Stress in Research. Part IV: A Tsunami of Logistics

By Charles Sutton on July 7, 2018

The fourth in a tidal wave of posts about stress in research.

Here’s a source of stress for people who have gotten a bit more senior in their careers, like new professors or managers.

On a previous post in the series, a colleague commented:

What gets me is the daily tsunami of logistics: questions that need responses, decisions that have to be made, scheduling, and millions of small deadlines.

Every new professor mentions this. If senior professors complain about this less often, perhaps it is because they are simply better at ignoring questions that need responses. More on that later.

Making decisions is stressful for those who lack the training or personality. A PhD trains you to think deeply and carefully about an issue. Scientifically speaking, you want to reserve judgment when you don’t have all of the information, not go ahead and make a snap decision anyway. As an administrator, though, sometimes that is exactly what you must do. Maybe the thing that stresses me the most, though, is when I inevitably fall behind the tsunami, I hate the feeling that I’m letting people down. This feeling is actually one of the things that bothers me most about academia, even though I’m well aware that if I did spend all of my time attending to logistics promptly, I would still be letting people down, in a deeper way.

The logistics tsunami is, like all tsunamis, perilous. The obvious danger is that you spend so much time sending emails like a tired diplomat that you lose your time for work that requires deeper thought. Your ability to do deep work is why you won your job in the first place, so not doing it once you’ve reached a higher level is not so great.

The logistics tsunami brings another, more insidious danger. This danger is not about losing your time but losing your mind. Your unconscious mind, I mean. A lot of our most important thinking happens unconsciously, our brains churning in the background while our focus is elsewhere, until the wonderful moment when a thought finally pops into our consciousness, like Athena in the mind of Zeus. For me, this usually happens when I’m walking. For you, it might be in the shower, or when you are sitting with your coffee. I really like the way that Female Science Professor talks about your brain on administration. When you start doing too much administration, the tsunami starts to take over your unconscious mind, and the wonderful ideas that pop up start to be about what you can spend a tiny slice of your grant budget on, or how to phrase that sensitive email, instead of what to write your next paper about. This is the most terrible danger.

I have now delayed for too long the part of the blog where I explain my optimistic but wise, surprising but helpful, advice on how to manage the tsunami. I am afraid that I must report that the delay didn’t help me come up with any better ideas. All I can say is

  • When you have many decisions, you must decide quickly. This is the secret that good decider-people know that you and I don’t. Me, I like to mull over things. Then by the time I actually make a decision, I know I’m sure, so I feel a lot better about it. That’s OK for big decisions, but not so good for deciding whether you want to meet tomorrow at 1pm or 2pm. When it doesn’t really matter, wrap up the matter quickly.

  • Learn how to partition your time. Deep thinking requires uninterrupted blocks of time. These are hard to find, but you must. I think that the optimal block size varies from person to person. Some people split things up by day. You could have “teaching days”, “admin days”, “research days”, and so on. Some people enforce no-meeting days. Some people will work Sundays, but only on research. Some people don’t check email before 4PM. Some people send lots of emails late at night because they’re tired anyway. I don’t split things up by day, because I like to do small tasks when I get tired from concentrating. I make sure to schedule meetings back to back, to try to keep blocks of time for deeper work.

  • Protect the time when you are most creative. When you go to partition your time, you’ll want to remember what time of day you are most creative and have the most energy. That is the time that you need to reserve for the most creative work. If people often drop by your office — we all love an open door policy — then this is the time to not be in your office.

  • Make good use of odd chunks of time. As much as we bemoan smartphones, they shine at this. If you only have 10 minutes until your next meeting, the tsunami will happily offer you things that take only 10 minutes to do. To be an effective professor, you need to play Tetris with time.

  • You need a to-do list. If you know about things you need to do that aren’t written down, a part of your unconscious will repeat them over and over, so you don’t forget. You have many more important jobs for your unconscious mind than that. I like the principles behind the Getting Things Done system very much, although my practice is distinctly imperfect.

