New Year’s Resolutions for EarlyCareer Scientists

It’s that time of year again. After (at least) a month of overindulging bad habits, January brings with it the urge to start anew and make positive changes.

Good intentions notwithstanding, most New Year’s resolutions are broken before the holiday decorations are back in their boxes. But, as with most things in life, concrete strategies increase the odds that we will achieve our goals. As we enter 2014, my challenge to early-career scientists is to put a science twist on this year’s resolutions and to set some strategies for sticking to them.

Rekindle your relationship. Fall back in love.

1. Be healthier

Of course, there will always be occasions when you have to work late and experiments that require nocturnal visits to the lab. Just do the best you can, and don’t make it a habit to work nights and on weekends. Work with your circadian rhythms and not against them.

When looking at labs you might work in, ask current or past Ph.D. students and postdocs about the hours the principal investigator (PI) expects them to keep. Try to avoid labs where the scientists have dark circles around their eyes. Be efficient and focused when you are at work (see resolution 4) and spend at least some of your newly liberated time—liberated by your newfound efficiency—engaging in stress-busting activities like mindfulness meditation or, yes, hot yoga.

2. Make new friends

We all know that networking is important, but many of us have too narrow a definition. Chatting during poster sessions at conferences is well and good, but as attendance fees expand and research funds shrink, opportunities to mingle with the leaders of our field are becoming less frequent. Luckily, there are other ways to form new connections that don’t require travel or even face-to-face meetings.

3. Learn something new

Last year I resolved to learn a new language. I got to the point where I could introduce myself and my cat and ask for directions to the train station.

When time is in short supply—and it always is—it is hard to stick to tasks that are neither necessary nor fun and relaxing. So, after you have worked out what you need to do to succeed (see resolution 4), look for things you can do and learn that are interesting and novel but also beneficial for your career. Find out what workshops and seminars your institution offers that graduate students and postdocs can participate in, or maybe you can take or sit in on a course in another department. Learn a useful programming language, a new software package, or some relevant new wet-lab skills.

4. Get organized

Unless you’re currently engaged in active, online collaboration, limit time spent online and checking e-mail to perhaps an hour a day. Some effective people like to check their e-mail first thing in the morning and then at the end of the day. If you are worried about appearing rude or slow, set an automated reply that lets your colleagues know you are working offline.

5. Fall in love

Remember that feeling you had in the beginning? The excitement, enthusiasm, and joy science brought you? Research shows that the young scientist’s phenotype includes “[c]uriosity to discover the unknown,” “[e]njoyment of problem solving,” and “[t]he desire to help others indirectly through research.” Sadly, by the time we get to the end of graduate school and into our postdocs, our doe-eyed enthusiasm has too often given way to cynicism about the lousy job market, faculty politics, and pressure to publish and get funded. Too often, the pursuit of research metrics replaces discovery as science’s daily aim.

Rekindle your relationship. Fall back in love. Maybe that means spending more relaxed time together—just you and your science—tinkering in the laboratory or reading more widely and reengaging old texts. Maybe it means bouncing ideas off fellow scientists at the coffee shop or over a beer. Whatever it means for you specifically, you need more time away from the daily grind—to think, explore, and play—to go beyond your daily scientific obligations.

Good luck with your New Year’s resolutions!

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