Academic To Do List Development and Management: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

There are an endless number of variations on how to develop and manage a to do list for maximum work efficiency. Books, workshops, motivational speakers, and efficiency gurus propose what they say are the best methods of using the tried-and-true to do list. There is no one best type of to do list. They all have strengths and weaknesses. However, being mindful in selecting the appropriate methods for developing and managing a to do list is a major factor in how effective they can be for you. Like most people, I have tried multiple different forms of the ubiquitous lists with mixed degrees of success. Here are some ideas and factors that have proved important for making the list useful for me.

Whatever the form of the to do list takes, there are six variables that make this tool helpful:

Deadlines. The first items to be entered onto your to do list are those with fixed deadlines. These are hard deadlines where there is no opportunity to put off the project because you are not in the mood. These are grant deadlines, contractual deadlines, class assignments, end of fiscal year budgets, examinations, tax returns, and other externally imposed drop dead dates. Because these activities are not negotiable they serve as the bones of your list. Self-imposed deadlines do not fit into this category. You may wish to complete a chapter by May 1, but there are no immediate consequences if the assignment is completed a week later, a month later, or year later. Deadlines are must dos and must dos by a certain date.

Stages, Phases, and Steps. One of the real challenges of developing a productive to do list is to estimate accurately how long each item will take to complete. Most of us are pretty poor at this form of estimation. Some items on the to do list can be completed in 10 minutes while others require 80 to 100 hours and significant resources to finish. My preference is to make a sub entry for every four hours of estimated work. Given that many items on my to do list are writing projects and I know that I can typically write about 1600 words in a four hour stretch, I can begin to make estimations. For example, the to do list entry might be “complete chapter 1.” And let’s say I know that chapter 1 requires 7500 words. So under the heading of “complete chapter 1” there will be subheadings: a) pages 1-6, b) pages 7-12, c) pages 13-18, d) pages 19-24, e) pages 25-completion. In this fashion, at least one subheading can be checked off each day. Crossing off an item from the to do list is reinforcing. Working for an entire day on an item, yet not be able to eliminate that item from the to do list is discouraging. Breaking down large tasks into small projects that can be completed in the available time is a major factor in using this tool to allocate your energies.

Importance. Importance is independent of deadlines or urgency. These are the tasks that need to be accomplished in order to achieve your long-term professional goals. For academics, writing and editing of manuscripts are common items of importance. The items that get lost in the allocation of your time and energy are typically those of high importance, but without deadlines and with no particular urgency. Completing and submitting that article has no deadline and no one will get particularly upset if it is not completed by a certain date. However, a successful academic career depends on submitting that article and many more like it. Time needs to be carved out of each day to complete items of importance that are at risk of being forgotten or long delayed.

Delegation. Many items on to do list are team projects or require the input and cooperation of others. The biggest mistake that we make is to cross an item off the to do list that looks something like, “negotiate with Jane concerning writing of the methodology section.” This often means there was a meeting and an agreement that Jane will complete some work. A common mistake is that frequently once the item is checked off the to do list, the delegated task is out of sight and out of mind. Any time a team or cooperative task is delegated to another person, there needs to be an additional entry concerning checking or following up on the delegated task in order to ensure completion.

Making effective meetings. Preparing for and following up is about 80% of the value of any meeting. However, most often only the meeting time is in our calendar. Preparing for meetings and following up on the results of the meeting is efficient, but also time-consuming. Meetings can only be successful if time is allotted for preparation and follow up. For many people, unless an item has room on the calendar or to do list these activities do not take place in meetings become a waste of time.

Non-work life. My to do list does not only have academic and business items, I have personal items on there as well. Things like, “buy chocolate for Joyce,” “call Dad,” “remember Karen’s birthday,” and “do not forget to ask Isabel about her preparation for an upcoming math exam.” I know that it would be nice to be able to spontaneously remember to engage in self-care, attention to your family, and to make thoughtful gestures. However, I can be absent-minded and overly focused on work related activites. When I write it down, I can be assured that it gets done.