  • Find a fast way to schedule meetings. Really a special case of the first principle. If you spend 20 hours a week in meetings, it’s easy to spend a couple hours a week arranging meetings. You need to make arranging a time as simple as possible, using whatever tools work for you. For example, I have my Google calendar hooked up to Doodle, so when an administrator sends out a Doodle poll, I can respond in one click. Some online calendars have features for creating appointment slots. Some people publish their free/busy schedule publicly. Whatever works for you.

  • Know when “good enough” is good enough. The easiest way to get more things done is to spend less time doing each thing. Your research requires certain habits of mind, careful and precise thought, perhaps. I guarantee you that this level of clarity and precision is not required for your emails. Jenny Pickerill has a nice Twitter thread on satisficing as a professor. Satisficing is more painful for tasks that are more central to our mission. Any university class can be made 20% better at the cost of twice as much prep time — don’t do it. (I received this advice, second hand, from an award-winning lecturer!) I’m not saying that you should be puzzling out your colleague’s slides for the first time in front of the class, either. You need to find something in the middle, and the same goes for the service that you do inside and outside of the university.

Social Skills in Context, or How being a Professor is Kind of Like Being a Mafia Hitman

By Charles Sutton on June 1, 2018

Benjamin “Lefty Guns” Ruggiero was a fearsome Mafia hitman in New York in the 70s. According to an undercover FBI agent who knew him well, he was smart and savvy in underworld situations. He could walk into a restaurant where he knew no one, watch who talked to who, watch how they talked, and work out who was in the underworld, who received more deference, whether the restaurant was being extorted.

In other situations, a different story. The FBI agent, Joseph Pistone, was himself an incredibly perceptive observer (if he wasn’t, he’d have been murdered). He reports:

A lot of these wiseguys did not have the ability to move around the country. Once you got these guys out of New York City, they were like fish out of water.... As they schooled me in the mafia, I had to school them on how to make airline reservations. I am talking about a 49-year-old man, telling him how to make airline reservations to three different cities, with an open return, because we did not know what date we were going to return to New York City.
Joseph Pistone Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia

Of course I was immediately reminded of computer science research. In research situations, I think of myself as reasonably socially aware: I have a network of mentors, students, and collaborators; I can meet new colleagues and have interesting technical discussions; I can even navigate the occasional difficult conversation when the need arises.

But outside of work, I can be a bit more awkward, or at least that’s what my wife says.

We stereotype technical people as having low social skills, and I’ll admit knowing people who fully meet that stereotype. The Mafia hitman reminds us that social skills are context specific: you can be savvy in one type of situation, and clueless in another. “Social skills” aren’t a single skill, any more than intellectual skills are.

And the term implies something else. Social skills are skills. You can learn them. And it is in the interests of your career to do so.

Stress in Research. Part III: The Trouble about Freedom

By Charles Sutton on May 5, 2018

The third post in what is becoming an increasingly long series on stress in research.

I joked before that there’s no reason researchers should feel stress: how stressful can a job be if you’re not expected to roll in to work until 10 o’clock in the morning? But more seriously, this flexibility is itself a source of stress.

Academics don’t really have bosses, despite what our senior leadership sometimes seem to think. We do have a head of department, of course, but the relationship isn’t like having a supervisor. I don’t have weekly meetings with my department head to report my progress on my current projects. And I would never go to my head of department and say I’ve got too much to do, can she tell me how I should prioritize my workload so that I focus on tasks that are most important to the University. The very idea is laughable.

Instead of having a boss, we have sources of work. Students from our own university and around the world ask us if we can supervise their research projects. We review and comment on reports from our own students. We are asked to evaluate finished PhD theses from students at other universities, in our own country and worldwide. Funding agencies from our country and others ask us to review proposals for multi-million pound research projects. Representatives from the government ask us to discuss connections with problems of national interest. We organize workshops and conferences. We meet researchers in other universities and governments to learn about their work and explore potential collaborations. The great thing about the blog I just linked to — it is actually called why academics feel overworked — is that it tries to make a complete list of where academic work comes from. My list just above is incomplete because I’m only mentioning things that I can remember happening in the past week. (And this, with me on sabbatical; I’m not teaching this year.) All of these sources of work are people who are asking politely for our help on important work of their own. None of these sources of work know about each other.

