Wednesday, January 29, 2014

"don't leave before you leave"

About a year ago I saw the TED talk of Sheryl Sandberg's "Why we have too few women leaders". I then thought that she makes a lot of good points in her talk about actively taking job opportunities and promoting oneself. I had some long discussion with friends about this talk and the whole "leaning in" concept, about the level of responsibility the government or the society has to improve the chances for women to succeed in the work force and how much women have to contribute by themselves if they want to be successful (which can mean very different things for each individual). 
Shortly after I saw this talk I got pregnant. I started thinking a lot about how to combine my work with my pregnancy and how my career could "survive" maternity leave. The sentence out of the above talk that really stuck in my head back then was "don't leave before you leave" and I found it very helpful at that time. Especially during this awkward period where only my partner and I knew that I was pregnant. I got quite a few request for hosting students and starting collaborations during this time, which not only fell in the "being pregnant" time but as well in the "having a newborn" phase. At that time I did not know if I would have any maternity leave at all, because Australia's laws don't support paid maternity leave for temporary residents. And I could not ask anybody about it yet, because my supervisor did not know that I was pregnant and the risk that he would hear it through the grapevine was too high. Additionally, I thought about what would happen if I'd loose the baby. Then there would be no maternity leave period anyways and every project I would have declined until then would really be a setback. So I decided to not leave before I leave and took on every project and every student and every other chance that came along the way as I would have done without being pregnant. 
In most cases this has served me very well. I had two great exchange students during the last eight months, who have been very productive, I've been promoted and I got my pretty massive review paper accepted - all of which I am very proud.
Now my maternity leave starts and even though I have left the office I have not totally left work. This is certainly one of the disputable advantages one has in academia. I don't have to be in the office to do my work. I can equally well work from home. And so far I really like that! I can't even imagine how it must be for someone in a job that you can't take home with you, where you are truly forced to stop working. I'm able to keep up to date with all my projects, comment on paper drafts, do a bit of writing myself and at the same time enjoy the "being on leave" mood I'm in. This is certainly an advantage of my current position and funding situation and it would be very different if I would be in less secure position.
However, I could not keep up all the projects that I agreed upon six months ago. Some exchange students for this year have their stay scheduled at the end of my leave period and it would be unfair to them if their supervisor was not officially in the office during their stay. So the organizers had to find new supervisors for them and I'm not sure how many minus points I got for my decision on their mental scale. Some paper with collaborator will get delayed significantly  - again I'm not sure how much lower I will ranked by them in the future. (as a side note: I recognized that my American collaborators did not congratulate when I told them about my pregnancy whereas the European ones did - I'm not having enough statistics on that to state this as a cultural difference, but I thought it was noteworthy).
Overall, "Don't leave before you leave" has done a great service to me and I think I'm in a pretty good position now to take some time off and get the family business in order to then hopefully return back to office and lab in few months without a massive productivity setback on my CV. Fingers crossed!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

ridiculous policies

Lately, I have been in contact with a lot of different editorial offices as my "doomed project" (mentioned here and here and here) slowly passes through all the steps of pre-print to-dos. Because it's a Review paper I've planned to use a lot of re-printed figures from already existing publications. The process of getting permission to use these figures is mostly standardized for the pool of journals I'm interested in and just needs a few clicks through the Rightslink website. The difficult task starts afterwards, because the Journal of course needs high resolution figures for the publication. However, with getting permission to re-print the figures I did not get the figures themselves. So the easiest way seemed to just extract them from the online PDFs. As the original authors surely have submitted their figures in high resolution they are certainly embedded in the PDFs as such - that's what I thought. Wrong! Totally wrong! As the high-res figures are only needed for the print version of the paper, the versions embedded in the online PDF are usually of much lower quality than what I'm asked to hand in. So I asked the journal office how to deal with this problem, but I did not get any response. 
The two options I saw were to a) contact the authors of the papers directly and ask for high res figures or b) contact the corresponding journals and ask for high res figures.
Option a) worked well in case I knew the authors and I was able to get a few of the graphs that way. But contacting all the authors I don't know - leave alone figuring out their current contact details, if they happen to still be in academia - seemed to be a very lengthy process. So I opted for version b) and contacted all the other journals. So far I got one response. In a very polite email the responsible editor told me that due the policies of the journal he can't send me a high res version of the figure AND he can't tell me the contact details of the authors! WHAT??? I had to ask the journal for permission to re-print the figure, but now they don'tt provide the figure and they can't even tell me how to contact the people who could? This is like renting a car but without getting the keys and nobody is willing to tell you where the keys are.
Do I now have to hunt down every author and ask if they happen to have a good version of their figures from a publication written 15 years ago and if they would be willing to dig through all their old data and find it for me? Because the journal has "policies" which prevent them from doing three clicks through their electronic archives? This is just ridiculous!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

WTF Nature?

