Workshop: Scientific Work – Why Do a Workshop About Scientific Work?

Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin.
It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.
“Winnie-The-Pooh” by A.A. Milne

Why do a workshop about scientific work?

Reason is that while I was very enthusiastic about doing science, I went into the job blindly. I did not know how to organize my work, how to deal with the pressure, the ambiguity and insecurity. How to build my work on the works of those who came before — and those who are competing with me for publications. I learned from experience, but it is not the most … comfortable, nor the most effective way to learn, or to start a scientific career.  And I guess, many other scientists have the same problem.

As a young scientist you spend about 3 to 6 years on your dissertation thesis (in Germany). 3 to 6 years doing a very hard job. Science is a creative endeavor in which no one can guarantee you success. This makes it one of the most challenging and interesting occupations you can choose. But it also puts you under a lot of pressure.

I think that doing science is actually feasible (and unless my career goes down the drain I intend to prove it by example, not by words). But you have to find out how you can best work in science.

Unfortunately, work methods are not a topic that was taught at the university or grad school. I do not mean methodical knowledge about statistics or the like — that was taught. I am talking about ways to organize your work. You are working in different roles — as a researcher, knowledge worker, colleague, subordinate and superior, and the like. You need to have ways to deal with the demands of the work you do. Ways that work for you. Ways that suffice because there is no perfect way to work (it changes too frequently) and striving for perfection will seriously impede your work.

So the aim of the workshop was to stop for a moment and reflect on the way the participants work, and to exchange tips. In short, to have more options among which you can choose. To make something that is usually only implicitly learned the main focus of a few hours of serious attention and thinking.

Of course, this required the participants to show how they worked, including showing what did not work. This required trust. So for the duration of the workshop we agreed that anything that was said during the workshop was split — the personal information (whose problem it was) was kept confidential, but the tips to deal with the situation (how to solve the problem) could be freely shared afterwards. And of course, we agreed to basic feedback rules — in short, to make the feedback useful for the person, and to do something with the feedback the person received (not necessarily what the feedback giver intended, see the chapter in OC2 about feedback for more information). After all, the sole goal of feedback is to improve the current and future work.

And actually, this worked fairly well — during the initial presentation (a run through all the topics) and during the working sessions afterwards.

In the next posting we will start with some comments about science.

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