One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich–no, no, in my life

For the record, I had actually planned this blog for some time, but for one reason or another, never got around to writing and posting it. With the furor over scientists’ approach to work in the lab still fresh from Jenny’s recent blog on the 24/7 culture in some high-powered labs and the interesting threads that ensued, I think it’s time to capitalize on others’ fame take advantage of the interest and perhaps add a new twist. Perhaps this expands on Stephen Curry’s superb film “I’m a scientist” to explain “what I do on a daily basis as a group leader.”

We here at OT appear to be quite heterogenic in our composition with regards to how we all relate to the glorious enterprise of science–from librarians and editors, to students and those really “doing the experiments,” to some very senior and highly recognized scientists. And everything in between. My assumption is that our readers (in my case, perhaps that should be in singular) also come from “all walks of scientific life.”

In the wake of Jenny’s blog, I found myself siding against any forced 24/7 culture, but noted that I perceive science as a “way of life,” with expectations that students and post-docs share a dedication to their work that goes beyond the boundaries of the lab. Not that I meant that scientists need to spend every waking hour thinking/talking/reading/writing and breathing science outside the lab. But as a generality, I do think that those who do spend some extra time engaged, interested, curious and thoughtful about their work outside normal business hours are likely to be more successful and productive. And this is especially so if one is a PI.

Why bother to write about a day in the life of a PI? Because throughout the career of a student or post-doc, there is no training received for becoming a PI other than scientific expertise and specialization. There is no training in managing a budget, no training in handling and motivating personnel (or hiring them), no training in how to use your time efficiently and how to be an administrator. Sure, there is safety training, radioactive training, training in culture diversity and issues relating to sexual harassment. But the training in the day-today running of a lab is exclusively “on the job training.”

So what is a day in the life of a PI? I can only give my own anecdotal evidence, but I would liken it to CHESS–where a master is playing what is called a “simul“–meaning a simultaneous game with more than one (and often 20 or more) players at the same time. Here are some typical activities in a given day:

My alarm goes off at 5:45 a.m., and having made lunch I am out the door ~7 a.m. and drive my daughter to school. Since age 40, I have been increasing the time of my exercise regimen and arrive at the gym shortly afterwards and spend over an hour or so before showering and continuing on to work. On the treadmill, before I get to higher speeds, I usually manage to scan the 30-40 e-mails that accumulate overnight (on average–and this is after UNSUBSCRIBING from everything, and designating as junk mail 90% of what actually comes in) on my BlackBerry, and sometimes even answer a few of the more urgent ones.

When I first get in to my office, I feel compelled to finish up any e-mail business, or at least put any requests that come through into my schedule. For example, on any given morning I may be asked to write a reference letter for a student on whose committee I serve or served for a fellowship with a specific deadline. Read a manuscript for a collaborator and make comments. Send an updated CV and list of my current funding to our departmental administrator. If I can, I do it immediately and cross it off the list. If there are more pressing issues, I key a time to do it or deadline into my calendar so as not to forget.

Usually, on a given morning I receive 1-10 papers to handle for a certain Public online journal (beginning with the letter P) on which I serve as an academic editor. Although I decline the lion’s share of such requests (as they are outside my expertise), this means that I am handling simultaneously and at different stages 8-10 papers at any given time. Looking for reviewers, chasing reviewers for critiques, comparing reviewers’ critiques and making decisions on manuscripts. And handling appeals, when that happens.

I teach in two different graduate courses, one of which I coordinate, so an hour of teaching, or sitting in on a fellow instructor’s lecture is a common activity. I also facilitate something called Problem Based Learning for 1st year medical students, where I read a case and facilitate discussion about it with a group of 10-12 students.

Right now, I have a big grant deadline due in 10 days, and I always feel fresher writing science in the morning (although that’s a luxury I can’t always hold on to). So spending an hour or two working on the grant, the budget, the personnel, etc. is a common morning activity at this time of year. There is a second smaller grant to follow 2 weeks later. This is an ongoing cycle.

