A few months ago in our weekly NERD club we ran a session on dealing with stress. Part of this session revolved around what made us stressed, and one of the big problems was feeling like we had too much to do and too little time to do it. To follow up on this, this week we looked at how to be more productive. Many of our discussions revolved around the ideas presented here and here.

What makes us less productive?

The causes of our lack of productivity varied across career stages and the types of work we were involved with. Almost everyone had one major problem – the internet. Postdocs and PIs complained about the huge volume of emails and the desire to deal with them. PhD students weren’t so distracted by emails, instead their issue tended to be things like news websites. All of us have problems with distractions like social media, cute animal pictures and xkcd. Solutions included strictly restricting time doing these things, and/or the number of links you are “allowed” to click and explore before going back to work!

Another big issue was other people. This included supervisors/collaborators who won’t respond to emails or always delay or cut short meetings, suppliers messing up equipment orders, arcane university policies requiring endless form filling, constant interruptions from students etc. This is probably impossible to solve, but did provoke an interesting debate – what if your productivity actually reduces the productivity of someone else? For example, many of us had examples of people who would delay replying to emails until it was convenient for them but this would severely delay someone else working on the project. Another common complaint was people who call you to ask questions – this is great for them as they get an immediate answer but often frustrating for the person who has been interrupted. The only solution we could think of was a) talk to the person involved and calmly explain the problem to see if it can be solved and b) to all think carefully about how our actions affect others (of course I’d like to think we all do this anyway but I know we don’t!)

Finally, we discussed how these distractions all become worse when you have something you really don’t want to do (for me this is grading!). You will do literally anything other than that task. Again this is hard to solve, as it requires self-discipline (and for many people it requires the sound of the deadline whooshing by). My solution has been to work out a really short amount of time that I think I can cope with doing that task for. I then set a timer and do it for that long, or often longer as these things are rarely that bad once you get over the initial hurdle of starting. I then reward myself with a break. I find this works even better if you can do it with a colleague. Yes, it takes far longer to get the task done than it should, but it does get done rather than sitting on your desk and giving you the side-eye all day/week/month.

Unique snowflakes of productivity

An important thing to note throughout these tips is that different things work for different people! I find working at home great for my productivity, others find they spend the whole day tidying the house. I work best in the evenings, other people work best at 6am. Do whatever works for you!

Potential solutions

  1. Be kind to yourself

I think this is most important, especially in light of the stress discussions we had earlier in the year. Most of us are more productive when we eat well, get plenty of sleep, exercise regularly and work sensible hours. Yes, you will get a lot of stuff done if you work crazy hours for a couple of weeks. But that increase in productivity comes at a price of burn out, getting sick or generally losing motivation for the project. Working a 35 hour week has been shown to be most effective for prolonged productivity. Taking breaks is also really important.

  1. Redefine and monitor your productivity

Sometimes our frustrations with how we are doing are related to what we think counts as productivity. We might set goals that are too high, or forget about all the little things we achieved during the day. A suggestion was to make a thorough to-do list (I use to keep my to-do list synced across multiple computers and because you still get the satisfaction of ticking stuff off!). Making the list is also a useful procrastination activity (see below)! It does make me feel weirdly better when I see small tasks being ticked off, even if the larger whole of the task is yet to be completed.

  1. Find out where your time is going

Another common complaint was coming into work, seemingly working hard all day, but then having nothing to show for it. One suggestion from @DRobcito was to try keeping a “time diary” for a couple of weeks. This involves just noting down somewhere what you’ve done and how long it took you to do it. Although annoying to do, this is a great way to see where your time is going, what you should be spending less time on, and what kinds of activities you might want to say no to in future because the time expended doesn’t match the benefits.

