Being an Expert: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

Being an Expert
Congratulations! You are an expert. You may be extraordinarily modest or have some degree of impostor syndrome, but you are an expert whether you like it or not. There are few people with the perseverance, intelligence, work habits, and collective wisdom of all your teachers to have developed expertise in a specific area the way that you have. As you complete your Masters thesis and doctoral dissertation you have read every paper, all books, and contacted every expert in the field. There is nobody who knows more about your topic than you. Now that you are an expert, what are you going to do with this magical designation as expert?

As I am sure you have read, these are difficult time for the experts. There is a lot of talk about the death of expertise. The public clearly would prefer to accept comfortable untruths than face uncomfortable truths. Your expertise will be challenged repeatedly by your peers, colleagues, editors, and your family. You will be referred to as a “so-called” expert by those who disagree with you, are jealous of you, or are insecure in your presence. You will hear, “if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich.” Your family will remember every stupid thing you did as a child and remind you that you are not that smart. Moreover, discovering that the only people influenced by your research publications are other people who are experts and publish research can be frustrating and lead to existential crises.

Sometimes, your expertise is recognized and you will be invited to consult, testify, lecture, be interviewed, or appear on radio or television. This sounds exciting and flattering. However, there are times that this can be more frustrating and fruitless than trying to convince your beer swilling uncle that you should be called “Doctor.” The frustration arises because no one truly cares about the details of your expertise, but they care about how they can use your expertise as a commodity. Businesses may want to provide information to reassure stockholders. Lawyers may wish you to provide expert testimony that supports their side of the case. Television and radio may look for entertaining information. Everyone is looking for a way to use your expertise to their advantage and they get you to provide that expertise with the compelling combination of flattery and money.

There are multiple pitfalls. Expert creep is an issue. The chances are that your true expertise is quite limited in scope. Those using your expertise will frequently ask you to make statements or answer questions beyond the scope of your expertise. You have something like a halo effect in that they assume an expert in one area must be an expert in all related things. And our ego is such that we rarely can utter the words, “I do not know” without fear of losing your status as an expert. Selling your soul is another issue. There is an extremely prominent person in my field who makes significant money providing expert testimony to major corporations with a history of environmental pollution — and given my field of study, this is problematic. He keeps this part of his work private. The third major risk is attention seduction. This happens when you begin to crave the attention of interviewers and audiences at workshops. You prefer putting on a show and showing off your expertise to learning more and increasing your expertise. You may have been seduced by the attention if you prepared one-liners that will appear to be spontaneous, had a spray tan before an interview, and worry more about the audience reaction than the quality of the content that you deliver. When you engage in these three pitfalls you become simply a provider of a commodity. You are like any other salesman. There is nothing wrong with selling and promoting yourself, but to become little more than a salesman means that you have lost the special rarefied position as an expert. I would argue that the widely reported death of expertise is in large part the fault of experts experiencing the pitfalls of using their expertise as a commodity.

There are five ideas that can help you avoid pitfalls while sharing your expertise and spreading knowledge in ways that can be useful to others.

  • Negotiate terms carefully. Once you understand that most people want to commodify your expertise, then you need to understand exactly how it will be used. What deliverable information are they expecting from you? Often you must do your homework to understand exactly what information they are looking for. Once you understand the goals of the people who would like you to share your expertise, then you must be very comfortable saying no. This is difficult, because when people approach you to share your expertise it validates that your work is valuable. If there are potential pitfalls that you are not sure how to address, then you are better off declining the opportunity.
  • Define the scope of your expertise. Ensure that anyone who wants your expertise is extremely clear on exactly what you are expert in and what is beyond your expertise. Inevitably, there will be expertise creep where you are asked to provide information outside of the parameters of your expertise. This is where you need to have the discipline to swallow much of your ego and say, “I do not know.” Even if you may know the answer to their concern because it is adjacent to your expertise, it is still best to say, “That question is a bit outside of my area of expertise.”
  • Define loose terms. Nonexperts who wish to use your expertise frequently use non-scientific terms that are difficult to interpret for people with narrow subject expertise. For example, “What is the best method of using X?” These types of questions cannot be answered simply. Often, a true expert will say, “it depends.” Although true, that type of equivocation makes your expertise less useful and enhances the reputation that specific expertise may not be particularly useful for any important decision making or policy. The secret is to ask your interviewer or consultee to define the term “best.” A reasonable request for clarification would be, “by ‘best’ do you mean the largest effect size, greatest efficiency, cheapest, most acceptable to people implementing the ideas, most popular with parents? There are many ways to define best.” By putting the onus on the person using your expertise, you reduce the probability of speaking incorrectly, reduce equivocation and losing your expert power, and help your interviewer or consultee gain the exact information that they want.
  • Define science. Often there is a belief that your expertise is defined by having access to a fund of information that no one else does. This is only partially true. Usually an expert in any area has a firm understanding of the process by which information is learned. This confusion is part of the death of expertise. It is common for people using expertise to note that one study concludes X and another study concludes Y. Often people infer that science must be useless because two papers using scientific methods yield very different results. You may have to explain to people that science is an evolving process and results are functions of sampling, methods, procedures, analyses, and many other factors. There is a risk of being pedantic. However, there are a great many people who are surprised that science is a process and not a collection of facts to be discovered. Of course, there are multiple philosophies of science — but sometimes an explanation of why science can be so maddening to scientists and non-scientists can be helpful and provide information that is much needed.
  • Focus on process rather than results. The emphasis of any presentation should be on what you did, how you did it, why you did it, and how the information is important. Related to the previous point, science is a process. If you have managed to find some results that are flashy and exciting, then the next step is to de-emphasize that result and focus on the next project you will be undertaking. This seems counter-intuitive. Information about the process (even when it is something ugly such as the phrase “how the sausages are made”) provides inside information that many people appreciate and find valuable. Flashy and exciting results will speak for themselves, your real value and expertise is focusing on how you found those exciting and flashy results. This approach further defines science and minimizes the possibility of running into major pitfalls.

