Saturday, August 22, 2009

Attention deficit

Haven't been writing much lately; haven't been reading too many other blogs, either.

Don't have the attention span to slog through other people's long, un-paragraphed posts.

Generally feel better on the days when, if I write in my journal at night before I go to bed, I can list off having done lots of different kinds of things, some for work and some for fun. Usually that correlates with satisfying both parts of my brain, being physically tired, and feeling general progress.

Somehow doing one thing, even one long arduous thing, doesn't seem as satisfying. I end up feeling like I didn't get anything done at all.

Had a couple of good, variety-filled days this week, and couple of frustrating sucky ones.

Some of the things I did in lab actually worked, but mostly I feel indecisive about what I should be doing next, scientifically speaking.

I have things I want to start, and things that I should finish that I don't feel like working on. Where I'm just stuck and trying to figure out how to go around the giant pothole that was the experiment I was planning to insert into Figure X part f.

Usually when this happens, I start throwing darts. I do the equivalent of poking around, scientifically speaking, with a bunch of pilot experiments aimed at asking about the underlying assumption that was Figure X - what created the pothole in the first place.

This really appeals to my attention deficit self. The trick is to get in and out as quickly as possible, or it's easy to hang around and spin my wheels just for fun. Doing lots of one-off experiments = fun, but not necessarily productive.

Eventually I will have to hunker down and be "focused". But when things are not working as expected, banging away at it as if it's my fault usually just leads to headache. If it were something I was doing wrong, I would have figured it out with a reasonable amount of banging. Anything beyond that means I'm banging on the wrong wall.

So I feel a little guilty about throwing darts, but I don't know where to go from here without doing that step first.

If there's anything I've learned in all the time I've been doing science, it's that when I'm stuck it's because the assumptions are wrong, not because I'm technically inept. I've also learned that I can't ask my advisers what they think I should do next. Asking my advisers always leads to suggestions, but following up on the suggestions never gets me where I want to go.

The best solution is to figure it out for myself. I just need to feel a little less guilty about doing the part of my job that I actually like best- the creative, investigative part. Even if that's not the part that gets you fame, fortune, or a job anytime in the near future.

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At 1:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know if you also encounter this, MsPhD, but for me as a longtime postdoc who has been bounced from one lab to another due to funding running out, now I am reluctant to tackle big and difficult problems because I never know if my current funding will last long enough for me to finish what I started or if I will have to leave that lab in order to work wherever a contract is newly available. I have been frustrated at not being able to meet my research goals because I've had to simply go where the funding is which means a patchwork of different projects, none really long term. Starting but not finishing projects and not having papers to show for it (other than the easy low-hanging-fruit ones), is career disaster. but I guess the fact that I'm a longtime postdoc already means my career is shot anyway.

At 10:40 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Hmm, that's a great question. Postdoc-for-hire is not really how it's supposed to work, at least not if you believe the "training for independence" mumbo-jumbo.

I guess it would work out okay re: training and eventual independence if you could figure out how to tie together the things you've worked on in different labs.

Sometimes even the thinnest thread can be enough to make it seem like you intended to jump from project to project. Say you've been trying to build your skill set to eventually (in theory anyway) attack some really interesting problem with your shiny new tools.

Remember, when the very first postdoc walked upon the earth, they did some random little thing not related to their thesis OR their future lab. It was typically a one-off for a year. And they often went off to start their own labs with NO IDEA what they were going to work on.

So okay, now we live in almost-2010 and things are radically different. Not finishing projects is definitely a problem for your CV, and irrevocable if you're gone and the project gets dropped entirely.

Then I think the trick would be to cozy up to people in the lab and get them to finish the project and make sure it gets published.

Assuming the whole lab doesn't hate you or think you're an idiot (and believe me, I know it can happen that way - I've been there!), you can offer to put them on as authors. Then you write it and submit it if they'll help finish the experiments. That would make you corresponding author. No rule against you doing that, especially if no one else is willing to do it.

Or you can barter your first-authorship away if the PI is willing to handle being the corresponding author. Even a few middle-author papers would be better than nothing.

I don't know if a longtime postdoc means your career is over. Several people have written in to this blog to say they got jobs even after a very long postdoc (we're talking 9 years for several of them). But, that was in a better market.

I suspect things are going to get even wonkier in the next couple of years while we debate the health insurance revolution and the economy continues to teeter on the brink of collapse (I don't care what they're saying about improvement, we're not out of the woods yet).


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