Advice For The Final Semester Of Grad School

Around this time last year, I had accepted the job offer with University of Richmond, took a very much needed break over the holidays, and returned ready to wrap things up for my PhD.  Since I had not made a great deal of progress on my dissertation while on the job market, simply “wrapping things up” entailed starting, finishing, and defending my dissertation.  And, then moving.  Yep.

Oh, there were many things I thought “why didn’t anyone tell me?!”  So, I write this post of advice to graduate students who will finish their dissertations this semester and move to begin a new job over/after the summer.  I do not speak as an authority, certainly never having mentored graduate students; but, my own experience may offer something!  I have in mind those finishing up PhDs and then beginning a tenure-track position, or some other position in academia that entails teaching and research.  But, others may find this post useful, as well.

Preparing

“Oh my gosh, the job market is soo stressful.”  It certainly was.  But, there was one thing I found substantially more stressful: the semester after, when you actually work on your dissertation.  And, the reason why you never hear anyone say that?  Those students are probably isolated at home or in their campus office having very little interaction with the real world.  And, then they seem to quietly disappear, moving on to their new jobs.  I say this only from my own experiences: this last semester will be the most isolating, stressful, self-directed, underwhelming, and require the greatest level of discipline thus far in your career (maybe even life).

Yes, I said what you think I said above.  You probably will actually be starting your dissertation once the dust of the job market settles.  I mean here the actual analyses and writing.  (You have already defended the proposal, or done even more by now.)  Ideally, you are finishing up by early summer.  But, that does not account for the time you should give your committee to read your final draft before your dissertation defense.  And, that does not account for last minute editing before that.  And, that does not account for the time it takes to implement the very specific, tedious formatting that your university requires for submitted dissertations.

So, to work in a timely manner, you should (yes, strong words!) take note of your university’s deadlines for filing a dissertation and graduating.  (This includes booking a hotel room for family who will attend graduation early, especially if you are at a big university in a small town!  Also, renting/buying a cap and gown for graduation.)  This stage is where the training wheels really come off.  It is your responsibility to figure out what your university requires and by what date.  At least at my graduate institution, there were complex instructions — certain things were due on certain days if you finished in May, or had to be formatted in certain ways if submitting your dissertation electronically.

A second suggestion is to create a work schedule.  As I said, finishing will take a great deal of discipline.  I set for myself 12-hour work days, but taking the evenings and weekends off were non-negotiable.  So, I had my butt in my home office chair at 6am getting to work.  I strongly recommend eliminating or at least temporarily suspending any other professional activities.  Drop out of committees, suspend community service, put co-authored projects on hold, and stop publishing.  If you can afford to (I know, I know — that’s why I said ‘if’), get out of teaching this semester.  You have one job this semester: to finish a dissertation — one that 4-5 experts will be willing to sign their name to as sufficient for a doctorate.  I will touch more on that later; but, I want to emphasize you need to minimize other distractions as much as possible.

Another strategy that helped me was to create an outline of analyses I would run, including supplemental analyses, to minimize data exploration.  And, create an outline of what I would write in each literature review to minimize brainstorming before I had to write, and exploring existing literature.  Of course, this was not a perfect strategy.  But, I could afford to revise models, or even change how certain variables were measured, and look up more references for a literature review, because I went in with most of these parts already decided.  Yes, the strategy to determine my analyses in advance may not work for qualitative or other methodological approaches; however you can, do some of the analytical preparation and work in advance!

You should also set aside time to decide when you will move for your new job, and to search for houses/apartments.  I strongly recommend finishing up everything related to graduate school and then moving.  And, as best as you can, finish before your job starts!  Some universities or departments may place you on some sort of probation or temporary status if your degree has not been conferred by your university by a certain date (make sure you know this date!).  If they don’t do this formally, you may be treated informally this way if you continue to finish your dissertation after you have started your new job.  Give yourself a reasonable amount of time, maybe a little at a time each week, to house-hunt.  And, I recommend actually making a trip to your new location before you move to get a feel of the town, preliminarily explore, and force a short mental break in the midst of dissertating.  Ideally, you negotiated for compensation from your new job to house-hunt, maybe even connected with a realtor or another service; if not, I suggest asking if there are funds for this.

Working

Decide up front what will be the best way to work, including editing.  I found warming up mentally each morning was easiest if I continued to work on one empirical chapter at a time.  I started with the chapter that was closest to completion — the one for which I had results because I used it as my job talk.  Once that one was finished, I sent it to my chair for feedback.  The unspoken agreement was that he had to approve, in his capacity as my chair, a chapter before any other committee member could see it.  But, as the semester unfolded, I would have to wait a very long time to receive feedback from other committee members.  So, I decided to seek out fellow students’ feedback — some because they do similar work, and others could comb my writing for clarity and grammatical errors.  And, while I awaited feedback for one chapter, I moved on to the next.  I left writing the conclusion for last, and drew heavily from my dissertation proposal for the introductory chapter.