I frequently receive requests to review manuscripts for other journals, and in a given week could have 0-4 papers of my own to review. Add to this one of my big time consuming activities–grant review. I am a chair of a panel at the American Heart Association, and review at NIH. The former means I need to build a review group, and when the applications come in, actually designate which of the 50-80 grants are to be reviewed by which reviewers. That can be a headache. Then, for both panels, 12-13 grant applications to review is the standard. With AHA, I often end up with several more if there are last minute problems. The math shows that with 2x reviews for each panel, that’s close to 60 grants a year to review. Each one can take anywhere from 3-8 hours to do a proper review and write-up.

As chairperson of our curriculum committee, we meet now and then to discuss issues of graduate curriculum and peer review of instructors. As a member of the graduate committee, we meet frequently to follow the progress of the students enrolled in our program and make decisions about admissions for the following year. As a member of the university research and development committee, we meet monthly to discuss research on campus and to review (yes, more review) internal grant proposals.

I serve on about 10 student supervisory committees (not including those of my own 4 current students), and those committees meet twice a year. This also means that I need to read and examine the dissertations of these students.

But wait–there’s more! I haven’t even got a chance to wander into my own lab and find out what’s going on! I try to meet daily with everyone–that would be 2 post-docs, 4 students and a technician. Usually I have a more formal meeting in my office at least once a week with everyone individually, to discuss progress, strategy etc. In a good scenario, when things are going well, I could be working on writing of one or two papers and revisions for one or two more. So I have to make heart-wrenching decisions of priority–which paper first, and do I stop the paper-writing to advance the grant-writing, or do so in parallel?

There are dozens of other student issues that I need to address daily. Abstracts and fellowship proposals to be submitted awaiting my critiques, recommendation letters, training plans–you name it. There are progress reports for grants awarded, and budget meetings with departmental administrators. There are online training sessions that crop up like weeds after the rain.

For those of you who have not served in this capacity, believe me when I say that there are hundreds of other time-consuming things that I need to do to keep my lab in business-but it’s becoming tiresome to relate them all here–everything from seminars, faculty meetings, teaching retreats and on and on.

Now, you may or may not have noticed that I haven’t allocated any time to read and keep up with the science in my field. That’s a luxury that I often am forced to leave for home. Along with thinking calmly about each project and the progress and ideas for how to navigate. This is a lot of the fun. And these things I often relegate to my time walking or exercising.

If I don’t have to take a child to a sports practice or other event after work, I am usually home before 7 p.m., and after our family eats a late dinner, by 8:30 p.m. I am usually cleaning up and ready to be with my kids for a few hours until their bedtime. From 10 p.m. until midnight, if necessary, I catch up on some work. And then comes my joy–reading. On some evenings, if I can spare the time, I write my fiction for an hour or two before moving to a horizontal position to read until I pass out.

What can I say? I love it and wouldn’t trade it for any other job in the world.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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14 Responses to One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich–no, no, in my life

  1. cromercrox says:

    How unlike the home life of our own Dear Queen.

  2. stephenemoss says:

    Steve – as a fellow PI I see much of my daily routine reflected in your own. However, my alarm is set for 6:41, the kids both being old enough to make their own way to school and back, and once they have left at around 7:30 I generally spend an hour or so dealing with emails, reading a paper or the latest Nature perhaps, before cycling to work. The cycling provides my daily exercise, so no gym for me, and amounts to some one and a half hours each day, taking in the mountainous terrain of Highgate Hill en route.

    At the lab, you have a far more varied workload than me. I stood down as Head of Department, and from all committees a few years ago (no-one seemed to mind and most committees never appeared to actually do anything), I’m slightly ashamed to say that I decline almost requests to review papers, and I have no teaching. So most of my time is full-on research. I try to meet at least briefly with all the members of the lab each day, currently 5 post-docs and 3 PhD students, and I also spend a great deal of time these days engaged with pharma/biotech companies.

    In recent years a couple of threads of our basic research programme have led to the development of new therapeutics/diagnostics. For a long-time ‘basic’ researcher now starting to work with regulatory authorities, hospital ethical review committees, clinical trial design and product development, this has almost been like a career change.

