How Molecular Ecologists Work: J. Chris Pires on mono-tasking, not doing it all yourself, and defining that dream job


Welcome to the next installment of the How Molecular Ecologists Work series.
This entry is from Dr. J. Chris Pires, associate professor within the Division of Biological Sciences at The University of Missouri. His work is broadly described as plant evolutionary biology — from molecular systematics to patterns of gene expression. Chris’s research program has been both wildly productive and impactful (he is one of Thompson-Reuter’s “Highly Cited Researchers“), but has also been recognized for exemplary mentoring of undergraduate students. How does he do it?

Chris quote

Location: Bond Life Sciences Center, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO, USA
Position: Associate Professor
Current mobile device(s): iPhone
Current computer(s): Macbook Pro

Can you use one word to describe the way you work?

What kind of research do you?

Plant genome evolution

What specific strategies do you recommend for running (or establishing) a lab?

First, focus on a particular scientific question or phenomena that you are passionate about and want to develop a brand around.

Second, develop good writing habits: block off at least one to two hours a day to read and write.
Third, make “running the lab” a team effort – do not try to do it all yourself!

What apps/software/language/tools can’t you work without (Python, Dropbox, Geneious, etc.)?

Many members of my lab conduct bioinformatics analyses in Python or R; while I am on email/Box editing or writing grants and manuscripts as part of larger collaborations.  We also use Skype or other online meeting software to have long-distance lab meetings with collaborators.

Where do you work with data (personal computer, lab computers, cluster, etc.)?

We work on lab computers and personal laptops to manage data on clusters here at MU.  We also use some off-campus resources such as the CIPRES portal or Cyverse.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?

I am currently addicted to my fitness watch (a Polar Flow M400).

Can you estimate what percentage of time you spend on the following categories in a given week?

15%   Research-grant writing
15%   Research-manuscript writing
10%   Research-in the Lab, analyzing data, in the field
25%   Teaching/Mentoring
25%   Meetings/Email (committees, project meetings, etc.)
10%   Outreach

What is your best time-saving shortcut/lifehack?

Block off a few hours in the morning for fresh and focused mono-tasking (usually reading and writing) and bunch together seminars, meetings, email, social media in the afternoon/evenings.

How do you stay organized (to-do lists, digital reminders, etc.)?

I have one giant word document that serves as my calendar and “to do” list to stay organized daily, then project folders (people, manuscripts, grants, finances, lab ordering) that I update monthly, and long term strategic planning and mission/vision statements that I update every year.

What do you listen to while you’re working (music, kids yelling, the hum of a supercomputer)?

Background music or white noise while writing at a café or some other hiding place.

What are you currently reading?

For better or worse, most of my current reading is peer-reviewed journal articles as I am writing a massive review paper.

What is your sleep routine like?

Roughly midnight to 6:00 AM

Fill in the blank: I’d like to see ____ answer these questions.

Leonie Moyle & Matt Hahn

What career advice would you like to give to our readers?

Whether you want to go into academia or industry, find the people who recently got your “dream job” and get a hold of their CVs to see what it takes to be competitive in that area.  If you want an academic position, then I highly recommend participating on a search committee so you can see how that process works – I did that as a graduate student and it completely changed my priorities.

I strongly recommend that graduate students be pro-active about creating their ideal postdoc (get your own funding or co-write a proposal) instead of applying for advertised postdocs available from recently funded grants. Finally, you know you are ready to go onto the job market when people ask you to apply for positions at their institution: so you need to make your presence known in the field and network at professional meetings.
Thanks Chris! Next week: Tracy Heath, Assistant Professor at Iowa State University.

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