I have heard of others who join a writing group, something that proves particularly useful at this last, hyper-independent stage.  I flirted with the idea.  But, I thought about reading pages and pages of another student’s dissertation-in-progress — I did not have the time or energy.  This stage proved to be the most selfish and self-serving.  I asked others to read my work and provide feedback, but I could not offer anything in return.  But, once they reach that stage in future years, I can finally offer in return.  I suspect a writing group can help if you have already established one.  I would advise against starting anything new at this point.

I strongly recommend isolating yourself to finish.  Fortunately/unfortunately, the department automatically backs away.  But, other students may not know to leave you be.  If you can, work at home or the library.  BUT!  You have to counterbalance this self-imposed isolation with taking care of yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially.  If you do not have friends or colleagues checking up on you, reach out to someone.  Go out every once in a while.  Leave the house every other day.  Go for walks.  Have some regularly schedule time that is a non-negotiable break (you know, like “weekends”), and take part or all of spring break off.  Seriously!  Your brain will need to recharge.

Although I suggest cutting off all other professional obligations, it may help to have some other mental stimuli.  There were days that my brain felt like mush.  And, I found sitting in isolation in my apartment, looking at Stata output and folders full of articles — all in the name of social science — ironic and a tad depressing.  And, the constant self-censorship required for academic writing — “race discrimination” not “racism” — was exhausting, and threatened to impede my writing.  So, I continued to blog, an outlet in which I was not constrained.  Others have recommended blogging as a way to prevent writer’s block during the dissertation writing stage.  I know well the professional risks, and some simply are not comfortable blogging, so any kind of writing may suffice — private journaling, poetry, spoken word, sending thank you letters, etc.  You may find it useful to attend one campus event or talk, or even one per month, to ensure that you 1) interact with other humans, 2) are forced to shower, 3) are forced to walk, 4) are forced to breathe fresh air and see sunlight, and 5) are seen by others so that there is proof you are still alive.

A Note On A “Done Dissertation”

The most helpful advice I received to finish my dissertation was that “a good dissertation is a done dissertation.”  So, as my committee expressed concern that one year to finish and secure a job was not enough time to write a “great” dissertation, I scoffed because it would sit on a shelf along side everyone else’s good, but completed dissertation.  And, when the time finally came just to write the damn thing, perfection as the primary goal gave way to completion.  And, if you have not heard this before, know that finishing does not mean by your standards (per se), by a journal editor’s or book publisher’s standards, or even your discipline’s standards.  You are finished with your dissertation when your dissertation committee has decided it is finished; they are the sole gatekeepers whom you must satisfy at this stage.  If they say to add something you do not agree with, add it — you can quickly remove it when you go to publish from your dissertation research.  (Or, if it’s a secondary committee member, ask your chair if she thinks you need to add it.  If yes, than do so and eliminate it post-dissertation.)

Hopefully, you will publish something from your dissertation research later on.  So, I want to suggest that having something a little more than a “done dissertation” may prove beneficial down the road.  I pushed back against my committee’s suggestion to produce a traditional, seamless dissertation, instead opting for an overarching introduction and conclusion, but otherwise distinct empirical chapters.  I followed what some call the “three paper/chapter model.”  At the start of my new job, I was able to send these chapters out with very little editing.  If all I had was empirical chapters that reviewed results with little front end and conclusion, it would take more time to extract these as distinct manuscripts.  Fortunately, my committee came around to the idea, as it was not the department’s norm.  If they do not allow you to take this approach, do as much as you can to make the chapters distinct to minimize work later on.  By today’s high standards for productivity, you cannot afford to waste time writing a magnus opus of a dissertation that does not easily translate into a book or a set of published articles!

Finishing

Your committee, department, and/or university may have a set amount of time to send your committee your final draft before you defend.  I have heard 2 weeks is minimal, so I aimed for one month to be generous.  This is the first (or second) and last time you will have 4-5 experts sitting before to give feedback to improve your work and set your future research agenda.  You definitely want to give them enough time, considering their busy schedules, to thoroughly read your 200-500 page “baby.”  For me, the one-month window coincided with how far in advance I had to announce my upcoming defense.  Also, if I were behind schedule, I would still be giving my committee a generous 3-week window.

Be sure to have factored in time to actually proofread your work!  And, create a plan for printing and delivering your dissertation to each committee member in advance.  Having a mini panic attack at the local Kinko’s as you try to get copies to your committee before the department closes at 4pm, and being told “that’s $170” to print 5 copies, is not fun.

During the time leading up to your defense, I advise one of two things.  Leave this time to take care of the tedious formatting that your university requires for filed dissertations.  Or, if you have already done this, work on a project you have neglected over the semester, only returning to your dissertation the day before your defense.  Do not revise the content of your dissertation during this time!  After your (successful!) defense, you will have tons of changes to make before you can file your dissertation with the college — and, your chair may want to approve the final document, too.  Give yourself this time to take a bit of a break, at least to do mindless things or turn your attention to other projects.