  1. To Pomodoro or not to Pomodoro

A lot of articles on this subject recommend the Pomodoro technique where you work for 25 minutes, take a short break, then work another 25 minutes. After four or five repeats you take a longer break. Most of us had tried this, or a version of it, and most of us found it didn’t work for us. I think this may be related to it being hard to get anything sensible done in 25 minutes when analysing data or writing a paper. But as mentioned above, I often use something similar when grading papers which works really well.

  1. Have a “me” day

This is perhaps more for people later in the their careers, but it’s good to have one day a week where you don’t do anything for anyone else, and you don’t go to any meetings. You only do things that will add to your CV. Essentially this means working on papers or grants. Maybe not such a big deal for PhD students, but I can definitely go for weeks without working on any of my research. Another thing to avoid on these days is admin and non-essential emailing.

  1. Procrastinate effectively

Instead of watching a video of a capybara bathing with ducklings during a break, move on to something that requires zero intellect, but still requires doing for your work, for example reconciling expenses/receipts after a trip, formatting references, playing with figures, searching for new literature etc. Having said that, it’s important to also take proper breaks, and to ensure you see the capybara video.

  1. More efficient meetings

Another suggestion from @DRobcito was to have 22 minute meetings. We were dubious about this but he claims it works, mostly because you have to cut to the chase immediately. He also suggested scheduling back-to-back meetings to prevent any of them from running over. Again this doesn’t always work and can just lead to all your meetings starting late which may be great for you but is unfairly detrimental to the productivity of the people waiting for you.

  1. Dealing with emails I

A number of people use the “5 sentence max” email rule to keep emails short and to the point. If an email needs to be longer you should Skype or meet in person. We decided this works sometimes but not others. Many of us like to have details on email rather than talking them through on Skype or in person. Additionally, some of us really hate the trend of really short email replies because it’s hard to gauge tone, and also it seems a bit rude not to address the email to a person. This may be a cultural thing.

  1. Dealing with emails II

Most of us can’t get much done without internet, so turning off the internet wasn’t an option. But we can all turn off our email notifications on our phones, tablets and computers. This prevents you from dealing with the emails as the come in, but also removes the distraction of the notification itself which can break your concentration. Different people had different strategies for emails. Some do emails in set blocks of time, others do them during breaks. I think in terms of not injuring other people’s productivity it’s probably polite to at least triage your email in the morning and sometime in the afternoon. I also use the rule that if I can respond to the email/do what it asks me to do in less that 5 minutes, I do it then rather than leaving it to fester in my inbox.

  1. Manage your time, energy and attention.

This article explains this in more detail. Essentially, being productive requires that you have time to work, the energy to work, and the attention to work. Even if you have an hour to work on a paper, you still won’t be productive if you’re too tired to do anything useful or keep getting distracted. All of the above are solutions to one or more of these issues.


Natalie Cooper @nhcooper123

Thanks to @DRobcito, @jonesor and @naubinhorth who helped with suggestions for our discussions.

Photo credit

wikimedia commons

Seven crucial academic skills parenting teaches you!

Parenting and academia are not mutually exclusive states. Many academics are parents, we take on different caring responsibilities at different stages in our careers and take on more or less of the parenting responsibilities depending on our family situation. However, parenting is often seen as detracting from our ability to succeed in academia in the zero sum game of work-life balance.

Yes parents* can be under significant time pressures and may have their mobility restricted, but the parenting skills we acquire through on-the-job training, constant practice, trial and error, research and pure luck can also help with the academic day job. It’s time to point out those skills that parenting gives you that don’t necessarily make it onto your cv but which probably should:

  1. Time management.

This is probably the most valuable skill you can have as an academic and strangely, the time constraints that parenting puts on you help you to be more effective when you’re in the office, lecture theatre or conference. Every second is precious and you learn to do those tasks that used to take you an hour in 18 minutes and those tasks that you used to schedule for “when I have a free day” to that time in between the departmental meeting and the next lecture.


