Typical day on the job:
My typical day starts by clearing my email inbox. I usually have a few crystallography questions from students to answer, as well as attending to business for the U.S. National Committee for Crystallography, where I am chair. Students contact me for assistance with using GSAS-II, the software package I'm helping to develop, or some of my older software. Several professors refer students to me as a resource to help them solve nonstandard problems or set up customized applications for the software. On bad days, e-mail can take a large fraction of the day. Sometimes, e-mails contain "fires to put out" that take even longer, such as a reminder for an overdue referee report or to follow up on reviews where I am a co-editor.
With that out of the way, I then pick up a task I want to work on for the day, which may be writing or editing a paper, putting together a talk, analyzing some data, or adding a feature to some data analysis code. Once in a while I collect data, but I try to give the pleasure of that to my collaborators.
At least a few times each year, I go to universities and conferences to give seminars, or to professional workshops and give tutorials. I have a website where I archive recordings of my tutorials, but eventually, I would like to replace that with a MOOC (massive open online course) where students can interact to help each other solve problems.
I have a private office; I once turned down a job because scientists were housed in an "open office" environment. I think for a living, and distraction would kill my productivity. I can get quite a bit done with just my laptop while traveling, but many tasks need a really quiet place where I can concentrate. Multiple computer monitors are also great to have.
I probably work 30–45 hours/week in the office and 10–30 more at home. Previously, I had a role with way too many tasks — until I was replaced by four people. For now, my work pace is largely self-driven, but I always have more things I want to do than energy to get them done.
What you like most about your job:
My work probably brings me the greatest satisfaction of anything that I do with my time. Not that I don't enjoy time with my spouse, kids, or seeing seeds grow into something I can eat, but I feel that in my work I learn new things and create tools that the whole world uses. I also like that my work is a comfortable one-hour bike ride from home, so I can commute that way for more than 1,000 miles/year.
Best productivity trick:
Keep a couple of balls (tasks) in the air and switch off between them. It keeps me from getting bored or stuck.
Best career advice you've received:
Some of the most memorable career advice I have gotten turned out to be the opposite of where I have gone. I was told that "There are no jobs in crystallography" and "Software work is the death of a scientific career." I have found that learning how to program is a useful skill that can be applied to many different things.
I know all too many well-trained scientists who are not able to use the skills they trained in, and feel blessed that — more than once — I have been in the right place at the right time. However, I don’t think I would be as good at work that I did not like so much. I think one should study something one likes learning as Plan A, but understand that it is not always where life takes you.
I have benefited greatly from a large number of scientific and professional mentors, who have given me great advice, and pointed out opportunities to me. One piece of advice that I did follow was that during an economic downturn, if your employer is facing an uncertain future (and I have experienced this in industry, academia and government), don't get sidetracked worrying about your job or spend time bemoaning fate with your co-workers. Go into your office, shut the door, and work all day. Get as much work done as you can in the time that you have. If nothing else, this will add to the accomplishments that you can use to get your next job.
Anything else you'd like to mention about your career?
I spent two stints in industrial labs, with a non-tenure track university job in between, before starting the first of my two government research jobs. Prevailing wisdom is that does not happen. A lot of people think that once you go into industry, you never leave, but this was not true in my case.
Essential habit you wish you'd started earlier:
I wish that, when I was a student, it had been possible to receive journal tables of contents by e-mail. I read them for many journals and follow up on a small number of articles. Some I skim, others I look at more carefully. It took me too long to learn that time spent on calendar keeping (meetings, deadlines, etc.) is never wasted.
Favorite ACS resource:
The ACS journals and their free email contents/ASAP service. Also, I attended and gave a presentation at an especially well-organized symposium at the ACS national meeting earlier this year. I made some good new professional connections, and I got to speak with a number of old friends.