Me - Looking Up

Looking Ahead

One of the greatest achievements of your career (and your life!) will end in the most anticlimactic, underwhelming way.  You go from securing a job (woohoo!), to finishing a draft of your dissertation (almost there!), to graduating (symbolic, at best!), to successfully defending (“Doctor” finally, but not really!), to submitting your dissertation to the college.  Three months later you get your diploma.  And, a month or two after that, you get copies of your dissertation, if you purchase them.  When you are officially, officially done, it seems your milestone is already old news.  I strongly recommend celebrating each and every step of finishing.

I had family come out for graduation in early May, including a family dinner.  But, it did not feel “real” just yet because I had not even defended yet.  By the time I filed and moved for my new job, I was ready to move on — or so I thought.  I declined my mother’s repeated request to have a big family celebration — I was one of few to get a master’s degree, and the first to get a PhD on her side of the family (and, one of very few on my father’s side, too).  “I don’t need all of this fuss about me; we already celebrated,” I insisted.  But, in finding no fanfare for this major achievement as I started my new job, it became clear that I had not properly celebrated.  A few weeks in, saying “you know, I’m proud of myself” out loud brought out an ugly cry that let me know I needed to do something to celebrate.  This is trickier than college, which ends with graduation and a graduation party with family and/or friends, because graduation precedes actually finishing your dissertation and having your degree conferred by the college.  So, make sure you celebrate at some point, if not every point!

Leave yourself enough time to properly move.  Set a deadline to file your dissertation and wrap up any other loose ends, and then turn your attention fully to moving.  And, once moved, give yourself time to explore your new home.  Sure, you should make an effort to hit the ground running at your new job.  But, you will benefit from having roots settled when the semester picks up.  Get a driver’s license, update mailing addresses, register to vote, find a new doctor and dentist — all of those things that become annoyances later on when you are very busy!  And, frankly, it is okay to take some time off to recharge your battery before starting the new job.  If your field typically holds conferences over the summer, it may be fine to take a year off.  (I went, but partially regretted it because of the costs, and I was too exhausted to network properly, and I had not yet shifted into “professor” mode — so I felt I wasted the time there.)

Once you do officially start your new job, which I recommend comes a couple of weeks (even a month or so) before the semester starts, take the time to prep your courses and get research moving.  Your first semester will be a busy, stressful time of adjustment.  If you start getting your “ducks in a row” early, you can coast a bit when the semester starts to overwhelm you.  By the latter half of the semester, you will thank yourself for your late summer productivity.

Please read this!  Of all of the things I wish I had known going into the final semester of graduate school, the most regrettable was not thinking ahead financially.  Your meager stipend or fellowship will likely run out by the end of this semester, and then you will have no income until September or even October.  That means living and moving on zero income over the summer!  As much as you can, try to save beginning today!  Hopefully, you negotiated with your new job for some sort of compensation for moving.  If not, ask about it immediately.  I suppose there are many things you will not know, but the financial crunch at this stage seems too pressing of an issue to (unintentionally) keep quiet.

Recap

So, here are the deadlines you will either need to set, self-impose, or for which to account in your scheduling:

  • How long you will give yourself to write, revise, and complete each chapter
  • When to factor in soliciting and incorporating feedback from your chair, other committee members and/or friends and other colleagues
  • How far in advance you need to apply for graduation, book travel and hotel for visiting family and friends, and rent or purchase graduation regalia
  • Allowing yourself enough time to coordinate each committee member’s schedule.  Keep in mind some leave on the first flight after their last class of the spring semester!
  • How far in advance you must provide your committee with the final draft of your dissertation for your defense
  • How far in advance you must officially announce your dissertation defense
  • Time to go through the detailed instructions for properly formatting your dissertation before filing
  • How far in advance you must file your dissertation, and if there are special circumstances
  • Time to house-hunt and then move
  • Time to properly recover, relax, and recharge before beginning your new job

And, the expenses — some (or all!) of which come right out of your own pocket:

  • Typical living expenses
  • Graduation regalia, transportation and lodging for visiting family, graduation dinner
  • Printing drafts of your dissertation (unless you print them on campus)
  • Submitting, binding, and printing your final dissertation
  • Transportation and lodging for a house-hunting trip, if you make one before moving
  • Rental truck, boxes, storage, and other costs associated with moving
  • Security deposit, first month’s rent, and any other initial expenses once you have moved (e.g., turning on power, groceries, driver’s license)

Others’ Advice

As I often do, I conclude with others’ advice and perspectives in recognizing that I can only speak for myself.

Dr. Jeana Jorgensen Reflects On “Normalized Weekend Work”

Dr. Jeana Jorgensen is a folklorist, writer, and dancer (see her full biography here).  Her scholarship explores fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, gender identity, feminist theory, and digital humanities.  She is a blogger at MySexProfessor.com and on her own site (including many posts on folklore and academia in general). 

Below, Dr. Jorgensen has shared another guest post (see the first here), in which she raises the unspoken question about working beyond the 40 hours for which academics are typically paid.  Enjoy!

Normalized Weekend Work:  It Is Basically Like Homework, Right?

