Prioritising your academic tasks

18 04 2018

The following is an abridged version of one of the chapters in my recent book, The Effective Scientist, regarding how to prioritise your tasks in academia. For a more complete treatise of the issue, access the full book here.

splitting tasks

Splitting tasks. © René Campbell

How the hell do you balance all the requirements of an academic life in science? From actually doing the science, analysing the data, writing papers, reviewing, writing grants, to mentoring students — not to mention trying to have a modicum of a life outside of the lab — you can quickly end up feeling a little daunted. While there is no empirical formula that make you run your academic life efficiently all the time, I can offer a few suggestions that might make your life just a little less chaotic.

Priority 1: Revise articles submitted to high-ranked journals

Barring a family emergency, my top priority is always revising an article that has been sent back to me from a high-ranking journal for revisions. Spend the necessary time to complete the necessary revisions.

Priority 2: Revise articles submitted to lower-ranked journals

I could have lumped this priority with the previous, but I think it is necessary to distinguish the two should you find yourself in the fortunate position of having to do more than one revision at a time.

Priority 3: Experimentation and field work

Most of us need data before we can write papers, so this is high on my personal priority list. If field work is required, then obviously this will be your dominant preoccupation for sometimes extended periods. Many experiments can also be highly time-consuming, while others can be done in stages or run in the background while you complete other tasks.

Priority 4: Databasing

This one could be easily forgotten, but it is a task that can take up a disproportionate amount of your time if do not deliberately fit it into your schedule. Well-organised, abundantly meta-tagged, intuitive, and backed-up databases are essential for effective scientific analysis; good data are useless if you cannot find them or understand to what they refer.

Priority 5: Analysis

Good analytics and are today essential tools in the effective scientist’s toolbox. I rank data analysis as the third-most demanding stage of the paper-producing process (following experimentation/data collection and databasing).

Priority 6: Writing articles

Despite my emphasis on the actual process of writing scientific articles, I have placed the writing phase in this position because one generally cannot write much without data or analysis.

Priority 7: Contributing to and editing your collaborators’ manuscripts

I nearly always prioritise commenting on or editing one of my student’s manuscripts relative to all others, because (i) it teaches the student to value a rapid turn-around ethos, (ii) it minimises the time it takes a student to publish, (iii) it nearly always ends up increasing one’s own publication track record, and (iv) a good supervisor is morally and ethically bound to facilitate the student’s transition to academic independence.

Priority 8: Media engagement and writing press releases

I argue that effective engagement with the media is now more than it has ever been an essential component of becoming an effective scientist. Media engagement generally takes little time relative to your other duties, and (ii) one should never underestimate the corollary benefits of effective public engagement.

Priority 9: Student and postdoctoral fellow meetings

Avoid falling into the enticing trap of putting off these meetings for too long. You can save both the student/fellow and yourself months of future headaches just by being proactive and nipping bad ideas or unproductive lines of scientific inquiry in the bud before they progress too far.

Priority 10: Writing grant proposals

Although grant-writing ‘seasons’ will shift this priority up or down, planning to write proposals well in advance of the deadline is universally a good idea.

Priority 11: Preparing and delivering lectures

Again, this priority shifts according to your circumstances, but if you value the balanced teaching-research model, then this necessarily belongs lower down on the list than writing activities per se.

Priority 12: Attending seminars and conferences

When you are pressed for time, attending a departmental seminar might not be all that appealing, but not attending them is a detriment of the transfer, development, and discussion of scientific ideas. Do not to let this activity drop off of your list entirely, even if the advertised seminar does not appear to be related directly to your specific field.

You will never be as productive while attending a conference as you are in the comfort of your own office. Regardless, attending conferences is an essential part of any scientist’s life.

Priority 13: Editing for a journal

I have placed editing articles ahead of reviewing them for the simple reason that editing requires a good degree more organisational capacity than one-manuscript-at-a-time reviewing.

Priority 14: Reviewing manuscripts for journals

No scientist likes a lengthy review process for her submitted manuscripts, so do not be the lowest common denominator in the process and submit your reviews later than you had promised.

Priority 15: Blogging and social media

For the same reasons standard media engagement is important (Priority 8), so too is social media. However, I have placed these activities lower on the global list because they should never cut into the more important activities listed above.

Priority 16: E-mailing

I loathe e-mailing, yet I am bound to it for academic survival. My only advice is therefore to keep your e-mailing curt and to the point, avoid unnecessary and fruitless discussions, and answer only the most essential requests. If you can, pick up the telephone and solve the issue in real time as efficiently as possible.

Priority 17: Meetings

I despise these even more than e-mail, but like e-mails, the meeting is a necessary evil, and you should choose to attend only the most essential.

Priority 18: Writing recommendation letters

Try to recall the number of times you have asked your mentors to provide letters of support for scholarship, job, prize, and grant applications. Clearly this should be lower on the time-priority list, but as for all other tasks, you at least owe it to your charges for the simple reason that others wrote them for you.

Priority 19: Casual assessment of a peer’s work

This is a generous and noble thing to do, especially if you can help out the next generation of scientists to negotiate their way through the maze of a scientific career. However, if you cannot clearly identify a personal benefit in the request, then provide this service only if and when time permits.

Priority 20: Administrative reporting

Periodic reviews of your progress, lists of publications, student performance indicators, and myriad other ways university administrators love to quantify their charges’ performance are also part of the academic scientist’s territory. The personal ‘reporting’ mechanism you use to market your scientific results can also double as a pre-prepared performance indicator for your administrative masters.

CJA Bradshaw




2 responses

18 04 2018

Where would you put reading papers relevant to your field of study?

Liked by 1 person

18 04 2018

Ah yes. Good question. I didn’t list that as an activity per se, because for me at least, most of my paper reading happens as I write (or review), or for teaching requirements. Otherwise, it tends to happen outside of normal work times, or when I travel. If I were still a student or postdoc, I might slot it in there around Priority 6 or 7.

Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: