I can’t come out to play, I have to do my homework

I have a confession to make: I liked homework when I was at school. When the teacher failed to set any homework, the class rejoiced, yet I was secretly disappointed. My favourite time of year was September, the month of a new pencil case, pens and fresh exercise books, breaking the desperation of the Summer holidays.

Often in science I feel as though I have embarked on a career of doing school work all the time. I set my own learning objectives (important questions to answer) and find myself reading schoolbooks (scientific papers) at the weekends. One of the important lessons a PhD teaches you is to identify your body’s own daily rhythm to maximum efficiency: at the time of day your brain’s switched on but your body’s too tired for lab work you can sit and read papers and plan future experiments. Is your brain most active before the journey to work or even before your morning shower? Then have a stab at some reading over breakfast.

As much as we try to organise our days in the lab and plan our time, there will always be a component that is out of our control, despite best efforts. Our PIs (Principal Investigator, boss, Professor, head of the lab) pass down to us work with deadlines over which we have no say or forewarning. I’d say this is one of the major sources of stress in science, and is all dependent on how organised your PI is and maybe how mean or stressed they themselves are feeling. Ours is a large lab, the combined groups of two Professors. Together one of their activities is the running of a distance learning MSc course in cardiovascular biology. This is a successful, well-received course which has been running annually for a number of years.

Almost exactly one month ago we were told that the lectures needed updating. A list was made of the lectures, and each one assigned to a different postdoc to re-write. We were tasked with creating the slides, writing a script, multiple-choice questions and recording the lecture. The deadline? One month; two days ago. Bearing in mind that with the exception of one senior postdoc, none of us had done anything like this before, although of course we’d attended many thousands of lectures between us. At most we’d written 10-minute talks for conferences and slightly longer presentations as part of our PhD studies. Three weeks went by before we had a meeting about what was required of us and we received copies of our predecessors lectures. That left one week.

The week started well in a manner of sorts, most of us in denial, most still toiling away in the lab. By Tuesday afternoon I felt utterly overwhelmed and was attempting to convince myself that I couldn’t do it so I might as well just not bother. By Wednesday, the offices were starting to empty of postdocs, as we all sought quieter environments to concentrate in. On Friday, the day of the deadline, one-by-one we began to return, sleep-deprived yet content at last. It was now clear which of us would not make the deadline: some just didn’t respond to the pressure, others crumbled. Many remained on an adrenaline high for much of Friday. The contented ones who’d either finished their lectures or could see the end within a few hours, admitted it was a tight deadline but “wow, what a rush!”

Perhaps one of the aspects required to be a good scientist is that you’ve got to be an adrenaline junkie. We don’t jump off buildings or climb mountains; we get our kicks from harsh deadlines. Those that made the deadline all look back and honestly say they are proud of what they’ve accomplished. It’s moments like this, as we one-by-one admitted that we quite liked having homework to do, that we feel part of a team, a sense of belonging.

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