Dealing with pressure…and men

Occam’s Typewriter has seemed like a home to me since I started this gig about a year ago.  Always controversial, always avant-garde, always energizing. And it still is. But lately I’ve found that my energies for putting a tolerable piece together seem to have been dwindling. Why? It’s the pressure right now at work.

Surprisingly, it’s not a lack of time; not being one to spend too long hours with my eyes closed, and since I am usually unable to write much in the way of science-based grants and papers after a certain hour in the evening/night, there is still plenty of time to write. But I don’t want to write blogs under pressure. That’s the whole point.

Why so much pressure? Well, although for those of you on the other side of the pond the funding agencies differ, it’s the same old story. We’re all on a rickety boat. Up the creek. Without a paddle. At least that’s how it feels.

I find myself having returned from vacation with no fewer than 7 proposals that need to leave the confines of the lab-office by the end of this month. One of them, a biggie that I’m organizing involving 4 other investigators from different institutes. Not just organizing, but herding. Add some grant reviewing of my own, reviewing manuscripts for journals and serving as monitoring editor to handle an array of manuscripts. And did I mention that our little group now numbers 11 people? Each with her/his own project, results, requirements and troubleshooting. Sometimes I feel as though I need to clone myself.

But I’m NOT complaining. I chose this path, and wouldn’t give it up for anything. Okay, maybe if one of my novels became a best seller. But that’s as likely as winning the lottery. And I haven’t bought a ticket.

So what can a researcher do to decrease pressure? Everyone has her/his own style, but here are a few of my own guidelines:

1)   Don’t change your daily routine. I exercise every morning, but if I give that up to “get more work done,” it will backfire. Because my exercise makes me feel good, and I am more creative and efficient at work. Even if I am physically working fewer hours. The same goes for sleep—all-nighters are seldom worthwhile.

2)   Seek solutions for removing extra burdens. In this case, I’ve stopped accepting manuscripts to review or handle as academic editor this month. If people are unhappy, let them be.

3)   Focus on one task at a time for several hours. It’s important to be able to juggle, to work simultaneously on different projects. However, the “orientation time” that it takes to get up to speed and working on a specific project makes it inefficient to jump back and forth too frequently

4)   Delegate responsibility. Have senior students, post-docs or others in the lab take care of whatever they can on their own so that minor issues do not take up your valuable time.

5)   If all else fails, think outside the box about how to find extra time. In my case, I simply decided to cancel my participation in a meeting on the west coast towards the end of this month. Just the decision brought me a sudden flood of relief. I should have made the decision earlier.

6)   Continue to do non-science things that you enjoy! Reading brings to me a great relief from stress. And so…

In that vein, I would like to mention and leave a small sample of some work by a phenomenal author, poet and friend, Robin Stratton. She has a number of great books and poetry chapbooks on sale at Amazon, and on this website from Big Table Publishing Company, and for anyone who is really interested in beautifully written prose and poetry that deal with the most personal and candid relationships between the sexes, you are in for a treat! Better yet, some of her poems (and upcoming novels) are “LabLit.” I will leave you with two poems from Robin’s outstanding Chapbook “Dealing with Men” (now available on Kindle for an absurd $1.99).


Haiku for 4.5 Million Americans

You left home last night

big hurry, no shoes, no coat

What were you thinking?

You slipped out the door

must have been just before dawn

Alzheimer’s Disease



Haiku for Rudy

Brilliant scientist

decodes the dark enemy

beta amyloid

A fierce opponent

but government funding goes

to another war


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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23 Responses to Dealing with pressure…and men

  1. I know exactly what you mean about the relief of dropping out of something and gaining a day or two. Only a strategy to be used in extremis, but extremely valuable when life is really just getting too much to cope with. I also know exactly the challenge of trying to do more in less time, rather than fret about having so much to do that nothing actually gets down. When things get on top of me I find my efficiency levels plummeting as I keep finding myself thinking ‘I mustn’t pick up that book’ etc, when really it would be more beneficial if I did than keep staring at that paper, lecture whatever that just isn’t progressing. I hope your pressure levels drop soon.

  2. Whew. Happy New Year from the funding agencies, I guess. I have a couple of Notices/Letters of Intent to dust off soon, but nothing like seven grants.