To be successful, of course it is important to learn to say “no”, and to learn to say “no” often. There are tricks about how to say “no” better, in a way that helps the person who have asked. Many other blogs talk about that, so I won’t go further now. It’s enough to say that even if you say “no” a lot, you will still have a lot to do.

Instead, I want to talk about flexibility. It’s no surprise that having a lot to do creates stress. But having the flexibility to choose what to do also creates stress. The problem is that flexibility creates guilt. Suppose I have tasks A, B, C, and D to do — too many — and my boss instructs me to prioritize C, even though I think A is more important. I might be annoyed or dismayed by a poor decision being made, but I’m not responsible for the poor decision.

When I prioritize, I am responsible. When I choose to do one thing, I’m keenly aware that there are many other things that I could be doing, behind each a person who would like a few minutes (or a few hours) of my help. For every thing I choose to do, there are other people that I feel like I am letting down. I am never quite sure if the thing I have chosen to do is the right one. Sometimes I’m quite sure that the thing that I’m doing is not the most important, but maybe simply the most important that I have enough energy for.

Why is the flexibility necessary? Why couldn’t academic work and research work be managed more directly, like other types of work? Our situation is not as unusual as it may seem — in any career, the more senior you become, the more you are expected to set the agenda rather than follow an agenda that is given to you. In academia and research specifically, there are two forces that mandate flexibility for good work.

The first: If you do not have freedom to prioritize, you do not have intellectual freedom, because part of intellectual freedom is deciding what to think about.

The second: The job of a researcher is about creating positive externalities. Our work is to perpetuate and create a large portion of human knowledge. When we succeed, the value of our work is enjoyed by society as a whole, rather than the institution that employs us. This is why the idea of going to my department head for advice on prioritizing is so laughable. We cannot ask the institution what is most valuable, because so much of the value that we create does not return to the institution. You become an academic because you believe the specialized knowledge that fascinates you has, in some small sense, importance to society as a whole. Another responsibility, and another stressor!

Stress in Research. Part II: Research Worth and Self-Worth

By Charles Sutton on April 7, 2018

The second post in what is perhaps a series on stress in research.

It might be surprising, but one of the main sources of stress in research is self-esteem. It’s so common and tempting to think of career success as a measure of one’s moral worth as a person. Stated so bluntly, it sounds like the silliest thing in the world to believe, yet I expect that we have all, at least at times, at least unconsciously, fallen into this trap.

The source of this trap is cognitive dissonance, and the danger of the trap is that research is a roller coaster. Every researcher has days when they’ve had some good success, and they feel on top of the world. To resolve the cognitive dissonance, you feel that because you’re happy about one thing, you’re happy about everything. Your career is going well, your personal life is going well, you’re just a good person all around.

But you know what they say about what goes up. There will always be weeks and months when experiments don’t work, when paper submissions and job applications are rejected, several in a row. Then the emotional effects can hit hard. Nobody likes having a frustrating time in their research. But if you conflate research worth with self-worth, if you tell yourself that the main way that your life will contribute to the world is by your groundbreaking work, then when your research is going poorly, you feel like a failure in life. Not for nothing has it been observed that academics face relatively high mental health risk.

So how do we avoid the trap of conflating your colleagues’ respect for you as a researcher with your own self-respect as a human being? For what it’s worth, I’d expect that this trap occurs in all of the creative professions. Indeed, as much as academics like to think of ourselves as unique creatures, none of the sources of stress in research are unique to the job of research. Perhaps that is a topic for another time, but it does not help us here: Knowing that our stress is shared is not alone enough to relieve it.

