How Many Arms do you Have?

I was amused  by the throwaway comment Bettany Hughes made in her recent TV programme Divine Women  about the Hindu Goddess Kali’s many arms being ideal for multitasking. Academics of all ages would benefit from growing a few more limbs, since so often it seems our jobs require us to tackle several different strands of activity simultaneously.  The well-known portrait of Dorothy Hodgkin by Maggi Hambling (hanging, I believe in the National Portrait Gallery) seems to reflect a similar message, with 4 hands apparently reflecting her ability to do many things at once (just think how useful that would be for doubling the number of emails one could deal with). However, it was hinted to me by one of her family once that actually the multiple hands reflected the artist’s frustration that the sitter would not sit still! I shall soon find out just how challenging such long periods of pseudo-inertia really are, having agreed to have my own portrait painted by Tess Barnes who is currently involved in a major project painting female scientists.  She has already painted many ‘high profile’ women, as her collection Women of Substance shows.

Dorothy Hodgkin by Maggi Hambling

But to return to the topic of academic multitasking, we are required to do such diverse things, and somehow acquire proficiency in some of these with essentially zero training.  As a student you are given a project and, unless you are very unlucky, some guidance as to where to start, the techniques to use and perhaps even a friendly postdoc to run to if the equipment breaks. You can take control in many cases, choose whether to head off in this or that direction and you should fairly rapidly develop the innate skills to know when an unexpected result is merely artefactual, as opposed to genuinely novel and exciting and so potentially opening up new vistas. So far, so good.  Your job is to do research and, eventually, to produce a thesis as a labour of love, ideally accompanied by a handful of papers and a few conference presentations, be they oral or poster. Thus your acquired skills should include: technical lab–work in your chosen field, scientific writing and presentation-giving.  Possibly you’ve also been able to teach in a practical class or to a small group of undergraduates. Your supervisor is, one hopes, there to look over your shoulder to encourage and exhort and – again with luck – stop you falling into bad ways or dead ends.

Stick around longer in the academic world and as a postdoc you may acquire a new string to your bow:  supervising research students, albeit probably informally. Perhaps your organisation runs courses to help with such supervision, but I don’t think they are very common. Most people learn as they go along, basing their technique (almost certainly) on their own experiences which may, or may not be relevant. However this is a nice soft way to start since you are unlikely to have sole responsibility and it would be uncommon for this to act as more than a welcome diversion from your own research. Multitasking is still not really necessary (unless you’re trying to multitask a variety of simultaneous experiments, but that’s not really what I have in mind).

No, it’s when you get to be an independent researcher or junior faculty that things become critical. By the time you are a lecturer/assistant professor, you will need to be doing several very different activities in parallel: writing grant proposals, for which paper-writing is not necessarily an adequate preparation as the rules of engagement are somewhat different (many institutions do seem to provide courses on this, though often not going beyond how to fill the forms in); teaching, probably in the form of standing up in front of lecture theatres full of less than enthusiastic students – but you can only do this once you’ve spent many a long day (or possibly night) writing the material up into some form suitable for delivery; and taking on and supervising  research students  – which requires first dreaming up projects and then attracting students and funding too. Interspersed with that you probably simultaneously also have to pick up good interview skills – to make sure you choose your PhD students wisely, for instance – avoiding leading or closed questions. You may also be stuck on a committee or two and wish to become an effective voice there too.

It can all be quite scary and possibly the only saving grace is that you are trying to learn so much at once that you don’t have time to reflect on just how difficult and draining each of the tasks individually is, let alone in total.  But chickens can come home to roost when you get the questionnaires back at the end of that lecture course, or the grant funders are so churlish as not to award you that grant, upon which you expended so much TLC during its gestation. Such setbacks are inevitable, coping with them is likely to be a severe test. And all the time there is that nasty feeling that your more senior colleagues are observing –and judging -  your performance. Testing times, when energy levels may sink but there is no let-up in the need to juggle multiple balls in the air.