    Athene’s comment reminds me also of that wonderful sense when something actually gets punted out the door and is FINISHED. There’s nothing like it, even if there are six more to follow.

  3. Steve Caplan says:

    Thanks to Athene and Richard for support! I wholeheartedly agree with Athene that “dropping out” of an obligation should be only used in extreme circumstances–and this is my first time. But I think it’s important to recognize that it’s not a crime, especially as a tactic to be used sparingly and only as a last resort. And it sure tones down the pressure a little!

  4. I once read an interview with a successful executive, where she name-checked the “three D’s” as being key: Delegate, Defer, and Drop. 😉

  5. Martyn says:

    Great advice, and a breath of fresh air – thanks! I switched jobs a few months ago (I’m a postdoc) and have a PI who seems to expect me to do everything simultaneously all of the time and doesn’t understand that I want to keep my evenings free for myself and my family. Although he’s great in other ways, this is quite annoying.

    I find lists help a lot to stop things rattling round my brain so I can concentrate on just one item at a time. Right, where did I put today’s “to do list”…

  6. Stephen Moss says:

    Steve, I am always staggered at the amount you take on. A group of 11, and 7 proposals to send off!! I currently have 7 people in my group, and I don’t know of anyone in our Institute who has more than 9 or 10. It generally takes me at least a month to put together a single proposal.

    This week I had my biennial ‘staff appraisal’, at which a set of objectives for the next two years was agreed between myself and the Institute Director. For 2012 my goal is to submit two grant applications, and if they get funded I will have ‘exceeded expectations’ in terms of grant income. I just hope our Director doesn’t read your blog and start getting ideas.

    Hope you ride out the month and that your stress meter reading returns to ‘tolerable’.

    • Steve Caplan says:


      It’s not as bad as perhaps I made it sound. I am usually pretty well organized well in advance, so I have written many of the proposals months in advance. But just bearing down with all the accessory forms is daunting, from budget to facilities and all the letters of collaboration, safety assurances and the rest of it. A couple of the proposals going out are not “mine”–but rather fellowships from students/post-docs. But these are actually MORE work, since the proposal in one case is 8 pages (which of course I edit and re-edit a dozen times), but the “sponsor’s package and training plan” are another 8 pages or so.

      Most of these proposals are not the huge NIH style ones, but with funding so tough these days there is huge competition for every little pot of gold out there. And with group size–I didn’t really intend it to get this way, but when good people crop up who are determined to do this kind of work, I find it really hard to turn them away. I don’t have any trouble turning away non-motivated or unqualified people, but I’m increasingly getting a lot of interest from students and post-docs with impressive credentials. So to keep them here, I need to obtain even more funding. Vicious cycle! But I’m sure I’ll get through this without too many scars…

  7. Heather says:

    “But I’m NOT complaining. I chose this path, and wouldn’t give it up for anything.”

    I think this to myself, and say it on occasion. It’s sometimes good to just vent a little among a sympathetic audience.

    • Good point Heather. Never apologize for a little bit of complaining. 😉

      • Steve Caplan says:

        When I see a colleague in the elevator who asks: “So are are things going?”
        I often reply, “Pretty good–I mean it could always be better, though…”

        Sometimes I feel that I have to apologize for NOT complaining enough. So things don’t appear suspiciously too good to be true…

    • Steve Caplan says:

      It IS good to complain in front of a sympathetic audience. The trick is not to turn you all into a hostile one by recurrent whining!

  8. Stephen says:

    Good luck with it all Steve. I would have found this post yesterday but was so flaked out by the time I got home that I was not functioning. The workloads and stress levels seem fairly ubiquitous in this game. I admire your discipline at keeping to an exercise regime – something I’ve let slip in the past couple of months.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Thanks, Steve. Sounds as though the grass isn’t any greener on the other side of the pond. Although I could swear the UK isn’t certainly a lot greener as a whole than Nebraska!