Another blog might tell you: Keep a professional distance. The way to avoid conflating your research success to your self-worth is to think of research as a job rather than a calling. But that’s not the advice that I will give, because if you want to do good work, sometimes you need to take things personally. As the great Captain says, sometimes you need your pain. So I’ll ask the question differently. How do we keep our passion for research without harming our mental health?

The mental tricks that work a bit for me, may not work for you. So I’ll list a few different mental strategies, strategies for self-talk — those who know me will know that I am a big fan of talking to myself — that you can experiment with.

One strategy is to focus on the fun, for example, by treating a tenure-track faculty job like a seven-year postdoc. Richard Feynman has a wonderful story about recapturing fun in his research. One always wonders if Feynman’s stories are exaggerated, but the principle of countering stress by fun is surely sound.

Another good strategy is to have backup sources of self-worth. Academic jobs are naturally set up this way. Even if no one reads my papers the minute after I die, or frankly, the minute after they’re written, I’ve still taught hundreds of students about fundamental knowledge that has helped them, if only a little. That’s another source of professional self-worth. Or of course, one can seek self-worth from being a good child, parent, spouse, sibling, and friend. Both of these — teaching and family — are instances of a more general point. We should find worth in our relationships with other people.

Another strategy is simply to have truly excessive reserves of self-confidence, so that whenever the roller coaster goes down, you can tell yourself with absolute conviction that the roller coaster will go up again, because by god you are brilliant enough to push it up again all by yourself. I know I’m making this sound ridiculous, but I’ve read an interview with a Nobelist who basically said that lots of other people doubted him, but he never doubted himself. Whether it was bravado or truth I don’t know, but hey, if it works for him.

A final strategy of which I’m personally fond. I firmly believe that one of the most important mental abilities in life, one that to the great detriment of our world few people master, is to learn to believe contradictory things. One of the many lovely details of the Kingkiller Chronicles is that there is a type of magic that depends on having a will strong enough to believe contradictory things simultaneously. Back in this world, almost all statements are sometimes true and sometimes false. The same is true in research.

An example of embracing a noble contradiction: I do believe that, if you want to be effective as a researcher, work needs to be the most important thing to you during the time that you are working. Creative work really does require complete focus. But there is no need to maintain this belief while you are not working. During those times, you can understand that most research work comes to nothing, and that is no waste as long as some small fraction of the research in the world makes a large enough difference.

Another example: Because our careers require so much time and passion, it’s natural that professional colleagues sometimes become personal friends. This means that I think it’s important to be able to value someone as a friend, even if you do not particularly care for their research. Stated plainly, this is obvious — how could it be otherwise? — but it’s so easy to be confused into thinking that once you admire one aspect of someone, that you like everything about them. Again, this is a confusion that arises from cognitive dissonance. It requires conscious effort to be able to separate your admiration or criticism of someone’s work with your admiration (or lack thereof!) of them as a trustworthy, loyal friend.

Once I’ve learned to do that, perhaps I can extend the same courtesy to myself.

Stress in Research. Part I: The Tournament and the Axe

By Charles Sutton on March 3, 2018

Perhaps the first post in a series.

From one point of view, research is the best job in the world. You get to be creative and follow your curiosity. You are always learning; if you ever stop, you have stopped doing research. You can collaborate with brilliant people, and help young smart people to find the frontiers of knowledge.

And for all that, I think research will never stop causing me heartache and stress. If you have any capacity in your psyche for self-doubt, you will find that capacity nurtured and magnified during your career in research. But why should this be? The requirements of the job are blessedly open-ended, and we are granted substantial flexibility in how we manage our work. I mean, come on, how stressful can a job be if you’re not expected to roll in to work until 10 o’clock in the morning?

In this series, I will try to isolate and understand the sources of stress and in research, and how we might cope. I say “isolate”, “cope”, and not “eliminate” — I suspect that top-quality work is not possible without accepting some stress. But maybe there’s a way to get by accepting a little bit less.

The first triggers of stress that I want to talk about arise as a consequence of how people get jobs in research, and how the research community is structured. These are the Tournament and the Axe.

