When my family and friends ask about research I tell them about my idea, my experiments, and my results: “I found increased signaling in my progenitor cells which confirms my hypothesis that these cells play a role in disease development.” It is these tangible aspects of research that excite me. The truth, however, is that much of my time is spent on administration and logistics. I am perpetually ordering, organizing, and preparing reagents. I write and revise animal protocols: detailed descriptions of each mouse strain that I have, how they will be bred, how many of the mice I will have, what experiments I will perform on them, etc. etc. I take and retake biosafety modules along with other online courses that emphasizes workplace hazards, harassment, bioethics, etc. In short, I have to fill out a lot of paperwork simply to have permission to perform my work.
In addition to these tasks, the MD/PhD program at IUSM has its own requirements. Its students must have sporadic clinical experiences peppered throughout their research training. They must meet regularly with the program directors to discuss their progress and their trajectory. And, each year, students must meet with their PhD mentors to write an Individual Development Plan. This IDP includes a research update, self-assessment, plans for improvement, reflections on career goals, etc. In short, another piece of paperwork with tenuous benefits to the student.
This year, however, I took a different approach to the IDP. My research productivity was faltering; I was in a slump. I had 6-7 different projects, each requiring different mice, different experiments, different techniques, and having very different hypotheses. I felt overwhelmed and needed help. For my IDP meeting, I brought a list of my projects to my mentor. He read them through and gave me a knowing and sympathetic look. He asked what proportion of my time I was committing to each. After my answer, he told me to come back the next day with a ranked-prioritized list of my projects.
The next day we looked through my ranked list. We were both surprised by the discord between a project’s priority and the amount of time I devoted to it. My #1 project received less than 20% of my time. One of my lowest priorities received over 50% of it. Clearly, I was not focusing on the tasks that I myself had set out as most important.
That ranked list changed my research practices. I reallocated my time to devote myself to my priorities. I have since stopped one project and have transferred a second to another graduate student. I’ve found time to read articles – something I’ve neglected – simply by including ‘protected reading time’ in my weekly schedule. Most importantly, I’m devoting more time to the projects that I care about most and which are crucial to my thesis. Who could have imagined that simply writing down my priorities could have made me such a more productive and happy student?
Now, when I talk about my research with friends and family, I still focus on my ideas, experiments, and results. I still avoid discussing my administrative responsibilities. But my listeners have still noticed a change. “What’s different?” they ask. “Why are they experiments working now?” Well, I tell them, I wrote a laundry list and then I did it.
Administrative tasks will never be enjoyable. For the most part they will continue to be a drain on your time and my time. But we should take them seriously. It is only by diligently fulfilling my IDP that this seeming scut work had a profound impact on my research experience.