Credit: Sean MacEntee

  1. Patience & the long view

Having kids has improved my patience from fairly non-existent to the ability to withstand constant nagging for at least 15 mins before cracking. Patience is an important skill in academia, where the wheels of bureaucracy turn more slowly than a 5 year old getting ready for school. Parenting teaches you to consider the long view, you understand that everything is a phase. While you have to go with the latest penchant for “Frozen” merchandise you also keep your eye on what life lessons a snowman who longs for the summer can teach your kids.image003

Credit: Ryan Wick


  1. Listening & communication

I’ve learned a lot about my own communication and listening from trying to converse with two-year olds. Being told what to do as an academic or as a two-year old doesn’t work, its all about persuasion and compromise. Listening to what your colleagues want and need, acknowledging it and trying to find win-win situations has a glimmer of hope of working. Be prepared for complete melt-downs at any point as your target audience is likely to be distracted by many other demands, shiny lights and chocolate in the tea room.


Credit: GollyGForce

  1. Communicating to different audiences – new networks & outreach

As a parent you are suddenly presented with new networks and opportunities for outreach: at the school gate, being invited to talk to the local primary school and sitting on the parents committee. This interaction with “the real world” helps with perspective, writing press releases for your most recent discovery and how to explain the importance of the latest p-value. Talking to your kids about your work can help to reaffirm your values – why do you do what you do?

  1. Routine

Most people with a small baby can relate to the importance of routine, if you can get it. Routines are super-important for children and academics. The complexity of the competing demands on our time means that those reliable tea times, weekly meetings and annual conferences are much more likely to be attended if they’re on the same time every day/week/month/year.

  1. Perfection is not an option & knowing when good enough is good enough.

I accepted very early on that I would never be the perfect parent. I read one of those pseudoscience parenting blogs that told me getting it right 30% of the time was probably good enough. At the time when I was driving myself into an early grave trying to be perfect 30% struck me as much more achievable. Knowing when good enough is good enough is a skill that I try to bring into my academic life. Often I help myself “Let it Go” by mentally evaluating the alternatives to a reasonable but imperfect job done: a) a child that has sat in some bubbly water with minimal scrubbing (the reasonable but imperfect outcome) vs. a shiny clean but grumpy toddler & stressed out parent (the “perfect” but ultimately terrible outcome) or a smelly little beast (sometimes necessary but poor outcome that we try not to let out in public/publish).

  1. Relating to students

As we get older and less like our undergraduate students, they get younger and more like our kids… Skills we gain as a parent, for example by helping kids to look on the bright side, building up their confidence and teaching them that sometimes life’s just like that, all helps in helping, guiding and mentoring our students.

Kids are infuriating, stressful, sources of worry and time sinks, but they are also wonderful, make you see the your life in new ways and give you perspective on the world. Replace “kids” with “academic jobs” in the previous sentence and that’s basically how I see it.

* I include here male and female parents, there are also many carers of family & friends who while not directly parenting are also under significant constraints. Some of these points may apply more generally to carers but they will have other specific issues to deal with – that’s another blog post…

Authors: Yvonne Buckley, BUCKLEYY[at] & Jane Stout,



One body one problem

TheClashLondonCallingalbumcoverYou may have heard on the academic grapevine that I will soon be leaving Trinity College Dublin. As with all moves I’m both sad to be leaving, but excited to take on new challenges. I’ll be around until the summer, but now this is common knowledge I wanted to explain why I’m moving on. And also to make something else really clear – I’m not leaving because I dislike working here! The School of Natural Sciences (and particularly Zoology where I’m based) has been a fantastic place to work for the last three years. The staff are friendly and supportive, the students are top notch, and the working environment here is energetic and collegiate. I’ve met some amazing people and I hope to continue working with them. I’ve also learned more than I thought possible in just three years.

