Friday, 25 April 2014

Post-leave planning

So I said I was going to spend two weeks planning, before plunging back into the same torrent of reading, writing, seminars and refereeing as before I went on leave. And what have I been doing?

'Working' as an academic is unlike most jobs. Not because there isn't any real work involved, whatever my friends and family think;
 Academics work hard, they work long, and have little time and energy left over for other life matters. But my daily schedule is radically different from most non-academics I know. Firstly, there is the flexibility. I don't have hours. I don't have to be at my office by a particular time, or for a particular amount of time. There is some official fact written down somewhere about how many days holiday I can take in a year. But in reality, I very much doubt that anybody would notice, or have much to say about it, if I didn't set foot in my office for, well all year. Of course, many people work from home these days, and I often do too. But actually, nobody would really notice if I didn't do that either. At least not for a good few months. My employers impose no deadlines, there is no checking up on me, no projects that I must complete. Once a year they ask me to write a few lines saying what I've been up to. That's it.

Which, of course, is why those close to me think that I am a lazy, spawny layabout. Except they don't really, because they know how hard I work. If I count the number of weekends that have been actual weekends in the last few years before I went on leave - as in, no nipping into the office, no marking, no reading of academic journal articles in bed - well its the minority. I don't want to join in the game academics play of competitive who works hardest/is most stressed out, because a) its stress inducing in itself b) it only encourages outsiders to think we doth protest too much. Plus, I'm the last person who would whinge/want to put grad students off from pursuing this most glorious, gilded of careers. The upsides are unparalleled, the work like balance is not that bad (thought it does help if you love your subject so much that you are happy to pursue it in place of 'hobbies') and the flexibility means its a wonderful job to have if you want to become a parent!! Baby sick and can't go to nursery? No problem, I'll stay home today and catch up at the weekend.


What is unusual, and hard sometimes, is the independence. Nobody tells me what to do, when to do it, how much of it to do. Its great. But I still gott do it. And that takes a huge amount of commitment, will power and stiff-self-talking-to (not a euphemism) on a daily basis, which is tiring. Sometimes I wish someone would tell me what to do. And how! and when to stop. Its easy not to go to work. To spend the day reading blogs*. To have long chats over even longer coffees. But if I don't put the hours, and the gut clenching, jaw aching effort in, they my cv starts to look a little, well, static. and that means no more glorious gilded lucky-as-a-cat-in-a-fishmongers career for ellen. so I got to stay on the ball.

Being completely self-governing means I have to be organised, and do a lot of planning. But nobody told me how to do this either. I make it up as I go along. So today I thought I'd procrastinate *ahem* write about how I do my planning, in the hope that someone reading might find it useful, or even better, might write to me with some better ideas!

This week I went through old notes, old notebooks, old folders on old computers, scanning through the reams of ambiguous and opaque missives I have written to myself over the years. The aim of this was to compile a document called 'papers to write'.

I've got an ambition to try to broaden my remit a bit, what we adacemics call my 'AOE: area of expertise'. I'd like to try to capitalise on having had a bit of time out to change my perspective a bit, to work on new areas. So I dredged through my past looking for all the ideas I once had, and stuck them in a table, with numbers and columns. I added all the things I've thought about these past 12 months. Each one started with just a title, some of which were hugely general and/or ambiguous, like 'something on philosophy of conservation' and 'genes as persisting entities'. Then I added more columns, with the headings 'people I can talk to about it', 'places I can publish it' and 'sources'. I filled in these spaces with names of journals, names of colleagues, names of notebooks and papers in the latter case. I then gave each item a new row that I could fill with notes as I expanded on the idea.

Finally, I needed some evaluation. So each item got four new columns. 'How spelled out is it?'; 'How niche, as opposed to mainstream, is it?'; 'How significant/important is it?' and 'How much do I want to do it?' Each of these columns got from nought to five stars.

I noticed then that the last column was a bit redundant, as it really just echoed the 'How significant is it?' rating. But in this itself I learnt something - that the newer, wilder, more ambitious projects are always more exciting, appetising than the ones that are safer, closer to completion.

So then I had to decide how to decide which projects to tackle, when. By the way, my completed document contained 42 (coincidence, douglas adams fans?) projects, so there is no way I will ever get round to them all (what a sad thought). But plenty of them probably ain't worth it anyway. My supervisor once said that a good rate of output to aim for is two strong papers per year. So I have to do some serious cutting down.

My first decision was to balance my exposure to risk, by taking the projects two at a time, pairing a safe, close-to-completion but not exactly revolutionary project with one I'm salivating over. Then I can alternate which one I'm working on, and hopefully finish both. In the worst case, assuming the sexy subject takes me into a dead end, at least I finish the low-risk paper. But attention breeds attention, so I don't take the even safer strategy of just finishing all the nearly-done projects first and then moving on. If I did that, I'd never end up moving on.

So my plan for the year plots out three pairs of papers, each getting four months, giving the wildly over-ambitious plan of six papers this year. Back on earth, I hope to submit at least four of these, and see at least two through to print. That part is largely uncontrollable, thanks to the unpredictable and erratic wait times the journals give. But the important thing is I at least get manuscripts sent out for feedback.

This is the plan, world.
1. Bacterial individuality, plus invisible hands in biology and politics
2. How to count organisms, plus biological kinds
3. Organismality and adaptations, plus transposon individuality

This is at least a start, and it will in all reality change radically as I change my mind/get different inputs/run into dead ends.
I weep as I list all the projects this means I won't be able to fit in this year - emergence, evolution of tracking, modularity, etc etc. But its nice to think I might be able to fit in time to write about them briefly on this blog instead : )

There are two other huge, unanswered questions.
1) Should I try to put on a grad class in philosophy of biology this year?
2) Should I write a monograph ( a short book) about biological individuality?

So thats it. Thats my year sorted out. Does it sound sensible? How does it compare to yours?

Feedback please!!!

*nb this didn't count as pracrastination because a) its a commitment device and b) Orson was napping.


Tyler said...

I'm happy your interested in transposons :) I was talking with my advisor, Ryan Gregory, and our colleague Stefan Linquist about how interesting/how useful a system transposons might be for philosophers of biology. I think we just need to get the word out more.

Ellen Clarke said...

you're not wrong, Tyler. We'll chat again soon, I'm on it. In the meantime, have you come across Jonathan Birch's paper - gene mobility and the concept of relatedness. Its second on my reading list, should provide more fuel for thought.

Tyler said...

Sorry I took so long to get back to you, I did read the paper I just got sidetracked with various things. The section on whole-group relatedness, dealing with character-specific relatedness, seemed relevant to TEs in my mind.