Up to know I saw scientific journals as a medium to present scientific data to the scientific community. And "reading a journal" meant for me that I skim through the content of my usual journals to see if there is anything interesting regarding my own current research. The only journals I've ever read more in detail are the society journals I get in a printed version. And so I have only occasionally stumbled over a piece of "communication" covering lets say topics related to the scientific community rather than the science itself.
My perception of scientific journals has changed dramatically in the last few days starting with the discussions about the Nature correspondence piece on gender and publishing and my eyes kept widening when I read about the personal vendetta of Natures senior editor Henry Gee against Dr. Isis. Following the stream of links I fairly soon ended up at the "Womenspace" article, which just made me puke with all its stereotype-dripping "thigh-slapper" kind of "humor".
It is outrageous and disgusting that the decision makers of journals having so much influence on scientific careers think it is appropriate and  funny to publish "articles" like that. That it would be a valuable contribution to the scientific community. And it is even more outrageous that these people think it is appropriate to reveal the real identities of anonymous bloggers just because they feel like it. What does it matter if I know the real identity of a person who criticizes my work? The whole peer review process is based on not knowing who criticizes my work! This criticism  can be harsh and personal, but it is still expected that the person under critique is able to deal with it in a professional way. People working for scientific journals should be leading examples in this field. Revealing someones real identity without their permission brings no positive contribution to the plate - it is just done to harm someone in the worst possible way. The question came up how safe the anonymity of the reviewers for Nature are, if their senior editor is not able to stay professional and keep his mouth shut - and I think this is a very valid concern. 
I've never seen scientific journals as representatives of some kind of scientific community view of the world beyond stuff that is based on solid data. I've never seen them as a representative of my scientific self - but I don't feel very well represented right now. Quite naive it seems to have such a narrow view on what's going on in the glam world of journals. This will change as soon as I'm done chundering!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

on productivity

"Be productive" is certainly one of the mantras following me around since I started my PhD. Being productive in the sense of using my mental and time resources well, not slacking around and procrastinating too much, creating some measurable and valuable output. Being productive sounds very easy and I've been to tons of time management seminars and alike to identify and avoid all the things stealing my time and draining my brain. Still, it's a constant process of improvement and failure and a lot of "tomorrow I'll get started". My productivity is a very sensitive fairy. Easily influenced by external circumstances, tiredness, hunger, the degree of productivity follows a certain pattern throughout the day with it's daily maximum fluctuating a lot. I've always envied people who seem to be able to be very present and concentrated throughout the whole day. I'm not as you can see in the graph below:
Whoosh's productivity trend throughout a normal working day
I am one of the people who have to get their most important stuff done in the morning, otherwise it'll not get done at all. Too bad, this conflicts with my desire to sleep a lot. Coffee and naps play an essential role in this pattern and if I'll ever have my own research group there will be a quiet space somewhere equipped with bean bags or hammocks for everyone in need of a nap*.
While this is the general trend of my productivity, the daily maximum can vary a lot from day to day. I'm usually less productive if we have a 40°C day with high humidity or if my office mates decide that 26°C is the perfect A/C temperature setting (I'm more the 21°C type). I'm less productive if something or someone bothers me or if I have too many different things on my plate as well as when the mental pressure to get something done is too low.
But the one thing that can overrule most negative influences on my productivity and keep me working even through bad food coma dips is progress. Seeing the progress of my experiments or paper writing or whatever I'm doing is a huge motivation to keep me going. Sometimes even tiny progress steps are enough to motivate me for another hour of work which I would otherwise have spend in zombie mode. 
So I have to take care that I get in a motivation creating mode as soon as I enter the office. Which means I have to avoid all the pitfalls that distract me from my important tasks. I've mentioned writing to-do lists before and how well it served me during my PhD but somehow failed me now that I am a Post-Doc. I still use to-do lists a lot but I needed to take them to the next level. It is not enough anymore to write up my to-do's for the day in the morning of the same day as this list would be too biased by my momentary preferences and the more unpleasant chunks of work would get pushed away further and further.
So at the moment my motivation strategy involves the following subjects and procedures:
  • a general paper list of all of my current projects
  • a paper list of the stuff I want to do during a particular week, which I write new every Friday evening for the following week. It contains very specific sub tasks of my general projects as well as all of my appointments and all the tiny bits and pieces which need to be done.
  • parallel to this process I give all these tasks and appointments a time slot in my Outlook calendar - esp. time slots reserved for checking and answering my emails! In the beginning I thought it was very strange to structure my big writing tasks as well as tiny stuff like expense reimbursement paperwork with fixed time slots, but after giving it a try for a week I found that it gives me a better feel for how long each task takes and it is quite rewarding when I'm done with a task earlier than planned. And Outlook still allows to shuffle time slots around if necessary.
  • as there is always a long list of things on which I can't continue working because I wait for other people's replies, I create follow-up notifications to remind myself to remind others
  • on Friday evening I additionally clear of my desk
So before I leave the office on Friday I have a good overview of what to expect next week and I have a non-messy desk to come back to.
  • I'll certainly do some work on the weekend, but as all of the tasks will be all on my list for the next week I can cross them off directly on Monday morning on my paper list - yeah!
  • Monday morning (and all other mornings) then starts with opening Outlook, but not on the Email page but on the Calendar page. I try to start working on the task I've given myself, which might be an urgent one, but most days I can give myself 2 hours of writing time before I do anything else, before my office colleagues turn up and before the first hunger-dip in my productivity level hits me. 
  • The first time I check my emails is after I'm done with my first time slot of the day, which is then usually followed by a coffee break.
  • Every task that is finished is then crossed of my paper to-do list - for some reason this visual progress is very important for me to realize what I have done during the day
This kind of pre-structuring of my work has helped me a lot to get going right when I sit down in front of my computer instead of wasting a lot of time checking emails and thinking about what would be the best task to start working on. There are very few days when I can perfectly stick to my plan. But even after a disruption it's easier to just refer back to the plan than to start thinking again about what would be the best use of my time right now.