Then why am I leaving? Mostly it boils down to the “one body problem“. We’re all familiar with the “two body problem”, whereby people in a relationship are forced to find ways to make their relationship and careers work at the same time. Sometimes this involves partners trying to get jobs in the same place, although it could be detrimental to their careers; other times people live apart so they can have more choices over which job to take. Either way it’s a crappy problem and I feel terrible for people in that situation. We talk less about the “one body problem” which also disproportionately affects women and minority academics, particular LGBT academics. I also believe it may be an important reason why these groups leave academia so I think it deserves more attention when we’re thinking about equality.

The “one body problem” refers to the difficulties single academics face when moving around for jobs. In its own way this can be just as bad as the “two body problem” (it’s often quite frustrating when people tell me how lucky I am to be single and free to move about). Arriving in a new place as a single person is daunting and, without the support network of a partner or friends, it is also extremely isolating. Making friends in a new place takes time, and the heavy workloads of academic jobs leave little time for friend making attempts. Added to this, academics are very transient so it’s not unusual to make a new friend, and for that friend to leave just a few months later (in Dublin even the non-academic community is fairly transient). This is particularly hard for international postdocs who don’t have family or friends living nearby to escape to at the weekends. The other issue with the “one body problem” is that eventually most single people would like to meet someone, even if they’re currently happy living an independent life. In some places this is next to impossible, for example, tiny college campuses in the middle of nowhere, and gets harder as people get older. Again this disproportionately affects women and minorities.

I’ve found this problem has become worse for me in recent years. I think this is partly because of my change in job status. As a PhD student and a postdoc I had far more free time to try and make friends when I moved. There were also lots of social events organised for students/postdocs where you could meet each other, and also form a bit of a community. This sort of thing is less common once you’re a professor. Also I’m now the one staying put as the postdocs and PhD students I’ve befriended move on to other places. It also reflects the fact that most people my age are married with kids, particularly the younger faculty here. We get on really well at work, but at 4pm everyone goes home. Eventually I realised that this situation was causing me a considerable amount of stress and unhappiness which was only going to increase as the friends I’ve made in the last three years prepare to finish their postdocs or PhDs and move on. So I’m leaving Dublin because I don’t have a stable support network here and in the long term that is not a good thing for me (or anyone).

If you have new single people joining your department I hope you’ll try and help them to settle in and don’t just assume that being single is the easy option for academics! Note that I’m not saying the “two body problem” is easier! Let’s just recognise that the academic lifestyle is hard for everyone and try to consider how to make things more equal for all women and minority groups, not just those with two body issues, and/or children.

Author: Natalie Cooper, @nhcooper123, ncooper[at]

Photo credit: “TheClashLondonCallingalbumcover” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia –


PhD students and the cult of busy


busyAcademics often remind me of the Four Yorkshire Men in the old sketch (not actually originally a Monty Python sketch, but famously performed by them in their live shows – comedy nerd out over, carry on), except rather than trying to outdo each with how deprived we were as kids, we’re always trying to outdo each other with tales of how busy we are. We do it so often that it becomes hard to draw the line between how much this reflects how busy we really are, and how much is just “bragging” to assert how important we are. Somehow, we associate importance/success with being constantly busy, and think that good scientists work stupidly long hours and rarely take a day off. This is so inbuilt into our working culture that we feel guilty when we only work 9-5 or have the occasional lazy afternoon!

Worryingly the cult of being busy starts with PhD students. It’s insane the number of times I hear PhD students turning down opportunities (both academic and recreational) because they are “too busy”. Of course there are always going to be periods where you are truly “too busy”. The last few days before you submit a paper, the weeks leading up to a conference, or when you’re in the final stages of writing up. But in general there is nothing in your PhD that is so important that you can’t delay it for a few days/weeks/months. Most times your supervisor won’t mind waiting a few extra days for a draft (they are also busy!), and you can always email journal editors for extensions when writing reviews or returning corrections.

