A big part of the transition to being on the other side of the PhD is figuring out how to manage a pipeline of research. One piece of advice I’ve heard a lot on the topic is to prioritize my research starting with what’s closest to done. It’s advice that makes sense. Finish what is closest to done and then (and only then) move onto other things. I tried doing this during my year as a postdoc and found it doesn’t work for me.
To be clear, I think the advice is sound. Finish what you’ve already started and start with what’s closest to finished then go onto the next closest to done, etc. However, the advice always seemed grounded in a fear of not finishing to me. That is, if you don’t continue with that project that’s almost done, you’ll never turn back to it and just keep starting new projects and starting new projects and never finish anything.
But there is also a time and a place to put a project on time out. It’s often better not to rush work out the door that isn’t really finished. Some of you may not have this problem, but I can get impatient, frustrated, and maybe even a little bored. Reading the same words over and over on a page can lead to me not really reading, but just moving my eyes back and forth. When I hit that point, I’m more prone to make mistakes, miss the holes in an argument, and rush so I can move onto something else. Those mistakes can make the difference between a rejection and a revise and resubmit. So for me, any project without a hard deadline is best served with a time out when I hit that wall.
While that project is in time out, I follow my heart and work on the project I’m most excited about. I’m always tempted by new data and collecting new leads on new projects, but I find that I usually go to something that’s already in the works even if it’s not the next closest project to finished. Turning to something that’s exciting keeps me engaged with my research and enthusiastic about what I’m producing. Eventually, I come back to that project in time out and when I do, I have fresh eyes. I can see what’s working and what isn’t. I have new ideas about how to resolve the problems. And I’m excited to be engaging with the project all over again.
For me, a project in time out doesn’t get left behind, but it is possible that this approach means leaving some projects on the cutting floor. Sometimes that’s because you can’t actually do what you aimed to do with your data. Sometimes it’s because you’ve learned all you can from the project and have moved on. It’s not always a bad thing to leave some projects behind. But if you’re worried about leaving projects behind, you can set a schedule for when projects come out of time out or choose to balance one almost done project with one project you’re really excited about.
There are ways to keep the joy in research while still being productive. Find yours!