Stuff I tell early career scientists
My name is Eric Gustafson and I am a landscape ecologist who specializes in forest landscape simulation modeling, particularly with the LANDIS-II model (http://www.landis-ii.org/). I received my PhD from Purdue University in 1992, and have been a Research Ecologist for the Northern Research Station of the U.S. Forest Service since then. I am tempted to list my accomplishments so that you will take my advice seriously. Instead, I will merely state that I have had a very successful career (http://www.nrs.fs.fed.us/people/Gustafson), and I have learned some lessons along the way that I now pass on to you.
- Balance your work and non-work life. Throughout my career I have only very rarely put in more than 40-42 hours per week, and have made my family and a satisfying personal life a high priority. And yet my career has been very successful and rewarding. Some of you may be wondering how that is possible. Here are some of the personal habits that have helped me achieve this balance.
- Ruthless efficiency. I manage time like the precious commodity that it is. I hate to waste any of it and I like to squeeze the maximum productivity out of every working minute. Therefore I am always looking to find efficiencies in my research protocols and daily habits. I avoid doing things that don’t directly advance my priorities. I avoid perfectionism because getting from good to perfection takes an inordinate amount of time with little added benefit. (Ever notice that there are no awards for perfection?) I prioritize the bureaucratic tasks that we all face (including emails) such that I spend no more time on them than is minimally required. If you don’t feel you use your time very efficiently, I recommend that you look for the places in your day where more time is spent than may be justified. This may be time spent around the water cooler or manually doing a data management task that could be automated or delegated. Feel free to tell a chatty colleague that you have an appointment to get to, even when the appointment is your next task. Turn off your mail and text notifications and don’t answer your phone when you want to stay on task.
- Strict adherence to priorities. The phrase “tyranny of the urgent” is so apt. Without a ceaseless and aggressive prioritization of what you do with your time, you will be constantly driven by the “urgent” and the “important” will get short shrift because the “important” is rarely urgent. Find ways to control the urgent demands on your time so that the important things get the best and most of your attention.
- Aggressive time management. Manage your time the way you manage your budget. Make the hard decisions about what you will and will not spend time doing, and constantly push back against the stuff that comes up to derail your plans. Make such opportunistic or distracting stuff go to the back of the line, and make it pass your priority tests. You do have to be flexible, but you don’t have to be a pushover. One of my mentors would announce at the start of every meeting he participated in, “you have X minutes of my time,” and he would get up and leave when that time was up. Even faculty meetings! You may want to wait until you are a late-career scientist before you try that, but you can encourage meetings to be run efficiently if you state your time limitations at the start. If you can, delegate what can be done by someone else and spend your time doing things that only you can do. Unfortunately, that may mean delegating some things that you love to do (for me, it was programming), but that is part of maturing as a professional. I also live by the maxim “there is no time like the present.” I deal with “must do” tasks in e-mails on the spot if possible, and as soon as possible otherwise. I do not have a storehouse of extra time in the future, so there is no advantage in putting stuff off. This gives me flexibility for the future and keeps me from living in the shadow of a mountainous to-do list. If you struggle with time management, I highly recommend investing in books or training for this essential skill.
- “Know thyself.” You have strengths and weaknesses – we all do. Play to your strengths and compensate for your weaknesses. Schedule your highest priority and most difficult tasks for the time of day or week when you are at your best. Develop collaborations that require your strengths and where others can help you compensate in areas where you struggle. Acknowledge areas where you need to be better, and seek training to improve.
- Emotional intelligence and personal humility. I have lived by the proverbs, “choose your friends wisely,” and “a gentle answer turns away wrath but a harsh word stirs up anger.” I have nurtured productive and respectful collaborations and retreated from those that were emotionally draining or inefficient and ineffective. I have made an effort to find win-win relational scenarios with my colleagues and subordinates, where others know that I care about them and want the best for them too. I treat people with respect and try to be a peacemaker. I try to think the best of others and not think too highly of myself, letting my science and hard work speak for me. Maybe this is just my personal temperament, but I have observed that those who are likable, respectful, humble and competent are usually successful and have good working relationships.
- Cultivate your life outside of your career. This should not need to be said, but I wonder if some people work too many hours because they have nothing better to do. Only you can decide what your non-work life should look like, but in my opinion it should look quite different from your professional life. Just as diversity is good for ecosystems and societies, it is also good for the soul. You will be a better and more productive scientist (and person) if you have a healthy balance in your life between your work and other interests that captivate you.
- Accept the fact that some stuff will not get done in 40, or even 50, hours per week. If you have prioritized your time well, the stuff that does not get done will be the low-priority stuff. I live with that, and I encourage you to do so also.
- Learn to say “no.” You already know this is important. The key is to say “no” strategically. Say “no” to low-priority things, or things that have low payoff for the time they will require. You may need to say “no” to important things that will stretch you so thin that the important things you have already invested in will suffer. Or things that will eat into your personal life and thus impoverish you in things equally important for producing a rich and satisfying life. Saying “no” to low priority things will keep you from being “under the pile” and unable to say “yes” to the important things.
