Sunday, October 21, 2018

Time management, flexibility and communication during academic training

This week I half-jokingly tweeted something that got a lot of attention and some negative responses.

Some PI's sympathized, and others described the sentiment in the tweet was unfair to trainees and indicated poor time management. As all this was going on, I got my data, which was an Excel spreadsheet from which I was hoping to make a figure, and a friend was frantically waiting for a fellowship draft that was due that day from one of her people. To my defense, if I ask for data, I usually do so with at least 24-48hr notice and only ask for primary data I have already seen so that I can make the figure myself in my color scheme. This I expect to be perfectly reasonable.

In general, I find myself a lot more frequently in my friend's situation with trainees and students asking for things with very limited time to actually get them done. The struggle is always whether to turn this into a teachable moment and don't drop the other 10 things I need to do, or to deal with the last minute request and resign postponing my own work. Unless the problem is egregious and needs too much work (i.e. a grant so poorly written that cannot be submitted), many of the PIs I know will step in and take care of it. Often they will also try to provide some time-management training for the trainee.

I find that tweets out of context are usually interpreted by the reader based on their own experience and several responders replied with very valid concerns that are important to talk about in the context of the mentor-trainee relationship and any supervisor-employee situation. Students and postdocs mostly have to worry about their own projects, but PIs and managers, in general, respond to a variety of stakeholders: to name a few, their trainees in the lab, their students in the classroom, collaborators, administrators, funding agencies, and the greater scientific community requiring their service for reviewing papers and grants. Below are considerations trainees must have to become more empowered in their position.

1) Don't feel compelled to say "Yes" if you cannot deliver. Beside the fact of whether you already have a slide ready that you showed at lab meeting and you can retrieve in 5 minutes, my request above touches on a very critical issue which is the ownership of one's time and the ability to say "No". As a PI it took me a while to realize that sometimes people said "Yes" to please me, but are then too overwhelmed or stressed to follow through. For my own time-management and planning, I would 1,000 times prefer to be told "This cannot be done" or "I will not be able to meet that deadline for X and Y reasons". I always try to frame tasks based on the timeline of the trainee, but some PIs do not care or have no concept of how long it takes to do something. It is always better to have a clear discussion defining the timeline for deliverables and how long it's going to take to get things done. PIs may have expectations based on how long it takes them to do stuff and trainees may have no experience in planning. You think the PI is unreasonable and they think you are unreasonable, but many times this is a communication issue.

2) Don't underestimate the time it takes to do something. This is a corollary. Nowadays I can write an abstract in the 20 minutes before a deadline, I know it will take a trainee at least a week. When defining deadlines with your PI think of the time it will take you to do what you are asked to do and double it! If the deadline is tight and you are worried, ask for advice on how to handle it. If they realize you cannot do it and need it done, the PI can provide help and/or redirect resources.

3) This is your time to be selfish, but you are still in the real world. When I was applying for PhD positions, a PI told me this was going to be my time to be selfish, and I didn't really get it. My trainee years were the time when I could just follow my curiosity and go where my intellect would take me. Then I didn't have to respond to all the stakeholders listed above and jump from deadline to deadline imposed by multiple exterior forces on a weekly basis. In a non-academic job, you are requested to do the bidding of your managers, and your managers are compelled to do the bidding of their bosses and the company. An entire project may be dropped at a day's notice or you may be pulled as a pinch hitter to help complete someone else's task. You will sometimes not be given any reason for the change... Being change-agile and flexible are very important qualities in fast-paced environments like pharma, consulting, or publishing. So, you may be only want to work on your project, but still need to learn to function under pressure to respond to the needs of others while clearly communicating your needs and timeline.

4) Ask for training and mentorship. There are approaches that are obvious to me because I was trained to do them or they match my way of thinking, but these may not come naturally to other people. However, it is not immediately clear to me when someone wouldn't think the same way I do. There is nothing more disruptive to a project when someone says they have understood something and then they go off and do something else. Nobody knows everything, and you will always learn something new if you ask for an explanation and follow-up with questions or a summary of the conversation as you understood it. Turning a discussion into a teaching moment with a phrase like "Can you explain this to me? I am not familiar with the concept" can also help defuse conflict and lessen your boss' irritation if things are not getting done. Most academic scientists enjoy teaching and will switch to "teacher-mode" to make sure you understand.

5) You are ultimately responsible for your project and career transitions. To move forward in any career you need to advocate for yourself and be proactive. You must take ownership of your work and ask for the training you need. There is no one size fits all mentoring method and no boss (no matter how empathic) will be able to read your mind. By being open in your discussions about progression and feedback you can define the working relationship you want. Realize that this may not be the way your PI mentors and you may need to find a compromise and look for additional mentoring with senior postdocs or other PIs. If you need time, resources, and help, you must ask and clearly articulate why.

A PhD or a postdoc is a tricky job situation because trainees are treated like employees or students depending on the whim of the university or PI...and this is a whole can of worms I will not open right now. However, in both cases, they are temporary positions that are supposed to help you advance in your career, so learning transferable professional skills should always be in the back of your mind to make the most of your time.