So forcing myself to create tiny progress steps helps a lot to keep up my motivation and with this my productivity. 
Since I'm working more from home now and with the LittleOne arriving soon, all this structure has fallen apart and was replaced by sleeping longer, enjoying nice breakfasts with my partner, taking regular afternoon naps*, spending an increasing amount of time with my GP and midwife on all the standard check-ups they do here and going through the baby stuff we've got from friends and family. In between I'm writing on my big proposal, asking for equipment quotes, checking the proofs of my latest paper,... .  All very much unstructured and driven by my momentary mood and less productive than it could be. A new structure will be needed at some point, but if and to what extend that's possible with a newborn - we'll see. Not sure LittleOne will fit into Outlook time slots! So any tips and tricks how to handle work with a newborn are more than welcome!

* This post for example was supported by a food coma nap from 2-3 pm!

Friday, January 3, 2014

if I had a resolution list for 2014...

It is as Zoe says in her article: I have piles of unread papers printed and electronically stored. All were somehow urgent at the time I downloaded them. For some of them this process took place over a year ago. At the moment I don't read multiple books simultaneously, but it wouldn't be unusual if I did.
In the last few years I've degraded into a skimmer, especially for professional reading. I'm searching for a certain bit of information and just fly over publications to find it. But often I don't see the whole story anymore and I feel too busy to take the time to really think about what I'm reading. Even though this is bread and butter in scientific research.
So I'll adopt this as "optional" resolution for 2014: less but deeper reading. Thanks Zoe - maybe maternity leave is a good time to develop - or re-develop - such a habit.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

globalization issues - baby related

The arrival day of the LittleOne approaches and I find myself more and more often browsing through baby related websites. Compared to most other parents-to-be we know we are not well prepared yet - which means we don't think that the LittleOne will need a lot of stuff in the beginning. When it comes to clothing we did not buy anything new so far, but we got a lot of things from friends and family, even a lot of stuff that I was wearing as a baby. We are quite well equipped in this sector and there are just 2-4 things we'd like to buy new. For buying new clothes we have 2 requirements: they should be organic and they should be made in Australia. Even though Australia has quite a bit of cotton and esp. wool production, it is difficult to find clothing made from Australian raw products. So we would be fine with raw materials coming from China or India if they have the labels sustainable, organic and fair-trade.
Spending half of this afternoon browsing the web for products fitting our ideas, I found tons of websites offering organic baby clothing. But most of them are just retailers selling several different brands, so for each brand I looked up the company and by this about 90% of the content had to be ruled out, because the company was either in the US or it was just Australian-owned, which does not say much about where their products are produced (an most of them don't tell).
A while ago I talked to a colleague about the difficulty of finding organic clothes in general and she recommended to have a look on the Etsy website. You can certainly find a lot of great stuff there, but again many sellers are based in the US and I see the positive sides of buying organic shrinking a lot, when I have to have it shipped from the US. I already have issues with having stuff shipped from the other side of Australia.
The same problem now occurs for my baby-shopping plans. I'd love to support local businesses, esp. in the textile sector as it is such a dumping price market with all the issues that come with that. But living on this huge island does not seem to mean that a lot of products are Australian made. Instead, everything is shipped in from all around the world (sometimes leading to an exaggerated increased price tag) and the local producers are quite hard to find if they exist at all. "Made in Australia" is a tag very positively promoted in the media, but you can find it mostly on veggies or tourist products. The eco textile industry seems to have only a few small sprouts so far - or if there are larger companies in this sector they are hiding very well from my Google skills.
If there are any readers out there who have good suggestions for Australian-made organic clothing, please speak up! I'd be more than happy to invest my salary back in the country I currently live in.