Thinker's Block

One of the challenges of managing the progression from being ’somebody’s post-doc’ to an autonomous PI is to maintain the flow of new ideas. To start with, this is easy. After all, if you’re anything like me, you will have spend a considerable portion of the preceding few years developing and honing a whole stock of ideas, trying to convince employers and fellowship panels of their worth. The moment someone finally agrees to fund you, you’re up an running, free and gloriously independent to bring these thoughts to fruition. The first cracks in this blissful state of being start to appear a couple of years later. You’ve tried out those things that you were sure would make your name. They may have worked, to an extent – you’ve probably published a few papers of which you’re rather proud. And no doubt, your initial research has suggested all kinds of routes for future work.

The first decision you need to make is, should I be pursuing these new ideas myself? Or, should I be chasing the money, aiming to employ people to do the work for me? On the one hand, your institution will be desperate for the overheads that a big grant will bring (conveniently overlooking the generous overheads that your fellowship is already delivering…). But – you also need to think, how much do I want to be a manager? Especially when you know, deep down, that the person best qualified to do the work quickly and to the requisite standard is, well, you.

The second big mental shift you need to make is to recognise that there is no end point. There’s no final report, no thesis to hand in, after which you can go out and celebrate, relax. No. Even if you’ve achieved everything you set out to, got it all written up and published; even then, you’ve got to come into work the next day, face that blank page, and think what to do next. All the while well aware that the most productive researchers in your field have maintained an average publication rate of a paper every two weeks for over 10 years

This is when the doubts creep in. Are you up to this after all? What if your last good idea really was just that: your last good idea. What’s next on the list? And after that? Where are your next 6 papers coming from? Your next big grant application?

It’s easy, on such occasions, to feel swamped, to feel the sheer enormity of the amount of stuff you need to know, to read and absorb and understand in order to make progress in any one of the disparate areas that interest you; to wish, sometimes, that you could be happy making steady, incremental progress in one tiny area, rather than constantly to seek an exciting new challenge in a discipline whose history and literature remain (to you) as yet unknown. Even the most meticulously-ordered hierarchical to-do list can struggle to cope with this.

Two things can help here. Dripping taps. And walking.

I can’t remember where I picked up the dripping tap analogy, but the idea when feeling flooded is to imagine this flood emanating from a vast array of dripping taps, each one representing something that you should be doing. And then you simply walk methodically through this landscape, concentrating on a tap at a time, turning each off in turn. You won’t stem the tide, of course, but you may keep your head above water.

And walking. Nietzsche said that “all truly great thoughts are conceived while walking”, but the quote I cling to more is one half remembered, I’m pretty sure from Roger Deakin’s lovely Wildwood, about “working it out while walking”. The rhythm of walking seems to coax disparate thoughts out into the open, encouraging them to coalesce into something more tangible. (In passing, you can crowbar this into theories of creativity if you like, for instance James Webb Young’s classic A Technique for Producing Ideas involves thinking very very hard about something, then removing yourself from the work environment – by going for a walk, say – to let the doughy information you’ve absorbed prove into a nice elastic idea.)

So if you see me marching around Weston Park in Sheffield, chances are I’m tackling my thinker’s block. And incidentally, this walk home seems to have done the trick of unclogging my blogger’s block, too.