Photo by James Mortiarty

Photo by James Moriarty

As I pulled the pile of grading into my lap on a Saturday evening, I paused to reflect on how normal it seems to do work on the weekends, in the evenings, and on the weekend evenings. These are normally coveted times for socializing, relaxing, and even doing unofficial labor like domestic tasks, relationship maintenance, and errands. I didn’t used to have a problem with working on the weekends, but something has changed: my perspective.

I was a student for the bulk of my life, going straight from high school to college, and straight from college to a PhD program (earning my MA on the way). When I finished my doctorate and starting adjuncting, for lack of other opportunities, I thought, okay, I’ll take on some freelance writing work to help pay the bills. Since I was trying to remain competitive on the job market, I also made time to do my own research, which has included publishing articles, presenting at conferences, writing book reviews, and starting to work on my book proposal. Teaching plus freelancing plus researching plus writing plus publishing has led to a somewhat busy schedule, likely to the detriment of my relationships and personal life.

I’m not as bad off as some academic overachievers, like this scholar, Kate, who delayed routine health checks only to discover that she had breast cancer.  But the more I think about the situation—what I’m putting in vs. what I’m getting out—the less I’m happy with working on weekends.

The disconnect came when I realized that working on weekends didn’t used to bother me. In fact, back when it was just “homework” I usually enjoyed it (yes, I’m a nerd like that). I have to spend this weekend reading a book? Oh no, how terrible! I can only go to the party after I finish a first draft of a paper? Fine by me, I hate arriving early anyway since it feeds my social anxiety issues. It didn’t seem that bad at the time.

Now, I realize that a large part of the reason I was totally okay with giving up evenings and weekends as a student was that it was supposed to be temporary. Being a student is a phase in one’s life, during which one works very, very hard to achieve the kinds of grades and learn the kinds of skills that will help one land a job or achieve whatever the next life goal is. Then, in the mystical, magical place known as Adulthood, one would maintain sane working hours and actually have something resembling the oft-rumored free time.

jeana

Photo by James Moriarty

Obviously, life is life, and we’ll never have as much free time as we desire. There will always be chores to do, sick friends to bring soup to, conversations about finances to schedule with partners. I balk, however, at accepting that I will always have to work weekends simply because I chose to pursue an academic career. Forcing weekend work on scholars is tantamount to assigning mandatory homework. The amount of labor implicitly present in academic job descriptions is deceptive, and I believe that the unspoken requirement to bring work home infantilizes us, treating us as though we’re still students, as though the institution always knows best, and we must always keep busy.

The blog post, “Perfectionism and Its Discontents,” distinguishes between having (usually healthy) personal standards of excellence and having (usually unhealthy) perfectionist tendencies. What the blogger advocates is that academics have high personal standards, and that these “standards be achievable, that our successes be recognized, and that our mistakes be accepted.” Is a job that implicitly requires take-home work encouraging its workers to subscribe to achievable standards? Will it recognize its workers’ successes?

In my mind, if I am getting paid to do a job, I’ll want to consider, among other factors, the hours involved, and how that correlates to the pay, the prestige, and what sort of good I’m doing in the world. I don’t think it’s unsustainable to expect scholars (or workers in general) to bring work home on some weekends or some evenings. However, it should not, in my view, be the norm without it being crystal-clear in the job description, without additional compensation, or unless the person chooses, without punishment or incentive, to take it on because they’re really, really into what they’re doing. This impulse to go above and beyond could be for institutional reasons (wanting to see a project through because it’ll benefit everyone) or for personal reasons (getting excited about new research).

I know I’m in a bit of a slump, being between research projects, and still trying to figure out how I feel about being in my second year of adjuncting, and attempting to plan my next move. But now that I’ve begun thinking of working on weekends as being akin to homework, I find myself less than eager to do it. Maybe my next exciting research project is just around the corner and I simply haven’t caught sight of it yet. Or perhaps realizing that there are power dynamics at work in how you spend your time is a bit of a disincentive to expending more energy for an institution that isn’t looking out for you. A little of column A, a little of column B?

Once I became more aware of this pattern, I’ve made the following attempts to work with this realization and deal with my resentment over it. Perhaps these strategies will offer you some ideas, too:

  • I log hours like I would for a “real” job, thus letting me see if I’ve put in 8-10ish hours already. Then I might feel justified in calling it quits in the evening (granted, measuring intellectual labor is tough, so I try to use a mix of looking for measurable results, like finishing a draft of that syllabus or those article edits, and simply measuring the time I spend with my laptop or a book being productive, regardless of how much I accomplish).
  • If there’s a non-academic event I’m looking forward to, like dinner with friends or a dance performance I’m in, I will establish in advance that it’s a priority, and that I will put down my work when it’s time to go.
  • If I really must work over the weekend or through the evening, I tell someone about it, so that I can be held accountable for that much work and not more. I’ll tell my workout buddy that I need to finish a stack of grading before we can hit the gym, and if there’s still grading waiting for me when I get back, I feel like it’s reasonable to keep working until the grading is done, and then stop.

What are some of your strategies for dealing with academic “homework” once you’re no longer a student?