So congratulations on becoming an expert. Now it is time to develop the next phase, which is how to use your expertise for the benefit of others without running into pitfalls that can derail your reputation, your ability to share your expertise for the benefit of others, and your work in science.




The Value of Rest: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

Today is a holiday. And I will be working most of the day. Most academics probably are putting in either a full day or taking care of administrative odds and ends (or grading). Despite my apparent inability to use a holiday for its intended purpose, I wanted to write about the value of rest in being a productive academic.

Rest is an essential component of long-term productivity. Rest is considered by many academics to be a luxury. Rest is something that takes place after a deadline is met. But there is always another deadline coming that permanently pushes rest to the back burner. Rest is something that is done intermittently at best and almost always without a planful approach. Rest is too often something that only happens when an academic nearly passes out from physical or emotional exhaustion or illness. Even more problematic is that for highly ambitious academics; rest is considered something for the weak, unambitious, and mediocre. At some level, most academics realize that rest is a good thing in the abstract, but not something that needs to be made a priority. I would argue that rest is not just desirable to grab when you can, but is required for long-term productivity.

There are many forms and definitions of rest. I am making the case for serious downtime, where the world of academic thought (and that includes guilt for not working) is put aside so that the scholar has an opportunity to rest and recharge. Weightlifters have scheduled days off that are part of the program. Gym rats hate days off because of how much they enjoy their workouts. But over-training is a real problem that can lead to injuries, burnout, and long term setbacks. Rest prevents these issues. No offense to my serious weightlifting brothers and sisters, but picking things up and putting them down is not exactly a high cognitively loaded task — yet weightlifters have figured this out long ago and academics have not. If downtime is an important part of long-term productivity, then what does it mean and how can we do it?

The first element of effective rest is sleep. People require 6 ½ to 8 ½ hours of sleep every night. Sleeping less than 6 ½ hours reduces cognitive functioning, attention, physical recovery, weight management, emotional regulation, and a host of other factors critical for health and academic success. There is a minuscule percentage of the population who function effectively on 2 to 4 hours of sleep per night. Almost certainly that is not you. There are many people who believe they are among this small low sleep requirement population, but nearly all of these people are simply used to being constantly sleep deprived and believe that their sleep deprived state is normal (e.g., the current US President). Those people are impaired due to insufficient sleep. Historically, there are many figures who slept poorly or inconsistently, yet one of the few documented low sleep requirement figures was Margaret Thatcher. Low sleep requirement people are extremely rare. Nearly all of us cannot even begin to have a strong approach to rest unless we are getting at least 6 ½ hours of sleep. A good rule of thumb is that if you are in a situation that you can sleep, then you should sleep. Naps can be recharging and count toward for 6 ½ total hours of sleep, especially for those with problems sleeping at night. Sleep is a non-negotiable.

The notion of “work hard, play hard” is as common in academia as it is fatuous. Socializing academics to work ridiculously long hours followed by concentrated and intense travel vacations is common. As if you can make up for a highly intense work life with a highly intense vacation. Travel vacations are often not restful. If your vacation has a formal itinerary of places to see and things to do, then it is not a holiday from work and is not restful. You have simply exchanged one form of intense effort for another. The work hard, play hard mindset also leads to the idea in parenting that “quality time” where parent-child time is small, but focused on highly eventful and memorable activities. For some people this might work; but I am a fan of parenting via big fat massive hunks of quantity time. This works for both parenting and rest. Vacations, quality time, and special events are wonderful; but are a small part of a comprehensive resting program.

Most of us approach rest as an ad hoc period of non-activity that simply appears concurrently with our spare time. The trope of “you should be writing” colours how we think of rest. Many academics define rest as the period of procrastination, wasting time, avoiding work, or what we do when we are distracted from the things that are important (i.e., writing). Given that most academics eschew the idea of spare time because they believe they should be working every day and all day, the assumption is that spare time equals wasted time. This mindset detracts from the importance of an effective rest diet.

Rest is mindfully pursued downtime with the intent of recharging both physically and mentally. Rest means different things to different people. For some people, going to a party is part of the resting program and for others this adds stress. For me, rest does not include much of life outside of academia such as cooking, commuting, cleaning, managing finances, medical treatments, parenting, exercise, shopping, or being in a relationship. Rest is a balanced and organized program that includes sleep, vacations, socializing, and guilt-free laying about. The guilt-free component is most relevant for academics — we love self-flagellation for not working more than most professions. The nature and frequency of rest is determined by the individual and their specific needs.

