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MarineBluePsy

How many research projects at a time is reasonable?

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If you're currently in a program or recall your research project load when you were I'm interested in knowing how many projects you had going at a time?  I know the type of research will affect the volume so I'm also curious if they were survey research (in person or online), experiments, developing an intervention or assessment, etc.  I thought I was doing fine managing 2 projects (both long in person surveys) and am developing a 3rd (another long in person survey), but according to my department this isn't enough.  The other students in my department are handling anywhere from 1-3 projects at a time which are either in person surveys or developing an intervention so comparatively I'm doing ok, but our department has decided we're all not doing enough and need to add more projects to our plates.  I should also add that half of us don't have undergrads to help with anything and those that do spend more time correcting their mistakes which just adds more time.  After chatting with my classmates it seems most of us feel its already difficult to manage 1-3 projects, classes, and clinical work while not neglecting self care so adding more projects seems impossible.  Just curious what others are doing or have done to gain a wider perspective.         

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Outside perspective: it seems to me that this varies *greatly*. I had classmates who could never work on more than one project at a time, and I see professors who have been like that for decades, and seem to make it work for them. There are those who can handle 2, maybe 3, distinct things at a time, and there are those who always have a half dozen or more projects are various stages of completion. I'm one of the latter people. I'd say at the moment I have 5 projects that are in various stages of getting-ready-for-initial-writeup, 3-4 revisions of papers for ongoing projects, and 2 big ideas for multi-year projects that I probably won't actually take on for another 2-3 years, but I keep coming back to them and adding bits and pieces to my skeleton of a proposal that I keep on my desktop. I mostly work with collaborators/students, and not all projects will be equally active at any given time. I enjoy working this way because it means that I'm never stuck with nowhere to go next, but it requires quite a lot of management. Overall, it seems to me that as a grad student, you want to ask yourself a combination of questions about what you're comfortable with, and what will allow you to have enough deliverables (papers, presentations, diverse skills, etc) to make you competitive on the job market. It's not easy finding the sweet spot where you're productive enough but not too busy for self-care. 

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I just want to say that I'm still trying to find that sweet spot that fuzzy mentioned. I've learned a lot during my first year as a postdoc and I'm getting closer but still trying to get the right balance. 

I work in a similar way to fuzzy. Looking at my whiteboard right now, I have 15 projects listed. Of these, there are:

- 3 projects that I am primarily responsible for and am taking the lead role
- 2 projects where I have a major role, including one that is led by a student
- 4 projects where I have some collaborative role (i.e. I'll supply some data and/or analysis for a paper led by someone else)
- 2 projects that are ideas without any data yet and proposals for funding/obtaining the data have been submitted
- 3 projects that is just kernels of an idea that, like fuzzy, I will occasionally add to and refine over time. One of these is close to getting to the next stage (applying for data/funds), though!

Some of my main obstacles to finding a sweet spot is that I spend a lot of my time just managing other people's work (e.g. students). I learned that in my last year of my PhD when I really needed to get one paper out before graduation, I worked really well when I paused all other projects to only focus on one. I can't really do that right now though but I maybe need to dedicate 3 or 4 days per week to one of the three projects on my first category in order to reach my paper goal for this year. But I'm concerned that neglecting my collaborations will mean that I will be out of work in the future. Getting the right balance is really tough.

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I'm in psychology too. The answer varies so much by method, area, and program that it's almost impossible to give specific advice. My advisor wanted all his students to run at least six experiments a term -- usually a combination of lab and online experiments using undergraduates. But someone who researches a less common population (children, couples, clinical conditions) or a more complicated method (longitudinal, physiological, dyadic interactions) couldn't keep that up. Your peers and your advisor's expectations are a better benchmark than our best guesses.

Last, consider your program quality and any academic ambitions. I know some programs where a student's dissertation project is almost all they do. Finish dissertation, graduate, languish on the job market. But if you're at a top program with higher standards, or want to be a competitive on the academic market, you'll need to push yourself harder than that.

 

6 hours ago, MarineBluePsy said:

those that do spend more time correcting their mistakes which just adds more time. 

hah, welcome to the world of student trainees. This doesn't end.

