Thursday, November 10, 2022

Tips to Manage Your Research Projects in Tumultuous Moments of Life

By Maria Stone

Maria Stone is a doctoral student at the University of Turku (Finland) in the astronomy program. She is curious about galaxy evolution, loves spending time with her family, and hopes to see the northern lights someday. She is passionate about science and believes anyone can do it.

Maria Stone (Contribute Photo)

I like what I do - being an astronomer is a dream come true! However, I sometimes face situations where I find myself struggling to focus, struggling to concentrate. The deadlines and many demands on my time seem overwhelming. Already in my career, I realize that I am not alone in my struggles. It's a normal part of life - that sometimes there is too much on your plate. But I hope, after taking a good deep breath, you encourage yourself that you can do it. That’s what I do. Below, I share a few practical tips to gently but firmly continue making progress in my research despite chaotic circumstances. These ideas are not all my own, and I gained some of this wisdom during my internship at NASA, and some from reading about other inspiring women pioneers in STEM. I especially rely on these tips after becoming a mom, but they can apply to any situation. If you have other suggestions, please share them.

1. Start somewhere. You don't have to have everything planned out, and you don't have to start with the most important thing. Starting somewhere might get you in the groove and give you the nudge then to continue on and keep going on. Later, you can adjust what you are working on, as you see fit. It's important, because often there are so many things that I tend to feel like giving up, but starting somewhere gives me confidence and makes me feel productive.

2. Realize that the journey starts with a single step (a Chinese proverb). So in order to accomplish a big goal, you need to make small steps. Each step may be small, but they all add up at the end. So, in case you have a larger project, consider applying that advice.

For example, if I have a paper revision, reviewing all the comments in one go might make me feel that the paper is doomed. But I sometimes have to start from the easiest revisions and build up to the bigger ones. Such as, correcting first a 'no-brainer' mistake, such as misspelling, or the wrong Figure number, or some technical formatting aspect in a Table. Then I try harder ones.

By the yard it's hard.
Inch by inch, it's a cinch.

3. Make very realistic goals for the day. Write them down. Examples from my own lists are:

  • Make three corrections in the draft.

  • Read three papers (or three sections of a single paper).

  • Spend 30 min to think about this programming bug, and if still unresolved, post a question in a forum.

  • Draft one sub-section of the funding application.

  • Start learning a new analysis method (and I block off for example 1 hour each day for the next few weeks.

  • Write down a preliminary plan/to do list for maintaining progress on one of the research projects

  • Spend 30 minutes on organizing my office space

  • Answer this one important email

It’s good to have a list, with 1-3 items on it for that day. See, sometimes I get into the trap of thinking that I have to figure out in my head what is the “perfect” list - with the most important tasks first, which are due the soonest, which give me the biggest boost in career, which are the most significant scientifically, etc. But the reality is, the list does not have to be perfect. At the beginning of the day (for me after I drop off my kid at daycare, nurse and settle the second, meditate a moment and have my second cup of coffee), just jot down 1-3 items. You can always improve the list later, modify it, add more items to it if needed. You don’t have a perfect plan, you can have an okay plan, and just improve it as you go.

Moreover, if you have a particularly challenging task, instead of getting stuck on it for weeks, you can set it aside for a while and come back to it with a fresh head. I also find it helpful to write out my questions or problems. It’s okay not to resolve everything right away.

When doing analysis in research, I find it useful for me to write down on paper what I was thinking to do next, and I make a note of the code filename, or image filename, since sometimes due to family duties I don’t manage to come back to the project right away, and it might be challenging to remember what I was doing/going to do.

4. Sometimes you have to encourage yourself every day, or multiple times a day. That's okay. :D

5. I have come to realize that it's okay if I don't meet the mini-goals. When I can, I pick up again where I left off. From my experience as a mom, sometimes I give myself only one task a day. And even if that task does not get done - sick child, some emergency, etc. - I don't give up on it. I encourage myself to keep going on, keep trying, even if the progress is incremental. And always, realize that you might make mistakes, leave room for missed deadlines, typos, or a sudden need to take a nap instead of listening through the seminar - we are only human.

Maria and her daughter (Contributed Photo)

6. Think how to make progress towards your career goals. Don't feel bad if others at your level are so much ahead of you. I struggle sometimes to feel competitive. I don't have as much time to dedicate to work, it seems. But everyone has some struggles. I admit, I had to learn this the hard way. After worrying a bunch, I came to the realization that my children are my gift. Now if my child is sick and at the moment I have to be with my family, I put away the career thoughts and fully enjoy my child, instead of trying to do both. Trying to do both at the same time all the time stresses me out to no end! This tip may or may not work for you, based on your values in life (religious, existential, happiness beliefs). I have my own journey in life, in science, and in the astronomy career. And I am so excited to be here, to walk each step, ready for ups and downs of my own. I am the star of my life :D I can learn from others and be inspired, but I don't have to feel bad that I don't hit the marks at the same time and in the same way. 

Accept and rejoice in your own unique journey.

7. It's good to have a mentor or a group where you can discuss and voice your concerns, or at least write them in a paper/e-journal. You don’t need to only restrict your circle of support to other astronomers. Actually, having people outside of your career as mentors and supporters may be very useful, so that you don’t only focus your life based on career-related issues and have a wider perspective on what’s really important in life. For example, sometimes I find encouragement by remembering what my grandmother Babo used to tell me (she passed away some years ago. Babo dropped out of 7th grade to work to sustain her family and was a working single-mom), such as “So what? That’s not worth crying about!”, “Don’t look at others, you do your work.”, and “In one ear, out the other”. I also benefited from interaction with a well-established Kumpula women in science group in University of Helsinki. And if you don’t have anyone, be your own mentor, you can think something like “what would you have advised a friend in a similar situation?” “How would you encourage them?”, and apply that advice to yourself :D

8. Try to think of ways to input some fun into your daily grind. For example, I like using fun colorful highlighters in writing my notes. I also like making jokes or reading humorous things, to lighten the mind. Other times, I have motivational music to help me start working (e.g. theme song of Indiana Jones or Pirates of the Caribbean). Yet another way is to stick my notes on a wall for visual organization. 

9. Spend a few moments thinking about whether something can be removed from your todo list, which will save you time in the long run  (and probably also reduce stress). Sometimes it's hard to say no, you want to do everything. But are you doing something because you want to do it or are you pressured to do it? Do you put pressure on yourself? Like, for example, I feel pressure sometimes to attend all the seminars. If you don't have enough time, you might have to step back and question whether one thing or another is really what you want. It’s good to be honest with yourself.  And it's okay if people disagree, as long as it works for you, your career, your family, that's what matters, - you will be living the consequences, not someone else. So, it's also good to think critically sometimes whether an item on your agenda needs to be discarded for that moment. 

It's okay to say no to things and to focus on things that you value more.

I wish to end with a big encouragement to not give up on your dreams despite life's circumstances. I would be happy to hear any advice tips and pearls of wisdom from your experiences.

Editor's Note: Thank you, Maria! These are great tips that are applicable to all of us, no matter our career stage. To reiterate, please share your suggestions below or in any of the Comments sections on the CSWA's social media pages (Facebook, twitter). We'll collect them and publish them in a subsequent post.

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