I arrived a little late to the twit down below, about a week late, actually. The moment I read it, though, I was transported back in time to those interesting years when I was working as a lab intern, then the time I worked on my bachelor’s thesis and the couple of years that followed for my master’s thesis. I was fortunate in those three endeavors, because not only did I finish them on time, but I also found something of value in the experiences. Don’t get me wrong, there were some truly dreadful moments, but the overall journey was a positive one.
Not everyone who tries a career in science goes through that however. The attrition rate is a sign of that, as are the not-so-obvious mental health issues. That’s not what I want to talk about, though, because I can still remember some of the other students working in the lab with me who either never graduated, or took so long to graduate that they gave up on science, and I think that the greatest problem they faced was the lack of real guidance from their advisors.
In my experience, students and tutors tend to have goals that align only for a short period of time, and the lack of disclosure on what is expected and when it is expected only complicates things. Now, that student-advisor relationship might only last for a number of years, but the practices and customs that develop during that time do have an impact on the future development of both the advisor and the student. The amount of careless and sloppy experimental work that I’ve been witness to, as well as the choppy communication between the different people who make up research groups, and the lack of any real standards as to the quality of presentations, posters, and reports only make me reinforce that idea.
All current researchers were, at some point in the past, students and interns. If, during those formative years they developed bad habits, then they will keep those bad habits and pass them on to the next generations that they train. The reality is that there is a limit to the actions that an individual student can perform without some eventual correction from the higher-ups, just like in any job. But when the standard work practices are inadequate to begin with, then the work that could take x amount of time might end up taking several times x.
That is what brings me back to the twit at the top of the post. Unproductive practices are common, and not exclusive to academia. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received came from Federico Rosei, he said something like: “Consider every task in your scientific path as an exercise that will allow you to sharpen your skills, make the most of all of them because there are no useless exercises”. During my time in college I was able to put that advice to the test by comparing what I was working on with what some of my colleagues did: “Gotta check some measurements” vs “Someone else will do it”, “I have to practice my presentation a couple of extra times” vs “I haven’t even begun preparing mine”. Of course, sometimes crunch time did happen and I had to put in the extra hours, but most of the time the work that I had previously done allowed me to be more relaxed and respond rather than just react. Sometimes that previous work let me take a break and just enjoy something else.
I have chosen to see my work as something that will have some sort of impact, and that view doesn’t allow for nonsense-work to be part of my routine, even though it may slip in from time to time. I would suggest that instead of only doing the things that are urgent, we focus on the things that are truly important. That way, being busy will be justified, rather than just the way things are.