Thursday, July 20, 2017

A Change of (Research) Scenery


When it comes to routine, I am the best. I absolutely love getting into a daily groove and staying there for a long time. I also love going to the same restaurants on multiple occasions and watching my favorite movies and shows many times over. (Most recent case in point: I have watched the entire available-in-America catalog of The Great British Baking Show more times than I can count. I was on round five last time I checked and that was a while ago.)* There's something delightful about establishing a routine or revisiting something familiar. You know exactly what you'll get and you can look forward to enjoying it.

By best, I also mean worst. Not just because most people find this approach to life terribly dull for lacking in spontaneity. I see the value in changes and I do like to mix it up on occasion. (Mostly when a friend asks that we eat at not-the-same-restaurant-we-always-go-to.) I mean that sometimes routine can be detrimental to a research program. 

Fully immersing ourselves in a research project has plenty of advantages, as does regular/daily writing and setting a model of consistency for mentees. These practices can produce both more efficient and higher-quality work than repeatedly re-orienting to a project whenever opportunity arises. But even this can be taken too far. In my case, I get so engrossed that I don't leave my building for eight or nine hours at a time during winter and summer breaks. I get lots of work done, but my efficiency decreases after several days (or weeks) in a row of this approach. 

To combat my tendency to retread a very deep path, I've embraced two practices:

(1) The writing retreat, and 
(2) The collaborative research trip.

I've tweeted about the writing retreats I organize for our faculty writing group at my university (see below),** and others have written (very eloquently) about the benefits and how-tos of these events. There's something about a change of scenery for the purpose of writing that packs a punch. Faculty offices are associated with plenty of other kinds of work, and it's easy to get distracted or restless. Finding a peaceful location where the goal is to write gives us something extra to look forward to and the perfect justification for putting other work on hold.





Running on the BFP.
In contrast, the collaborative research trip is new for me. By "collaborative research trip," I mean an extended stay at a university where you have collaborators and intensive collaborative work during that stay. In my case, I've continued to work closely with my postdoc fellowship lab, which is 2+ hours away in Philadelphia. I've been back to visit several times in the past three years, but never for more than a day or two at a time. This summer, the lab set me up with a small office for a week in order to have more face time for papers and grant applications. This is my fourth day on campus - I've made considerable progress on a manuscript I started last month and specific plans for two more manuscripts on related topics, plus tentative plans for grant applications. I've also been able to run in my old haunts, like the Ben Franklin Parkway and Boathouse Row. Quite a productive week so far!

Office space for Philly visit.
But this trip has been great for my research and for me beyond the concrete productivity. It's reconnected me to a type of research (i.e., large clinical trials) that I have yet to implement at my institution, and it's given me the opportunity to spend both work and personal time with people I don't see very often. I've also loved having time to myself to read, focus on marathon training, and avoid any sort of routine. I had already planned to visit again during my Spring 2018 sabbatical, and now I know that I'll visit as often as they'll let me!

This is your life moment of the week: Busting out of a routine helps to establish balance. Looking forward to getting back to my usual, but also to my next break from it :)

*I'm a member of my local public broadcasting affiliate, obviously, so I've even binge-watched all of season 4 many times.
**Please ignore the typo in this one - Twitter really needs an EDIT button!

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