Patience young Dr. O

I am not a patient person. In fact, when Cloud referenced a study that found kids who delayed gratification were more likely to be successful, I couldn’t help but chuckle – I’m really not sure if I could have waited to eat my marshmallow (probably should check out Cloud’s post if you’re confused). As an “adult”, I still have a hard time waiting – for a new pair of shoes, clothing, or piece of furniture (which has certainly contributed to some of my credit card debt). Other things I can’t wait for: pregnancy, a “real” job, a house. And, until I met my hubby, I couldn’t wait to find someone to spend my life with.

Of course, I’ve learned to wait for certain things. And, surprisingly, I have never really had a problem being patient with science. This may have to do with the fact that I was completely – and I mean completely – naive about research when I walked through the door of graduate school. I had never worked in a research lab, had no idea what I was going to do with a PhD, or if I’d even make it to a PhD. And I certainly had absolutely no goal of being a TT professor. Graduate school was just delaying the inevitable prospect of growing up and getting a job – still college, but with fewer classes. I enjoyed science, and I liked learning how to do all those big-time laboratory techniques. But I didn’t take it too seriously if something didn’t work the first, second, or third time, and I had fun. Amazingly enough, this temperament has led to relative success in the lab. On top of which, I enjoy my job and look forward (most days) to going into the lab.

Patience is not a singular attribute, however. It’s an attitude, characterized by a series of traits. And since I don’t enjoy a patient attitude in other aspects of my life, I thought it might be useful to compile a list of my laboratory personality traits. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

1. Plan, but be adaptable. I’m a planner, and I generally have my experiments for the present week planned out to a T. I have a to-do list that sits on my bench, and I make sure that everything that can be done is done before taking a break (ahem, blogging). While I love a good plan, I’m also willing to change my plans. Bullheadedly running down one path when things aren’t working wears me down; I just assume hit my head repeatedly with a baseball bat. So I’m willing to let a bad idea go for a newer, and possibly better, idea.

2. Set short term goals with a long term direction in mind. I have a pretty good idea of where I want to be 5 years from now. But I’m not going to get there overnight, so this isn’t something that I think about on a daily basis. Instead, I try to set weekly and monthly objectives that help me toward this long term goal. This keeps me from overshooting and missing those little details (i.e. controls) that are absolutely necessary for success.

3. Don’t hold on too tight. I love what I do, and have a hard time imagining doing anything else. But I don’t believe that I can’t do something else. A change of career might take some soul-searching, retraining, and time, but it’s possible. I strongly believe that this thinking is critical for research – and life – success. If you hold on too tightly to something, you’ll be too scared to take risks…the too busy keeping your job to do your job quandary. Realizing that failure is an option gives you freedom to be the best you can be at anything you do.

4. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Alright, so nobody likes to be the butt of a joke, the clown that screwed something up, or the idiot who didn’t know some inane piece of information. But newsflash: it’s alright to make mistakes – you don’t have to be perfect, and you don’t know everything, so don’t act like it. Accept this from the beginning, and you’ll be a happier and better lab rat, manager, wife, friend, and person.

5. Have fun. Laugh and play are important in all aspects of life, and I especially believe that us scientists should be childlike in our enthusiasm for this job. After all, we get to play with expensive equipment and make “magic” happen at the bench everyday. I’m certain the same thing applies to life. Even when things are not going well, it’s possible to find a way to have fun, to laugh, to just be silly. Research, like life, has the potential to be exciting and fun. Decide to enjoy it – all of it – by playing and laughing as much as you can.

So that’s my list…feel free to comment or add your own ideas. I certainly don’t expect this list to be the last word!

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3 thoughts on “Patience young Dr. O

  1. Set short term goals with a long term direction in mind.

    It is impossible to overestimate the importance of this. I have known scientists who are *always* busy, busy, busy with “doing”, but they never seem to get anywhere. This is because although they are in constant motion, it is Brownian motion in relation to their long-term goals.

  2. PhysioProf: I can't stand it when I see people do that – working 14-hour days trying to solve every problem that crosses their mind. After 3 years and no papers, you think they'd figure out it doesn't work!

    BB: Thanks! I think #3 is the most difficult. The funny thing is, while I'd be interested in doing something completely different (e.g., interior decorating), I have a hard time imagining myself doing science at anything other than a R1 U. I'm just now learning to accept that something less intense might be okay, or even better.

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