    I generally leave work at 6:30 and then try to make dinner when I get home as I love cooking, then relax with the family for a few hours, occasionally helping the kids with their homework.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Being a former Canadian and therefore British subject (second class, albeit) here is my official response:

      No Comment

      Off the record- I thought there was a lot of charity work?

  3. Steve Caplan says:

    Steve–It’s great that you can bike into work. I envy those who can walk or bike to work and make exercise a more natural part of the day. While I was a post-doc at NIH, my Metro (tube) stop was exactly a 25 min. walk to my apartment and I loved that.

    Remarkable how similar your description is. One of the things I really enjoy that I forgot to mention was to spend time with students and post-docs looking at samples on our confocal scope. While I have definitely lost my touch in the lab pouring gels (haven’t done for 5-6 years) and doing other biochemical work, I can still “image circles” around even the most experienced people in the lab. And it’s of course the interpretations that I need to do for them.

    Having been chair, I can well imagine that takes you even farther away from the work in the lab. That must be a whole other endeavor!

  4. Goodness Steve – that is a pretty punishing schedule. I couldn’t do that sort of pace, and I’d need a lot more downtime, myself. And sleep – sounds like you must manage on 5 hrs a night, which would be at least 1 hr a night, and probably 2 hrs, too few for me.

    Of course, you can probably now work out why I have almost completely dropped out the research rat race and settled down as an ageing “Instructor’.

    I keep meaning to do a Steve Moss and start cycling to work, as it is a pretty flat 4-5 miles from where we live to the Univ. Of course, the famously regular rain is a bit of a disincentive. For my first 10 yrs here I used to live 20 min walk from the Univ and walk there and back, though getting held up at knife-point (not the nicest part of town!) did put a bit of a kink in my enthusiasm for walking. And when I did my Sabbatical year at the NIH I lived down in Bethesda (not far off Wisconsin somewhere behind the old Theatre Cafe) which was another nice walk, other than in the Summer humidity.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Austin–No, no–don’t get the wrong impression! It’s not always so hectic. There are days when in the evenings I climb into bed early and just read (fiction!) for hours. And one thing I didn’t describe are WEEKENDS. I love the flexibility of weekends. Since I no longer do experiments, any “work” that I do can be done on my laptop, in the sunroom listening to the birds on our feeder. Both yesterday and today, out for glorious walks–alone once, with my spouse once. Today we went to the Joslyn Castle– (not quite Buckingham, but impressive for Omaha)– to watch an outdoor adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing and picnic with friends. But I still manage to find a couple hours to think about projects and ideas in between.

      As for sleep– I can get by on relatively little for long periods, easily a week, and then recharge my batteries on the weekends. I know that’s not the recommended method, but it works for me.

      Hearing about your mugging incident, I had better stop revising papers during my son’s TaeKwando lessons and pay attention!

      • Not sure TaeKwando would have helped much, Steve, since there were almost a dozen of them. Think the best urban preservation skill is the awareness to spot a bunch of youth by the entrance to an alley 30 yards up ahead and turn down a different street.

        Anyway, wouldn’t have thought you’d need the TaeKwando. Didn’t the IDF train you in some terrifying martial arts system?

        • Steve Caplan says:

          Against a dozen of them, eh? What you need is a Mercava tank!

          My own IDF service was in the artillery, so hand-to-hand combat was not a high priority. The cannons could fire 26 miles or so.

          For a fairly realistic look at what that service was like (fictionalized, of course), I refer you to “Welcome Home, Sir” (I need to add the usual “Coming Soon) that includes quite a bit of army recollections and particularly what bearing they have on the protagonists current day lab group leader position.

  5. Great account of your life. Except the 5.45 alarm clock bit!

    I exercise three times a week, varying between running, swimming and aerobics/weights, but I have been thinking I’d like to start doing it every day. You may just have inspired me.

  6. cromercrox says:

    I have a deep suspicion of those who trumpet their exercise regimes. I think it’s something to do with the air of smugness this generates.

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