  9. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    I too have come back from the winter break into a maelstrom of grant and LOI deadlines… isn’t it fun?! I really need to get better at dealing with this kind of deadline collision, so I will do my best to remember your advice; I’m terrible for dropping exercise and other beneficial things when things get busy. The worst thing for me is not having much control over my own workload – I work for five different PIs and have no say over which grants they decide to put in to which deadlines, nor over things like them sending me the proposal to edit and proof on Saturday night when the deadline is on Monday… I don’t mind working weekends from time to time, but I hate not being given a choice about it (don’t worry, I am being much better this year about logging all the time I spend on this kind of thing on weekends and evenings, and will not be shy about making sure I get compensating time off).

    This ends Cath’s ranting to a sympathetic audience.

    Best of luck with all your grants and manuscripts!

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Thanks, Cath. I think that not having control of your own schedule is really difficult. In fact, thinking back to army days, that was probably one of the most difficult things. Not having control. At any time, someone could come and spoil whatever plans one had.

      I must say, that I’ll have to ask more closely about your position. I guess I don’t really understand what it is that you do. I know you are heavily involved in coordinating grant submissions from the university, but I’d love for you to explain your job more specifically. It seems to me that there isn’t exactly a parallel type of position here.

      • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

        That’s OK – no-one else understands exactly what I do either! (and yes I am including myself and my various bosses on that list!)

        In a general sense, I take care of all the non-research tasks that require a scientific background but that the PIs don’t want to do themselves, to enable them to spend more time on the high-level stuff. Most of what I do is related to helping PIs get their grants submitted, but my exact role depends on the PI and the grant – sometimes I don’t do much more than pull all the components together, hassle coapplicants for CVs, and proofread everything, whereas in other cases I write the lay abstract, budget & justification, impact statements, technical abstract, and parts of the proposal itself. I also edit / proofread manuscripts and write progress reports for grants / private sector collaborations etc. My other main hat is as the lab’s project manager – tracking progress and milestones, identifying bottle necks, running meetings. Oh and I handle all the department’s human ethics applications.

        I’ve blogged about my job a few times over the years, but the posts are all spread out over my “career” and “grant wrangling” categories. If you’re really that interested, I did a week-in-the-life post one grant deadline week, and also wrote a series of posts about project management (Background, Meetings, Metrics, Flow Charts)

        Sorry for the information overload, but hey, you did ask 😉

        • Steve Caplan says:

          Wow! What a job description! There’s nothing even remotely like that here! I assume your institute pays your salary, and I sincerely hope that the other scientists at your institution are aware of what an advantage it is to have someone of your caliber doing so much of the difficult leg work–and at so many levels!

          What is your official “title?” The reason I’m asking is that I want to suggest we have someone at our institute like you! Also, are you part of a department, or more or less doing this “solo?”

          • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

            “I assume your institute pays your salary” – yes, with 5% coming from this grant, 2.5% from that grant, 25% from this collaboration, and bits and bobs from all kinds of other sources! If there’s room and if the funding agency allows it, a few percent of my salary goes into every grant budget as a project manager.

            “What is your official “title?”” Research Development Facilitator. Like my official job description, it’s deliberately vague so that I can do essentially anything that needs doing

            “are you part of a department, or more or less doing this “solo?””
            When I first started I worked for the breast tumour group, which encompassed anyone doing any kind of breast cancer research at the Vancouver clinic and research centre. After two years my funding shifted and I now work for an academic department in the research centre, working for five different PIs (two molecular pathologists, a bioinformatician, a radiochemist and a clinician specialising in functional imaging) who between them work on basic, translational and clinical research in breast, ovarian, uterine, lung, prostate and a bunch of other cancers. As project manager on a couple of huge department-spanning collaborations, I also work with various pathologists, clinicians, and seemingly half the staff of the genome sciences centre. There’s never a dull moment and occasionally I get to write the words “our cyclotron” or “annihilation photon”, which is very exciting to a molecular biologist!

            “I sincerely hope that the other scientists at your institution are aware of what an advantage it is to have someone of your caliber doing so much of the difficult leg work–and at so many levels!”
            Variable, but rarely mentioned 🙂

        • Heather says:

          I love that your kind of job exists. Now if it were only obvious to show why we need people like you and to budget it in, for early-mid career scientists and not just the big shots. I had the pleasure of knowing and working with a European project manager (this amazing woman) who did what it sounds like you do, and is now a consultant and an expert for the European Commission. I would give 80% of my grants (which are small) to have someone like you working with me. My god, just the ethics applications alone.

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