Category Archives: Time Management

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!

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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.

Reasons For Starting A PhD

The other day I overheard someone say that he was planning to start a PhD because he thought he’d ‘make a good academic’. Fair enough, I suppose. There are any number of reasons why you might be thinking of (or already) pursuing a PhD, and when I overheard this particular comment I didn’t give it much thought. However, reasons why – or why not – to pursue a PhD became a recurrent theme last week, so I decided it was probably a topic worth writing about.

Good reasons for embarking on this particular brand of marathon could include:

  • You are passionate about your subject area
  • You love research
  • You love writing
  • You are looking for a new challenge
  • You are passionate about your subject area
  • You want to try your hand at fieldwork
  • You want to try your hand at teaching
  • You want to research and write a book

There are, no doubt, many others. But if you’re in the social sciences or humanities, ‘getting a job’ (or, indeed, that you think you might make a good academic) is not one of them.* It’s a bitter pill to swallow. But there it is just the same.

I don’t have any hard data on this, but the circumstantial evidence seems to strongly suggest that universities are producing far more PhD graduates than academic jobs. Meanwhile, tenure track positions are going the way of the British hedgehog: they’re still out there but fewer and farther between. You don’t have to take my word for it. These two articles about the plight of junior academics landed on my desk just this past week:

Meet your new professor: Transient, poorly paid

Thesis Hatement: Getting a literature PhD will turn you into an emotional trainwreck, not a professor 

If you are still determined to have a go at carving out an academic career, there are some things that you can do to improve your chances of landing that first adjunct or postdoc position.

First, seek out early career academics in your field and ask them about their strategy for landing a job. They almost certainly got lucky somewhere along the way, but at least some of that luck will have been the product of a lot of hard work. Also ask them about what they do in a typical week, and how that relates to their career-building strategy. The answers may surprise you.

Second, start taking on additional academic responsibilities. In addition to chipping away at your thesis research, a full time job in itself, consider:

  • Teaching undergraduate courses
  • Giving guest lectures
  • Enrolling in teaching training courses
  • Working as a research assistant
  • Helping senior academics with grant writing and development
  • Presenting at major international conferences
  • Organizing a regional or post-graduate conference
  • Enrolling in advanced methodology or analytical software courses
  • Serving on School or Departmental committees
  • Developing your ideas for your next research project
  • Publishing journal articles

All of these opportunities exist, and pursuing them shows that you are serious about an academic career. Being able to list these accomplishments on your CV will also set you apart from other applicants who focused solely on their thesis for the past however-many years.

That said, gaining this experience will require that you take a risk in putting yourself out there. Not all of your conference abstracts or journal articles will be accepted. Many of the opportunities listed above aren’t advertised, and securing them will require knocking on (perhaps more than) a few doors. Time management skills are also critical. None of this ‘extra’ experience will help you in your quest for an academic job if you don’t actually finish your PhD.

The road to full employment is no less precarious for social science and humanities PhDs looking for work in the private sector. And there is even less advice available. A good place to start, though, is So What Are You Going To Do With That: Finding careers outside academia by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius. Also try finding a mentor outside of the academic bubble who can help you construct a resume that hiring managers might actually read.

There are plenty of good reasons for starting – and finishing – a PhD. Top among them, that we are creative, determined, hard-working, curious people who love research and are passionate about what we do. On one hand a PhD is a remarkable achievement, and on the other it is just another degree. Your PhD probably won’t land you a job. But there are other reasons to still pursue it.

*NOTE: This post primarily applies to people who will be looking for academic jobs in the United States and Europe. My experience of tertiary education systems in other parts of the world is severely limited, but I have heard that there are indeed places where the sector is growing. Your prospects might be better, for instance, if you’re willing to move to Asia.

 

Making up for Lost Time: Some thoughts on working from home

It has been a while since my last post. The Christmas holidays soon gave way to January; February came and went in a blur; and here we are. Time flies – whether you’re having fun or not. (And particularly when you’re coming up against a deadline, whether for your PhD or a journal publication.)

I also made the decision that I wouldn’t post merely for the sake of posting. There is far too much nonsense populating the internet already without me adding to it. For the past several weeks I haven’t felt like I had anything worthwhile to say.

…And then Marissa Mayer (the CEO of Yahoo) announced that Yahoo employees would no longer be allowed to work from home.

For many PhD students, working from home is not so much a choice as an inevitability. When I was completing my PhD, office space was at a premium. Those with teaching responsibilities had priority, but with three of us sharing a tiny room containing two desks, the only time I set foot in that cubbyhole was during my office hour. I could be wrong, but I suspect that my experience was not all that unusual. I had a friend at a different university who even held her office hour in a coffee shop.

So, given that many of us work from home – for lack of an office or otherwise – how can we make sure that we work from home effectively?

The decision at Yahoo has prompted a fair bit of discussion on this topic. The Guardian, for instance, recently posted 5 “Golden Rules” of working from home. I found two of these particularly relevant to my experience of writing a PhD thesis from home.

The first golden rule is to “make a sacred space.” Even if you aren’t going in to the office every day, it is still a good idea to have a dedicated workspace. Easier said than done, you might be thinking. Few PhD candidates that I’ve known have had a spare room that could be converted into a home office. Odds are, you’re probably living in a shared house or, like me, in a studio apartment. Even in cramped conditions, it is still possible to carve out a little corner for your regular workspace.

The other option is to adopt a coffee shop. I wrote my entire Masters dissertation and the better part of my PhD thesis at Starbucks. I would aim to be there by 9:30am and would often stay until 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Whenever possible, I would sit in the same spot. Whether at home or in a coffee shop or someplace else, your sacred workspace should be somewhere that you actually like to be. You’re unlikely to be at your most productive in an environment that you hate (like my 3 person, 2 desk cubbyhole of an office). I’ve yet to find a coffee shop in Brisbane where I can work as effectively as I did in York. Now when I work from home, my sacred space is my kitchen table.

The second golden rule is to “go on a digital diet.” For many of us, checking our email (or facebook or twitter) has become a compulsion. The internet can be particularly seductive when you’re meant to be writing a thesis chapter. Pausing to check a reference on the electronic library catalogue is the first step down the slippery slope to online procrastination.

The Guardian rules suggest rationing your time spent online, using an internet blocker if necessary. I’ve found that it is best if I get up and start writing as soon as possible. If I can get from the bedroom to the kitchen table without doing anything other than brushing my teeth and making a cup of coffee, it will be a good writing day. By contrast, if I check my email first thing in the morning (which, coincidentally, generally happens on days that I’m in the office), I almost inevitably end up succumbing to the various other demands on my time and am lucky if I get any writing done at all.

As in all things, moderation is key. And, for me, the key to cutting down on digital distractions is to implement a working-from-home routine that cuts out those distractions altogether for at least four hours. If I need to check an obscure reference or follow up on a particularly relevant journal article, I make a note of it and do all of my checking in the afternoon.

We all work differently – the main thing is to get the work done. As a PhD candidate, you have the luxury of setting your own hours and maintaining your own schedule, but you should still be putting in full days. Establishing some rules of working from home for yourself can make the difference between a drafted thesis chapter and a whole lot of lost time.

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.