 

Edited by lewin

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Thanks for the responses.  I think a huge part of the problem is my department has never had a firm stance on what is considered "enough" so incoming students just aimed for what other students were doing and that seemed to work well.  Past graduates who followed the 1-3 projects at a time pace finished on time, went off to internship, and many went on to post doc after that.  So something has clearly changed (not sure what this would be) if now this is viewed as not good enough.  In thinking about the way fuzzy and Take are working it seems I'm doing a scaled down version of that.  I have 2 projects I have a major role in and am in the data collection stages for both, a 3rd project I have a major role in that is in the proposal stage, and 2 projects that are in the kernel stage that I add bits and pieces to when I get an idea but may not be launched for awhile.  I'm comfortable with this, but this is the first time I've had this many projects going so I'm not sure what my actual ceiling is.  Many more things to think about.....

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32 minutes ago, MarineBluePsy said:

Thanks for the responses.  I think a huge part of the problem is my department has never had a firm stance on what is considered "enough" so incoming students just aimed for what other students were doing and that seemed to work well.  Past graduates who followed the 1-3 projects at a time pace finished on time, went off to internship, and many went on to post doc after that.  So something has clearly changed (not sure what this would be) if now this is viewed as not good enough.

This is a very common issue/concern I've heard from grad students all over my campus during my PhD and from students at other places. Or, more generally, the lack of feedback and clear guidelines. It happens at all levels: we don't know exactly what the evaluation criteria for quals are, what is "good enough" for publication, what grant applications look like, what is "enough" teaching experience, what would win fellowships, how do you get a talk at a conference, what is expected at a thesis advisory committee meeting, what do they want from you during your defense etc. Some of these things you get a feel for once you get some experience but no one can ever tell you what the rubric or criteria are. And mostly because there isn't one! This isn't super helpful directly but maybe it helps to know that other students do feel similarly across many fields and many programs?

For your specific situation, I'm not sure there is much you can do that will work for sure. In your shoes, I would certainly rally the other students to push back against the department. Do the students in your department get together on a semi-regular basis to discuss what's working and what isn't? I started doing this with my department partway through my PhD and it was helpful. We would get funding from the University student government to buy pizza for any students who wanted to show up and discuss issues within our program. We also collected feedback anonymously through an online form. Then, a core group of volunteers condensed this down, checked in with the student body and presented it to the department academic leadership as representatives of all students in the department. It's helpful to have a ranked list and to also identify the problem, exactly what is causing it, and make a request to address it.

I and the other student volunteers already had a good working relationship with the department faculty and leadership so it was easy for us to bring this up as respectful but important criticism and we were able to have a dialogue about the issues, instead of being dismissed as just whining. If this rapport doesn't exist in the department, you may have to adjust your approach accordingly.

Unless you know for certain otherwise, I would advise you or other students that might want to bring this up to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and assume they are all acting in good faith. You can get much further, at least initially, with this perspective. For example, in your specific situation, instead of starting off by complaining that the department is asking too much of you, frame it slightly differently. Bring up the concern as an issue similar to how you wrote it here. Maybe frame it as the students requesting more clear communication and feedback about program expectations. You could present the students' perspective of how there were not guidelines before, so everyone just did what the older students did, but it seems like there is a shift now and you are hoping to get more communication on the expectations. I find that often times the faculty have no idea what the students are thinking and they assume the students know exactly what they are thinking. It could be that the faculty have different ideas on what they mean by a project even. 

47 minutes ago, MarineBluePsy said:

In thinking about the way fuzzy and Take are working it seems I'm doing a scaled down version of that.  I have 2 projects I have a major role in and am in the data collection stages for both, a 3rd project I have a major role in that is in the proposal stage, and 2 projects that are in the kernel stage that I add bits and pieces to when I get an idea but may not be launched for awhile.  I'm comfortable with this, but this is the first time I've had this many projects going so I'm not sure what my actual ceiling is.  Many more things to think about.....

While I was a student, my load was about what you said here. The main priority while being a student is graduating, so you want to be focussing on things that will be finished in your timescale as a student. The second priority is doing whatever work is paying your stipend! Many of my projects now were kernels of ideas while a student, putting them off until I became a postdoc (i.e. paid to do whatever I want instead of being paid to work on specific projects). I am not sure how your field works, but in mine, there are two main categories of postdoc positions: independent ones where you are paid to do your own research program and others where your postdoc position is paid out of a grant for a specific position. I am lucky to have the former, which allows me to spread my time across anything I am interested in. So my list grew a ton in the first few months of my postdoc. There were many ideas that I also pursued for 3-5 days before deciding to abandon it or shelve it for way later.

