The stars aligned

The first day after an extended leave always is going to be a tough day. Ideally you catch up with all of the team members, and talk through everyone’s individual projects and what happened during the absence.

Although all members of my team know their stuff, and know it well, the PhDs I currently supervise all are in critical parts of their respective projects and for different reasons: one is finishing up, and will have more important things to care for soon, and therefore we are navigating our way towards a dissertation not too far from now.

Writing a dissertation can be a challenge, and here in Germany the young researchers are asked to do it in three short years. On top of of that, two of their three chapters need to be accepted for publication by a peer-reviewed journal upon submission of the final and complete dissertation. The latter is an additional (and unnecessary) stressor that puts a lot of time pressure on already short PhD projects. Publishing can take LONG! But as they say: it is what it is. I will not try to change a system that’s so much bigger than me. But nevertheless I call bullshit on this rule…

Two other PhD researchers work with me on two individual but closely related projects, and are preparing for their upcoming field season.

Field season, for field ecologists, is like a four month window in the year during which you need to do all you can, to collect the best data possible. As you can imagine, it’s critical that things are tightly planned and coordinated. In their case, they’ll have to propagate plants, take care of field experiments, coordinate sampling and scoring events across the season, and leave some flexibility for when shit hits the proverbial fan. And it does. It doesn’t matter whether you’re good or not. It’s the response to such situations that makes people stand out.

As if field season wasn’t enough, they both also have master’s students that just started their projects under their care and guidance, so not only will they have to navigate their own projects, they will also have their student projects to keep an eye on. It’s quite a responsibility, but when done well can lead to great collaborations, additional data, and in my experience, fun time. I think it’s also a great way to learn how to juggle multiple (side) projects and acquire the first layer of leadership skills. PhD projects first and foremost celebrate the scientific method, and seek to apply it to answer interesting questions to deepen our understanding of the world. In my view, however, it’s also important to focus on those additional soft skills you can (and likely will) gain through the process of getting a PhD. After all, your next employer is unlikely to care about your knowledge about how some molecule in some plant affects some insect. They’d rather see you be a great leader or motivator. That’s my guess anyway.

Given that I had been absent for almost five weeks in this critical moment in time, I wanted to speak to them as soon as possible. It’s not that I was super worried about them, but I felt horrible as a supervisor for leaving in the first place (Yeah yeah, I know). I didn’t want to organize the update meetings during my leave, and also didn’t want to organize them during bank holidays, so I figured I’d try my luck this morning, by sending them an email first thing in the morning.

It turned out that one already beat me to it, and the other two responded positively soon after. The stars aligned, and by the end of the day I had been completely updated by all three.

What started off as a stressy day, where I was worried about how to arrange things, ended up being one of the most relaxing work days in a long time. So many ideas. So much progress. Such exciting times ahead! I love it.

It almost seems I don’t even need to be around for these folks to do great things.

Perhaps I should start planning my next time off!

Published by Robin Heinen

Father of two | Husband | Entomologist and Ecologist | Postdoctoral Researcher @ TUM | Traveler | Coffee Addict

2 thoughts on “The stars aligned

  1. In my opinion, a good goal would be a submitted chapter manuscript per year. That’s what a PhD researcher can influence with proper planning and reasonable effort. Whatever reviewers or review process you may encounter is a throw of dice, really. It’s unfair stress to put on young researchers that are pressed for time already.

    Liked by 1 person

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