Full disclosure – I was the kind of PhD student that drives me crazy now. I refused to go to seminars unless they were completely related to what I was working on, I rarely read papers for lab meetings, and in my final year I stopped going to morning coffee, ate lunch at my desk and bit the head off anyone who came to my office to chat to my labmates (to be fair this got totally out of control when we got an espresso machine in the office and almost every postdoc in the building came by at least once a day! I’m blaming you Ezard! :P). I regret my tunnel vision now. There were so many things I could have taken time out to learn – things that would have saved me lots of time during my PhD and later in my career. This year I finally taught myself LaTeX for example, which would have saved me months of blood, sweat and tears formatting my thesis. I also wish I’d taken more time to learn to program properly. I’m now working hard to improve my coding, but see that if I’d taken a few months to do this in my PhD, I’d have saved myself a lot of heartache.

I guess my message to PhD students is to try and be less busy, and make more of an effort to enjoy the PhD experience! Easier said than done I know! I am sympathetic – I remember how it felt as a student. I remember feeling terribly inadequate compared to the high achieving PhD students and postdocs around me. I remember the crushing sense of panic and stress as my hand-in date approached and I still hadn’t got past my first chapter. I remember thinking that every hour doing something unrelated to my PhD was an hour wasted. But what I should have known, and what I’ll remind PhD students now, is that your PhD is about so much more than your thesis. Yes, you are judged on your thesis, and you will have to defend it. But you should also be training yourself to become part of the scientific community. Whether you stay in academia or not, it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll ever work on the exact topic of your PhD again. So you’ll need an awareness of other things that are happening in the world of science! You’ll also need to develop other skills, like presentation skills, teaching, and outreach. You can’t do that if you only focus on your PhD topic and nothing else.

But how can we be less busy (and hence less stressed)? This is something I’m constantly trying to deal with myself (if you think you’re busy as a PhD student, don’t ask a Faculty member how busy they are!). A few things I’ve found useful are as follows:

1. Learn to stop when something is “good enough”
Many of the traits that make us good academics, like attention to detail and the desire to do our best at things, can also lead to terribly stressful perfectionism. Instead try to establish when something is “good enough” rather than “perfect”. This is something I’m trying to improve at myself, and I’ll admit that it’s difficult. However, as a PhD student your supervisor should be able to help. Sometimes you can leave stuff like properly formatting references until you’re ready to submit a paper. If you’re really struggling with one section, maybe send the rest to your supervisor for comments, rather than waiting until it’s all perfect (but ask them first).

I find deadlines help me with this – for example, I have a habit of constantly fiddling with lectures so if I have two weeks to make one, it will take me two weeks. However as time goes on, the amount of improvement approaches an asymptote, so two weeks of effort doesn’t create a lecture much better than one that takes me a week. Therefore I give myself strict amounts of time I’m allowed to work on each lecture. After that time passes it’s done. It’s not perfect, but I doubt the students would notice the difference. The same goes for conference presentations and paper drafts.

2. Use “waiting time” efficiently.
PhD students often forget in their rush to finish something and hand it to their supervisor, that their supervisor will take time to return it with comments. If you know this is going to happen you can use that waiting time more wisely. It’s often a good time to format references, add details to manuscript central if you’re submitting a paper, fiddle around with your thesis template etc. Also talk to your supervisor about when they have time to give you comments. There’s no sense in rushing to hand in a draft chapter the day before your supervisor goes on holiday for two weeks leaving you twiddling your thumbs.

3. Schedule time for non-essential reading or for learning skills
As a PhD student I stopped reading widely near the end of my PhD. However, at postdoc interviews I often got asked about what papers I’d read recently that I’d enjoyed. These questions are designed to see how broad your knowledge is, so citing the technical paper you just read on your PhD subject is not going to impress. Additionally, if you want to stay in science (academia or otherwise), you probably should have a basic knowledge of the current controversies in the field. The only way to do this is by reading. However, it’s hard to read non-essential stuff. The easiest way to ensure you do it is by scheduling a bit of time each week (maybe Friday afternoon or Monday morning) to do it. If you choose a time you usually get very little work done it won’t eat into your productivity. I often use this kind of scheduling to learn programming skills or to play with a new R package.