Schedule your daily program of rest as carefully as you schedule your program of work. Critical elements of rest programs are that time is not used thinking about work, worrying, or experiencing guilt because you are not writing. Although I have a work schedule, if I have trouble thinking because of fatigue, stress, or need for a break; then there is no trouble or guilt in obtaining additional rest. I need it just like I need food. Rest means that you must turn work off for a while and do something that is recharging. I think I am a high-energy person, who genuinely enjoys long work hours. Even as I get older (I am now 54), sometimes I still believe that I do not need to rest or to take breaks. To quote Dilbert, “There is no kill switch on awesome.” Thus, I need to be disciplined in obtaining rest to prevent burn out and exhaustion, to recharge, and to keep my thinking fresh. Or else I tend to work until I drop — not healthy. Rest is engaging in simple preventative maintenance, even when I am not in the mood to rest. Any program of rest that works for you can be helpful for recharging, but be mindful and experimental in exactly what works best to recharge you. Below are the elements of my regular rest program:

  • daily
    • in bed between 10 and 11 PM
    • waking between 530 and 6 AM
    • 15 minutes breathing meditation after waking
    • 20 minutes for lunch (when I often play a videogame or work a crossword puzzle)
    • 60 minutes watching television (either sports or something really stupid)
    • 60 minutes reading non-academic books (latest reads, When Buddhists Attack and The Philosophical Writings of Niels Bohr, Vol 4 Causality and Complementarity)
    • 20 minutes of a meditative stretch (usually with Joyce)
  • vacation
    • at least 3 four-day weekend vacations through the summer
    • at least one seven-day vacation that involves some travel (not conference related)

Take care of yourself and get some rest. You and your work will thank you.






Training for the Productivity Load in Academia: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

Training for the Productivity Load in Academia: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

We usually think of the development of scholars from their undergraduate days to tenured professor as a journey of continuously increasing content specific knowledge, skills, and abilities. We also think of scholars evolving increasing independence from relying on experienced professionals to becoming supervisors and innovators. These are normal processes that are formally or informally supported through mentorship. However, the ability to cope with increasing demands of productivity may be one of the most important skills that scholars develop and is frequently one of the most ignored in supervision and mentorship.

This is not to say that undergraduate or graduate students do not work hard. My experience is that they work incredibly hard and ridiculously long hours to master their craft. Ultimately, undergraduate and graduate students do not produce as much new material as experienced professors. In addition, my experience is that older professors, with sufficient motivation, can produce more high quality new findings than a younger professor. With experience comes practice and expertise. I have concluded that I can produce much more quality writing and thinking with less stress than ever before. I figure that just about the time I have total mastery of the process, it will be time to retire.

As is typical of this blog, I have no data on this process and this is only my experience. But here are some mechanisms that new researchers can use to systematically train themselves for increased quantity, quality, and ease of producing original thinking and written products.

I am sure there are a lot of readers who do not accept my initial assumption that more experienced professors can write more than highly energetic and motivated postdocs or tenure track academics. Certainly, full professors have fewer monetary or career goals for producing a lot of work. As such, many, if not most, full professors begin to slow down in terms of their productivity on their own volition. For me, I have the feeling that I still have a lot to say and study, but not that many years left to produce. So my productivity is increasing each year and I am finding the increased productivity far easier than when I first started in academia. However, this does not happen by accident.

There are two variables that simply are a function of time in the profession. First, you become extremely knowledgeable of all the literature in the field through accumulation of reading. Students need to learn the literature of the field from the ground up, having to grow from seminal articles up to current studies. Advanced professionals have the theories and important research findings as part of their routine vocabulary. This makes identification of important research topics and questions easier. Second, is simply practice. The writing, revising, editing, publishing, and persistence of publishing papers is now second nature. Most of us have found relatively effective habits. Yet, waiting to get old is not a particularly good strategy for advancing quickly.

Training Analogy

The best analogy I can think of concerning gaining the ability to produce a lot are sports requiring long-term intensive training. Teenagers and young adults have incredible physical energy and strength. However, most of the best marathoners are older — in their late 20s up to 40 years of age. Powerlifters are often older than that. Even amateur marathoners and powerlifters find that they achieve their personal best times or weights at an advanced age for an athlete, most often in their late 30s to mid 40s. They have learned to overcome injury, setbacks, life events, and many other disruptions to advance and improve their performance with consistent and disciplined training. A lifetime accumulation of training and advancement is required to get to the highest levels of competition.

Goal setting. I tell my students that the most effective way to be productive is to be consistent and persistent in production. I tell them that their goals are to write 1000 words on research and publishable tasks and read 100 pages five days per week. Most of them cannot do it. There are distractions, class work, other professional responsibilities and tasks, personal life, mental energy, and other factors they keep new students from this reasonable production goal. No one can run a marathon or bench press 300 pounds on their first day of training. You need to set a training schedule that allows you to work toward goals.

