Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Deadlines, Fake Deadlines, and Lack Thereof

Patrick Lam mentioned in a comment on my last post that things in computer science just have to get done before the deadline.

What deadline?

Perhaps one of the weirdest things about research that most people don't realize is that there aren't really deadlines per se.

The fact that no one can accurately predict when anything will be finished- or if it will work at all- means that many people just give up trying.

We all have our formulas for deliberately overestimating how long we think things will take. We do this so we don't run out of money, patience, and motivation to eventually finish.

Mine is usually that everything will take at least 3 times longer than you think on the small scale, and 10 times longer on the large scale. Let me explain.

If you think you'll be done for the day in 10 minutes, it will actually be 30.

If you think your paper will be written in 1 month, it will actually come out in print in about 10 months.

You get the idea.

I am not a deadline person. By that I mean that having deadlines does not make me work faster (or make my experiments work better).

Mr.PhD is a deadline person, and lately he has been suffering from a lack of deadlines, so we've been talking about how using fake deadlines can sometimes help, but only if you use them wisely and not as a form of pointless self-flagellation.

I love fake deadlines. I like to have little outside events to use as rewards. I can often make myself do something unpleasant if I know I'm going to do something fun afterwards (which will be more fun if I am guilt-free).

Right now I have just enough fake deadlines that I think I will be okay until summer. I have enough things to look forward to, and a long list of things to do, most of which are not too terribly unpleasant.

Of course I say this but I missed the semi-fake deadlines, or lack thereof, to apply for jobs this year, and right now it looks like my last hope of just barely squeaking under the limbo pole will be too late.

Like I said, I am not a deadline person. If I can't finish things way ahead of time, I am usually screwed.

The only real deadlines are for grant submissions, large meetings where you have to submit an abstract or show up with a poster/talk prepared, and that wonderful 2-day sprint when you get the proofs of your papers and have to send them back if you want to make any corrections.

Other than that, I can't think of any times when anybody really cares whether I get anything done, and even those are irrelevant for me lately.

Yes, research is a weird career. Somebody I hadn't seen in a year asked me today if my research is going well. I said, "It's going." Which is about as good as it gets.

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At 8:11 PM, Blogger Propter Doc said...

I used to be totally up for deadlines, guilt and pressure and I'd never miss one. I don't do self imposed deadlines because of the degree of stress the real ones cause me. Lately though, couldn't really care. I had an article due (deadline that my PI set with the editor without asking me) end of last summer. I knew the minute I saw it that it wasn't going to happen. Still haven't finished the article so I'm thinking your 10 times rule is pretty spot on. The best bit? I feel no guilt.

If no one cares if or when you do something, then it is so easy to get blah about it, especially in research. You want the people around you to be engaged in their work and show interest in yours. It makes you feel part of something bigger, like there is a world outside the testtube. I'm sorry no one seems to care about what you do.

At 8:36 PM, Blogger Mark said...

This post really resonates for me. I'm currently struggling to give myself some structure in my research.

I've considered fake deadlines, but I think that i'm going to have trouble treating the fake deadlines as real deadlines. In the past i've found that no matter how hard I try to forget that my fake deadlines are fake I just can't. It's like trying *not* to think of a pink elephant.

GTD is very anti fake deadlines, by the way ;-)

I'm the most productive on the day that my fortnightly scholarship check comes in the mail, because I feel so guilty.

Enjoying your blog. Thanks. :-)

At 5:04 AM, Blogger Nicey said...

I am enjoying your blog - keep on doing what you keep on doing !!

At 8:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find the lack of deadlines in research to be mind-numbing at times. Nobody wants to pressured with a huge number of impossible deadlines; on the other hand, academic research is one of the few jobs in which you could sit at your desk and do absolutely nothing for a day (or more) and nobody would care, or even notice. The flexibility of science can often be very restrictive to my peace of mind.

At 10:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Patrick Lam mentioned in a comment on my last post that things in computer science just have to get done before the deadline.

What deadline?

Perhaps one of the weirdest things about research that most people don't realize is that there aren't really deadlines per se.

In computer science, there are deadlines. It is a heavily conference-oriented field, with journals playing a minor role (typically publishing archival versions of papers already published in conference proceedings). For example, in theoretical computer science, the most important work is published in two conferences, FOCS in the fall and STOC in the spring, with a handful of clearly lesser conferences scattered throughout the year. People work super hard as the conference submission deadlines approach, since missing one by just a few hours will delay your paper by six months or force it into a much less prestigious conference. This has a huge effect on the work patterns of the community, since there's very little advantage to getting your paper ready a month before the deadline but a big penalty for missing the deadline. A large majority of the papers are submitted less than 24 hours before the deadline.


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