4. Say yes to opportunities!
Of course there’s a limit to how much you can say yes to. But remember that your time as a PhD student is probably one of the most flexible times of your life, especially if you don’t have kids yet. Your schedule is mostly yours to make. So if you can’t get anything to work, spend the day in a local museum and catch up one evening or at the weekend. If you live in a rainy place (cough cough Ireland) and the sun is out, take the afternoon off and go for a bike ride or a walk – you can work a little longer tomorrow when the sun disappears! If you get offered skills training take it, particularly if it’s free and doesn’t require traveling too far. If your friend wants a hand on tropical field work for a couple of weeks, and you have the money, go with them! It’s a great chance to see an exciting country in a whole new light. Go to seminars and conferences. Talk to your colleagues at coffee time. Take a proper lunch break. It’s amazing how much you can get done in short bursts when you need to, especially if you’ve scheduled in proper breaks.

5. But learn to say no to time sucks…
Not everything people ask you to do is going to be useful, and/or fun. If in doubt, speak to your supervisor before saying yes to things (you can then also use the old “my supervisor is an ogre and won’t let me help you, sorry” excuse). For example, organising an event like a conference or an outreach event, is a great thing to have on your CV. But once you have one of these on your CV the gains of organising a second one are low. These things often take up ridiculous amounts of time and energy. The same goes for teaching. It’s great to get teaching experience, but try and get quality experience with different kinds of teaching rather than saying yes to everything. Be strategic in what you spend your time on, based on filling gaps in your CV, and preferably on what you want to do after your PhD.

6. Talk to someone if you need help.
Finally, if you’re really struggling with feeling busy and overwhelmed, talk to someone! Sometimes in academia we have the habit of not talking about problems. This leads us to believe that everyone else is coping, and we’re the only ones struggling. The truth is EVERYONE struggles sometimes. Talk to your friends/PhD colleagues about how you feel – they’ll soon make you feel less alone. Talk to your supervisor, or another faculty member, about ways of coping with stress. And remember most places have a student counseling service if things are too hard to discuss.

Now go forth, be less busy, more happy and more productive as a result!

DISCLAIMER – Your PhD is not all about your thesis. BUT finishing your thesis on time is the most important thing at the end of the day. This post is not about encouraging slacking off, it’s about encouraging efficient working practices. Research has shown that people working 35 hour weeks get as much done as those working 60 hours (long-term, short-term there are gains in working long hours). So use your time wisely, work hard when you have the energy and motivation to do it, and speak to your supervisor if you’re worried about your progress. They are here to help!

Author: Natalie Cooper, @nhcooper123, nhcooper[at]

How to get the benefits of mobility – even when your movement is constrained


There are a long list of reasons why mobility in an academic career is considered highly desirable, both by individuals and the institutions which fund them. Scientists move around to take up jobs in a tight and international job market, communicate their work to the wider scientific community, work with new people, learn new techniques, strengthen networks or because they like adventure. However, there are many excellent scientists who are constrained in various ways to be less mobile than they would like or than would be good for their careers .

I have always loved to travel, and after almost 15 years of moving around for jobs, fieldwork, conferences and adventure, my own constraints arrived in the guise of two adorable children. My kids have taught me a lot about the benefits of a more sedentary life but I still have itchy feet and the desire to interact with colleagues internationally. This period in my life led me for the first time to really think about what it is about mobility that is of benefit and how to achieve that while staying at home.

Constraints are costly. Some constraints can be overcome by providing resources or altering institutional structures.  Other constraints are personal or philosophical and might best be considered as hard constraints (unchangeable). Common constraints include personal family situation such as partner’s career and caring responsibilities for children, parents or friends and personal mental and physical health. The costs of mobility include financial costs, disruption, adaptation to a new scientific and/or social culture, language barriers and leaving a productive group. For all of these reasons scientists may be temporarily or permanently constrained from being able to physically move locations for work reasons.

