May 102015

Recently I have been a bit overwhelmed with work load, which reminded me of the “work fixed number of hours and in fixed amounts” recommended in this blog. I decided to count up the numbers of days I spend each year on various tasks, and to my horror that quickly added up to more than 365 days / year! No wonder I am sleep deprived, stressed and cranky all the time. So I did some soul searching and considered which areas I could scale back in order to fit in 264 days / year (5.5 days / week * 48 weeks / year, which leaves 2 weeks of vacation / sick or personal days and 2 weeks of public holidays). This really gets me to re-think my schedule and decide what to cut out from my schedule.

Here is how the new schedule looks like:

    90 days (3 hours a day * 5 days a week * 48 weeks a year / 8 hours a day) on research project meetings (lab meeting, journal club, project update) within my group, meeting with collaborators or seminar speakers, and going to local research seminars.
    12 days (an afternoon twice a month) on reading papers and thinking about research ideas. As a scientist, I would really hope to at least double this time…
    40 days on writing / revision papers I am the corresponding authors on. Currently the papers on the pipeline include (in terms of stages): Han/Ted (SSC), Zhou/Yiwen (ceRNA), Xiaoqi/Naiqian (drug network), Tao (MACS2), Qing/Chengyang (EgLN2), George/Tao (MANCIE), Bo (immunology), Wei/Johannes (MAGeCK+VISPR), Haiyun/Yin (drug combination), Mulin (emsQTL), Alvin (ChiLin + Gnosis), Wenyu/Shunmin (Sox2), Peng (CRISPR predict), Su/George/Cliff (MARGE), Ted/Wei/Han (breast cancer CRISPR screen), Teng/Yiwen (RBP). That leaves ~3 days / paper (in fact most take > 5 days), including the initial submission and later revision. If a paper needs a lot of additional work, I am afraid I will have to rely on the first authors to spend more efforts revising it. In the future, I should try to reduce the total number of papers and improve the quality of our own publications.
    4 days on papers I am not the corresponding authors. Ideally I should reduce this time to 0 days and move the time to my own papers, and rely on the lab members who are on these projects to help with paper revision.
    36 days on teaching and talks. Every year I give about 24 lectures for the course I teach ( and HarvardX) at Harvard, which takes on average one day / lecture, in learning, preparing the lecture slides, planning the computer lab, HW with TA, and writing the finals. The rest of the talks includes teaching at Tongji, Longwood Translational Medicine Initiative, conference talks, and research seminars (including the day at the seminar), which takes ~ 1 day / month.
    20 days on writing grants, managing finances, preparing progress reports, and going to consortium meetings. In a soft money environment, it takes ~3 ongoing PI grants and a number of smaller grants (sub-contract, internal funding) to keep a lab going. We make ~3 major grant submissions / year, and it takes a full week to write a PI grant even with postdocs’ help to write different sections. I will have to rely more on lab members to share some of these responsibilities, encourage them to apply for fellowships, and minimize collaborative grants with < $33K / year (3% of me and 30% of a postdoc) budgets.
    17 days of grant and paper reviews. I will become the chair at GCAT this fall, which means 3 sessions * 5 days (~3 days of reviews + 2 days of meetings). I review ~8-9 grants / session (less once I become the chair, but I need to read all the discussed proposals ahead of time), which means I could only spend ~3 hours reviewing each grant (applicants really need to make their proposals easier to read / understand for reviewers). That only leaves 2 days / year for reviewing papers or dealing with editorial duties, so I will need for rely on lab members to review more papers with me (< 1 paper / month).
    20 days on conferences + travel. I tried to limit my travel to <= once a month, and some conferences last 3-5 days. This also includes the time organizing conferences (CSHA, GRC, IBW, YBPIW), such as speaker invitation and securing conference sponsorship (e.g. $100K for the 2017 Gordon conference!). I need to be more selective in agreeing to organize conferences in the future.
    6 days of committee (executive committee of research, faculty career / promotion) and faculty meetings, as well as SAB (PICB, CPRIT) meetings. I could only allocate 1/2 day / month, so will be resigning from some less important committees in the futures.
    10 days on letter writing for students / postdocs applying for awards / fellowships / jobs and faculty applying for new jobs and promotions. This also includes support letters for colleagues’ grant applications, people applying for green card, or invitations letters for visitors to my lab, which thankfully my assistant can mostly take care of. This means, no more than one promotion evaluation letter a month, and I will only write a letter if I already know their work (no time to specifically read their papers), and no more than one job / fellowship letter for students and postdocs a month. Also I will need at least two-month notice.
    4 days on lab member career advice and annual evaluations, and also on collaborators’ students / postdocs careers. I value the annual evaluation, which is quality time for postdocs / students to brainstorm and prepare for their future. This would also include postdoc rehearsing their job talks, teaching postdocs about how to write grants, give talks, apply for jobs, etc. This means I could only care about 16 junior people and spend 2 hours / year on each!
    4 days on retreats. For sure I need to go to my own lab retreat and our CFCE center retreat. Then I will need to select 2 days / year to go to DFCI and HSPH biostats retreat, Genetics (I am affiliated with Harvard BBS) retreat, epigenetics retreat, SPORE retreat, Broad retreat, colleagues’ promotion / retirement / birthday symposiums.
    1 day on visitors, including short term visitors, postdoc interviews, rotation students. I need to rely more on my lab members to host those people who just want to stop by, talk to me, or see Harvard / my lab, or just ignore these requests completely, so I can save time for real collaborators coming to town and truly promising postdoc and student candidates.