First, the Tournament. The research community is structured around an series of increasingly more selective, and more difficult, international tournaments. Most undergraduate students choose to focus their work elsewhere, but of those that choose to do a PhD, most — including your humble author — are not admitted to their first-choice school. Of those who start a PhD, many do not complete it. Of those who complete their PhD, many do not go on to another research position. Of those who become assistant professors in the US, some do not receive tenure. Finally, even of the top researchers, those who have a large group and regularly publish well-received papers, only a small number of them can honestly say that they have ever in their career achieved a groundbreaking new result.

And now let’s consider your competition in the Tournament, your international colleagues in the research community. When you first join a research community, usually by attending your first workshop or conference, it’s overwhelming to meet so many new interesting people, who are fascinated by the same arcane technology as you, and who all seem smarter than you. This is partly an illusion: all these people have been around the community longer than you, so they simply have more background and experience, not more raw power.

But there’s truth in the illusion too: There really are lots of people smarter than you. That is no insult. I’ll explain. For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that you are a unique genius, a special talent, one in a million. Even if you are one in a million, that means there are 7600 people in the world who are smarter than you. And the organizations of the research community are specifically designed to help you to meet them.

What’s more, the outcome of the Tournament is public. The papers we publish, the prestigious jobs that we accept, the awards that we win, these are all public. The people stronger than you, or luckier, you can see the evidence of their success. And you suspect that others, your colleagues and friends, can see where you stand as well.

And then, the Axe. Many levels of the Tournament are up or out. You either succeed in a competition to move the next level, or you move to a career outside of research. The tenure system for assistant professors in the United States is famously up or out, but all earlier levels of your career path are, too. For example, I thought being a postdoctoral researcher was the best job in the world. I loved coming in to work every day. But I also knew there was the Axe over my head. If I hadn’t made enough progress in the two years that I had, I might not be able to remain in a research active position.

All this together causes a lot of stress, or at least it has for me. I like to think that there are attitudes and habits of mind that can reduce the stress of the Tournament, at least a little bit:

  • Understand that every Tournament is also a game. Success in the Tournament is not solely a reflection of your intelligence or your skill, but also your ability to play. It’s so easy to conflate your success in your career with your self-worth, but to do so too strongly is destructive. Disconnect your self-worth and your regard for others from performance in the Tournament.

  • Appreciate that winning the Tournament is not always the right move. The trap of the Tournament is that because it is a game, we naturally feel that winning a game is better than losing it. Not so. Choosing to leave a game is better than winning, when the game is not worth playing — when you enjoy other careers more than research, or if another career provides a better path for you to contribute professionally to the world. It would be almost a cliche to say “there is no shame” in leaving research, but it would also be a grave disservice, the language already buying into the bogus narrative that the competitions are there to be won. So I say instead: To start down one career path, recognize that it is not the best way for you to contribute, and choose another — I salute and admire the strength and self-knowledge that is needed to do this.

  • The Tournament is not the core of research. I’ve been describing the research community as a competitive, perhaps even unfriendly, place. And it is competitive. But I’ve not found it to be unfriendly. I’ve met so many colleagues who have helped me by collaborating with me, explaining their work, graciously helping me to understand the field better. This creates the cognitive dissonance, how can the community be both competitive and helpful at the same time? I reconcile these views by viewing competition as a type of collaboration. We have, together, decided to build a competition for attention, in the hope that it will help all of us to reach our full potential and teach each other as much as we can. So it is not the competition that is central to research, but learning.

  • To paraphrase the philosopher Marsellus Wallace, jealousy only hurts. It never helps. You meet someone smarter than you, someone who has accomplished more than you despite being ten years younger, it’s all right to be impressed or amazed, but not jealous. You need to train yourself to think instead: hey, what a great person to learn from!

  • Accept the existence of the Axe. Perhaps not helpful advice, because it is too easily said, but still important. There is nothing to be gained by spending too much time staring at the Axe above you. You know it’s there and you know it’s sharp. You still need to get on with what you have to do, if you intend to stay in the game.