Problems can be roughly organized in hierarchy of complexity. The insight here is that you can’t solve lower-tier problems while using solutions on higher-tier level. For example, if your university doesn’t support you because of bias and xenophobia, you will not be able to solve that problem by “sciencing” harder or being smarter.
The bottom line is not that we can’t improve things from top-down, but it is much harder to do. Problem needs to be addressed on appropriate level.
Nobody cares until they have an empty box in their head
Why are you presenting and talk about A when the audience wants to hear about B? Well, for example, because A is the only thing you know how to talk about?…
If the audience of undergrads is looking for a lab rotation or research experience, don’t tell them about textbook molecular biology you are working on. Tell them how your day looks, and how the lab space looks
If the audience wants to know whether your microscope is good for their problems, don’t give lecture on physics of light. Show images of samples and experiments that come out.
If the audience wants to go home and be left alone… present the absolute minimum amount that will satisfy your supervisor, and let everyone free. Seriously, everyone loves when meetings end early
Q. What if you get to Q&A sooner, but there aren’t any questions?
A. Everyone goes to get a beer! Seriously, if there are no questions it means all questions were answered or the audience isn’t interested. In both cases it’s time to go.
The unofficial greeting in the bilingual Canadian city of Montreal has long been a friendly “Bonjour, Hi!”
But that standard is no more since a motion mandating store clerks to greet customers only in French was passed in Quebec’s provincial legislature.
The problem is that Montreal is officially French-speaking. But English is extremely popular, and the main language of tourism. So ingenious citizens came up with “Bonjour-hi” as a way to be inclusive, and signal that they are capable of speaking english and french.
We have something to learn here. When in doubt: offer options.
When giving a suggestion, offer two if you don’t know for sure
When asking boss for advice, offer two possible solutions
When trying to make a decision, consider at least two options
When somebody is [un]comfortable, offer them option to stay or leave
Picking one out of two is hard, so let’s recall what Agile Software Development teaches us:
When faced with two or more alternatives that deliver roughly the same value, take the path that makes future change easier.
By following “Bonjour-hi” approach, we are not diluting power or wasting time, we are showing that we are empathetic and thoughtful. Offering option doesn’t need to be artificial, stick to your guns when you are sure. But otherwise — consider two options.
In creating art, there is one technique that always attracts attention. That is setting up artificial limitations or restriction to the process.
In writing, there is whole zoo of techniques or challenges (see wiki and TV Tropes articles) that aspiring artist can borrow from. In movies, one can try to make a film using a single continuous shot (Russian Ark) or only using natural light (even indoors, see Barry Lyndon).
All these attempts at meeting strict restrictions (apart from being artistic goal) lead to generation of very creative solutions. When used as an exercise, this approach attempts to artificially limit most crucial resources, or resources we are bad at managing. You can’t finish project in a month? Try one day! Always over monthly budget? Here is $50 / $100 / $150 for a week of groceries.
All these examples teach us valuable skills of time and resource management, allow us to get better at scope definition, and help understand what is slowing us down.
To work through the problem, force your process to be starved for key resource. The approach is to pick something that feels the most painful, and try to aim for it. You can only pick things you control (no “10 Science papers a year” but “10 co-authorships a year” is doable). In academics it is most likely going to be time.
You will have to sacrifice some things: either pay more, or aim for lesser scientific achievement. But amount of information and training you’ll gain might be well worth it.
Updated on March 19, 2020:
As the world struggles through COVID-19, many labs are struggling with shut-downs, order to work from home, terrible expectations with salaries and funding, and more.
This is an opportunity. Not to out-work your competition. But to re-evaluate process, goals, and human aspect of the research. Each lab get an opportunity to take a break with daily grind, reset the clock, and establish new policies and management procedures.
It should not be just “do your best” but an opportunity for meta-discussion. We shouldn’t just “write”, but we should talk about how to write, and how to write better. Same for presentations. Same for lab management. Same for being a PI.
I started this blog to record ideas on running projects, making better presentations, and so on, in context of scientific research.
The goal of this site is to write down instructions, HowTos, protocols and checklist that could help manage research projects, get through grad school, and improve professional climate in academia.
Why is it called “Extreme Sciencing”? I shamelessly copied Extreme Programming for that name. In my experience, we can learn a lot from practices of software development, such as Agile, Scrum, or DevOps. I have spent time studying those and tried to borrow and adapt things that might help us with better sciencing.
Whether you are getting ready to review somebody’s presentation, or you are presenting your slides to a supervisor or a friend for feedback, here is a handy check-list of questions you should be able to answer.
First, few organizational questions:
When is the presentation?
How much time you will be given? (total talk time, Q&A time)
Will it be in front of live audience, broadcasted, or both?
Current US regulations of workplace benefits, accommodations, and options are terrible. This stems from a long past of aggressive capitalism fueled by communism/socialism fear-mongering. One example is at-will employment laws that disproportionally shift power from workers to companies.
Fortunately, many companies come to realize that there are things that make workers happier, more productive, and efficient, while perhaps costing a little bit of money to the company. Basecamp offers exceptional benefits which not only save money to the employees ($100/month fitness allowance, $1000/year continuing education allowance, paid 16-week parental leave) but communicate:
We respect you and want you to be happy and life is hard enough
That is reflected by the 4-day work week during summer and the 1-month sabbatical every 3 years. Basecamp, arguably, makes a lot of money and as a private company capable of making these decisions. Other organizations might not have enough fiscal or political capital to advocate for better benefits or work conditions, being forced to follow “corporate regulations” or “it always been like that”.
That will not stop us from asking for, and in some circumstances, demand more respect and more responsibility from organization where we work. Here is a list of facilities that we think are necessary and should be provided to all researchers, students working in labs, and staff in any institution:
Organizational credit card to pay for work-related expenses or at least streamlined and clear reimbursement process (<1 week); free poster printing service
No departmental restriction on credits use (biology PhD student can take math or music classes)
Accommodations for parents, including parental leaves and day care subsidy without conditions
21st century level of technical infrastructure: free unlimited cloud storage, central data storage within university, fast (1Gbps) wireless networking in every building, fast (>10Gbps) wired networks in most research spaces
Some of these items have been requested and received at my previous institution, others not yet successfully implemented. There is always room for improvement, and we should start with a list of necessary improvements to the workplace and then collaborate with institutions to increase happiness and productivity in academic environment.