The black hole of research time management


Time management in research can be a bit surreal. Image:

Time management in research is something of a dark art. The golden rule is to carefully calculate how long it takes to do the various tasks and test the various samples. And then triple it. And add a week.

This generally works well for most projects, but sometimes an experiment reaches a tipping point beyond which the time required to finished the project escalates exponentially. Some liken it to crossing the event horizon of a black hole, beyond which time has no meaning. This is exactly what happened to me this week.

All I really wanted was to test four samples. Four. That’s a small number, it should be easy to get that done. And then I realised I had to include controls because that’s science.  The treatments have to be compared to samples without treatments. And compared to a positive control, a treatment that is known to work, just to make sure the method is actually working as it should.

So that’s up to 6 samples. That’s still a small number. No problems.

But then I want to test all these samples in different conditions. After all, just because it works in one, doesn’t mean it works in all of them and vice versa. And then I’ll need controls for each of those different conditions as well.

Now I’m up to about 40 samples. That’s a bigger number but still manageable.

And then I need to consider doing everything in triplicate because that’s also science. Just because it works once, doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a fluke. Or something else happened to the sample so the effect wasn’t actually anything to do with the treatment.

And suddenly there are 120 samples. That is a lot of samples. Now everything takes infinitely more time and I have to factor in little things that are normally taken for granted. Like labelling sample tubes. That’s the morning gone.

And there are just too many samples to comfortably fit into the handy carry containers and too many to run the tests all in one go. The time it takes to do anything has spiralled out to infinity. My quick and easy test has become a major undertaking with exponentially greater complexity and a very distant end point.

My only solace is that at the end of it, when I eventually get there, I know that the results will be real effects and the science behind those results will be sound. That makes for a project that is more likely to pass the peer-review and add to the global understanding of that topic.

But first I need to navigate this black hole.


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