Making the most of your Postdoc

With just days remaining of my Postdoc, I thought it would be worth reflecting on what I’ve learned from this experience over the past two years. Let me preface this post by saying that, like all PhDs, all Postdocs are different. My experience is just that, a single experience. But I’ve learned a few lessons along the way that, in retrospect, I wish I could have known in advance.

Postdoctoral fellowships are shrouded in mystery in much the same way as a PhD. In both cases, I had only a vague notion of what these commitments would entail before I got started. When the opportunities arose, I jumped at them. After all, who doesn’t want a Postdoc, right? I only found out what my Postdoc would really entail once I was already in the midst of it.

Sink or swim…

Tip #1: Find a good mentor. Look far and wide if you have to. Some people get lucky and find a mentor either in their PhD supervisor or their professional supervisor in the department hosting their Postdoc. If that’s you, fantastic. If that’s not you, don’t panic. There are various ways that you can go about finding a mentor. A good way to begin is by reading the profiles of faculty members at your host institution, looking out for people with similar interests to your own or who have built the sort of career you aspire to. I have found that well-established academics nearing the end of their careers and Emeritus Professors are generally more interested in fostering the development of young academics than mid-career colleagues who are (understandably) preoccupied with keeping their own careers on track.

Conferences and training courses also offer opportunities for meeting potential mentors, particularly practitioners working in your field. These people might not be able to coach you on the ins and outs of building an impressive academic profile, but they can provide invaluable advice on broader issues of professional development. A mentor working outside of the university sector can also offer an alternative perspective to counter the advice you receive from within the academy.

Tip #2: Write a book. Seriously. While I was on the lookout for a mentor from day one (and found two), I left the book project far too late. When I started my Postdoc, I vaguely knew that some people turned their PhD theses into books. But, to be absolutely frank, I wasn’t terribly interested in spending another year or more with a 300-page document that I thought I had just finished. I got caught up in the excitement of planning my next research project, put my thesis on a dusty shelf, and concentrated on journal publications. And then, after about 18 months, I learned that it is fairly standard practice to use a Postdoc to write a book. When I paused to assess my surroundings, I realized that approximately half of my Postdoc friends either have books already in print or complete manuscripts under review. Great.

Six months later, I have a book in the works myself; but writing it will carry over into my new, non-academic life. “Why bother?” you might be asking. The answer is simple: in this uncertain job market I want to keep my options open. I am moving from one contract position to another, and will be looking for my next job in two year’s time. If potential employers will be expecting to see a book on my CV alongside my Postdoc, I want to make sure I’m covered.

Tip #3: Find ways to achieve balance. This is a cutthroat business we’re in. If you think managing a PhD can be overwhelming, hold on tight because you haven’t experienced anything yet. Publication records, citation scores, speaking engagements, teaching assessments, records of professional service – all of these things will be quantified to determine your professional worth. Without a strategy for maintaining some semblance of balance, it is easy to become overwhelmed. The best advice I’ve come across for pursuing balance as a junior academic comes from Radhika Nagpal’s article The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life. While it is worth reading all seven of her strategies, I found strategies 4 (work fixed hours and in fixed amounts) and 5 (try to be the best whole person you can) particularly insightful. And encouraging.

Good luck!

Writer’s Block

There are few things more terrifying than a blank word document. Especially when you’re meant to be working on a 100,000 word thesis or, in my case, a 70,000 word book manuscript. Faced with the blank page, where do you even start?

For the past several weeks, I’ve been stuck in a rut. Overwhelmed by the scope of the task ahead, I’ve done everything short of actually writing my chapters. I have, for instance, meticulously organized the various notes and incomplete ideas that have accumulated on scraps of paper over the past five or so years. I have also read until – gasp! – there’s nothing left on my to-read-for-the-book pile. I’ve even made attempts at writing, though these half-hearted false starts have either been deleted (if typed) or crumpled up into a ball (if hand written) in abject frustration.

And then yesterday I remembered a piece of advice offered by Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird: set yourself short assignments. For many of us, the simultaneous need to write and seeming inability to do so can induce a host of panic induced psychoses. But focusing on the enormity of the task is, Anne advises, “like trying to scale a glacier. It’s hard to get your footing, and your fingertips get all red and frozen and torn up.” Instead, she suggests focusing only on what you could see through a 1-inch picture frame, honing in on a 1-inch piece of the story (or argument, as the case may be).