It makes sense to me to have a range of strategies for getting the benefits while minimizing the costs of mobility. Grant applications sometimes explicitly or implicitly require or evaluate mobility as a proxy for the benefits obtained. If you have had your mobility constrained it might be useful for you in grant applications to articulate what strategies you have used to get the benefits of mobility despite your constraints.

First determine exactly what your constraints are and exactly what activities are constrained. For example do you care for young children which prevents you from traveling overnight for a period of time? Do you need to be in close proximity to healthcare? Determine the boundaries of your constraints. Next estimate the benefits of mobility to your particular situation – the benefits of mobility might be largest if you are currently in a small, relatively unproductive group with limited resources and the benefits of mobility might be much smaller if you are already in a large, productive, well connected (lots of incoming visitors) group.

Determine the costs of mobility: financial, social, environmental and to your productivity. Costs may be larger as you progress through your career but are also more likely to be defrayed through relocation expenses paid or broader networks of colleagues gained. Perhaps for you the costs outweigh the benefits as you are already in the ideal group and don’t want to move because it’s working extremely well for you. Great, but be open minded about additional opportunities to gain additional benefits at low cost.

It is important to recognize that a case for gaining the benefits of mobility may be easier to make with a broad view of mobility. Mobility can be short- or long-term and can be inter-institutional, cross-sectoral, national, international or intercontinental in scale. Many benefits could be gained from doing internships in a different institution or industry but remaining in the same city for example. Below are a few strategies that might be helpful, not all will be possible depending on your situation.

Find a position in a group in your location which is large, productive & well connected. You don’t necessarily have to be employed by them if you can negotiate a day or two a week as a visitor there.

Make use of technology for virtual collaboration – Skype, Adobe Connect, Google hangouts, dropbox, telephone, email, twitter, blogs, Mendeley, Git etc. These require a bit of work to ensure efficacy and avoid the “out of sight, out of mind” problem of not bumping into collaborators in the hallway.

Attend meetings in virtual mode by accepting to give talks but ask to be able to give a video presentation, this is most effective if you can also take part in the discussion afterwards via video conferencing. Ask the organisers to record and send you the video afterwards so you can re-use it. Use twitter to keep up with what’s happening at the meeting if you can’t attend. Tweet and/or blog for others if you can attend in person. I was immensely grateful for the tweeters and bloggers when I was at home on maternity leave and couldn’t attend “my” meetings for a few years.

Attend conferences and extend your network, make sure you gain active collaboration from conference meetings. Be part of international working groups, engage or initiate global research networks.

Develop relationships with potential collaborators via social media, name recognition is important and people will be more inclined to work with you if they have interacted with you positively via twitter/facebook/whatever young people do these days.

Invite visitors to your institution. Find out if there are funds available to help visitors pay for their visit (e.g. visiting fellowships, travel funds if they give a seminar), help visitors apply for these. Paying for a few extra days of accommodation for a visitor if their flight is already covered can be a cost effective way to encourage more interaction. Offer to let them stay at your house. Parasitise sabbatical visitors to other close-by institutions by inviting them to your institution for a day/week/month.

Apply for grants to fund workshops which enable you to run working groups at your own institution and which fund the travel & accommodation of visitors.

If you get invited to present or visit and can’t do it, ask if you can send your student/post-doc/colleague in your place. Make sure you follow up with your proxy to ensure you learn what they’ve learned and if there are outputs of the visit that you can also contribute to.

Lobby funding organisations and institutions to allow your mobility constraints to be taken into account in funding applications and promotion cases (e.g. caring for family members).

Lobby funding bodies and employers to directly fund expenses associated with travel (e.g. extra care for dependents).

Record on your portfolio all invitations to speak/present/take part, even if you have to turn them down as these are useful indicators of your profile and measures of esteem.

