Having now been a postdoc for a couple of years, I think I’ve slowly developed more perspective about the day-to-day aspects of working as a researcher and the costs and benefits of various approaches. So this year, I am resolving to be proactive about the various challenges of academic life, and try some things meant to make my work life more productive and better:
1) Carve out more time to read the literature. The busier I get, the more difficult it is to keep up with new papers that aren’t directly connected to my current projects. One of the best parts of being a grad student (without a heavy teaching load) was how much time I had to keep up with the literature. As my time is more scheduled and there are more concrete deadlines, it is harder to make time for activities like reading that don’t have an immediate pay off. I have a feed reader, but I find that I only check it monthly; I also come across interesting papers while doing lit reviews/etc and leave those open in my browser, planning to get to them eventually...
I know that braver souls than I are tackling this problem #365papers style, but I don’t think that’s what I want. Instead, I am scheduling three 1-hour slots per week, and I think that’s a manageable goal.
2) Continue to work on good project management practices (such as those described here). I use the suggestions for predictable directory structures, separation of code into different types of scripts and of course, version control, and find them very helpful. I wish that I had learnt best practices for coding and project management as a grad student, but it’s never too late.
3) Take vacations (and mean it!). Every academic I know who has good work-life balance takes vacations. That means not working—at all, including no responding to emails. This is one of the things I admire most about my European colleagues, and I look forward to enjoying the French holidays when I start a fellowship in Montpellier this spring :-)
4) Maintain relationships across distances. It can be difficult to connect with people during short postings here and there, and even harder to maintain those relationships after you move on to the next place. The tools are there (Skype, Facebook, Twitter, email, etc), so I shouldn’t forget to take advantage of them.
5) Learn a new skill. Still deciding what, given the many things I want to learn!
6) Emphasize the positive more often. In general, I think people (or at least me) can be overwhelmed by the negatives in academia – e.g. the rejections of manuscripts and applications, the difficulties in securing the next job, etc. Unlike in undergrad, we don’t get grades or quantitative measures of our success too often (and I haven’t gotten a sticker on my work in years). And when we do get praise, it is often informal (e.g. “good talk”, “I liked your paper”), or balanced with criticism (e.g. “accept but with major revisions”). This is all in pursuit of improvement, but it can be difficult to keep even constructive criticism in perspective because the brain is biased towards remembering the negative. So I’m considering keeping an explicit list of successes to help highlight the positive.