Writing and labs, the research ebb and flow

Life tends to ebb and flow with workloads, personal crisises and famously, how many busses arrive at any given time. In research this ebb and flow relates to the amount of time researchers have to swear at Microsoft word, as opposed to making clicky noises with pipettes in the lab.

As you may already know, being a researcher isn’t just looking thoughtfully at test tubes full of coloured liquid in a lab coat, despite what newspaper stock images would have you believe. There are meetings, various kinds of writing and enough health and safety paper work to crush a small child in a way that conforms to ISO 18001 standards.

At various times my work has changed from being hands on in the lab 10hrs a day to never being allowed to leave the keyboard. This year for example I have barely seen the lab except for to fix the laser when it breaks (so almost weekly). I have burrowed into my desk and been churning out grant applications, papers and even the odd blog post like there is no tomorrow (which if I don’t get the grants there might not be!).

 

In an ideal world I’d have some magically perfect lab / paperwork balance where I could do 6 hours lab work then 2 hours paper work every day. It would be a utopian world where I’d keep on top of my deadlines, always have experiments running, also somehow there’d be the smell of fresh bread around and free cakes…. mmmm cake.

But that magical world doesn’t exist. The ebb and flow is real, my deadlines are panic laden rushes, I last ran an experiment in March, all I can smell is someone’s fish curry lunch and worst of all… there’s no cake.

Reasons

One reason for this ebb and flow is success. A key part of being a scientist is that you need to tell people what you’ve done (mostly when you’ve successfully done something, although that’s a blog post for another time). And that sadly means writing papers.

So with any luck at some point you’ll do something that is exciting and interesting enough to write up as a paper and then you need to immediately stop doing the exciting interesting thing and go write it all down in an exciting and interesting but irritatingly formal way.

Another reason is that you haven’t got to the exciting interesting bit yet but still want to be paid to hopefully discover the exciting and interesting bit. Sadly, in research people paying you with no questions asked is a rare thing – be it academia or industry, someone will want to know what the hell you are doing and why.

For academics it’s endless grant writing and for those in industry it’s endless report writing. Both are, to be fair, pretty unpleasant, although in academia I get the feeling that sometimes reviewers actually read the whole thing. In industry, if there is an executive summary then the rest of the document could be photocopies of my left foot and no one would notice.

From time to time you might also want to change jobs. I’ve yet to find a job application that didn’t take me about 5 hours to prepare everything for. One application I once saw involved around 5,000 words of various bits of writing for a research position.

The trifecta

If you’re coming to the end of your contract then you have reached the trifecta of writing as you have to publish as many papers as possible, write grants and apply for jobs all at the same time. The more papers, grants, applications you write, the better your chance of securing either the same job for longer or a new job.

It’s not all that unreasonable to expect that the last 9 months of any research contract are essentially just writing in the hope of finding a new research contract. Which, as some posts are as short as 12 months, is….. fun (it’s not fun it’s terrifying and horrible).

Waves

No matter how hard I try, evening out this ebb and flow of research lab time and paper work seems almost impossible. I’ve written before about how researchers need to be good at writing but sometimes it can be the ONLY thing we need to be good at! Now I must cut this short I have a conference deadline to meet and a four page abstract to write *sobbing*

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