Category Archives: Publishing

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.

It’s ok to fail

In his book A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson tells the harrowing story of Guillaume le Gentil:

Le Gentil set off from France a year ahead of time to observe the transit [of Venus] from India, but various setbacks left him still at sea on the day of the transit – just about the worst place to be since steady measurements were impossible on pitching ships.

Undaunted, le Gentil continued on to India to await the next transit in 1769. With eight years to prepare, he erected a first-rate viewing station, tested and retested his instruments, and had everything in a state of perfect readiness. On the morning of the second transit, June 4, 1769, he awoke to a fine day, but just as Venus began its pass, a cloud slid in front of the Sun and remained there for almost exactly the duration of the transit: three hours, fourteen minutes, and seven seconds.

Stoically, le Gentil packed up his instruments and set off for the nearest port, but en route he contracted dysentery and was laid up for nearly a year. Still weakened, he finally made it onto a ship. It was nearly wrecked in a hurricane off the African coast. When at last he reached home, eleven and a half years after setting off, and having achieved nothing, he discovered that his relatives had had him declared dead in his absence and had enthusiastically plundered his estate.

This is what we’ve chosen as researchers: a life of failure and rejection. In all seriousness, though, research is a process of trial and error almost by definition. It is hard. We do not always succeed. And that’s ok.

If our hypotheses were always spot on, if our procedures always worked exactly as expected – if life was really that predictable – there wouldn’t be much point in conducting research at all. Thankfully for those of us who love research, there are still plenty of things that we don’t know and don’t understand that require investigation. That said, the arduous process of developing new knowledge is replete with surprises and setbacks.

Not knowing any more about le Gentil or his story than what’s written above, I would still question the assertion that he “achieved nothing.” He may not have achieved what he set out to, but that should not by default mean that the entire adventure was without merit. I suspect that the experience of spending eight years in a foreign culture mastering his instruments must have had some unanticipated (and perhaps undocumented) benefits. In my own case, arriving in the field only to find my methods unsuitable was a fortuitous fork in the road. A nightmare at the time, this wholly unexpected scenario presented an opportunity to change tack and experiment with visual methods. Five years later, visual methodology is at the core of my research agenda. It hasn’t been an easy journey, but it has certainly been an interesting one.

In some ways, I have also been incredibly lucky. Although my PhD fieldwork did not go at all according to plan, my essentially made-up method worked well enough that I was able to return home with sufficient data to successfully complete my thesis on schedule. Not everyone is so lucky. And I’m not so lucky all of the time. Sometimes despite doing everything right, our research still goes awry. A cloud passes in front of the sun. What then?

I don’t know when or how it started, but a culture has developed in academia that rewards ‘success!!’ at the expense of knowledge and understanding. We are under enormous pressure to get it right. Some, though not all, of this pressure comes from the need to publish (‘as much as possible!!’). Journals accept papers that present significant (i.e. positive) findings. Professor Keith Laws recently observed that:

This publication bias* is pervasive and systemic, afflicting researchers, reviewers and editors – all of whom seem symbiotically wed to journals pursuing greater impact from ever more glamorous or curious findings.

He goes on to say that the solution is not the creation of special journals that publish negative or null findings. (An idea I’ve personally heard discussed on more than one occasion.) Instead, Laws argues that we need to make room for these “unloved” findings in mainstream journals. True, this depends in part on the cooperation of reviewers and editors. It also depends on us; we supply the content.

About a year ago, I submitted a manuscript to a top methodology journal. The article details three attempts a photographic data collection, two of which were only moderately successful. The third attempt was undertaken in conditions that were far from ideal and was largely unsuccessful as a result. One reviewer picked up on this, questioning why I chose to proceed with the research. I responded truthfully that that’s the nature of my work. The article is now in press.

In a previous post, Monica voiced concern that university metrics encourage the mass-production of ‘plywood’ rather than oak- or mahogany-quality research. The expectation that our research will churn out positive results (within a 2-3 year timeframe) compounds the problem and changes the very nature of the endeavor. Sometimes your procedure won’t go to plan. Sometimes your results won’t be what you expected. Sometimes a cloud passes in front of the sun at exactly the wrong moment. That’s the harsh reality of research. And, it’s ok.

