How to approach work lulls productively

It’s been a year and one week since I defended my thesis, and well over half a year since I started at my current job. However, graduate school is still my point of reference for my research/work performance, and the realization that it’s been a year since my defense and about 6 months since I actually earned my diploma prompted me to examine how I’ve progressed (or not) at my current job relative to my performance during graduate school.


Although I’ve been working on more projects in this job, I have definitely not been as ridiculously busy as I was throughout most of graduate school. Funny how that works when you suddenly only have 40 hours of required work instead of 10 – 20 hours of course work, 20 – 30 hours of TA obligations, and an expectation of a bare minimum of 20 hours (and preferably more like 40 – 60 hours) of research work every week. A small part of me feel like a slacker, but the rest of me is giddy about the freedom to work out regularly, help with household tasks (dinner, cleaning, etc.), hang out with my MM on the weekends instead of grading or writing, and return to my hobbies of sewing, drawing, playing my clarinet, and watching geeky shows on Netflix (ok, that last one probably doesn’t count as a hobby ;P).


However, there has actually been a bit too much free time lately – or, rather, too much non-busy time during my ~40 required hours of in-office time. Human subjects research often goes in bursts for data collection, and the data then have to spend time with other members of the research team in order to progress. My PI is stretched thin between clinical and research work, so projects often get bottlenecked while the rest of us are waiting for input. All of these are normal things, but frustrating when I feel like I’m not being as productive as I should be. This was never a problem during graduate school – if research was stuck I had plenty of lab planning or grading to do, if I was out of grading there was coursework, and if coursework ran dry there was some poor neglected research task sitting by to focus on.


To compound the problem, I’m supposed to be finding projects to involve our half-time, 1-year contract research assistant on, but can barely scrounge up enough work for myself during the lulls, much less for me and another 20 hours for the RA. The lulls are less of a problem for me, since (hopefully!) I’ll be working here much longer than a year and have long term goals rather than short term publication goals like the RAs. In the short term view, these lulls present a major challenge when I’m trying to find consistent, worthwhile projects for the RA to contribute to. I’ve tried finding projects for them on my own, but several of these have wound up getting shot down by the PI later, which is frustrating for me and for the RA.


The lack of publishable work at over half a year in, when I see so many people in other departments busting out multiple pubs after just a couple months here, is also frustrating and a bit nerve-wracking. My PI has reassured me that the focus for me is on long-term projects, but I’m still nervous about having nothing to show so far. I don’t want to continue my low-productivity streak from grad school, but don’t know how to go about asking for more work when my PI is already so swamped and I’ll eventually have work to do once IRBs go through/PI feedback comes back/data gets filtered through other research staff. Work will come if I wait patiently, but it makes me uncomfortable to be unproductive while I wait.


However, the free time also has its upsides if I make the extra effort to squeeze productivity out of these lull periods. Not only do I have time to think more deeply about our projects while I wait, but I also have time to improve my background knowledge, collaborative contributions, and outreach involvement. Some specific things that I’ve been able to do during these lower-pressure periods include:


  • Literature searches and background reading – I’ve averaged two papers per week (not spectacular, but decent considering that I’m also doing a lot of abstract-skimming and non-research-article work-related reading), and have kept track of useful papers in a general annotated bibliography, which was something I started a bit later than I should have in graduate school. I’m hoping that having a better view of the existing background literature and new papers as they come out (yay Google Scholar alerts!) will help me to avoid some of the problems that I faced during grad school due to an inadequate grasp of the state of the field.


  • Looking for and utilizing study resources related to relevant anatomy/clinical applications, and MRI technology/physics – In addition to reading research articles, I’ve also been using free time to study anatomy and to advance my knowledge of MRI applications and physics. I found an AMAZING free course on musculoskeletal anatomy based on simulated clinical case studies on HarvardX, which I hope to complete by the end of December. It’s been a great anatomy review and has introduced me to some of the clinical tests and relevant functional issues associated with several common upper and lower limb injuries. For MRI, has been immensely helpful. It covers both clinical aspects of MRI and the physics behind how the images are obtained. Since my focus is quantitative MRI, which requires me to have some idea of what the values that I’m looking at mean, gaining some knowledge of the physics provides me with the necessary context. Plus, MRI physics are just plain cool!


  • Outreach – In addition to working to improve my background knowledge during less demanding periods, I have also been able to be more involved in our institute’s outreach program. For example, I was able to design an imaging-related project for our high school science club, which would have been really stressful if I hadn’t had some free time to work on it.


  • Providing assistance to researchers from the other departments – Since I’m the resident Mimics software expert (or at least, an expert at strategically clicking on things until something works…), I’m the main resource for non-imaging people who need to utilize the software in their work. I’m able to provide more thorough and less frazzled assistance when I’m not frantically squeezing any helping in between my own projects. My role isn’t big enough to justify inclusion on any publications from these projects, but it has helped me get to know the various research assistants and Fellows, and has given me motivation to increase my knowledge of the software.


  • Lastly, lulls have been useful for checking back on projects that were handed over to me from my predecessor (in a terrifyingly long and detailed Word doc!) on my first day of work. The list of projects was so overwhelming when I first arrived that some projects slipped through the cracks as far as ongoing data collections or processing. Now that I have the context for these projects I’m able to look and see what data I need to organize or gather for them.


Any advice on additional or better ways to to utilize research project lulls productively?


2 thoughts on “How to approach work lulls productively

  1. These are excellent suggestions. It just seems that all my “lulls” lately have more or less morphed into “perfect opportunities for meetings to be scheduled.” It feels basically like work has become living-deadline-to-deadline, and I haven’t yet figured out how to make that work without having unstructured time to just sit and think, much less read the [growing] stack of literature that’s coming out.

    Time management is hard :/ Glad you’re finding ways to make it work for you!

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