If you see a whole thing - it seems that it's always beautiful. Planets, lives... But up close a world's all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life's a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. - Ursula K. LeGuin

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Work Before The Work

I never learn. No matter how many years I've been running projects, analyzing data, and writing papers, I am still caught completely off-guard by "the work before the work." I don't know that this phenomenon is really unique to academia but I do know there is no getting away from it.

For those of you who may be blissfully ignorant of the term: "the work before the work" refers to everything that needs to be done before you can even get started on the long and drawn out process that will ultimately result in a publication or grant or something. But really it is the list of tasks that show up out of the blue and continues to multiply with every check of a To Do List box.

Let's say, for example, you have collected data on your topic of interest and have been processing/cleaning/coding/whatever that data for a while and are now ready to analyze said data and, ultimately, write a paper from the data. Let's say you are an organized person, who loves a good To Do List, and you have blocked out some time to begin the analysis and have listed this task on this week's list. So what do you do? You sit down, pull up your dataset/database/whathaveyou and start analyzing--wrong. You sit down and realize that there is one little piece that is missing in your dataset or one little thing that needs to be checked/confirmed/whathaveyou before you can begin. Whamo, 5 hours later you have a brand new To Do list for the week that if you manage to complete you will maybe, just maybe, be at the point where you can think about doing the analysis.

Of course you can blame yourself for the above example. After all if you had really really been as organized as you claim you wouldn't have had to check/confirm/find/etc that one little piece of information. An even more frustrating example is when you are about to go into the field to run an experiment/collect data/whathaveyou but first you need to purchase something for which you have already budgeted and have a vendor in hand. Again what do you do? Do you happily place the order, await its timely arrival, and then proceed into the field? No you do not. Instead you become embroiled in an institutional argument over the price/vendor/purchase order/whathaveyou that again dumps at least a week's worth of work in your lap before you have a chance to begin "working."

But really, I love my job.


Deb said...

I am soooo not convinced. (heh)

Julie said...

Oh, yes! I don't know anything at all about the scientific world, but I have worked research related jobs/projects and boy, can I relate to the work before the work. The creative person in me hates all that pre-work work, but I know it has to be done. Then all the institutional b.s. and red tape comes along. Heavy sigh. You must have a lot of patience. Great post!