How to Balance Short- and Long-term Research Goals

You do it already. You spend a portion of your research hours on the here and now, a slice or two on what's to come, and a sliver on the past. What you may not do is purposefully work out what the best balance is between past, present, and future. To preclude a nighttime visit from a hooded Ghost of Projects Yet to Come, a la Dickens, take some time to analyze your present allocation.If you define present projects as everything from bench work to publication, then future projects include brainst

Jill Adams
Jun 6, 2004
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You do it already. You spend a portion of your research hours on the here and now, a slice or two on what's to come, and a sliver on the past. What you may not do is purposefully work out what the best balance is between past, present, and future. To preclude a nighttime visit from a hooded Ghost of Projects Yet to Come, a la Dickens, take some time to analyze your present allocation.

If you define present projects as everything from bench work to publication, then future projects include brainstorming, networking, and fundraising. Past projects would be time spent archiving samples and data. Before you say "Bah, humbug!" think about it as balancing your short-term and long-term goals with a dose of housekeeping to boot. Time management on a macro scale.

Unlike other time-management strategies, this one doesn't require a day planner. The pie you divide into past,...

WHAT IS THE RIGHT PROPORTION?

It depends on the stage of your career. Brenda Andrews, chair of medical genetics and microbiology at the University of Toronto, counsels new hires to stay focused on those goals that will get them tenure (or other milestones), "in order to continue to do what you're doing." A pragmatic view, but she adds, "It's asking a lot, actually. Set up your lab, get it rolling, publish some really nice papers ..." Once faculty pass that hurdle, she encourages them to take risks, "to start some new collaborations that they might not have considered before."

It depends on your funding situation. Associate professor Sari Izenwasser of the University of Miami writes grant proposals several times a year. "I have no choice," she says, because her salary is derived completely from grants. For junior faculty, the key is to negotiate a package "that gives you some support beyond the first year or two," says Naoum Issa, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago. Then you have time to develop a project without having to "spend all your time trying to find money before you have the data."

It depends on your job description. Scientists in undergraduate departments may start with less than a half pie because of heavy teaching loads. During the academic year, Marc Tetel, assistant professor at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY, devotes 40% of his time to research.

INVESTMENT STRATEGIES

Grant applications: Like most investments, they come at a cost: time. Izenwasser says her publication rate was greater when she was an intramural researcher at National Institutes of Health, "because I didn't spend four months a year writing grants." Many investigators use the volume approach to grant writing. "Everyone I know, this is all you do," Izenwasser relates. Others, with additional commitments, such as teaching, put their "eggs into just a couple of baskets," says Christine Wagner, associate professor at the University at Albany.

Human resources: Issa is cultivating an intellectual environment "where there's a group of curious people who will generate ideas." He aspires to build the kind of stimulating atmosphere he experienced as a graduate student, where the dynamics between people kindled enthusiasm and motivation.

Collaborations: "Setting up collaborations and planning joint projects with other labs," takes up a good portion of Andrews' time. But it allows her to conduct riskier research and publish in high-impact journals.

LESSONS AT THE WHITEBOARD

You can get carried away with planning at the expense of doing. "If you spend all your time writing grants, eventually your research is going to dry up," Wagner says.

The most common present-day task that researchers put off is writing up their work. By the time you're tying up loose ends on a project, "it's just not interesting anymore," Andrews says. "You're moving on and you're thinking about the next great thing."

Wagner uses a whiteboard to keep a list of manuscripts and their status (i.e., data analysis, in preparation, in revision). Publications are the "currency of the lab," she says, so it makes sense to keep a running tally.

ON THE BALANCE

The balance also can tip too far in doing at the expense of planning. "You can't get too absorbed in the experiment you're doing; you have to think about future experiments," says Tetel.

You might shortchange future projects as well by shying away from risk. Andrews says, "It's quite possible to continue plugging away and working on a very focused problem." But that means you are failing to take advantage of available resources, whether it's research tools or colleagues, she says.

Tetel uses his whiteboard to outline long-term goals. "I'll take a break and look over at the whiteboard and think about the things that are coming down the road. The whiteboard is the fun board!"

THE ORGANIC APPROACH

Some balancing tools can be woven into your work life rather than become another task on your to-do list.

Having an active lab usually demands a certain amount of attention on the present. Students and technicians are generating data that need to be discussed and writing papers that need to be read. The "wheels keep turning with or without me," Wagner says.

Grant deadlines organize Izenwasser's annual schedule. "I don't spend any time on future projects except when I'm grant writing," she says. When a grant cycle has passed, she focuses exclusively on present work. "You have to because you've put it off."

DON'T FORGET THE PAST

You want to be sure that your data is safely stored and accessible, says Issa, who has discovered the frailty of disc drives. But it forced him to implement a system of backing up data and making sure "it gets done and it gets done correctly."

Jill U. Adams juadams@verizon.net is a freelance writer in Albany, NY.

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