A day in the life

... of a postdoc/graduate student, at least. I have no idea the crazy things those professors get up to! Probably just boring meetings and endless grant writing, but you never know. Maybe they have secret bubble machines for stress relief!

Anyway, I occasionally get asked the dreaded question from a well-meaning person; “what does an regular day look like for a scientist?” I always want to reply “it depends on your definition of regular,” but somehow I don’t think that would be a particularly good response.

The thing is, I don’t have a short answer for it. My days can sometimes be quiet and methodical, but more often than not, they’re rather chaotic and require me to be flexible. Some researchers have adapted to this life by eschewing all hopes of daily plans at all. Only the essentials get put in a calendar, and even then it’s in pencil (or pixels, that can easily be moved to another day).

I go the other way. I know I function better with structure and a task list that I can check off, even if it has to be moved around as things crop up. About half the time, I’ll have 1 or 2 experiments going that I know are going to take up a good chunk of time during the day. Or I’ll have a lab meeting, or a seminar to attend. So I’ll schedule those into my daily planner first. But many experiments have incubation times where I have to just sit and wait. If it’s only 10-20 min, maybe I’ll just take care of emails or check Facebook ahem Pubmed for new papers in my field. It’s not enough time to really read a paper, but at least I can read a few abstracts.

photo by Intel Free Press

If it’s a long break during a protocol, I can sometimes start another experiment. Although there have been some times where too much gets scheduled and hands-on times overlap and oh the stress! That’s where some of the flexibility comes in. By knowing the techniques (or having someone experienced around like a good lab manager), you can decide which experiment can be pushed off for a few more minutes and which one is critical that it gets done on time. I can’t say enough good things about the wonderful people I’ve worked with who have taught me this essential knowledge!

Once the big things are in place, then I’ll start jotting down a few littler things that can be done during any extra down time. Sometimes it’s cleaning equipment I’ve used, or preparing tubes for the next day. Maybe even looking up details for a new test that I want to try or ordering materials I need. Preparation is key for experiments to not get bogged down before they even get started.

Finally, I also need to schedule in time for writing. Be it a manuscript I’m preparing, funding that I’m applying for, or even just keeping up to date in my lab notebook. Which, I’m definitely not several weeks behind. Nope, absolutely not me. I have no idea why you’d even ask me that, I’m not a procrastinator at all...

So I hope you can see the problem with answering what my day looks like. It really can be almost anything. Sometimes I run my feet off preparing samples and running tests all day long. Some days my butt hurts from sitting for hours on end, my fingers are stiff from typing and my eyes are glazed over from reading papers. But most days are some sort of weird hybrid of both, which is exactly how I like it!