“Prepare For The Unexpected: Surviving Your First Year On The Tenure-Track”

Below, Dr. Rashawn Ray has written a guest blog post on surviving (and thriving!) in the first year on the tenure track.  In late 2012, he published a co-authored study on mentoring in graduate school, “Graduate Students’ Perceptions of Their Advisors: Is There Systematic Disadvantage in Mentorship?

Dr. Ray is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland.  He is also on Twitter at @SociologistRay.

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Prepare For The Unexpected: Surviving Your First Year On The Tenure-Track

Dr. Ray

Dr. Rashawn Ray

The clock is ticking… Anxiety is high… The tenure clock started only a few days ago, but it feels like an eternity.

This is how I felt over the past few years. I hope what I have learned can be helpful to others. Below I detail a few lessons I try to abide by as I aim to thrive and not just survive the tenure track.

First, you won’t get much done in your first year. Accept it and move on. Part of accepting it is having realistic expectations and goals, and rewarding yourself for accomplishments that may not show up in your tenure file. For example, I moved from Maryland to California with a wife, two kids, and a cat. I completely underestimated how tumultuous the cross country move would be. While I was prepared for the fast pace of the tenure track, I was not prepared for the adjustment of my family. In short, life happens. It is difficult to prepare for how long it will take to find affordable, trustworthy childcare. I also underestimated all of the employment paperwork I needed to complete, especially when office staff do not properly file that paperwork and your benefits and dependents simply do not add up.

The point is that before you can even begin to actually work in your office you must take care of home. An unsettled home environment can at times be more detrimental than an unwelcoming work environment. As a result, be sure to celebrate accomplishments including closing on a home, finding your favorite coffee shop or gym, or discovering a quicker route to campus. All of these accomplishments will make your work life more productive in the long run.

Since I was moving to the University of Maryland after completing a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Research program postdoctoral fellowship at Berkeley, I was a bit less stressed about publishing than I otherwise might have been. I was fortunate to have five articles accepted for publication and negotiated with Maryland to have my publications at Berkeley count toward tenure. My experience alludes to the importance of negotiations at the time of hire.

Having relatively clear tenure expectations is essential. If colleagues are ambiguous about what it will take to obtain tenure, review the records of those recently granted tenure. If there is no one who fits this criterion, meet with your chair regularly to discuss your progress. Do not wait until your review time. It is then important to create a tenure plan that includes a primary plan and a couple of contingencies to make your pursuit toward tenure manageable.

Time off also is important to negotiate. If you get time off from teaching, decide whether it is more important to have a reduced teaching load in the fall or spring. There are different perspectives on this. One perspective asserts that taking the course release in the fall is appropriate considering you may need time to adjust. Another perspective asserts that the course release in the spring is more important for research because you can have more time to focus on writing. I chose the former since I had to deal with childcare issues and a spouse interviewing for jobs.

Second, plan to allocate a set amount of time to get to know your colleagues. Do not wait for them to initiative a lunch or a coffee meeting. Take the initiative. One way to do this is to make it a goal to meet with one new faculty member each week. Remember, for the most part they want you in the department and want to see you succeed. However, it may be up to you to facilitate the networking part of this process. Your main goal should be to learn the departmental culture and politics. Meeting with your new colleagues is one of the best ways to accomplish these goals. Through these meetings, you will forge relationships in personal and professional ways that will be beneficial to your career. You will also quickly learn which of your colleagues are weird, or the ones who may think you are. Yet, by meeting with several faculty, it will be gratifying to learn that you are not the only one who thinks someone has awkward social skills. Accordingly, if you look young, be prepared for faculty and students who will perceive you as a student. Even though I have a hard time doing this myself, view it as a complement because we will not be “forever young.”

Third, learn how to protect your time. Figure out the two hours out of the day that you are most productive. Ensure that you write during those two hours. You will nearly double your productivity during that time. Another strategy for protecting your time is to fill up your schedule with blocks of time for writing, eating, and exercising. If you schedule time in your calendar to write, you are less likely to schedule meetings with colleagues and students during that time.

My strategy for making sure I effectively use my time is to write down daily goals on the white board hanging on my wall. I then decide how much time each task will take. Some of these tasks may include prepping a lecture, reviewing a paper, or constructing tables for an article submission. If I do not get the tasks completed, I stay up late to finish these tasks. For me, this means finishing the tasks after working all day and then coming home to prepare meals for my boys, give baths, engage in playtime, and then “go night night time.” After several nights of no sleep, I now make sure I get my planned tasks completed during the day. I also feel a daily sense of accomplishment because I write down my tasks and cross them out as they are complete. I then calculate how much time it takes me to complete each task so I know the next time an appropriate amount of time to allocate.

Next, take care of yourself mentally, physically, and emotionally. The pace that you kept while writing the dissertation cannot be the pace you keep for the duration of your career. Similar to graduate school, the tenure track is a marathon not a sprint. Learn a consistent, workable routine or else you will burn out. Aim to develop a doable work schedule that does not literally kill you softy. As I mentioned above, be sure to actually schedule physical activity in your calendar. You will be more productive because of physical fitness.