So instead of stressing about my book manuscript, I’ve set myself a new challenge of 1-inch proportions:

  • Write 1000 words a day (for 30 days).
  • Those 1000 words can be about anything topical to the book.
  • I’m not bound to write sections in any particular order.
  • I am allowed to use my now meticulously organized notes.
  • Write exclusively in OmmWriter.*

We’ll see how it goes… The best case scenario is that after 30 days I will have approximately half of a draft manuscript. At which point, filling in the gaps isn’t such a scary proposition. Trying to stay positive one day in, I’m choosing to ignore the worst case scenario. For today, I just have to finish one short assignment.

* I have (repeatedly) tried and failed to enforce self-disciplined writing using both Word and an old fashioned notepad. Unlike these traditional writing platforms, however, OmmWriter does not confront you with a blank document or tempt you into distraction with formatting options.

Book Review: The Myth of Research-Based Policy & Practice

I recently reviewed The Myth of Research-Based Policy & Practice for SAGE Methodspace. While this book will be of limited relevance to many PhD students, Chapter 6 provides a useful discussion of quality as it pertains to qualitative research practice that may be helpful to those of you coming to terms with your own epistemological and paradigmatic leanings.

Hammersley, M. (2013). The Myth of Research-Based Policy & Practice. London: SAGE.

First, a confession: I was drawn in by the catchy title. Working broadly in the area of international development, I frequently encounter appeals for research that can inform policy (e.g. situation analyses, monitoring & evaluation, impact assessments). As an early career researcher, I also feel intense pressure from within the university sector to demonstrate either that my research is ripe for commercialization or that it has a social impact (i.e. that it can influence decision makers). So when the title of this book promised to expose research-based policy/practice as a myth, it immediately caught my attention.

I am also quite interested in the politics of evidence. Who determines what counts as evidence? And by what standards? These questions are inherently political, snarled in complex webs of power and influence so pervasive they are often easily overlooked.  So if we accept (at least initially) the premise that research can (or should?) inform policy/practice, we need to carefully consider the standard of evidence required by policymakers and practitioners, as well as what this then means for our own research practice.

The Myth of Research-Based Policy and Practice has two stated objectives: first, to broadly consider ‘what counts as knowledge’ and then to expose ‘the limits of what counts as knowledge in evidence-based policymaking’ (p. 1). The book goes some way toward achieving both. The Introduction provides a useful overview of the history of evidence-based/informed policy, charting its path from medicine to education and other policy areas encompassed by the social sciences. This historical background is significant in that it clearly illustrates how randomized controlled trials (which provide a particular type of evidence suitable for answering certain types of questions in a medical context) became the gold standard for research-based evidence across a broad spectrum of social policy areas. This ‘positivist conception’ of the social sciences, moreover, has little time for socially grounded or ‘critical’ research that adheres to alternative epistemological and paradigmatic positions. And therein lies the problem. As Hammersley notes, “…a grand conception of research is widely shared among social scientists: it is often assumed that the knowledge they produce can generate conclusions that should replace or correct the practical knowledge of actors, and that this will bring about substantial improvement in the world” (p. 9). But all evidence is not created equal. And, as the author points out, practical knowledge also has a role to play in informed decision making.

With this in mind, I found Chapters 2 through 4 (which address the issues raised above in more detail) particularly interesting and well developed. Living in our own epistemological bubbles, we rarely pause to consider – let alone critically question – the nature of evidence. Hammersley urges us to take these questions seriously, further differentiating between evidence and expertise. While it could be debated whether or not the author convincingly demonstrates that evidence-based policymaking/practice is a myth, he certainly exposes the limitations of evidence produced by social science research in this context.

The book has been written so that each chapter can stand on its own and be read independently; this is both a strength and a weakness. While there are some advantages to this format (and I know that more publishers are moving in this direction), the book as a whole seems somehow less than the sum of its parts. At Chapter 7, it takes an abrupt turn; shifting focus from the theoretical and philosophical issues that underpin research and ‘evidence’ toward, first, action research as a particular research practice, and then different approaches to reviewing literature. As systematic reviews constitute one element of the ‘gold standard’, I can understand why the topic of literature reviews is relevant; however, I am not convinced that dedicating a full third of the book to literature reviews is justified. The lack of a concluding chapter means that the book comes to an abrupt stop, without tying off the various threads to the argument.

In sum, I suspect that this book will appeal to scholars frustrated by growing demands that their work produce particular sorts of outcomes, and those interested in phronetic social science. Chapter 6, The question of quality in qualitative research, might also be of interest to PhD students as they discover their own epistemological and paradigmatic leanings. It is a book worth dipping in and out of (particularly the early chapters), which I suspect may have been its aim all along.