I can only feel glad (although perhaps apologetic too) that I set out when I did on this precarious path, because I am quite convinced that the stresses, the multiple demands on new lecturers/fellows are significantly worse than they were in the past. Academia has become more of an industry and less of a profession, driven by government dreams of accountability at least in part. But if you are feeling down it Is worth remembering that there are colleagues around who can help and provide support, reminding you that initial lack of success is unsurprising – be it in teaching, grants or whatever -  and that all of us fail, still, at least some of the time.  All one can hope is that one doesn’t fail all the time. My first individual grant failed; my last one did too with a churlish email sent at some insane time of the night from our Research Councils ‘shared services centre’ only last week.  Clearly in between I have had occasional success, and for any individual receiving the sharp end of rejection it is well to remember Robert the Bruce.

So multitasking is an inevitable if unenviable component of the modern academic profession. The only thing to do is embrace it, practice being more effective at it, stiffen one’s backbone as the negative scenarios pan out, and celebrate the intermittent successes  – both your own and those of your colleagues.

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18 Responses to How Many Arms do you Have?

  1. Martyn Rittman says:

    Fine advice, as usual, thanks. In answer to the original question, I have more than the average number of arms, which (at least it you take the mean) is going to come out at slightly less than two.

  2. Funny Athene, I was thinking of writing a post entitled rejection yesterday. Last Friday I had a studentship, a paper and a grant all rejected on the same day and the funding agency was nice enough to email me at 10pm on this Friday to reiterate I had been rejected and no they don’t want me to apply for this particular scheme again. Oh and the research councils have decided to take some of their money back, for indexing, fortunately for me its not much…
    I think 1/2 the battle is learning how to deal with rejection and to not take it personally..

    One of the hardest things I find being an Early Career PI is not the multi-tasking per se but rather the inability to have time to really pursue/think about something when I want to. When you are a post-doc (most of the time) you can just sit and obsess about one problem/experiment until you work it out – I find my time is so broken up often I can’t do this, my time is no longer my own! Then when I try to go back to what I was thinking about – it is not always easy to focus again. I find this hard, but hopefully it will get easier.

    • @Sylvia

      ‘Broken time’ is definitely a major problem, and getting ever worse as teaching time and admin box-ticking requirements trend ever upward.

      But what to do about it? I don’t know. And I don’t think anyone else does either.

      For instance, our Faculty started a recent initiative in which ‘to give us back some thinking time’ they decided that – wait for it – no administrative meetings should be scheduled on Thursdays.


      (And no, they didn’t say there couldn’t be any teaching on Thursdays. And there is.).

      Also completely agree with you (and Athene) about handling rejection. I think it’s partly my own inability to get past it that has led to the run-down of my involvement in research over the last decade or so.

    • Sylvia, learning to cope with rejection is a tough one certainly. I think one simply gets inured, learns to invest less in any single activity perhaps. I wrote about this earlier but then, as in this blogpost, it is so much part of one’s life I don’t really think so hard about it now and the comments are put in my blogs by the by as it were. I then feel surprised when readers pick up so strongly on it. However, when referees’ comments, for instance, or indeed the responses to teaching questionnaires are particularly horrible I simply put them aside for a few days until the immediate pain is over. Then I can read them more objectively – but it still hurts.

      • I think the hard bit is that sometimes referees (and students) are actually personal – especially when you are applying for fellowships, where they are invited to comment on your ability to do a certain job of work. I have had referees like my science but then tell me I am incapable of doing it, that I have the wrong ‘pedigree’, etc (as if I am a breed of dog) – those are the ones I find tough. This must happen to everyone….

        • This must happen to everyone….

          It does. I have an old article on this somewhere, which talked about things like the ‘pedigree’ line, in conjunction with the ever-vexed question of anonymous refereeing. Will have to see if I can dig it out.