Finally, reduce the time devoted to teaching and mentoring. Teaching and mentoring students can be very time consuming, especially for under-represented minority faculty. We can all relate to the fourth year graduate student with no mentor. However, it is not your job to fill that void. Your job is to get tenure. Additionally, there are probably valid reasons as to why that student may not have a mentor. Talking to colleagues and reading the students’ graduate file can give you insight into any issues. This does not preclude you from meeting with the student once or twice to provide advice but serving as an advisor or co-dissertation chair might not be wise. Correspondingly, a 30 minute meeting is adequate for students, especially if you meet with them biweekly or monthly. Set an alarm to end the meeting if you need to. As you gain a sense of the student’s skill set, brainstorm with the student ways for you to collaborate on a mutually beneficial project. This is one of the best ways for students to actually learn the publishing process.

If you are prepping a new course, do not reinvent the wheel. It is ok to get the notes from a colleague who has taught the course previously. You can put your own stamp on it along the way. What is important for interacting with students and teaching courses is to allocate a set amount of hours on set days to focus on these tasks. I find it difficult to go from writing to teaching and back to writing. As a result, I try to allocate two days for teaching and meeting with students. I also aim to teach on the days we have faculty meetings or brown bags. I then allocate the remainder 2.5 weekdays to write.

In sum, remember the main purpose—Tenure! If you are at a Research-I university, the publishing expectations are high. While people appreciate your service and mentorship, it won’t matter if the publications do not accompany it. We are in this for the long haul.

Peace and solidarity.

“Ten Ways You Can Write Everyday” – Tips From Dr. Tanya Golash-Boza

Last week, Dr. Tanya Golash-Boza, agreed to share her most recent advice from her blog, Get A Life, Ph.D.  Her blog is full of many useful tips for academics, so I asked if she would be willing to share any others.  When she asked which one(s), I responded, “your entire blog.”  Of course, I was joking, but most of the posts seem useful to all academics looking to find balance, increase productivity — all without a cost to their personal lives and well-being.  She has agreed to share much of her advice on the writing process.  See her entire writing tips series here.

So, today kicks off a weekly series of writing tips from (the very wise and generous) Dr. Golash-Boza.  Below, she offers advice for making writing a regular part of your workday — everyday!

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Ten Ways You Can Write Everyday

88a27-tanya-travista-caraIf you’ve been following the posts this semester on how to have a productive semester, you have already made a plan for the Fall Semester, and blocked out time in your calendar for writing every day.

If you have been writing every day this semester, congratulations! If you haven’t, ask yourself “why not?” If you need some ideas on how to actually write every day, then this post is for you!

Write every day” is fabulous advice. But, how do you actually do it? That was my question for a long time before I finally convinced myself to give it a try. Now that I have been writing every day for four years, I can share with you a few ways to make that possible, and explain to you why I do it.

Why You Need To Write Everyday

I decided I needed to try to write every day when I found out that scholars who write daily and hold themselves accountable write nearly ten times as much as others! In Robert Boice’s book Advice for New Faculty Members, he explains the virtues of writing every day. Boice describes a study where new faculty were divided into three groups:

  • The first group did not change their writing habits, and continued to write occasionally in big blocks of time; in one year they wrote an average of 17 pages
  • The second group wrote daily and kept a record of their writing; they averaged 64 pages
  • The third group wrote daily, kept a daily record, and held themselves accountable to someone weekly; this group’s average was 157 pages (Boice 1989:609).

Once I read that, it was clear which group I wanted to be in. I was convinced I should at least try daily writing.

How To Write Everyday

Once I decided I needed to be writing every day, my greatest challenge was to figure out what it meant to write every day. I asked myself, “What counts as daily writing?”

Over time, I came to realize that writing means a lot of things and that there are lots of ways to write every day.

Here Are Ten Ways You Can Write Everyday:

  1. Write on a blank page
  2. Line-edit something you have already written
  3. Restructure a paper that you have been working on
  4. Pull together pieces of older documents you have written into a new paper
  5. Check references and footnotes for accuracy
  6. Outline or mind-map a new project
  7. Summarize or take notes on something you have read recently that might be relevant to present or future research projects
  8. Make a revision plan for a rejected article or a “revise and resubmit”
  9. Make tables, figures, graphs, or images to represent visually concepts or trends in a paper
  10. Create an After-the-fact or Reverse Outline

If you think of writing as only #1): Write on a blank page, it will be hard to do that every single day. However, it you are open to other kinds of writing, it will be possible to do at least one of these kinds of writing every day.

I try to do at least two kinds of writing each day, starting with the blank page in the morning. I am at my best early in the morning. I use those early, fresh moments of the day to free-write and to create new material. Once I run out of steam, I might turn to editing something I have written or to checking references. If I get stuck, I will pull out a mind map and brainstorm ideas.

