Why I started writing ‘To Did’ lists!

I’ve always been a fan of writing ‘To Do’ lists – they’re great for keeping tracks of small bits of work that could slip between the cracks during a busy day or week, and they’re also great for a little dopamine burst when you tick off an item.

Of course the drawback is the list always grows longer, and never gets completed!

Recently, as part of my transition into life as a member of faculty, I’ve started occasionally writing the opposite version, which I’ve taken to calling my ‘To Did’ list. Yes, I realize some people go with ‘To Done’ – but it’s on my ear now and I’m sticking to it!

The list consists of things that I have taken care of in a given day or week, and forces me to take a few minutes to acknowledge the work that I have managed to get done, rather than always focusing on the mountain ahead.

It also allows me to visualise the spread of different types of work that I’ve done, to see if it aligns roughly with how I intended to balance my time between research, teaching, and other tasks.

Finding a better balance in your work (essay)
Image credit: Inside Higher Ed

This is useful, because I’ve received warnings from quite a few academics that in my first year as a lecturer I would likely end up doing virtually all teaching, and virtually no research, and that I should try to make sure my research isn’t neglected if at all possible.

I always wondered whether this early research-teaching imbalance is real, or whether us academics maybe just convince ourselves that this balance is shifted farther towards teaching than it really is. I suspect this could happen, because we have a tendency toward feeling perpetually behind on our research, and teaching ‘To Do’ jobs usually have harder deadlines than research ones, so we often feel like we’re being forced to spend time on teaching tasks instead of research ones…. Maybe it’s just a trick of the mind, and we are actually doing a bit more research than we think? Or maybe it’s true, and my research will take a huge hit in year one, that I should actively work to prevent?

Of course, with covid-era teaching requiring significant extra hours from teaching staff, and preventing new research experiments from being carried out within the lab during lockdown, I suspected that I might fall victim to this potential research-teaching imbalance even more than your average first year PI.

And given I am a scientist, the urge to collect data to answer this question was strong.

Hence the ‘To Did’ list.

Did it identify a huge imbalance toward teaching?

No, not really!

I’m writing this in the evening, having just written out my ‘To Did’ list for today. It seems nicely varied, with eight items that I spent roughly equal time on. The two most time consuming items (by only a small margin) were pure teaching, one item sat nicely on the teaching-research border, four items were pure research, and the smallest one was ‘other’.

Over the summer, before I brought in the ‘To Did’ list, I started going through old ‘To Do’ lists and highlighting research items yellow, teaching items green, and everything else blue, to try to collect similar data on how I was balancing these types of work. I found that yellow and green were almost perfectly equal, with blue less common. Which to me, seems ideal – between the results of the ‘To Do’ & ‘To Did’ lists, I am reassured things seems to be relatively well balanced so far!  

An unexpected positive was that the ‘To Did’ list also highlighted for me how international my work has become, which hadn’t really clicked for me. Increasing my international network will (I hope) help my research career, and so it was exciting to notice items related to collaborations with Ireland, Finland, India and the US all in there alongside my main work in the UK.

Aside from the broad overview the ‘To Did’ list gives me of the variety of work I’m doing, it does also provide the same sort of dopamine release that ticking off a ‘To Do’ list does, only in this case, for me at least – it’s even better! Everything on my ‘To Did’ list is complete, even if it’s just a small step in a bigger picture. It’s something I’ve done that day, something I’ve accomplished, and something that is not hanging over me anymore.

One rule of my ‘To Did’ list, is that I do not allow myself to write ‘wrote/read emails’ as an item on the list. This is because I’ve had a bad habit in the past of putting myself down by saying ‘all I did all day was emails’, when in actual fact I may have been troubleshooting research problems, liaising with collaborators, submitting proposals, planning projects or reviewing papers – email was purely the vehicle. Calling those items ‘emails’ is a bit like spending three days on a wet lab experiment and saying ‘all I did the last few days was move stuff with my hands’ or teaching all day and saying ‘all I did today was speak!’ Writing these kinds of items on the list with verbs like liaised/reviewed/edited has made me acknowledge the reality of the work being done, and also helped me to feel better about previously perceived lack of productivity during lockdown, while I was really missing the lab!