          • In my last post I explicitly said I didn’t think pedigree did matter when it comes to election to the Royal Society. By that I meant whether you had Professor X or Y as a supervisor, or passed through a Golden Triangle University. I think what you’re referring to is maybe more along the lines of ‘you can’t do that piece of science because you’ve never used that kind of spectrometer before’, which I suppose I would call track record. Whatever ‘justification’ is used for rejection, though, it can never be anything but painful. We don’t have hides like a rhinoceros.

  3. Thanks for a nice post as usual. However, I feel rather overwhelmed by the transition. It isn’t that I need more arms. I need a body double.

  4. Great post, Athene! Thanks for sharing.
    Somehow, I find it reassuring that even highly successful people fail from time to time.
    As for the multiple demands of our profession, my experience has been that things get easier with time, or maybe one just gets better at prioritising and saying no. Still, another pair of arms would be useful from time to time :)

  5. No they explicitly told me it was because of my academic pedigree -as in you didn’t go to Oxford, Cambridge or ETH – really.

    • Oops sorry pushed reply too fast.
      I was also explicitly told in a grant feedback.

      ‘It is hard to see how a person that used to be a school teacher (which i was) could ever do this kind of research’ the proposed research, even though I clearly had a track record they themselves even admitted. so I am referring to a specific case. Although I do believe this is rare. Equally to make sure I wasn’t just over-reacting I showed the reaction to several of my ‘mentors’ who actually encouraged me to write a letter of complaint to the funding body as they (and I) thought this was beyond the pail. I made it clear I wasn’t complaining about not getting funding but rather if my research idea is good, then it should be on that a grant award is based. If its poor then fair enough…

      My point is that sometimes reviewers do go over the top – I think most of the time they don’t in all fairness. I do know its not easy to decide who gets what grant – and who indeed gets inducted into the Royal Society. Nor am I really complaining, as I am currently funded and have had some other sucesses recently as well – so it does happen to all of us the good and the bad.

      • Sylvia, I’m shocked and I hope you did complain. A referee I particularly took exception to was the one who said I didn’t have time to do the research (this was quite a number of years ago when I was still quite junior and relatively free of administrative load). It wasn’t quite so personally rude, but was still a value judgment I felt it was improper of them to make. However, you are right, there are always rogue referees potentially out there to damn you; just not many of them!

        • I agree there are not many – and I think its good to complain when people do say things like that – as most funding bodies DON’T wans refrees like that.

          On a more positive note, I usually think negative reports can be good things, especially when you are new to grant writing. Often these reports tell you were unclear, where you can improve and what the referees want to see – what would make your current grant better. I think its always wise to try and learn from the advice. Easier said than done but often there are new references, etc and I have often learned far more from ‘negative’ reviews than ‘its just lovely’ type of reviews.

          • One of my Manchester friends, submitting a grant application on his favourite Wotsit-cell (on which he had been publishing for well over a decade) was treated to a referee’s report that said:

            “There are three British centres for research on the Wotsit-cell; these are Oxford, ScottishTown, and ProvincialCity”

            None of these, sadly for him, was Manchester.

            Another one I have seen more than once, and which has some relevance to Stephen’s post here, is:

            ‘the applicants have published most of [their previous] work in low-ranking journals…’

  6. Nick Isaac says:

    Great post. I especially like the theme of how the challenges of a science career change over time. To me, one the biggest problems is that the skills required for success at each stage (student, postdoc, lecturer etc) provide only poor preparation for success at the next. Moreover, many of my peers have reached the same conclusion through the kinds of bitter experience described in this post. Surely there’s a training and/or careers advice need that’s not being met?

  7. Paul says:

    A very good blog post that rings only too true. However I would value multiple heads over multiple limbs so that I could think about more tasks at once!

  8. More on the pains and changing response to rejection can be found at Female Science Professor’s latest post . She says it gets better, which I think equates to my use of the word ‘inured’ above. One gets more used to the pain so it seesm less bad. But from my own experience I think I also agree with her that the attacks get less personal. So maybe people like Sylvia will find things improve if they stick it out.