Assessment and initial goals. The first challenge is to determine exactly what your levels of productivity are now. Keep track of exactly how many pages you read that advance your knowledge for purposes of research productivity and how many words are written in a week. Assess over a three-week period exactly how many words were written and how many pages read that are directly relevant to research and this serves as the baseline. I would argue in the initial stages that there should be relatively more reading than writing, because students often are at a deficit of knowledge in terms of full understanding of the literature. A reasonable baseline might be writing 100 words and reading 80 pages per day.

Consistency. Inconsistent performance is quite common. I have students who write zero words for two or three consecutive weeks and then write 8000 words over the next week. I would argue that this is an extremely stressful approach and that typically this inconsistent pattern is due to writing only when there are deadlines approaching. Smooth the work periods into short, consistent, and feasible daily work. Being consistent is the first step towards being disciplined and mindful. The best way to train for a marathon or powerlifting is to have a consistent training schedule with appropriate amounts of rest and recovery scheduled.

Discipline. Inspiration is perfectly fine, but the discipline of reading and writing habits is more effective for achieving your long-term objectives. Schedule writing periods and reading periods. I place 30 minute Pomodoro writing segments into my schedule. I check my schedule, see that there is a writing segment on the agenda, set the Pomodoro timer and go. Also, on my schedule is rest time. Turning your brain off, having fun, and spending time with other people is required to have a quality life, rest, and recover. My own experience is that when the non-academic parts of your life are ignored, large disruptions in your home and work life are sure to follow; just like overtraining can lead to injury and burnout in an athlete. Making long-term gains if you only work when there is a deadline or when you are in the mood is not possible. Over the long term, discipline with appropriate rest and recharging is superior to inspiration in terms of quality and quantity of work.

Improvement. To move forward from your baseline, consistency and discipline are necessary but not sufficient. A reasonable approach is to create a writing and reading diary such as that suggested in Paul Silvia’s fine book entitled, “How to Write a Lot.“ Divide the writing diary into one-week segments. The goal is to achieve your quota of words written and pages read for the week. The following week, the goal is simply to write more words and read more pages. Even if it is one more word and one more page, that is successfully advancing your goals. Nearly every week needs to be a personal best until the goals are achieved. Cumulative gains happen faster than you think if gains are pursued with consistency and discipline.

Advanced goals. In any form of training or long-term preparation, there will be setbacks, discipline will fail, and motivation will be hard to find. Falling into a rut is inevitable. The first thing to do is to make sure that you have had enough rest, energy and attention have been given to the non-academic parts of your life, and you have determined that the line of work you are pursuing is rewarding and exactly what you wish to do. Even if these things are addressed, ruts will occur. In the case of athletes, they often change up their training. So a marathon runner may train using swimming, jump rope, cycling, soccer, or spirited games of tag for a change. Powerlifters may engage in gymnastics, strongman activities, or kettle bell work. The purpose is to change things up and to have fun. If you have been disciplined, consistent, and improving for a long period using the same mechanisms, then you will find that any change is rewarding and fun. The key is to keep moving forward in a positive manner. For a scholar working on reading and writing productivity some excellent activities are to form a journal club, create writing circles, or engage in timed writing sprints. I am constantly in search of methods to improve my efficiency and quality of work. Currently, I use voice-to-text recognition and try different patterns of work. The voice-to-text recognition is something I will probably continue. I find that I can write much faster than typing. I also find that my fingers get sore quickly as I age–so there is an accommodation for the physical limitations of aging. I also found that I was in a bit of a rut with some of my thinking. Therefore, I am now in a heavy load period of production: I wanted to try eight weeks of producing 10,000 words per week. This is now week three: 9987 words for week one and 7985 words for week two. My plan is to reduce back down to 5000 words per week at the end of this heavy load period. Change things up and avoid the rut.


Effective writing cannot be reduced entirely to work count. Obsession with word count could lead to an unfortunate Jack Torrance situation. Writing is a proxy variable for prolific and creative thought. One cannot write a lot without reading a lot of background information, experimenting, collecting and analysing data, outlining and organizing thoughts, and having an approach to contributing to the knowledge base of your field. The written word is solely the visible part of the iceberg. By pushing reading and writing productivity, you are pushing thinking and experimenting.

Relentlessly seeking improved performance is a fundamental trait of high achievers in any field. Nearly everyone I know in academia is a high achiever. And nearly everyone I know gets stuck at one time or another. By keeping the goals of completing a marathon or achieving a personal best lift, training has a reinforcing goal at the end of the journey. Likewise, academics train for managing increasingly heavy productivity loads that will last throughout your career.

SR Shaw

Producing a lot of research (without sacrificing quality): how not to suck in graduate school

In January’s blog post, I put together a meditation on what it means to be a successful academic. I received a lot of positive feedback on that post. However, there were several people who like the idea of redefining success as an academic, but stated that the ideas presented did not reflect their reality. It is possible to be a productive scholar with a strong sense of perspectives and priorities. This month I will get into the weeds of detail and provide some basic information on the day-to-day activities of being an efficient and extremely productive academic.