So whether you’re trying to collect data on how you break up your time, or just looking for reassurance that you’re still getting s#!t done during the pandemic, I whole heartedly recommend writing a ‘To Did’ list.  

I guess I can now add a 9th item to today’s list – writing this blog!

‘Opportunity’ v ‘extra work’ –perspectives of a new PI.

Last week I spotted two tweets about opportunities. One said something along the lines of ‘stop telling PhD students you are giving us opportunities when really you’re dumping extra work on us’ and another implied ‘opportunity’ in a euphemism for unpaid labour.

I have to admit, both of these lead me to take a good hard look in the mirror!

Genuine opportunities for early career researchers are something I have always considered to be critically important in academia. Because of this, over the last few years I have consciously tried to offer PhD, MSc and BSc students what I saw as ‘opportunities’, in particular the chance to get their names on my papers.

This is something that is really important to me. I wasn’t lucky enough to get my name on other people’s papers when I was a student (except for one review!) and I would have killed for the chance to run a few PCRs or analyse some data to get an authorship. For me, this didn’t happen until I was 3+ years post PhD, at which point I had enough of my own first author papers that a co-authorship was less of a boost to my CV than it would have been earlier on.

As an undergrad or postgrad, if you’re hoping to become a PI one day, you already know that publications are key. But without the resources, funding, political sway or niche expertise that a more experienced researcher might have, you’re somewhat reliant upon others going out of their way to include you. Or at least that’s how I felt when it was me.

This is the reason I have made sure to include the students around me over the last few years, and as far as I was concerned – it was working! Recently three of my project students have gotten their names on two papers each, as well as a couple of the nearby PhD students getting their names on almost everything I publish. I must admit I’ve been giving myself a pat on the back for this… Sharing my modest success and building the CVs of the talented future PIs around me had felt like a privilege, and a rewarding endeavour.

But was I really just exploiting them?

Let's Get Together To Talk About This Exciting New "Opportunity" - Dr. Evil  Air Quotes | Meme Generator

Looking back, some of those students probably had no interest in building their CV towards a career in academia, and could probably take or leave the ‘opportunity’ to get their name on a paper. They of course each told me that they really wanted the authorships and were really grateful for them. But that’s exactly what I would have said too, regardless of how I felt – maybe they were just being polite!

With one student in particular, I remember getting a sense that perhaps they weren’t that interested in the ‘opportunity’ I had offered. It was someone I knew well, and I was comfortable being candid with them about this. I recall saying directly that there was no pressure to take it on, that I was happy to do it myself and the only reason I was offering it to them was to give them a chance at authorship. They insisted that they were keen to be involved, and went ahead and did the work, which amounted to a full figure and prominent authorship in the resulting paper. It was only afterwards that they admitted they actually had no interest in that particular topic, it was just extra work, and they had only done it as a favour for me.

I won’t lie, it felt like a bit of a gut punch. My ‘good deed’ had been perceived as unpaid labour.

Outside of academia, unpaid labour can be a huge problem, particularly now that social media has become so key in growing people’s businesses & careers. Stories of professional photographers or bakers getting asked to do weddings in exchange for Instagram posts, or artists being asked to create commissions for nothing but the offer of ‘great exposure’ are rampant, with some notable and entertaining examples on the ‘choosing beggars’ subreddit if you want a laugh: https://www.reddit.com/r/ChoosingBeggars/comments/gfkhqv/background_dancer_gets_an_offer_from_a_music/

Could this be the case with students in academia? Is authorship payment enough, or should we only offer to get students involved if we can actually pay them cold hard cash for the experiments they run or analyse? This would certainly vastly reduce the frequency with which I could give students authorships on my papers, as funds are generally not available to pay them with.

Is it enough to frankly say to a student ‘I have no funding to pay you to run X experiment, and you don’t have to do it, but if you do, I will put your name on the paper’, or does that run the risk of them going along with it out of politeness, as happened to me recently?

If I were to stop offering these ‘opportunities’, would keen students who want to be PIs one day end up missing out? Students who would have been just as excited as me to get their name on a paper?

How do we determine whether we’re offering someone an opportunity or purely exploiting them?

I wish I had the answer to this, but as with many other things in my first year of being a member of faculty – I have no idea.

Discussion, comments & advice welcome as always!