Deep Work and The Wet Lab

I work in a “wet lab”: a laboratory setting in which I am performing hands-on experiments – looking at cells under the microscope, mixing solutions together, etc – vs. a “dry lab” in which most of the work is done using computers for data analysis or modeling. Today I want to discuss balancing the large amounts of time spent on “shallow work” in a wet lab setting with the “deep work” required to produce meaningful results required for career advancement.

First, let’s examine the definition of deep work. Computer scientist and pioneer of the deep work hypothesis Cal Newport defines deep work as:

cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve.

In broad terms, checking your email or typing up the agenda for a meeting? Shallow work. Strategizing a new company focus or writing a novel? Deep work.

If deep work is going to generate “rare and valuable results”, we know that we want to spend effort accomplishing deep work. But how to differentiate between shallow and deep work when the lines seem blurred?

In his 2016 book, Newport suggests thinking of deep work in terms of how long it would take to train a competent recent college graduate to perform the work. For example, in my world, manually counting the number of cells on a microscope slide? You could train someone to do that in about ten minutes, so this would fall in the category of shallow work. Outlining research aims for an upcoming grant? This requires a deep understanding of the scientific field in which your research is based, familiarity with many different techniques, and the ability to write succinctly but completely about your research project and how it will move the field forward. Unquestionably deep work.

However, reading and summarizing a new journal article related to your dissertation project? For me, this is more ambiguous. It took me, a college graduate with ten-plus years of research experience and a biology degree, about one to two years total in graduate school to feel like I had a good grasp on the current state of the field. It took even longer, probably another six to twelve months, to feel like I could readily integrate new research findings into my understanding of the field. So while an untrained individual may be able to read the text of a research article easily enough, the knowledge required to place findings in context and apply them to one’s own research takes longer to develop.

Where I struggle with this type of task is that I am not actually producing anything, so it doesn’t feel as productive as writing up a section of a paper, for example. In reading a journal article, I’m consuming content that someone else has generated rather than producing my own. While this task is high-level, necessary, and definitely a type of deep work, it isn’t directly producing the results I need (published scientific papers) to advance my career. Understanding the state of the field is necessary, but not sufficient, for advancement in research. So while the task of paper-reading should be allotted time, unless you are just delving into a new field or starting graduate school, it shouldn’t consume the majority of your time or even close.

Writing a scientific paper has also been an interesting thought experiment in deep work classification because some of it is simple description i.e. “We found that levels of this protein were 4.3 times higher in this cell line than in control.” The most important deep work here comes into the story-writing component of crafting a paper. In order to do this, you must truly understand the current state of the field, the gaps in knowledge that your study is designed to fill, and the order in which to present your results to create the strongest possible argument for adding to the truth. This is a good thought project for a long walk or a brainstorming session. Writing the discussion, which places your results in the context of the field, will also require deep work, although if you have the story in mind, that will dictate how you will craft your discussion and which references you will need to pull in.

One of the most difficult things working in a wet lab is that the balance of deep and shallow work is skewed by the great amount of shallow work required in order to perform experiments and maintain cells. For example, while working with cultured brain cells does not require a lot of mental energy for me at this point in my graduate school career, it did take up 14 hours of my last 168 and would take probably 3 months to train someone competent to do this work.

I still struggle with finding the right balance between this type of shallow work and deep work in my graduate school experience. The metrics that define a successful graduate student career are almost entirely encompassed by the primary metric of number of papers published. In order to publish papers, this requires secondary metrics of: designing, performing, and analyzing experiments; deep thinking about how your research fits in the current state of the field; and crafting stories based on your results to develop into papers. These all require time spent on the shallow and often mundane work of pipetting liquid from one tube to another, replacing old liquid nutrients (culture medium) with fresh medium in cell culture dishes, and making culture medium from scratch. I have been keeping a closer eye on how my time is being spent in the lab and will share my findings as I continue to optimize balancing the shallow work required to produce results required for fulfillment of my primary metric, scientific publication.

In summary, a quick primer to using a deep work philosophy to optimize your time spent working:

  1. Determine which aspects of your job fall under the categories of shallow work and deep work.
  2. Keep track of how many hours you are spending on each type of work.
  3. Do whatever you can to move hours spent on shallow work to those spent on deep work. More to follow on this.
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