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.
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.