What particular time pressures do researchers face?
The main difference between research and many other jobs is that you’re always on a time-limit. PhD students and postdocs usually have just a few years to do the necessary experiments in a project and publish a paper, and more senior researchers are also measured by their research output. A few years may sound like a long time but when you break it down into what needs to be achieved, there’s not much wiggle-room. And as soon as one project is ‘finished’, the clock starts to tick on the next one!
These pressures can be heightened for those new to science, for example PhD students, as it’s usually their first long-term research project so they’re in new, unfamiliar waters. Having to balance the need to conduct experiments, interpret results, fix problems, design posters for conferences, identify alternative career routes to explore, and much more can seem overwhelming when you’re in a new environment, working with new people and new technologies.
What are your tips for avoiding stress when time becomes tight?
Prevention is always better than cure, so being mindful of this from the start means you can take measures in advance to prevent getting overwhelmed by these pressures - take time away from the bench to do things that make you happy, build a solid support network and look after your body (it is just a biological machine in the end!).
But if time has become tight, the first thing to accept is that there will inevitably be moments like this, when you start thinking you could do with more hours in the day, but don’t be too hard on yourself (mostly because it doesn’t result in useful work). Be realistic about what is the source of your stress and what exactly needs doing, then make an actionable plan and deploy it.
What if pressure and stress levels become too high?
Be aware: there is a difference between pressure and stress. Personally, I don’t see the pressure of time being tight as being intrinsically bad (or avoidable in any job really). It can stimulate the right level of motivation and impetus to ensure productivity or focus. Stress, on the other hand, is not ideal for productivity. It occurs when pressures last beyond the short-term and is harmful to any individual’s wellbeing - so we should all be looking for our own functional sweet-spot between pressure and stress.
Take five: if I feel I’m getting frustrated and stressed, a strategy that works for me is taking five minutes out to instead think about something I’m grateful for. It’s often just a really nice coffee I had or a good friendship that my mind goes too, but that helps to put things in perspective - there is always something to be happy about in life!
Try not to feel guilty or shame for feeling stressed - it’s normal and manageable. Taking a step away from work when you need to is not only better for your own wellbeing, but it’ll also mean you’re more productive in the long run. Science is a marathon, not a sprint, and regardless of what career stage you’re at, there’ll always be the next milestone to reach so you need to look after yourself. Know when to employ your support network, especially if stress has overwhelmed you.
It’s also important to look out for each other! If you see someone struggling with deadlines or managing their time, perhaps suggest getting a cup of tea together and having a chat. They might not want to share everything, but having the opportunity to talk can mean a lot to someone going through a tough time.
Tell us more about your role in mental health at the Crick.
I am part of the mental health first aiders team, a small group of employees trained in being the first point of contact for anyone who might need to chat. We’re happy to talk about what’s on your mind, big or small, and can offer some initial advice. The Crick has a great employee assistance programme, and we can direct people to many levels of support available to them through that programme. It’s much better to come and chat sooner than wait for it to escalate, but it is worth noting we are trained to be comfortable helping even in the darkest moments.