With current pressures on publishing a lot of papers in refereed journals growing every year, as if academics are simply producing widgets, there is a need to provide survival tools for this environment. I am a pro-science academic. To me this means that scientific thought, data-driven decisions, theory testing and improvement, and consistently making advancements and contributions to the field are more important than producing more words in print. As an editor, the most common type of paper I see are extremely well-done and well-designed projects that make absolutely no contribution to the field. Well-designed minutia is still minutia. More seriously, the pressure to publish a lot of papers has resulted in intentional or unintentional plagiarism, p-hacking, slicing data sets into least publishable units, data falsification, lack of transparency, and a host of other issues that not only fail to make a contribution to science; but actively diminish the quality of scientific thought and communication.

Publishing a large amount of work in the most efficient way possible does not necessarily mean that scientific thought and communications must suffer. There are simple ways to increase the number of publications that one produces without working 90 hours a week or taking shortcuts that reduce quality. In terms of writing and manuscript production efficiency, there is no better book than Paul Silvia’s How to Write a Lot. No matter how busy you are, this book is a short and worthy read on efficiency and writing discipline. I use several ideas taken directly from Dr. Silvia’s work. But assuming you are writing at maximum efficiency, how does one produce a lot of publications without going crazy?

I read that the average millionaire has seven income sources. I am not sure that this is true, but the concept is an important one. If your productivity depends entirely on you and a couple of students designing, carrying out, analysing, and writing up one study at a time; then you are necessarily limited. No matter how efficient your team is, this is only one productivity stream. This might be enough. You may have one productivity stream that produces all of the publications that you need. But for maximum efficiency and productivity, I recommend nurturing and developing multiple simultaneous sources of productivity.

There are many ways to do this and I will just describe how I do it solely for purposes of illustration. The primary challenge is to create a team of students and colleagues with expectations of productivity. My overly simple idea is that my lab will produce 12 major projects (papers for refereed journals, grant proposals, book chapters, grant reports) in the calendar year and that each graduate student is expected to be a co-author on at least two manuscripts submitted for publication every academic year. Every field and university has their own norms. In my field and my university, this is a fairly reasonable number of projects and expectations. Given that, what are my productivity streams?

  • Solo work. My goal is to produce a minimum of one solo project every year. Usually this is a creative, theoretical, major literature review, or book project. For 2017 it is a book to be published by Springer publications. One big project per year is the only expectation here.
  • Student work. Students in my lab are strongly encouraged to develop side projects that are independent of or tangentially related to their thesis projects. These are typically small scale pilot projects or testing some detailed methodology or component of a theory. This year I have a couple of students who are extremely independent and have developed their own projects with absolutely no input from me other than some copy editing. They will be solo authors on those papers because I know it will improve the probability of them receiving fellowships, high prestige internships, or faculty positions. However, most side projects have 2 to 3 co-authors and are the result of teamwork. We expect two to four papers to come out of this work.
  • Thesis follow-up. Students do their best work on their masters and doctoral theses. Master’s theses are usually one project of the scope to be appropriate for article for publication. Sometimes data can be reanalysed to produce a second publication. We tend to write our doctoral theses as three or four related publishable manuscripts. As these manuscripts are completed, we send the best papers for publication even if it is prior to the defence of the doctoral thesis. We expect 4 to 6 papers to come out of this work.
  • Invited work. One of the nice parts about being old and hanging around my profession for a long time is that I am frequently invited to contribute articles to special issues of journals, book chapters, or other contributions to literature (this does not count predatory and/or open access invitations, which I always decline and insist that my students do the same). I accept about 75% of these offers. I would probably accept only about 25%, but many of them are great opportunities for my students to co-author relatively simple and high probability of publication papers. In general, the criteria I use for accepting these projects are: I can actually make a contribution, I believe strongly in the purpose of the book or special issue, my contribution helps or supports a friend, or it is a strong interest of one of my students. Honestly, I do not like writing book chapters, but there are times that it is worth doing. Another confession, sometimes I write contributions to books because I get a free copy of an extremely expensive book and am too cheap to buy it myself. We can expect 2 to 4 papers to come out of this work.
  • Collaborative work. Quite often I will have a colleague who wants to work with me for whatever reason. Usually, it is when a colleague has one half of a brilliant idea for a paper and knows that I have the skills to write the other half. Sometimes I initiate these activities when I have an idea that is not fully baked and know an expert to help me carry out the plan. Quite often this happens with a junior colleague who has brilliant ideas, but may lack the confidence or specific skills to carry out a complex manuscript. This usually happens about once a year.
  • Specialized contributions. It helps to be fairly well-known for some specific and valued skills. As such, I am frequently invited into projects that are not really of interest to me, but the principal investigator knows that I have a specific skill that they need. For me, my specific skills are the ability to implement innovations into school systems, program evaluation, professional development in psychology and education, and integrating medical issues with learning and schooling. So I am often asked to be on a grant proposal or to co-author a paper. The best part about this, is that my actual contribution is extremely limited. I may write two or three paragraphs in a manuscript and become a co-author, teach graduate students how to conduct a specific type of data analysis, be a liaison between a school system and a team of researchers, and work on connecting medical and educational professionals. I may be third or fourth author on a manuscript or parlay my coinvestigator status on a grant to provide a little bit of funding for some of my students, but these activities rarely take much time. I refer to these as “glomming on” to smart people. My name appears on 1 to 3 papers per year and usually one new grant per year while spending little time or energy.
  • Special issue editor (a great pre-tenure trick). My favourite pre-tenure trick is to edit a special issue of a journal. Some journals are designed so that it is actually easier and has a higher probability of success to propose a special volume than it is to have an unsolicited manuscript accepted. If you have several colleagues with expertise on a specific topic, then collecting 6 to 8 topics and abstracts for related papers to propose a special issue is a wonderful idea. Here is why this is an excellent trick for expanding your CV: you receive credit as an editor of a special issue, typically you can receive credit for two publications (a brief introduction paper to the special issue and one full content-based paper), the probability of acceptance of the paper and special issues is much higher than an unsolicited manuscript, your friends who have contributed to the special issue feel as if they owe you a favour, depending on the publication you may develop a reputation as a leading scholar on that specific topic, and sometimes special issues are so popular and so important that a publishing company will invite you to expand on the special issue to edit a book volume. I did three of these special issues pre-tenure and it was quite valuable for producing a lot of publications. I have no immediate plans to use this production stream in the near future, but I may put one together next year.

