Thoughts & advice on productivity in academia

From a postdoc's point of view

Posted by Jeffrey West on May 09, 2021
Note: these tips originally appeared in my tweet thread, found here.

1. Start writing early.

Start a Word document from DAY 1 of the project. Start filling in key literature references, type out key sentences, add sketch of figures.

The principle: if you fill in details along the way, then holes in the project will stare at you in the face.

2. Unique ID.

Pick a unique, SHORT keyword/phrase to identify each project (e.g. “metabolism-immune”). Use this same phrase to name file folders, slack channels, to-do list, github repository, everything.

An organized system helps SO much.

3. Learn continuously.

Try to pair a new project with learning a new skill. For example, when starting a recent project I decided to make plots in R to learn a new coding language.

Skills will accumulate alongside projects.

4. Re-use.

Re-use old resources as much as possible. I use Lepton to store code snippets of plotting routines, fitting routines, commonly used functions, etc.

5. One-to-one.

Upon submission, have one sub-folder (e.g. independent code scripts) for each figure.

This helps reproducibility and is a huge life-saver when your manuscript comes back from review.

6. Feedback.

Pursue continuous feedback from your advisor, as well as peers who are 1-2 years ahead of you. They’ve probably run into the same problems.

Don’t struggle alone!

7. Collaborate & trade.

Trade skills: teach someone a skill in exchange for learning a skill.

8. Ask.

Ask colleagues to share data, resources, code, bibliography files. You might be surprised what others will share for free.

Everyone (and I do mean everyone) in academics is used to cold emails. Go for it.

9. Schedule your time.

Schedule time blocks (literally create an event on your calendar) to perform specific tasks.

10. Daily.

Do the difficult tasks daily for a short 10-15 minutes, first thing.

(if reading literature is difficult for you, split it evenly across every weekday).

11. Say no.

You can’t do everything. As you become more productive, others will notice & you’ll be asked to do more things.


12. Don’t drop your old project once it’s finished.

Try to connect it to EVERYTHING.

At first, it might seem self-serving (“look at me!”), but science is all about making connections.

Iterate your knowledge.

13. Become known as the “something” guy or gal.

If you have a strong research interest, make it known. Others will send you links to papers, blogs, & resources on that topic.

I don't measure up to all of these (especially, #11, lol!), but we are all in progress :)

Happy sciencing!
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