From Musings

I’ll be back shortly…

Time to take a break!

I'll be back
I’ll be stretching out my legs on the beach. During that time, I’m pausing work on my book and blog.

Check back in October, or sign up for my mailing list, and you’ll be notified the next time I publish content here.

See you around!

In the meantime, take a look at my posts, and let me know your thoughts!

Photo credit: Stocksnap

Work-life balance and the sense of significance

I’ve spent a frantic week of trying to get things done before going on vacation. It’s reminded me that work-life balance doesn’t come easy.


I don’t know about you. I have this tendency to think that, before I go on a vacation, I should finish as much as possible. The result usually is that by the day the vacation starts, I am powered out. But at the same time, I haven’t been able to get all the things done I set out to do.

This last week was one of those weeks. I had impossible plans for myself (I won’t even bother to reveal what all I had on my list). Then, unexpectedly we received proofs for a new paper (“please return within 24 hours” — you know the drill); a draft came back from a co-author, opening up the possibility that it, too, could be finished before the vacation (not on the original list, mind you), and I had forgotten that I had promised a student to grade her thesis before I leave.

In the attempt to live up to my self-imposed goals, I skipped sports, spent far too little time with my family, and worked until late at night every day. Now, I’m out of balance, tired, and overworked.

When I left the office on Friday afternoon to start my vacation, one of my PhDs pulled up this cartoon for me – quite the perfect description for the trap I’d once again failed to avoid.

Why is it so easy to get wound up with too much work?

I think, it boils down to the sense of significance. There are actually two kinds of that. The first kind is the idea that my projects won’t run without me — I’m important for work. The other kind stems from the tendency to use work to define myself — work is important for me.

Step one on the way out is to put both in perspective: to take a deep breath and realize that my team members will do just fine while I’m gone; what wasn’t done now will get done next. And to re-evaluate and remember that work is great, but not all there is. To land back on earth and be realistic about how much can be done in a day.

Step two on the way out is to get back into a sustainable routine: get enough sleep, do sports, spend time with partner and family. Because I get more done when I’m rested, fit, and grounded in knowing that my kids couldn’t care less whether parietal cortex transforms skin-based coordinates into an external-spatial code or not, but get excited when I teach them to walk, practice riding a bike, or take them to watch Fack ju Göhte 2.

By chance, Stu McLaren and Michael Hyatt had a podcast episode on achieving work-life balance this week. I mean, talk about coincidence. Their podcast, This is your life, is of the kind that mostly reminds you of things you should know and do, but forgot and neglect. One of their main points was that balance is intentional. Unfortunately, it doesn’t just happen.

Chances are that as a science PI, you’re driven and used to pushing yourself to the limit. From time to time, ask yourself whether the pace you’re going at is sustainable.

Balance doesn’t just happen. But it happens quickly that you lose it.

Any thoughts you have on this are welcome. Use the comments section below!

Photo credit: Unsplash

Thinking together: pooling the team’s ideas for cooler research

A report about an ongoing attempt to change the flow of coming up with research ideas.

thinking together

In this post, I’ll share about how we’re experimenting with being creative in the lab.

Typical ways to develop new work programs

In the past, I’ve experienced mainly two ways of how new research programs were developed in science labs.

Model 1:
A more or less senior person, often the group head, more or less secretly comes up with more or less great new ideas, writes them up in a grant, gets the money, and then looks for someone to do the work. Thus,

  • ideas come from a single person
  • discussion about these ideas was minimal, or restricted to a few conversations, e.g. at a conference or with a mentor
  • criticism and improvement of the research ideas and their (e.g. experimental) implementation are sought at the implementation stage, that is, when a newly hired person starts working on moving the ideas from paper to the lab.

Model 2:
Ongoing research throws up some interesting, or at least unexplainable, discoveries. New work follows up to clear up the unknowns. Thus,

  • new work is directly related to current work; it is not visionary (what a big word…), but incremental.
  • The new work continues an existing line of thinking, and doesn’t connect to new fields. It specializes, but doesn’t broaden perspective.

A different way to develop research programs

In one of the podcasts I listen to (unfortunately, I can’t recall which one it was), I heard about a company that has all employees come together for a whole day once a month. There is a single rule: you can’t talk about your regular, day-to-day work.

Instead, the employees of that company talk about anything that is on — or comes to — their mind that normally gets pushed back due to the pressures of everyday workload and deadlines. The objectives of these meetings are to increase communication in the company, identify trends, collect ideas etc.

A slightly more organized approach

I was intrigued about the approach to explicitly cancel work for a day and to focus on a higher level of things, and decided to give it a try.

We organized a 3-day group retreat. Half of it was dedicated to discussion about “higher level” science ideas, with the explicit aim to get away from what we’re currently doing.

Here’s how we went about:

  • Everyone read 1-3 recent review papers that sounded interesting in preparation of the retreat. They were unrelated to current projects.
  • At the retreat, everyone gave a 15-20 min overview over the main points s/he learned from the paper(s), and what s/he found most interesting and promising.
  • Then, we teamed up in couples to discuss for an hour. This discussion had 3 aims:
    1. Try and find connections between the two topics of the two discussants.
    2. Try and find connections to our group’s current work: can we expand towards these fields; can we find new experimental paradigms from those fields; do these fields challenge our work and our assumptions in some way?
    3. Try and come up with experiment ideas, whether related to current work or not.
  • Everyone teamed up with everyone else, so we had several discussion rounds.
  • Each time, we wrote thoughts, ideas, difficulties etc. on flip charts.
  • At the end of the day, we wrapped up, with each small team recapping their discussion in 5 minutes. We created a mindmap of the day’s outcome.