My routine each weekday, then, is to begin the day with writing or writing-related tasks. On a good day, I can concentrate for two hours. Usually, however, my mind drifts after an hour, so I take a break to check email or have some coffee, and put in another hour after my break. I keep track of the time I have spent working on writing so that I can be proud of my accomplishments, and so that I know when I need to stop.

I know that many academics reject as ridiculous the idea that one could or should write every day. To them, I would gently ask if they have ever tried it. And, I would add that it is not only important to try writing every day, but to commit to trying it for at least a month to see if it works for you. It is also important to have others to whom you are accountable and with whom you can share your struggles.

If you do try writing every day, let me know how it goes! If you are a seasoned daily writer, let me know why you keep it up!

Discipline!

It probably should not come as a surprise to me, but being a successful scholar — broadly defined to include research, teaching, mentoring, and service — requires a great deal of self-discipline.  To a surprising extent, accomplishing some rather difficult feats — like finishing a dissertation and securing a job — require both pushing one’s self, and pushing others to respect your time and decisions.  Unfortunately, an academic can be pulled in so many directions, so one runs the risk of placing the lowest priority and energy into the things that are most important (especially for tenure and promotion; i.e., research).  So, books like The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure — Without Losing Your Soul and other resources constantly remind scholars that they must proactively guard and control their schedules in order to be successful.

Weekly Schedule

In the past few days, as the new academic year is gearing up, I have seen a few scholars openly discuss creating a clearly defined schedule for their week.  For example, following Dr. Tanya Golash-Boza‘s advice on starting the semester off with a plan for one’s typical week, “Jan In The Pan” created her own schedule for the new semester.

I guess it cannot hurt to share my own, as well!

weekly schedule

I started by blocking off class time and office hours.  And, then I put 1-2 hours of time for writing and editing papers first thing in the morning.  Although others have mentioned making time for writing, I am not certain whether they are implicitly including other aspects of the research process in that time: searching for and reading articles, analyzing data, etc.  I am aware from past experience that anxiety about writing will sometimes let me procrastinate by looking for even more articles or running even more supplemental analyses.  So, I have set a specific time for those parts of the research, with a time just for writing and editing.

This will be my first time teaching two courses at the same time, including one new prep (Research Methods).  So, I tried to force myself to be efficient in preparing lectures, but also gave myself a bit of wiggle room in the event that I have understimated the time it will take.  I have sprinkled time for grading throughout the workweek to minimize the likelihood that I will have to stay up late into the night grading.

I make no apologies that this is an 8am-5:30pm, Monday through Friday schedule, with lunch breaks.  I am aware that days may run later than I am planning at this point.  But, unionists and workers rights activists worked too hard for the weekend for me to work on Saturdays and/or Sundays.  And, I am forcing myself to take a proper lunch break so that I am not exhausted or overwhelmed with work throughout the day.  (It sounds quite strange to say one has to force a break.)

Of course, there will be meetings that I cannot force during the four hours available for office hours.  Certainly, I cannot ask colleagues and administrators to “come see me during my office hours!”  So, like Dr. Golash-Boza, I will do my best to push those during late afternoon times late in the week.  Or, I am happy to turn my lunch time into a lunch meeting (you’ve got to eat anyhow!).

This speaks to the external aspect of self-discipline — in essence, we must gently push others to respect our time so that we may maintain our productivity.  There are simply too many people with varying schedules, with different needs (some that demand more time than they actually need, some not enough).  One’s entire week could be booked with meetings, the rest of the time interrupted by surprise visits.  I work best in my office, so this may mean that I will have to close my door during scheduled work times, and gently remind any visitors of another time that we may speak at length.

Honestly…

JROTC

I do not like the idea of being so rigid about my schedule.  But, thus far, the times that I have been most successful were when I held myself to a schedule with little room for negotiation.  I would love to have unexpected visitors to fill my need to be social and have deep philosophical conversations — to leave for a coffee break whenever I wish.  I could easily catch up on current events, and get the itch the blog — stopping only to prepare for teaching.

Though I see all of these as part of my broader understanding of myself as a scholar, and being an active member of an academic community, I am well aware that I will be evaluated primarily on teaching and research, followed by service.  So, you will even notice that I did not schedule time for blogging or community service; these will have to occur on weekends or evenings.  And, no form of service is included in the schedule (hopefully kept during open times for meetings) — and I certainly aim to avoid taking on any service that includes weekly obligations or meetings.

So, it begins tomorrow.  First day of classes!  For my own benefit, and hopefully for others, I will offer occasional updates on the effectiveness of this rigid schedule and on my level of productivity.

“Start the Semester off Right: Make a Weekly Template” – Tips From Dr. Tanya Golash-Boza

Dr. Tanya Golash-Boza, a sociologist, runs a great blog site, Get A Life, PhD, that is a goldmine of tips and resources to be a productive, successful scholar.  On top of maintaining a healthy balance of her work, family, and personal lives, she also has multiple blogs (wow).  Below, she has allowed me to share her most recent bit of advice on starting the semester off right. 

You may also other posts by Dr. Golash-Boza useful, including tips on teaching, effective writing, presentations, dissertatinghealth and wellness, public scholarship, productivity, and organization.  