This is counting 8 hour / day, because I spend another 2-3 hours / day on emails and blogs, and another > 1.5 hours / day on commute (so I try to work at home more), etc!! Therefore, if I have spent less time on a paper revision, course, grant review, collaborative project, recommendation letter, conference organization, etc, or turn down a request, I hope my colleagues could forgive me. There are only so many hours one has and so many things one can do in a year. Also going through this schedule, now I appreciated a lot more any senior people or mentors who spared their time before in helping me, writing letters, giving me career advices, finding resources for my projects, etc, and will respect their time better in the future.

May 072015

I saw this blog article I wrote a long time ago but never posted. It has some interesting ideas, although over the years the graduate applicant pool at Tongji has changed so much that the following might not be applicable. However, for other bioinformatics programs about to screen their candidates and aspiring bioinformatics students preparing for graduate interviews, this blog might still be useful.

Since my collaboration with Tongji University in China in 2009, I have been involved in recruiting and screening graduate applicants to Tongji’s Bioinformatics graduate program. Most of these applicants just finished their junior year in college. They have very diverse backgrounds, and unlike graduate applicants in the US, often have little bioinformatics experience.

The first level of screening checks whether the CV appears professional, and some simple facts: current university (985/211 universities preferred), majors (maths, physics, biology, computer science, and bioinformatics preferred), ranking (top 10% GPA, and good scores on physics, maths, analytical chemistry, computer science and English courses preferred), and English test scores (CET6 > 500 preferred).

After the initial screen, I get in touch with students to talk for about ~30min over the phone or Skype (video conference is even better). Over the years, I have settled on the following questions. In addition to testing students’ motivation and maturation, this conversation also gives me some clues about the students’ logic thinking, professionalism and communication skills.

  • Can you tell me about your background? Current college, major, and research experience. Research experience is important but not necessarily (and probably better not) in bioinformatics.
  • Why are you interested in bioinformatics at Tongji University? Do they know what bioinformatics really is? Which institutions and scientists do good bioinformatics research? Do they know what PIs at Tongji Bioinformatics program do?
  • What are your goals for the coming 1-2 years, and after graduate school? Students with well thought out and concrete goals are self motivated, focused, and more mature. In addition to career goals, one might also consider self improvement, health, and personal happiness goals.
  • What is the biggest failure or setback in your life and what you have learned from this? Mental resilience is important for scientific research. It is important to challenge oneself, fail enough times, and learn from these experiences. If students tell me their lives have been pretty smooth with no major setbacks, I would ask why didn’t they try harder to get more of what they want in life.
  • What are your hobbies or extra-curriculum activities? Michael Zhang once told me, “if you don’t know how to play well, you don’t know how to do good research”. We want our students to bring an interesting aspect to our graduate program. I also like students who are socially conscious and responsible.

If a group of students are all on site (e.g. during their graduate interview weekend), I also like to get the students to play the Pictionary Game. We divide the students into teams of 4-5 people (one group is OK too). Each team ask one representative to come to the front, pick one card with an English word, then go back to draw it for the teammates to guess the word. The people drawing can only tell their teammates whether the word is none/verb/adj/adv and they can provide hint by nodding or shaking their heads but can not speak. Here we use abstract words that are hard to draw, such as create, try, and succeed. It is interesting to see how the people drawing convert abstract ideas into drawing, and which teammates can guess things nonstop until they succeed. It also test the students’ English vocabulary, IQ, social behavior, and team spirit.

Of course, the best test is for the student to spend a few weeks in the summer to get some bioinformatics training at Tongji. During their stay, the students will read and present some scientific papers, analyze some genomics datasets using available algorithms, and learn to program in python. Both the research group and the applicants get to know each other better. The students also meet individually with admission committee composed of senior graduate students, postdocs, and faculty who will provide their evaluation of the students later.