By: Dr. Prasanna Honnavar
So, you’re a Medical Researcher. Chance are you’re pretty busy. First, there’s your daily classes (6 hours/day), ICQ, Comp, OSCE, CCP, PBL, TBL, NBME, then managing the money and the people. And that’s all before you even get to the actual research. Then, there are papers to write (if you have done research), rejection letters to deal with, and conferences to attend. No matter how much you enjoy your research, it’s likely that there are parts to your life too. You probably have a family or friends, you may have social commitments, and, who knows, you may even have some personal interests!
Early on, concentrate on building a supportive network and getting to know as many people as possible. Building a strong support network will give you more resources to draw on when your work or personal life is challenging. It is also important to talk about your expectations for your research with your stakeholders (supervisor, partner, employer, children, etc.).
Raising Your Profile
It is tempting to think that being brilliant and working hard are the only things that matter in research. However, research only becomes meaningful when you communicate it to someone else. No one builds a career by just researching. When you tell people about it at a conference or through a journal, you start to articulate the implications of your research and to make a contribution to your discipline. Therefore, those who communicate most effectively have the most successful research careers.
It is in your interest as a medical researcher to try and find opportunities to present your research in appropriate places orally, by poster, and publication. Networking is increasing the number of people you know or who know you. By expanding the network of people you know, you will be able to turn to more people for advice and find out about more opportunities. Also consider presenting your research to less expert audiences. Engaging with media and the general public is an important, if challenging, part of your role as a researcher.
Ten Strategies for Keeping Your Work in Balance
- Make a Plan: Planning isn’t that exciting, and when you’re feeling overwhelmed it’s probably the last thing you feel like doing or can find time to do. Look ahead to the next year: what are your plans? What would you really like to achieve by the end of the year? By the end of three months? By the end of this week? By the end of today? What is the most important thing you need to get done today?
- Pick the right things: It’s more important to be doing the right things than doing things right. You need to think about which tasks and projects deserve the most attention.
- Make time for research: Research is only one part of your role. The most effective time for doing the demanding aspects of research, such as writing or analysis, seems to be early in the day when you’re fresh. Set aside one hour, say between 6 and 7 AM, that you dedicate to writing or analysis.
- Learn how to say NO: For most people, NO seems to be a hard word! It’s easy to commit to things, to keep loading yourself up. Eventually you end up overloaded! Learn how not to say YES so readily. When someone asks you to take on a new commitment, you might answer, “That sounds interesting. Can I get back to you?” or “I’ll just need to check my diary and I’ll give you a call back,” or “I can’t help you with that right now, but if you can wait until tomorrow I’ll have some time then.”
- Delegate: Some people get overwhelmed because they feel they have to do everything themselves. In every job there are some things that you personally have to do, but in most jobs there are some parts you can get help with.
- Set realistic standards: Researchers tend to be intelligent, high achieving people. They also often tend to be perfectionists, and set very high standards for themselves. This has pluses and minuses. The pluses are that they produce high quality work and strive to do good research. The minuses are that the high standards can get in the way of producing good work. Perfectionists can be very critical of their own work, leading to a lot of self-doubt and concerns about their ability. Get an objective opinion from someone else.
- Write regularly (and then submit it!): Many researcher find writing difficult. Firstly, it’s hard to find the time, and then there are the anxieties that it raises. Is what I’ve written good enough? Will it be rejected? Even when they write, many hesitate before submitting. They think “I need to go over it one more time. I need to polish it up a bit.” The most productive researchers write regularly even if it is only in small amounts. Research shows that even 30 minute blocks increase writing productivity.
- Don’t check your email/Facebook first thing in the morning: You can increase your daily productivity by about 20% by following this one simple tip. When most of us get to work our first inclination is to just quickly check our emails. But, mostly, it doesn’t turn out to be quick, and you end up getting distracted and becoming reactive. You can check you email, say, after morning tea. Give it a try!
- Use the 3 “D’s” of paperwork (and email): Research involves a lot of paperwork: journals to read, forms to fill out, requests for information, and so on. It’s likely your desk is piled high. The next time you pick up a piece of paper, imagine that is it stuck to your fingers. The only way to get it off of your fingers is one of the 3 D’s:
- Do it- if you can deal with it right away, then do it and get rid of it.