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Start The Semester Off Right: Make A Weekly Template

Dr. Golash-Boza

How are you feeling about starting the semester?

One strategy I find useful to allay anxieties about the semester is to take some time and plan out how my workweek will look. Doing this allows me to feel as if I am in control of my semester and makes it clear that it is possible to have a cool and calm semester. (I explain the importance of taking control here.)

The end of summer usually involves a shift in the daily and weekly workflow for academics. During the summer, most of us have fewer commitments and many of us do not teach. Personally, I have always made a point to avoid the lure of extra income and not teach during the summer. As for administrative responsibilities, these accrue as one advances in one’s career. However, I try to keep those to a minimum during the summer months. Because of my research interests, I also usually spend nearly all of my summer outside the United States.

This past summer, I traveled to Guatemala and Mexico – which also explains why I have not been posting to [my] blog all summer.

This August, once again, I find myself looking towards the fall semester and thinking about how I am going to organize my time. My children start school on Monday, and I teach my first class on September 4. This gives me some time to get used to the rhythm before the semester starts in full force. During this time, I plan to try out a new schedule and see how it works for me.

The idea is that I will create a weekly schedule that has my fixed appointments for the semester and also carves out time for things I need to do but could do at any time: prepare class, read, write, exercise, eat, and respond to emails.

Kerry Ann Rockqeumore calls this schedule your “skeleton.” She suggests making one each week. Mine does not look like a skeleton at all, so I prefer to refer to it as a template. I find it useful to make a template at the beginning of the semester and setting up repeating appointments in your calendar so that your template is ready each week when you decide on your specific goals.

How To Make A Weekly Template

When making my weekly template for the semester, the first thing I think about is teaching, as teaching has a fixed schedule and I need to set aside time to teach and to prepare for class. I am fortunate to only be teaching one class this semester. Thus, I block out the time I will teach as well as a few hours to read and prepare for class. I am teaching a graduate seminar and we will be reading a book each week. Thus, I need to set aside time to ensure I finish reading the book. I will have time to read for this class in the evenings, after the kids go to bed, but, from experience, I know I also have to set aside time during the day to read and think about the books before class.

The next thing up is office hours. I have set those on Thursday afternoons.

Up next is writing. I know I write best in the mornings. My children will leave the house by 8:30am each morning. And, my goal is to write for two hours each morning. From experience, I know I need to set aside two and a half hours in order to get in two hours of writing, so I will set aside 8:30am to 11:00am each morning. Once I do that, I remember that I need to be more efficient on Wednesdays when I teach, so I cut Wednesdays back to 10:30 and give myself some extra time to prepare class.

I need to go up to campus on Wednesdays to teach and on Thursdays for office hours. I usually bike to campus, and it takes me about 45 minutes. So, I set aside an hour to get to campus on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Biking to and from campus also counts as exercise for those two days. Once I do that, I remember that I often don’t finish all of my administrative tasks during office hours on Thursdays. So, I decide I should go to campus on Fridays as well and take care of business. I can use Friday afternoons to write reports, submit receipts, review materials, and clean out my email inbox.

We all know how time-consuming email can be. So, I set aside another hour before lunch each day to take care of email. If I focus on email and avoid being sucked into the Internet vortex, this should be enough time.

Then, I remember I also need to set aside some time to read. As I mentioned earlier, I do find time to read in the evenings. However, I also need time during the day to download articles, order books, and select what I will read. So, I decide to set aside Monday afternoons to select readings and to read for the week.

I also need to get in my daily exercise. I will get in enough exercise from Wednesdays to Fridays by biking ten miles back and forth to work. So, on Mondays and Tuesdays, I set aside an hour for exercise each day.

I color-coded my schedule so that I can see at a glance how much time I am dedicating to writing (red), admin (green), teaching (orange), and self-care (purple).

Schedule.

The Weekly Template Is A Model, Not A Mandate

As I make this schedule, I know from experience that probably no week will go exactly like this. However, it helps me to have a structure. It also is a reminder that I am very busy and have lots of things to do, even though I am only teaching one course.

Inevitably, someone will ask to have a meeting with me during one of the times I have set aside for something else. That will be fine, though. Having this visualization of my ideal week will allow me to see what I need to move around in order to make time for a meeting.

If I need to have a one-on-one meeting, my first suggestion will be that the person come to my office hours. If that does not work, I have also set aside time on Thursday and Friday afternoons to meet. If neither of those times work, I will move things around. For example, if I need to meet on Tuesday afternoon, I will have to spend some time on Monday preparing for class. Or, if we meet on Friday at 11, I will have to get an early start on my writing and pack my lunch to take to the office. If the meeting is casual, I can suggest we meet for lunch any day of the week.

If I am asked to join a group meeting, I will suggest that the meeting happen on Thursday or Friday afternoon. My next preferred time will be a different afternoon. As usual, I will do my best not to schedule meetings during my writing time, as I know from experience that mornings are my most productive times for writing.

What about you? What will your ideal week look like? Do you find making this kind of schedule helpful?