- Collaborate early and often. If you find a collaborator with complementary strengths and weaknesses, cultivate and continue that partnership. The key question to ask yourself: does this person (or group) make me a better and more productive scientist? There is a synergy that comes with productive collaborations that can more than offset many personal weaknesses in time management or efficiency.
- Take a walk every day. I do my best thinking when I get away from my computer, my phone and the open door of my office. On many days, nothing special other than exercise comes to me, but some days are truly inspirational. Walking with other people can result in synergistic thinking that is also extremely valuable, but find a way to regularly be alone and away from any distractions for at least 15 minutes and you will be amazed at the benefits. You will also find that you recall priority things that have fallen off your radar because of the urgent things cluttering your radar field when you are “on-the-job.” Maybe your young brain does not need help, but I ensure that I bring along a way to capture my ideas so that they are not lost by the time I return to my office. I’m pretty sure I once missed out on a Nobel Prize because I forgot the Prize-winning idea before I could write it down.
- Write every day. Publications are the “coin of the realm” for scientists, so developing effective writing habits is essential. Perhaps like you, I found writing very tedious and difficult early in my career. Now it is easy and actually fun, because I am now good at it. I got good at it by doing a lot of it. I don’t think there are any shortcuts or magic tricks – just experience. However, here are a few things that I think have helped me.
- Write from an outline. This will help your paper have a logical flow. Writing for me is usually the process of continually adding detail to an outline, until each outline item represents a paragraph (or sometimes a sentence) to be written. Often, the writing of the outline item accidently ends up being the entire paragraph that it was intended to represent. The beauty of this approach is that you can work on any item in any order, and I typically start with what seems the easiest. That makes it easy to get going, and I often get on a roll and end up writing some of the hard sections without even noticing. It also turns a big writing project into a list of simple, one-paragraph writing tasks that can be done independently. Some of these can be assigned to co-authors.
- If you believe that you need long blocks of time or a special environment to write, please disabuse yourself of that notion. One of the silver linings of being a Unit leader was that I was forced to learn to write in blocks of time as short as 2 minutes. You can too – it’s not that hard. Sure, there are some parts of a paper (or proposal) that require some time for reflection and analysis. But many parts can be written one paragraph at a time, and by using a detailed outline, it is easy to pick a paragraph and bang it out whenever the opportunity arises. Even if you write only a sentence or two at a time, progress is being made. And you’ll be surprised at how often two sentences lead to four, and pretty soon, you have a draft! Slow and steady wins the race, and you will be amazed at the progress you can make in just a matter of weeks.
- Don’t try to write polished prose on the first try. Very few can do that, and you don’t get extra credit if you can do that. The hard part of writing is getting something on the page, and wordsmithing is relatively easy. So just jump in and get something on the page, even if it is terrible. You will later find yourself much more eager to tackle a wordsmithing session than you would a writing session. Don’t let your train of thought be derailed by details while writing new text. Let the typos go, don’t stop to search for a citation; leave a marker in the text for any detail that you don’t recall. Your goal is to get as much text on the page as possible. You can clean it up and polish it later. I usually take a great many wordsmithing passes through a manuscript. Write when you are fresh, and leave wordsmithing and filling in the details for when you are less fresh.
- Don’t be afraid of critique. This is a foundational part of science. Don’t take criticism of your work personally and even welcome such critique because it will enable you to produce stronger and more useful (and cited) publications. Always seek at least 2 critical reviews of your manuscripts before you submit them to a journal, and by critical, I mean from people who will take their best shot at your work. This greatly reduces the likelihood that your paper will be rejected by your first-choice journal. If you can avoid an outright rejection, your chances of eventual acceptance rise dramatically.
- Write review papers. Reviews tend to be highly cited for a long period of time. I published a review on landscape pattern metrics in 1998, and it is still being cited at a rate of about 40 citations per month! You learn a lot about the topic while writing it, and you quickly gain stature as an expert on that topic. Furthermore, reviews have the potential to have very large CV impact for the rest of your career.
- Underestimate Murphy’s Law at your peril. Budget time for unexpected problems. If nothing goes wrong, then you have extra time – not bad! The stress of glitches in the face of a looming deadline is actually the key motivating force that drove me to stop procrastinating on anything with a deadline. For example, I now usually draft my talks a month in advance so that I never again have to scramble at the last minute to deal with slides that are not developed on time. OK, that never happens anymore, but there are computer glitches or analysis snafus – Murphy is everywhere! I love less stress, and you will too!
I hope you have found at least one useful thing here. If so, find a way to make it fit your personality, and make it a habit.
To summarize my ramblings: work smarter, not longer. You can be successful AND have a life. It usually does not happen by chance however. Be strategic and develop positive habits. I wish you great success and fulfilment in your unfolding career! And then you can pass on YOUR secrets to the next generation.
Dr. Eric Gustafson is a Research Ecologist with the Northern Research Station of the US Forest Service in Rhinelander WI. He has helped lead the development of the LANDIS-II forest landscape model for over 20 years, which is used to answer research and management questions about how novel management or environmental conditions will impact the future composition and ecological function of forested landscapes.