making the department better.

What if we had something similar, but for research programmes? I don’t mean in a harsh “you’re awful, why did you bother doing that” sense, but rather in the theatrical spirit of coming up with a focused and better piece. This is perhaps a more formalized, structured, and intervening way of mentorship (which itself is lacking at the PI level). I’d love to spend 2-3 days with someone without a vested interest in my research to plot strategically which grants to pursue, which to pass, which projects to drive forward, and which new areas of research to look into because at the moment it feels a little too hodge-podge for my liking.

 

The second is the somewhat controversial concept of Slow Science, which advocates for more thinking and a more deliberate, slower pace to scientific production. The challenge is that this call is often made by those not facing the same pressures as students or postdocs looking to secure employment (and to whom so many PIs are inexorably linked), and that long-term funding (more than on a 2-4 year basis) isn’t really forthcoming. Perhaps it would also be helped along by the first exercise, if we assume that “time for science” is finite and at a set level, the more projects in which one becomes involved, the less time each project receives.

My most recent experience with this was 3 (!) years ago when several of us absconded to a friend’s parent’s house in the Swiss Alps for 2 weeks and immersed ourselves in a series of related projects, interspersed with lovely cheese, bizarre German boardgames, and of course hikes in the mountains. I felt truly immersed in what we were doing, and for the first (and only!) time since my PhD focused solely on a group of interrelated publications (and which resulted in all 6 being published, with the overwhelming majority of work taking place on this retreat).

 

But as I said, these ideas may well be luxuries given that my students and collaborators are facing different pressures and have different priorities. In the meantime, I’ve already started trying to refocus some efforts, and have actively discussed a “reset” with a few close colleagues (we’ll find out soon if the grant application that would allow this reset was successful!). And by carving out dedicated time for research (right now, 1 day a week plus an annual writing retreat for 2-3 weeks), I hope to get things back to where I want them: less frenetic and more focused.

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