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A Day in the Life of an Immunology Academic (or ‘what Do You Actually Do with Your Day, John?’)

‘I am so busy, I don’t know where the day goes,’ is a phrase uttered by many an academic, but busy doing what? In this guest blog, John Tregoning talks us through the spectrum of activities he performs as a principal investigator.

What did you do today, daddy?

Thinking head illustration

I think my children are vaguely aware that I am a scientist, possibly that I work on colds and sniffles, but they would be unable to describe what my day involves. Then again, I suspect my PhD students are equally unclear about how I pass the time. To try to set the record straight, I kept a diary recording my day in 30 minute chunks. However, all I learnt from this exercise was that I drink a lot of tea and about half my time goes on the poorly defined ‘admin’, which, even at the time I was recording it, was so dull that I failed to note any specifics.

More data needed

But as we all know n=1 is a poor sample size, and I had the intention of repeating the diary exercise. Sadly, I was then too busy to record any detail. I know that amongst the activities I failed to accurately document were putting microneedle patches on the ears of one group of mice, collecting poo from another group, interviewing project managers, correcting two PhD theses, drinking more tea and looking after the children whilst my wife was away with work. Additionally, I was firefighting, grant writing, tutoring and ‘networking’ (aka going to the pub). So, in short I do an incredibly varied range of tasks in any given day, much of which doesn’t fall into easy soundbites for those with short attention spans.

I’m just like you, but different

However, since I was asked to do a blog about how an academic immunologist principal investigator (PI) spends their time, to inform people at earlier career stages ‘my days are really busy and quite varied’ is not all that informative. If you are involved in any form of immunology research, your days are no doubt equally busy and more varied. So I guess the more relevant question is, what is different about the way a PI spends their time compared to a PhD student, research assistant, research technician or postdoc?

Mutual support

The simple answer is: more office, less lab. As a postdoc, I spent at least 110% of my time in the lab, 15% in the office (I may be over-inflating a bit, as my postdoc supervisor is now President of the BSI, more realistically it was 75:25). The proportion in the lab decreases as you get more senior; when I started as a PI, lab: office was about 50:50, it is now about 10:90 and it is unusual to see many professors at the bench due to the other pressures on their time. One of the big adjustments from being a postdoc to being a PI is the lack of tangible product at the end of the day. On a good day at the bench, you can say – today I did 10 ELISAs or I ran samples through the FACS machine until I had dots burnt into my retina. Either way you have something that wasn’t there at the beginning of the day. On a good day, I can maybe point to a paragraph of text that is slightly better than it was yesterday.

I’m Alan Sugar

A slightly more nuanced description of how I spend my time is that I spend it supporting a team, whilst the members of my team spend their time supporting my ‘vision’ (or lack of). Being a PI is like running a small business. In my case, think of a start-up in someone’s shed; for my head of department, think major biotech just about to be bought by a big pharma. To support the members of my team, my tasks fall into a number of different functions:

  • Administrative – health and safety, HR, ordering, tendering and purchasing equipment etc. (some or all of which I try to farm out as ‘development opportunities’).
  • Mentoring – training staff, weekly meetings, helping in the lab, journal clubs and telling great jokes.
  • Publicity and sales – papers, conferences, blogs, grants, collaborations, twittering (@DrTregoning) and networking.
  • Keeping my job – teaching, committees (see blog).
  • Future planning – reading papers, pilot studies, establishing collaborations and thinking (though to the untrained eye this can look a bit like sleeping).

The balance of these activities depends a bit on the cycle of academia. If I have some grant funding, I will try and focus on mentoring the people doing the work in order to deliver it successfully, then when funding begins to run out, I write papers and grants.

The NeverEnding list

So what do I do in a day? Sadly, there isn’t an easy answer that I can tell my children. I start the day with a long list of tasks and on a good day end up with an equally long list of new tasks generated in response to the ones I have completed. Some of these are fun (paper writing, mentoring, paper reading), some less so (grants, health and safety), but no two days are alike … except for the tea drinking.

John Tregoning

John is a Senior Lecturer at Imperial College London studying the immune response to respiratory viral infections. He blogs at drtregoning.blogspot.co.uk and can be found on Twitter at @DrTregoning.

Image credit: © Shutterstock