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Yes we students have gathered to discuss the lack of communication and the unclear expectations.  A summary of our concerns have been taken to the faculty and we're all discussing them one on one with our advisors which should cover all angles.  Hopefully that will lead to changes we can all work with.  It is really sad that across fields this lack of communication or unclear standards exists and yet we're expected to be the next generation of academics.  How can you really excel at something if there is no standard for you to meet or exceed?  

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5 hours ago, MarineBluePsy said:

Yes we students have gathered to discuss the lack of communication and the unclear expectations.  A summary of our concerns have been taken to the faculty and we're all discussing them one on one with our advisors which should cover all angles.  Hopefully that will lead to changes we can all work with.  It is really sad that across fields this lack of communication or unclear standards exists and yet we're expected to be the next generation of academics.  How can you really excel at something if there is no standard for you to meet or exceed?  

Our advisors were trained in the same way. Honestly, one major challenge with academia, in my opinion, is that while most/many faculty members do end up in some sort of leadership and/or managerial role, academics are rarely trained to be managers. We generally only get formal training in research skills. We're expected to pick up teaching, mentoring, leadership, management, etc. skills on the fly. And the whole academic model of learning from your advisor/mentor means that you're learning these skills from someone who also doesn't have this training.

Of course, the situation is more complex than that, and sure there are many advantages of having the "management" be people who primarily want to do research. It might be a disaster if academic departments are led by people with management training and no concept of what it's like to be a scientist. But there has to be some middle ground where universities provide more (mandatory and effective) training for faculty members as they take on more roles. Unfortunately, I often get the sense that (some) faculty do not want to be forced to learn these skills, that it will make things "too corporate" for the academic world. I do love many of the quirks of academia, but I think this is one value that some people hold onto too tightly and at the expense of everyone else.

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It is really unfortunate that formal training in management/teaching/etc is viewed as being "too corporate" and therefore unwelcome because there are huge advantages to allowing some of those elements.  It seems the for profit schools have readily embraced this, but of course they have a whole host of other problems.  So essentially neither extreme is working and neither camp is willing to head toward the middle to improve things.  The clearer this all becomes the less I see myself here.  Thank heavens I can do other things with the degree I'm working toward.

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On 5/6/2018 at 1:11 PM, TakeruK said:

Our advisors were trained in the same way. Honestly, one major challenge with academia, in my opinion, is that while most/many faculty members do end up in some sort of leadership and/or managerial role, academics are rarely trained to be managers. We generally only get formal training in research skills. We're expected to pick up teaching, mentoring, leadership, management, etc. skills on the fly. And the whole academic model of learning from your advisor/mentor means that you're learning these skills from someone who also doesn't have this training.

Of course, the situation is more complex than that, and sure there are many advantages of having the "management" be people who primarily want to do research. It might be a disaster if academic departments are led by people with management training and no concept of what it's like to be a scientist. But there has to be some middle ground where universities provide more (mandatory and effective) training for faculty members as they take on more roles. Unfortunately, I often get the sense that (some) faculty do not want to be forced to learn these skills, that it will make things "too corporate" for the academic world. I do love many of the quirks of academia, but I think this is one value that some people hold onto too tightly and at the expense of everyone else.

Agree - my uni's organizational department quit collectively as the head of the department was soooo bad at managing them. I've lucked out with my advisor in my master's though. He is a former high school English teacher who then became an entrepreneur (small company) and eventually ended up in science. He was definitely good in the teaching/mentoring area (if not amazing) and management (had his own company after all). But he seemed to be the exception haha. 

 

cAs in terms of projects - my new advisor is already trying to start a project with me over summer so I can collect data in fall. Love how much he's on top of things (already), but so far for my 'freedom'. So my projects are now
- rewriting my thesis for publication (lead)
- new project with my former advisor (also lead)
- new project with my new advisor (lead)
- meta-analysis that is going nowhere as we lack data and nobody wants to share it with us (emails get ignored lol - lead on this section of the project, not involved in writing intro and the like)
- supporting role in a project that is going nowhere for 1.5 years now and I personally gave up on - but I'll keep doing my translations lol

I think the numer of projects really depends on what your role is in them and to what extent they are something 'novel' to you, how much effort the data collection and analyses take (i.e., a study on amazon Mtruk is quite a low effort and generally easy analyses), and honestly also depends on whom I'm working with. 

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