Even the darkest tunnels tend to have lights at the end of them. In the past fortnight, not only have I submitted my big screen paper – the culmination of four years of work – to a very reputable cell biology journal, but said journal has actually decided to send the manuscript out for review.
I have mixed feelings about having passed muster: if it had been rejected outright, I could have submitted it to a less demanding journal that would be more likely to accept it as-is. In getting my foot in the door, I could very well be setting myself up for a protracted siege. Nevertheless, there is nothing quite like the feeling of reprieve when a paper is off your desk, for better or for worse. It’s not just the sense of wide-eyed hope, undiminished yet by sour criticisms and unreasonable demands. It’s something more fundamental: regardless of the outcome, you are guaranteed at least a few weeks of peace.
The boss is urging me to dive into experiments that the referees “are definitely going to want”. But I am not so sure: my track record of predicting the whims of referees is abysmal. Although I’ve only dealt with eleven papers as a first author, I handled hundreds as an editor and it never ceases to amaze me what the peer review process asks for – or fails to, in many cases. I’m more inclined to do a few experiments that I’d planned to do anyway, whose outcome could bolster my case should the need arise. Even if unasked for, good data can often be proffered to the editorial shrine in a sort of bartering process – “We didn’t do that extra rescue experiment, but check out these sexy Q-PCRs!” And if all else fails, I’d rather withdraw the paper and submit it somewhere else than commit to half a year or more of referee placation. Ordinarily I’d be fully committed to the glorious battle, but I no longer have the luxury of time: if my paper is not in press in time for autumn fellowship deadlines, my entire career plan could be scuppered.
There are more important reasons why I’m resisting rushing down suggested experimental paths – why I’m taking the time to weigh up options and make the right decision. One of the ideas is only tangentially related to the paper and would involve a complex and expensive fishing-exercise technique. Although it sounds easy on paper, my experience with complex and expensive techniques tells me that nothing is as easy as it sounds; even when you outsource the main activities, you can still face weeks if not months of pilot experiments to get the conditions right, and when your list of hundreds of hits comes back with nothing but a probability score to tell you what’s important, you’ll likely might need yet more time to verify the trend, let alone make sense of it in a biological context.
But the truth is that I have only nine months remaining. Not only do I need to save time to do the experiments that the referees will actually ask, but I also have to come up with a research plan for the future, write grants to fund it and, ideally, generate some preliminary data to make these plans look feasible. Seen in this light, nine months is nothing. It might be different if the complex and expensive technique were in the area that I’d like to focus on in future. But it isn’t: it’s analyzing a cellular process in which I have little interest, and it’s not going to play a role in my future proposal, at least as far as I can see right now. My preference is to spend my time pursuing angles that are transferable to the next step, either topically or with regard to the techniques employed.
There is something even more fundamental here. In the past four years I have been trying to scrabble back to the apex of my career, to the time when I ran a group and presided over an independently conceived set of projects. Since returning to the lab, it’s almost as if I have relived my entire scientific training period in compressed fast-motion, from fumbling student to tentative new post-doc to confident senior post-doc, poised on the edge of regaining my lost independence for the first time since 2001. Now more than even, it’s time for me to chart my own path through the uncertain waves and – very soon now – cut myself adrift.