Be creative in finding ways to relax your constraints, perhaps you can pay for a grandparent to travel and accompany you on a conference trip as extra child support, perhaps you can take your baby with you to the conference and rely on them to stay quiet enough for you to give a talk with them asleep in a sling, or pass them onto trusted colleagues willing to babysit for half an hour. I took my 2 month old to a workshop, pictured here with Antoine Guisan, where she got passed around several academic alloparents to enable me to contribute to this paper. Perhaps you can afford extra childcare by living frugally while travelling. Be flexible.


Ask conference organisers to make provisions if you need to bring your kid/s with you. For example have a family room with the talks screened via video-conferencing/skype or provide crèche facilities.

Discuss with your partner possibilities for one or both of you to take up part-time work or for your partner to become primary home carer. Move closer to extended family, especially if they are willing to help with caring responsibilities.

Finally, for funders, conference organisers and others who rely on the ability and willingness of scientists to pack their bags and jump on a plane at a moment’s notice, spare a thought for those who are constrained. Provide alternative arrangements for child-care at meetings, provide opportunities for video conferencing, encourage participation and consider evaluating CVs based on what benefits have been gained, not just how many times someone has moved.

Author: Yvonne Buckley, buckleyy[at], @y_buckley

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A vision for the 21st century workplace

I feel a bit of a fraud complaining about the discrimination of women in science because in my current job I’m one of four women in a discipline with only nine faculty members, our head of school is female and so is our head of discipline. I also don’t have any children so I haven’t had to deal with the problems that go along with that. However, I’m not blind; I can see there is a problem! I don’t want to re-hash the problems women in science face in this post; particularly as they’ve been so well covered elsewhere (there have been lots of really cool blog posts about this following the recent Moss-Racusin et al. paper in PNAS). Instead I want to think about potential solutions.

In March I attended a WiSER (Women in Science & Engineering Research) workshop where over 30 professional women drafted a “Vision for the 21st century workplace”. Some of these I agree with, some I don’t. Some will be easy to implement, others will be extremely difficult. In summary we proposed to:

  1. Provide options for flexible working hours and part-time work to all staff without endangering their career progression.
  2. Evaluate staff based on performance and results achieved rather than on number of hours worked.
  3. Implement family friendly policies for men and women.
  4. Promote female role models (I think this is REALLY important! It’s scary to name the top people in your field and realize most of them are male…).
  5. Employ a temporary quota of 50:50 women:men at leadership levels (I’m not so sure that biasing things this way is a good idea, surely we want the best person for the job? But see 10).
  6. Introduce transparency on salaries.
  7. Achieve transparency on promotion criteria.
  8. Arrange on-site childcare.
  9. Facilitate staff with a work from home option.
  10. Ensure recruitment and interview processes are gender blind (this is really important given the Moss-Racusin et al. paper which shows these processes are currently biased against women, even when women faculty are in charge!)


Flexible working is clearly something we all want (points 1, 2, 3, and 9 are about flexible work hours) but we need to think about how to do this effectively. The problem with working from home (or at unusual hours) is you can’t do everything from home, e.g., meetings with students and colleagues, and of course teaching. You also miss out on vital opportunities to socialize with your colleagues and students (my best ideas always happen at lunch time or in the pub). I feel like this is a loss not only to the individual, but to the functioning of whole departments. How can we solve this problem? Skype? Online lectures? What do you think?

A big question then is can any of these actually be done? Well our school (Natural Sciences) and the School of Chemistry have been chosen to pilot some new ideas at TCD over the coming year. We’ve even got some money to spend on it! So watch this space…


Moss-Racusin, CA, Dovidio, JF, Brescoll, VL, Graham, MJ, Handelsman, J (2012) Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI:***

Centre for Women in Science & Engineering Research (WiSER)


Natalie Cooper


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Towards Women in Science and Technology