The results were amazing.

We opened up entirely new roads of possible research. Although I took part in the discussions just like everyone else, the coolest ideas came from the teams in which I wasn’t a part. We have a mindmap of directions we can go, and we can take it out to form new experiments, and to add on still new ideas. And last not least, everyone felt that we had been able to discuss in a way that has just not been possible in our everyday lab life, even with communicative group meetings and journal clubs.

So, we’re now setting up monthly discussion days. I’m not sure yet whether and how we’ll structure those, but the aim is to step out of our daily routines, to continue building the mindmap, to expand our group’s horizon, and to pool together everyone’s ideas.

Model 3…

So, group creativity is an alternative to Models 1 and 2. Its characteristics are:

  • Ideas come from many people, each of them smart(er than the group head).
  • An idea’s potential, caveats, confounds, etc. are discussed well before implementation, and many eyes see much more than 2 or 4.
  • New research has a bigger chance of being visionary (yes! yes! again the big word!), and less incremental.
  • As a “side” effect, by the way, everyone in the team gains a broader horizon, new knowledge about less directly related scientific topics, and there is more communication between different projects in the lab.

Open questions

In a company, it might not be very important who came up with an idea, as long as the money comes rolling in at some point. In science, this is a bit different. Ideas are the core of a scientific career.

If ideas are thrown around freely in a big group like I suggest in this post, it is important to talk about how to make sure that credit is given to who deserves it. I think this is different than when you discuss ideas one-on-one with a team member, because it will be much harder to keep track of who said what.

We’re talking, for instance, about first and last author positions on papers. But more than that, imagine you’re a Postdoc at the stage of writing your first grant, and you find that the ideas that developed out of your input to group days — which you assumed would end up in your grant — turn out to be part of your supervisor’s new grant initiative.

It will not always be easy to reconstruct where an idea came from. And, let’s be realistic, seniors can be hard nuts about authorship. In your group, you’re the senior, and it’s your responsibility to be fair, in return for everyone letting out their creativity.

So, probably some form of write-up at the end of the day, summing up the major ideas and contributors, might be useful (though it feels like a creativity killer at the same time).

In my group, we’re just starting the discussion about these issues. I’ll post updates as we go along.

In the meantime, I’m really curious how ideas develop in your team. And, about whether and how you handle giving credit to originators of ideas. Post a comment in the box at the end of the page!

Photo credit: / Foter / CC BY-SA

The rule of 3 and 10: group life still working?

Humans like routine. Group life is no different. Before you know it, things just “go like that”, “work that way”, and “have always been like this”. Of course, routines break all the time. The rule of 3 and 10 predicts that routines stop working when the number of group members changes. But even if it doesn’t, rethinking group life from time to time keeps your group healthy.

still working?

Organic growth

Every group has its own life. You have certain meetings, certain ways to communicate, and certain ways to do things.

A lot of these aspects of group life develop by themselves, driven by the people of the team. Some things, of course, you decide in the beginning, such as the kind of meetings you will have and when.

Things stop working

Sometimes, what worked really well for a while just stops working. Meetings get so boring that you can hardly keep your eyes open, and people start texting instead of listening.

Communication fails: tasks are forgotten, important messages aren’t delivered.

Information becomes hard to find: team members just don’t find the info they need, and start reinventing the wheel.

Take action before it’s needed

If you look out for it, you can catch these kinds of decline well in advance. On a regular basis, ask yourself and your team whether things are still going well:

  • Are meetings still effective and instructive? Have the regular building blocks of your meetings become boring? Have they lost their purpose?
  • Are you even having the right meetings? Are the right people attending? Can some people stop attending?
  • Are the organically grown processes still efficient and effective? Where does information get lost, and where is the way things are done complicated or annoying?

Together with your team, find better ways and improve things. It doesn’t have to take long.

I put meeting evaluations on my calendar every 3 months, and just ask at the beginning of a meeting what everyone thinks could be done differently. Nothing’s built in stone.

The rule of 3 and 10

Grown group structures become obsolete especially when the number of team members changes. Phil Libin, the founder of Evernote, reports that pretty much all processes need overhaul whenever group size triples or reaches the next order of magnitude. So, from being alone to being 3; from 3 to 10; 10 to 30; 30 to 100.

In science, most groups won’t reach 100 members. But the lab I used to work in grew from 4 to 40 within some 7 years. I didn’t know the 3/10 rule, but looking back, I can see how things broke and needed fixing.

Group growth can go much faster than you anticipate. Over the last couple of years, my core group was 5 people, but we had a flow of student assistants, BSc and MSc students. In the blink of an eye, a group meeting grew from 5 to 15. And indeed, we changed the meeting structure. New people, new needs.

Keep your eyes and ears open.

Leave a note about how you go about changing your lab’s routines in the comments below!


The rule of 3 and 10 was passed on from Hiroshi Mikitani to Phil Libin, the founder of Evernote. Read more about it here.

Photo credit: jeffeaton / Foter / CC BY-SA