(And if we’re bold, we can even get it published: warts, failings and all.)

*I don’t think that psychology is so different from other social science disciplines.

Publishing from your thesis: 3 reasons to start now

We all know that publishing is part and parcel of being an academic.

As a PhD student, publishing can feel like one of those things you should be doing but that can easily be put off for another day (or year) while you concentrate on your thesis. From the outside, academic publishing can also seem very opaque. How on earth do you actually get started?! I’ve written about this elsewhere.

While you might be able to come up with any number of reasons to put off publishing, I’m going to suggest three reasons why you should start carving out publications from your thesis now.

Reason No. 1: By the time you finish your thesis, you won’t want to look at it anymore. At least not for a while. After spending four years slogging away on your thesis and thinking about little else besides your research topic, you’re going to want a break. You might only need a brief hiatus and feel compelled to revise your chapters into journal articles after a few months. Or, you might be completely fed up with your topic and move on to something new. Meanwhile, your thesis will sit idly by on a shelf, full of papers-that-might-have-been, collecting dust. The only way to make sure you don’t find yourself in this second scenario is to start publishing from your thesis before you have the option of setting it aside (i.e. while you’re still working on it).

Reason No. 2: It is possible to write chapters and papers in parallel. PhD students often worry that working on journal articles will distract them from finishing their theses. For some people this might be a reasonable concern, but I suspect that they are in a very (very) small minority. The content of your thesis chapters is also the content of your journal articles – you just need to package it differently. True, repackaging takes a bit of effort and a chunk of time. You should be well compensated, though, by peer review feedback that will improve not only your article, but your thesis as well. As an added bonus, you automatically avoid (at least in part) the dust-collection scenario described above.

Reason No. 3: A 2-year embargo isn’t as long as it seems. Many (most?) universities now require that you submit your thesis electronically so that it can be deposited in an online repository. The upside is that it makes your research widely – and freely – accessible without any extra work on your part. The downside is that it makes your research widely – and freely – available, which may deter reputable publishers. It is often possible to request an embargo that will delay the online publication of your thesis. I speak from experience, though, when I say that two years isn’t as long as you think it is. 23 months after submitting my thesis, I am finally ready to turn it into a book, have a proposal under review at a reputable publisher…and am trying to extend my embargo…

My point is that your opportunities to publish from your thesis after submission will almost certainly be limited. If not by lack of interest, than by lack of time. So, gather ye rosebudsseize the day, start publishing from your thesis now.

Here are a few resources that might help you get started:

  • Belcher, W.L. (2009). Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
  • Huff, A.S. (2009). Designing Research for Publication. Thousand Oaks: Sage
  • Johnson, N.F. (2011). Publishing from your PhD: Negotiating a Crowded Jungle. Farnham: Gower.


Thinking Beyond your PhD – What Next?

Not everyone who completes a PhD will go on to an academic or research career. But if this is a path you think you’d like to pursue, there are some things you can do to improve your chances of snagging that first, highly competitive early career researcher post.

Monica and I originally started this blog after submitting our PhDs because there were things we’d learned along the way that we wished we’d known earlier. As our readership has grown, I’ve started to realize that it can also be a platform for sharing resources (like the 1-pager on how to survive a PhD by David Gauntlett).

As an early career researcher myself, I feel like I’m still finding my way. I consider myself an ‘accidental academic’ and, as such, am in no place to give advice on how you might intentionally go about creating your academic career or securing your first post-PhD academic post. I do, however, occasionally come across resources that would probably have been quite useful had I known about them earlier.

With that in mind, I thought I’d flag the BiggerBrains website created by Elsevier. It is a veritable cache of career development resources (e.g. written guides, videos) for early career researchers. Topics covered include networking, publishing and finding funding. There are also some very practical insights on things like what to include on an academic CV and how to find a suitable mentor.

Writing a PhD can be all consuming, but there is life after your thesis. It’s never too early to start thinking about the future…