Call for providing better working conditions for researchers

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.

Other regulations and practices are accepted historically. For example, open plan office spaces that have been proven to be terrible for productivity specially in creative work. Some of these decisions are driven by attempt to save money, others by ignorance and lack of empathy.

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:

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.

Run Journal Club as a project meeting

A lot has been written about Journal Club meetings in academia and medicine. It mostly boils down to something like “10 ways to kick-ass at journal club presentation” or similar. There is not much discussion on how to make Journal Club an effective tool.

This stems from the fact that nobody treats Journal Club meetings as business meetings. Journal Club becomes a “discussion” in a terrible sense: there are no quantifiable goals, no concrete questions to be answered, no tangible results that can be recorded. Perhaps one exception is clinical journal clubs where the concrete question is whether given research paper helps us to treat patients better.

In academic circles goal of the Journal Club is often “to keep up with the recent research” or “sharpen debate skills and critical thinking”. This is nebulous, unmeasurable, ultimately, unachievable in any progressive fashion. The goal of this article is to offer tools that would make JournalClub meetings more productive by specifying set of goals.

First, person in charge of the Journal Club (the main stakeholder in the group) should state clearly goals of the meeting. For example, PI can say:

I want us to read papers and learn what experiments we can do better than others using our awesome technology

Or perhaps, we want to learn new statistical methods; or new optical techniques; or new model organisms. Or we want to borrow experimental approach; or compare our approach to another group’s one. That doesn’t matter, what matters is trying to be precise in the language.

That naturally allows for deliverable at the end of the meeting. For example:

  • List of statistical methods, that were used properly, and should be learned
  • A comparison of published experiment with potential experiment achievable with technique available in your lab
  • A published experiment that we should do with another transgenic line or animal model
  • An engineering trick that can be borrowed or improved
  • List of mistakes authors made, including wrong methods or strong assumptions
  • Critique of the figures for clarity and information density; how figures can be improved

When the goal is set precisely, the meeting turns into a work meeting to achieve a goal, and not a discussion. Participants now have a sense of purpose, common goal, and at the same time responsibility. Members of the team know when the meeting is “done”, that is when the goal is reached.

Journal Clubs are often seem to be a terrible way to spend time, and we would argue that is because the goal-setting is too abstract or even never provided. The public and loud statement of the goal from the senior managers would provide concrete reason for everyone to be in the room and simple checklist-style way to know that meeting is a success.

Getting through a slump: Paired Sciencing

Almost all scientists hate writing and editing. Many find careful reading of scientific literature very difficult and energy-consuming. Finishing these tasks can take very long time, especially closer to the end. Remember, work scales with 80/20 principle: 80% of time is spent on 20% of the task.

By applying Paired Sciencing method we were able, in some instances, to get over the slump and finish stalled tasks.

The basis of Paired Sciencing follows from the Pair Programming technique of The Agile methodology. The aim of pair programming is to work on a single piece of software simultaneously with partner, so that number of bugs will go down and problem-solving will be more efficient with 2 pairs of eyes. The goal of Paired Sciencing is simpler: leverage accountability in the group to get through tasks that would be otherwise delayed or avoided till the last minute.

The practice of Paired Sciencing goes like that:

  1. Pick up a partner of several, agree to participate in Paired Sciencing session.
  2. Pick date, time, location. Book a conference room with a door (shared offices or open space doesn’t work). Ideally in the unusual, yet comfortable location. Sometimes you can get away from lab and book a quiet library space.
  3. Use time-box: agree that you will work for limited time (for example, an hour).
  4. Pick task or tasks that can fit in the time-box. Articulate to all your partners what you will be working on.
  5. Get in the room, close the door, set up timer for the duration. Now, keep silence and write/read/code/study
AP Photo/Rizza Alee

Hopefully, you and your group will be able to provide necessary support to get to the end of the timer with all boring work out of the way.