We hope that all of the papers are of high quality and have professional and scientific merit. These are good methods to keep multiple streams of productivity moving simultaneously. The challenge is to always to keep these streams focused on a consistent and coherent research program rather than scattered. You must be able to say no when the project does not meet your needs. It is also clear that some of these streams do not work for some fields of study. However, the logic remains and is useful for almost every field, have simultaneous multiple streams of productivity always moving in the same direction. In this fashion, we can meet the reality of efficiently producing a lot of high quality widgets for purposes of accountability, desirability for funding, and moving ahead in your career.




What Does It Mean to Be a Successful Academic? And How Not to Suck at Achieving It

What Does It Mean to Be a Successful Academic? And How Not to Suck at Achieving It

One of the most common conversations among junior faculty, postdocs, and graduate students revolves around the question, “What does it take to be a successful academic?” The most common follow-up question is, “Is the cost worth it?” We are inundated with stories and experiences involving wise and senior academics who speak of 80 to 90-hour work weeks, lack of a family, no hobbies, no social life, and 100% devotion to all things scientific and career as if this approach to life was required for any success in the academic world.

I was inspired by a tweet from one of my colleagues, Dr. J. D. Farrell-Campbell (@Campbell_JD_), who wrote in response to a conversation concerning expected work hours among academics with, “If this is the cost to publish in @nature or @sciencemagazine it is not worth it. @raulpacheco & @Shawpsych are both successful & have a life.” It is extraordinarily kind of Dr. Farrell Campbell to both include me in the company of Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega, and number me among successful academics. But thanks to Dr. Farrell-Campbell, I feel the need to create a meditation on success in academia.

I have written elsewhere in this blog that I may not be a typical academic because I have no real ambition and I simply enjoy the work. I actually learned only two years ago that the vast majority of awards won in academia are self-nominated — I had no idea that was an option. As someone who came to academia relatively late in life (my tenure track job started when I was 42-years-old after having a career as a psychologist for 16 years), I don’t have particularly good socialization as an academic and am used to a different professional culture. I’m just happy to have a job with no heavy lifting.

I do not understand discussions of academic success in general. There are so many roles and functions that an academic can fill that there appears to be little overlap. For example, the environments are dramatically different. Working at a community college (or CEGEP), liberal arts school, state school, R1 institution, or research institute all constitute being an academic, but have few skill sets in common. Roles and expectations also vary among fields of study. The skills required in philosophy, medical education, social work, drama, genetics, and many others are widely different; as are the criteria used to measure success. Research output is a widely agreed upon metric for success. But even within the same university and the same field of study, some academics are successful for being leaders in university governance, outstanding teachers and mentors, involvement in student life, consultation and business partnerships, university-community partnership, and many other measures of success. There are so many metrics for measuring academic success that I am not really sure how success is defined.

There is also an individual perception of success. I am always surprised by how many people are driven to achieve by anger, ego, money, making one’s parents proud, to prove to others that they are not a failure, and other external factors. Most fields even have rankings of the most influential or most productive scholars in each specific field. Convoluted metrics of journal impact are used to quantify and rank scholars. It makes me giggle a little bit that some scholars are competing to be tops in the field of creating new journal impact factors and ranking other scholars (that should be called meta-scholarly studies, if it isn’t already). Different people have different needs for objective success in their field.

When I left clinical work to try academia, my close friend, former partner, and respected colleague berated me for over one hour for abandoning children who need me so that I could write papers for the judgment and entertainment of other people who write papers. That hit a little close to home and hurt, but was a valuable perspective. I have a fairly simple view of success as an academic that revolves around two criteria: I want my students to meet their professional goals and for everyone else to leave me alone. Honestly, there are no publications in Nature or Science, no awards, and no other status that are as productive and valuable as making small contributions and supporting the success of students. A lot of people do not believe me on that one (yes, I acknowledge that this is part of the privilege of tenure), but it is true. And I want to publish enough papers that make contributions to my field, have enough grant money, and have enough academic accomplishments so that I do not become an embarrassment to the department and require the attention of the department chair. I know that I have an h-index, but I do not know what it is and I do not know how many refereed publications I have written. I want to study what I want and with whom I want. Ultimately, the goal is to indirectly influence future professionals and improve the outcomes for many more children than I could ever help by myself. That is success as an academic for me.

