Meeting deadlines is good – needing deadlines not so much…


Narges and I are having a motivational coffee meeting with Katja. “I know I need to start writing my papers,” she says, “it’s just so hard because I always think of more experiments and analyses I should do. I never feel they are complete enough to start writing”. “But you finished your fellowship application, and your projects were a lot less complete back then, so what’s the difference?” Narges asks. “One word: deadline,” is Katja’s response.

Meeting deadlines is an important skill in most professions, and science is no exception. We have many hard deadlines that we need to meet, most of them involving funding, conferences and meeting presentations. We all know that missing those deadlines is not an option, and hence we have learned to work towards them, and meet them. “Of course, some of us meet deadlines sooner than others,” Narges interjects with a side glance at me, “but at the end of the day, we always get our stuff done in time, irrespective of whether we subjectively feel that our projects are complete enough or not”. The problem with manuscripts, Katja explains, is that there are no deadlines, at least not ones that are non-negotiable. This is, of course, a misconception, as in reality, our ability to publish is tied inextricably to our ability to get jobs and funding. When you get to a certain stage in your project or career, people will judge you based on your publications (at least in academia), and if you haven’t produced any or as many as you might have, that will affect your ability to procure funding or get a new job.

This is where needing a deadline – as opposed to meeting a deadline – can become quite problematic for many scientists. Most scientists I know are perfectionists in some form or another: we are precise, we double- and triple-check things and we don’t like it when things are incomplete. However, if you are on the scale of perfectionism where you can’t stop doing experiments and start writing your papers because there is no tangible deadline and you never think it’s ready, this can have serious implications for you later down the line. Publishing is a lengthy process, which is why often starting the publishing process – by that I mean writing and submitting your manuscript – needs to happen sooner than most scientists, who need hard deadlines, realize.

“So what can we do to help?” I ask. “Give me deadlines,” Katja smiles. Joking aside, we start thinking about strategies to get those papers written: Give yourself deadlines, and try to see them as hard deadlines. Have meetings to discuss the paper’s progress with your co-authors or coffee buddies. Don’t plan any experiments. Make sure you do at least one thing to do with your paper every day. “Anything else?” Katja asks. “Yes, send me the first draft of your methods by tomorrow evening, or else…” Katja looks scared and finishes her coffee. “On it!”

Christine-palmerMy name is Christine, and I am an immunologist. After my undergraduate studies in Oxford, I moved to London for myPhD and first postdoc. After 7 years in this magnificent city, I was ready for an adventure and decided to go to Boston for a second postdoc. Six years later, I’ve made Boston my permanent home, but I am currently on an 8-month sabbatical back in London, where I am learning new things at The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine before returning to Boston. In addition to doing research, I write a series of blogs about conversations and discussions I have had with other scientists, with topics ranging from the inane to career goals and options, our research, new techniques and technologies and the like. I would like to share some of those topics with you in this blog. Want to join in? Grab yourself a cup of your favorite caffeinated beverage, read along, and leave comments.