- Diarise it- if it will take more than a few minutes to do then get out your diary and find the time when you will do it. Then put the paper in the file for that project.
- Ditch it- if you don’t want to do it or diarise it, then ditch it. Yes! In the bin.
- Deal with Distractions:
- Don’t answer your phone at certain times
- Turn off the “bing” on your email program so it doesn’t pop up and distract you
- Close your lab door if you have one
- Go to a quiet place if you need to do concentrated work
Ten Strategies for Keeping the Non-work Part of Your Life in Balance
- Establish boundaries between work and non-work: It’s easy for work to spill over from your normal work day into the rest of your life. If you don’t get things done during the day, it’s tempting to tell yourself that you can finish it off at home later. The internet has made this much easier. But it’s good to be off-duty sometimes. That’s when you recharge, catch up with family and friends, and attend to the other parts of your life. So while there are no definitive rules, it’s useful to think about where the balance is for you. Clear boundaries can be helpful. For example, you might decide not to work at home at all. Or, if you do work at home, you might specify certain times.
- Get a routine: Routines can be a useful way of ensuring you get around to things that are important to you. For example, you could set one night of the week when you go out with your friends or family. If you leave this to chance, or when you find time, it’s less likely to happen.
- Ask your significant others before taking on major commitments: Often we take on major commitments that impact our family and friends without really thinking about what it means for them. It’s interesting to think that many of us give our best to people we don’t know very well, and the people we do care about us see us when we’re tired and worn out.
- Be present: Sometimes although your body has left work your mind is still on the job. Presenteeism, as opposed to absenteeism, is where you are physically there but your attention is somewhere else. You might be worrying about something you left unfinished. It’s important to distinguish between problem-solving and worry. Problem-solving is fairly a fairly structured process of working out what can be done. Worrying is recycling the same thought over and over. It’s a pretty destructive activity, because not only does it not solve the problem, it wears on your neurons.
- Book breaks and holidays: Often we tell ourselves we must have a break when we find the time. But then the time doesn’t come. An alternative is to schedule breaks and holidays well in advance. The break itself is good, but looking forward to it can also be motivating. Even short breaks are helpful. They can help you get perspective on issues and often you return to work feeling more productive. Your paperwork and your laptop need a holiday too, and the best holiday you can give them is to leave them at home while you’re away.
- Delegate, outsource, get help: Some of use, high achievers and perfectionists in particular, are very reluctant to give up anything. We think we should be able to do it all. We want to perform well at work, then come home and organize a house and garden, and spend time with family and friends. The reality is that there is limited time (168 hours in a week), and heavy commitments in one area of life mean there is less time in other areas. It’s sensible to get help where you can.
- Exercise, diet, and health: When things are out of balance, it’s likely that the last thing you want to do is exercise or examine your health and diet. Yet these things build up your resilience and give you more energy. It’s tempting, when you’re under pressure from looming deadlines, to work late into the night and sleep less. This might work in the short-term, but it becomes counter-productive. You can end up putting in more hours but getting less output. Once again, looking after yourself works better if you have a routine.
- Me time: What do you really enjoy doing? Did you have a passion when you were a child, for example, singing or painting? Do you have some great interest or hobby? Our interests often get squeezed out when work pressure and other demands increase, which is a shame for two reasons. Firstly, you are missing out on something you enjoy. Secondly, these activities restore you and are likely to make you more motivated and productive.
- Review your priorities: Sometimes it’s easy to drift into things or get carried along by peers and colleagues. For example, because everyone else has the latest labor-saving gadget, you get one, and then you have to work harder to pay for it, and it doesn’t seem to save you much labor!
- Have fun!: It’s tempting to think you’ll be happy when you have finish this project, when the house is finished, when the next paper gets published, or when things settle down. That might happen, but there’s no reason why you can’t have fun now too!
In putting together a project plan, you should think about the following questions:
- When are your deadlines?
- What else have you got to do?
- When can you start researching?
- Will any of your research take a set amount of time to complete?
- What are the main milestones of your research?
- Do you need to travel to do any of your research?
- Do you need to undertake any training?
How long do you think writing will take you? Remember to leave some time for editing and correcting.
Plot milestones onto a calendar and break down large tasks into manageable chunks.
Think about what your objectives are and make sure that they are SMART.