There is the second part of the equation. Is it worth it? Do I actually have a life? I work fairly long hours, but I don’t keep track because that would probably be a little bit depressing. About 50-60 hours per week, I guess. I come home every night to cook dinner for my family (my wife doesn’t cook). I am still married after 25 years. My children still seem to like me and we have conversations every day. My dog is probably little bit undertrained and I do not socialize much, but have good friends. I have simple hobbies of training judo three hours per week along with my younger daughter and I go to the gym three days per week. So that’s enough for me.

Many thanks to Dr. J. D. Farrell-Campbell for considering me a successful academic with a life. By objective measures, I am a fairly mediocre academic and I am okay with that. Yet, I believe that I am successful and the work is worth it to me; but only for my context, specific definition of success, and desired quality of life.






Trying Not to Suck: New Year’s Edition 2017

About a year ago I wrote a blog post about how to function one life seems to be falling apart. I mentioned that my wife had been diagnosed with cancer. After 13 months, we are finally finished with all of the treatments. Everything looks good for her continued health. There are never guarantees, but all news has been positive. In addition, she is back to exercising and regaining her strength. She is a pretty incredible person. We are both ready to resume our family life and career. Many thanks to so many of you who have been supportive and helpful over the last year.

In addition to fewer stressors and medical appointments, I am also ending my term as a journal editor at the end of 2016 and my term as program director ends on June 1, 2017; so I will have far fewer time and energy demands to interfere with achieving outcomes.

So let’s move forward in the tradition of creating New Year’s resolutions:

  • I have a few personal goals for the year
    • 2016 was an excellent year for going to the gym. I went to the gym for full workouts nearly 4 days per week on average. I also had weekly judo training. These were great therapies when I was stressed. I want to continue this pace of exercise.
    • For 2017 judo training will increase to twice per week
    • The big change this year will be in the kitchen. I need to take the discipline that I use for getting to the gym and apply that to eating. I have become extremely muscular, but have too much weight for somebody of my age and it is time to get lean.
  • The theme of this year’s work is making personal connections and professional trouble
    • I was too busy and stressed to be a good supervisor this year. I barely know my students. I want to improve the relationships with the students under my supervision.
    • I would like to improve partnerships and co-authored projects with colleagues from around the world.
    • I will be working toward creating a stronger professional identity for Canadian school psychologists
    • I would like to disrupt the methods and assumptions currently used in clinical research in all fields. We are now ready to make trouble by publishing work on a new model that enhances evidence-based practices, addresses research problems in psychology, improves implementation, and advances theory in productive directions. Yup, it is a pretty cool idea and you are just gonna have to wait for it.

Goals are not useful without measurables and timelines.

  1. Finish book contract with Springer publishing by delivering the finished product by March 31.
  2. Submit one major project (manuscript for refereed journal or grant proposal) per month for the 2017 calendar year. All of these projects are to be co-authored with students or colleagues.
  3. Monthly lab happy hours for the 2017 calendar year.
  4. Submit new book series proposal by June 1.
  5. Reduce by 4 pounds per month.
  6. Take my wife on two vacations this year.

I also wish health, wisdom, compassion, justice, and friendship to you all.

SR Shaw

Scholarly Journal Participation: How Much and How Not to Suck at it?

Professional scholarly journals have become a source of controversy in the academic world. There are a host of issues concerning the appropriateness and quality of peer review, decision-making in publishing, exorbitant profit margins by publishing companies, exploitation of free labor, varying metrics of the status and importance of each journal, and endless efforts to quantify contributions to research. Many scholars believe that scholarly journals are no longer an effective method of disseminating research findings. All of these are legitimate concerns, but until we have an adequate replacement, scholarly journals will continue to be the primary method for dissemination for research to international audiences. Publications in scholarly journals will continue to be the currency by which funding, promotion, tenure, and status are granted. All scholars need to decide for themselves exactly how much and how to participate in supporting and maintaining scholarly journals.

I am just finishing a seven-year editorship of a journal, am an associate editor of a second journal, and am on the editorial review board of seven international journals. I try to be mindful about the tasks I accept, decline, and how this work assists me in meeting my scholarly and professional goals. I spend too much time thinking about the process and value of reviewing, editing, and supporting scholarly journals. Here are some of my musings about the topic.


Participating in the editorial process for scholarly journals is a leadership activity. There has to be a mastery of a breath of methodologies, theory, and understanding of the purpose of the specific scholarly journal in order to provide this level of leadership. As such, the skills need to be developed over time.

As a graduate student and post-doc there is rapid development in the understanding and application of research methods, learning about the publication process from an author perspective, and establishing a reputation in the field. Hopefully, PIs allow students to receive supervised experience in writing reviews of submitted manuscripts. Often PIs simply delegate their reviewing activities to students and often without credit. This scenario seems to have crossed the fine line between a productive learning activity and exploiting labour. Allowing students to assist the writing of manuscript reviews with increasing levels of autonomy is a helpful activity. Eventually, the PI contacts the editor in order to give credit for the work of the graduate student in preparing the manuscript review. Some journals go so far as to have student editorial boards in which the editor provides mentorship in the preparation of reviews. These are exciting opportunities for students to begin to understand the opaque and insider nature of the publication and scholarly journal production process.