Re-thinking the Conference Presentation

Conference season is now upon us. Travel. Networking. One dull, poorly-constructed, over-time PowerPoint presentation after another.

I suspect that less than a quarter of the presentations I attended last week at a major, international conference remained within the allotted amount of time. 10 minutes is, quite simply, not long enough  to fully (or even briefly!) discuss research questions, theory, methodology and results. The almost inevitable outcome, it seems, is a sequence of PowerPoint slides full of text too small to read, and that distract the audience rather than enhance the presentation.

I have no idea where the standard conference presentation format came from. If a 10-15 minute presentation followed by 5 minutes of questions pre-dates the invention and widespread adoption of PowerPoint or rose to dominance alongside it. Regardless of how or when this tradition developed, the fact of the matter remains that it is ineffective.

As PhD candidates (and early career researchers), we’re hardly in a position to overhaul the academic conference system. I think that we can, however, adopt innovative approaches to presenting our work that might eventually and collectively shift expectations for what a good conference presentation should be. Rather than conform to the status quo, we can choose to focus in on one aspect of our research (research questions, theory, methodology or results) in our presentations, and remind the audience that the other dimensions of the project are discussed in the accompanying paper. More focused presentations will require fewer slides, less text.

More focused presentations might also lend themselves to a diverse range of presentation tools. Why not illustrate your main points with images (photos, icons, clip art, drawings, diagrams, graphs, etc.). Your presentation then becomes an explanation of the graphics rather than oral repetition of projected text. Similarly, new presentation tools like Prezi are better able to visually demonstrate connections and relationships between complex ideas than linear ppt. slideshows. That said, learning to use these tools well takes time. An effective, memorable presentation is not created the night before.

Practice is also essential. Rehearsing is the only way of knowing how long your intended presentation will take. If reciting your notes takes 20 minutes in your hotel room, you’ve got more work to do. But better to find this out when you still have time to fix it than by being caught out on stage. It might seem like common sense, but I suspect that very few scholars actually bother to run through their conference presentations in advance.

Professional conferences provide excellent opportunities for networking. They also give you a chance to draw attention to the originality of your work as well as your promise as a young researcher. A bad PowerPoint presentation will only undermine your efforts to make a good first impression.

Self-discipline

A PhD is all consuming. Unlike other jobs that you can leave at the office, a PhD takes up residence in your head (and your living room). It goes home with you in the evening. It hangs around on the weekend. It even accompanies you on holiday (if you’re lucky enough to get one). Of the many PhD students I’ve known over the past 5 years, I have only encountered one who successfully maintained a 9-5, 40 hour work week.

So where does that leave the rest of us? Regardless of your work pattern, sometimes we all need a break. In fact, studies have shown that working more than 40 hours per week does not increase productivity in the long run. It can be incredibly difficult with 12 articles still to read and a draft chapter due next week, but you need to learn to discipline yourself and the PhD-monster lurking over your shoulder. I’m still learning, but am getting better.

One aspect of successful self-discipline is actually getting the work done; setting reasonable expectations and following them through. Several weeks ago, I set myself the goal of writing uninterrupted (no talking, checking email, searching the internet or fidgeting with my phone) for at least 30 minutes every day. It turns out that even this modest task is easier said than done. So I bought a kitchen timer – a hot pink one that sits on my desk and reminds me of my writing obligation. Once I set the timer, writing becomes my sole occupation until the ticking stops and the bell signals that I’m allowed to stop. I’m not suggesting that you run out and buy your own kitchen timer, just that you think about how you might manage your working time more effectively and in ways that enhance your productivity without requiring that you enslave yourself to your PhD.

My second tip for successful self-discipline is little rewards. Once you’ve accomplished whatever it was you set out to do, allow yourself a treat. Take a short break, go for a walk or, better still, bake some brownies!

Delicious Fudge Brownies

(Adapted from ‘On Delicious Fudge Brownies’ in The Pirates! In an Adventure with Communists, by Gideon Defoe)

  • 200g dark chocolate
  • 210g butter
  • 40g vegetable oil
  • 5 eggs
  • 400g sugar
  • 50g honey
  • ½ tsp vanilla
  • 125g flour
  • 50g cocoa powder
  • ½ tsp sea salt
  • chopped nuts (optional)

Melt chocolate and butter together in a pan over low heat. Remove from heat and stir in remaining ingredients. Pour into a baking pan lined with parchment paper and bake for approximately 30 minutes or until the centre is set. Leave to cool on a wire rack before cutting.