The story below is a hypothetical day, but its contents represent an average day of my postdoc life in a Cognitive Neuroscience lab at the Department of Psychology at Stanford. I hope it gives an idea of what a researcher like me does on a typical work day, for people who are a postdoc themselves, or would like to be one, but also for those curious about what a researcher does all day.
I wake up when my husband heads to the shower and, still a bit drowsy, I go through my emails and other messages on my phone. Because I live in the US but come from the Netherlands, a lot of things happen when it is night here. Going through messages on my phone is a relaxing way to catch up with life before I take a shower and have breakfast. The most important emails get an immediate, but brief response.
After a quick breakfast, I bike to Stanford where I further work through my email, Facebook, and Twitter feeds. I get a lot of research-related information such as new papers and blogs through these social media, but the abundance of social stuff that clutters my feeds often distracts me. This morning I get stuck in a piece about life during tenure track that I feel is just research-related enough to deserve some of my time. Too much time it turns out. Hastily, I finish an email to my former supervisor about a visit to the Netherlands before heading out of my office.
I meet up with my research assistant over a coffee. We agreed to have meetings outside the lab regularly to track how things are going, tackle problems and questions, and to plan things for the coming week(s). A good way to catch up and enjoy a bit more of the California morning sun!
Back in my office, I decide to spend the next hour-or-so photoshopping pictures of common objects and scenes and writing computer scripts that cycle through these pictures in an ordered way and log the response that a participant gives when learning combinations of these pictures. They are meant for a new experiment that we have been planning for a while. It has been postponed regularly, because my colleagues and I are currently also running another complex experiment that has been taking up a lot of my time lately. Hopefully we will be able to start pilots on this experiment soon because I am very excited about its hypotheses and they would allow me to strengthen some collaborations that I need for a grant proposal that I am planning to write.
I signed up to attend a lunch meeting for Stanford postdocs on grant writing. This is a very important skill to become a self-supporting scientist and every once in a while I enjoy taking a step back to catch up on these kind of “soft skills”. As I am planning to write two grants in the near future, I hope to learn some tips and tricks to write better and get myself some money to allow me to continue my research. The meeting turns out to be a sort of panel discussion with faculty members that answer questions about how to best obtain certain grants. Some tips turn out very useful, such as the advice to always start your proposal with something that is of value to the general public and to continuously keep this value in mind while writing the rest of the grant.
Barely back behind my computer one of my postdoc colleagues drops in. We decided on having a meeting in the afternoon to discuss an opinion paper we are writing. The deadline is approaching and we have just started writing the first draft. Brainstorming about the structure of the piece, we decide on how to best stress our critical points and what references to include. At the same time, my research assistant is testing a participant for our running experiment and comes in to ask a question because the participant has a bit of trouble with the instructions. Luckily the data turn out to be useful which is important because this is a two-day experiment. This means that the participant can come back tomorrow to be tested in the MRI-scanner!
After my colleague and I agreed on the structure of the paper, I download some recently published papers, browse through them, and put them in my “to read” folder on Dropbox. Depending on how much time I have I try to read new papers at least once a week, but this doesn’t always work out so the articles keep piling up. I also find a request to review a research article in my email. I read through the abstract, decide that it fits my expertise sufficiently and accept it, meaning I will have to read this article and critically comment on it sometime in the coming two weeks. Next to being a good opportunity to practice critical thinking and reading, these reviewer requests also make you gain respect as a researcher. Unfortunately, they can easily become a burden because they can take up a lot of time…
After getting a well-deserved coffee, I continue working on getting my new experiment ready so we can start testing participants soon. I have been busy preparing this experiment for a few weeks already, thinking about how to set it up, finding stimuli, and programming the actual experiment. At the same time, I run some analysis on data from my other experiment that we have acquired earlier that week. Because I will be meeting with my professor to discuss these data next week, I need to have an overview of the results by then to track issues. We still have to test more participants, so there is not too much we can say about the results yet, but it is good to look into it early and think about how to best perform the analyses so things will go faster when the data will really come dripping in.
That evening I attend a NeuWrite meeting. NeuWrite is a group of graduate students and postdocs that share their passion of science writing on the NeuWrite West blog. Over pizza, we discuss a new blog post that one of us wrote, or talk about other things related to science communication in general.
Inspired by the piece we discussed, I bike home while I think through ideas for a piece I have been planning to write about my daily life as a researcher. After writing up these ideas on my laptop, I go through a few more emails and check my agenda for the next day. Because a renowned researcher will be visiting and giving a talk the next day, I decide to quickly browse through some of her papers to prepare myself.
I top off the day with a Big Bang Theory episode and laugh with Sheldon and Leonard about the perks of being a scientist. Then I go to bed so I can optimally prepare for another postdoc day!