As an assistant professor there is also a learning curve in determining how to spend your time and shape your career. No matter how well prepared you are for a tenure-track position, learning the expectations and culture of your new department takes time. There are many departments in which contributions to scholarly journals earn no credit and are not valued professionally. In other departments, reviewing papers and contributing to the editorial process of scholarly journals is considered a fundamental component of your job and a professional expectation. Many assistant professors obsess on how they should be spending their time. If reviewing papers and contributing to the editorial process is a valued part of your department culture, then find the time to review papers. Investigate journals to determine the norms for expected turnaround times for articles and how many articles you will receive for review per year. Being invited to serve on an editorial review board is an outstanding recognition of your professional status, but your decision on whether to accept the position depends largely on the details and expectations of that role.

As a tenured professor your contributions to science have changed. You are now an established leader, who helps to set the tone and agenda for your field of study. Reviewing manuscripts and contributing to the editorial direction of scholarly journals is now something that you are well qualified to do. The biggest risks for tenured professors is that often reviews and editorial decisions reflect protection of status quo, maintenance of the same voices within the field, and reifying the same assumptions that you have made in your own research. Keeping an open mind and welcoming new voices into the field is one of the challenges for experienced professors in the editorial process.

Review as Scholarship

Reviewing articles for professional journals is a form of scholarship. At the very least, reviewing new papers allows you to keep up on the latest issues and research that are involved in your field. I have read on Twitter that some scholars have as their goal to read one scholarly paper per day. As an editor and frequent reviewer, plus the work that I read in my own field of study, I have read 512 papers in 2016 (94 as editor, 12 as associate editor, 31 as reviewer, and the remainder to keep up on my own research). This is somewhat less than my productivity mantra of reading 100 pages and writing 1000 words per day. But serving as a reviewer enhances the depth and breadth of my professional reading.

Reviewing articles and making editorial decisions also is a contribution to your field of study. Most reviews focus entirely on the rigour and scholarship of submitted articles. If methodology is sound and internal consistency of the logic of the paper is adequate, then many papers are recommended for publication. To a large degree this is because methodology is something on which many reviewers can agree and for which there is a standard. A more important decision-making criterion is whether the article makes a significant contribution or advancement to that field of research. Because rigour is often valued more than contribution; many journals are filled with papers that are extremely well done, but are mostly minutia and of minimal importance to the profession. The appropriate use of post hoc tests is necessary for an effective evaluation of a paper, but whether that paper makes substantial theoretical, clinical, methodological, or instructional contributions are even more important criteria.

As an editor, there are three things that I value in a reviewer manuscript evaluation: timeliness, the mindset of assisting authors to make the manuscript and their overall work better, and accountability. Timeliness is obvious. About 55% of reviews for my journal were received past the deadline date. This is not only inconvenient for authors, but reflects poorly on the quality of the journal overall. The sooner the better. Rather than the mindset of a reviewer rejecting a paper because it is inadequate, a better approach is to provide information that will help authors improve the paper. Some articles have fatal flaws. In those cases, make suggestions as to how these papers can be redesigned to become effective communicators of important scholarly contributions to the field. This takes time, but it is part of the article review-as-scholarship approach. As editor, I frequently gave comments to reviewers on the quality of their review. Not simply the scholarship, but also the tone. Reviewers are instructed to be constructive and rigorous. As a reviewer, one method to increase accountability is that I always place my name on the bottom of reviews for the authors to view. There is no reason to be anonymous and I should be accountable for all of my scholarship, including manuscript evaluations. Some editors remove my name from the reviews in order to be consistent with the double-blind review procedure of the journal, but reviewers are accountable to the editors and to the authors. If reviewers cannot meet the criteria of review-as-scholarship and address timeliness, assist authors, and accountability, then it is not a problem to decline the review. However, if you must decline the review, then decline as quickly as possible so that another reviewer can be solicited for the evaluation.


Should you be an associate editor or editor of a journal? Requirements of your time range widely from 5 to 20 hours per week as an editor of the Journal. This is a major cost. My criteria for whether to accept such costs are: Do I have the time to meet the duties of editor? Would editing this journal be consistent with my goals for professional leadership? And can I make a contribution to the editorial direction of the journal beyond serving as a caretaker and administrator? Journal editorship is a manifestation of professional leadership and assisting to develop a research direction for your field. There is an awesome responsibility to this task. My recommendation is that becoming an associate editor is ideal for a beginning associate professor (with tenure) establishing leadership in the profession. This position allows you to get a taste of what being an editor in chief looks like. Becoming an editor is an excellent task for an associate professor, who is preparing to advance to full professor, or a full professor.


Whatever one thinks about scholarly journals and the future of scholarly journals, the emphasis is on academics to ensure that the evaluation and publication of professional science and dissemination of science in journals is a productive and rigorous process. Rather than a task of drudgery and thankless service, involvement in professional journals is a form of scholarship. I strongly encourage my colleagues to take leadership roles in the dissemination of the highest quality scholarly research in all of its forms.

SR Shaw