 Maintenance and Management of the List

Writing items on your to do list is necessary but not sufficient to make the list an effective productivity tool. The list must be maintained, managed, and acted upon. For me, this is a daily activity. I am fortunate to have about 40 minutes in the morning and 40 minutes in the afternoon to commute on a train. I spend that morning reviewing my daily time commitments and then allotting items from the to do list into the remaining space. I always give special attention to items labelled as important, because these are the items that so easily fall in the cracks of the schedule. On the return commute I review completed items, items that were not completed, and urgent tasks that may require evening work.

Each week receives the same treatment. Sunday evening or Monday morning means that the items for the week are reviewed and time is allocated for each. Items will not get completed unless there is time dedicated to them. Friday afternoon is the time to review the week, determine which items fell through the cracks and did not get completed, and exactly how much work versus play will be accomplished on the weekend. At the end of the week, I also pay special attention to list items in which there has not been sufficient progress. Sometimes, items need to be put in the long term bin. This bin is for items that may be important in the long term, but you are not able to get to them at all within a week. Be sure to check the long-term bin each week to determine if that item can be shifted from a long-term task to an active task. A major mistake is taking important long-term items, placing them in the bin, and then forgetting them. At this point the long term bin has become the garbage bin.

What Not to Put on the List

Knowing what not to put on the to do list is equally as important as what is put on the list. It is not efficient to use the list as a repository for activities that you are putting off until a later time. There are two well-known rules that I take seriously. The two-minute rule means that any item that requires less than two minutes to complete should be done immediately. Never put a two-minute item on your to do list. A related rule is the never-touch-paper-twice rule. Any piece of paper or memo that comes across your desk is most effectively addressed immediately. This is not always possible as some memos require a great deal of time, multiple steps, or require delegation. But if possible address such tasks as quickly as possible.

Repeated items also do not need to be put on the to do list. Working out, answering emails, teaching class, office hours, and so on are not tasks; but scheduled activities. These items go into your calendar along with meetings.


Beware of the to do list as the product. If “managing your to do list” is on your to do list, then the list no longer functions as a tool but is a productivity thief. I know people who spend hours colour coding, revamping, and giving loving care to every aspect of the functionality and aesthetic of their to do list. The perfect stationery, font, background colour, or pen used to complete your absolutely perfect to do list is procrastination. Finding something that works well for you may be a good investment of time. However, daily functionality with little maintenance is the goal. Whether you use a highly sophisticated piece of software from the latest management guru or a series of post-its affixed to your wall does not really matter. Make your to do list work for your goals and methods of getting tasks completed. Do not lose track of the goal of the to do list: a systematic approach to increasing efficiency, minimizing problems with follow through and forgotten tasks, and keeping perspective about how you should use your valuable time.

SR Shaw





How Not to Suck When Life Seems to be Falling Apart

In early November, Joyce, my spouse and partner of 26 years, was diagnosed with cancer. There has been much worry, shock, fear of the unknown, and all of the things that go along with that. There is the pain, fatigue, and general trauma of treatment. Yes, everything sucks just as bad as you would think. There is also support from family, colleagues, neighbors, and friends. But work is also a part of life. There are many issues and experiences that come with this specific life event that I will not discuss in this forum; and I know that the primary issues are not about me. For purposes of the blog entitled, “How not to suck in grad school,” the work is what I want to talk about.

Work can be therapeutic. Joyce works mostly from home in the field of business intelligence. She insisted on working after her diagnosis. She would likely still be working, but this is the time of year when she typically takes a couple weeks of vacation anyway. She will be back at work when her vacation is over. My kids are also working. My older daughter finished her first semester at university and continues to work at her part time job as well. My younger daughter has not missed a day of high school. Normalcy is therapeutic.

Obviously, we are not automatons. We have a rule that no one is allowed to be scared alone. We have dropped anything at any time to be together when needed. We discuss Joyce’s status every day. We make sure to laugh and cry together. The prognosis is good. Joyce has shown a productive sense of humor. We exercise together. We eat and fast together. We do not spend a lot of time worrying because we are busy managing every aspect of her treatment, making sure that household tasks are completed, keeping the whole family involved, and taking everything one day at a time. There will be tough times ahead to be sure. But we do this together.

When it comes to my academic work, the family is working, but I have been unable to do much. That is fine and completely understandable. The world does not revolve around me (much to my chagrin), and there are many projects that I am late to complete and other deadlines that are unlikely to be met. I am not upset by this because I am comfortable with my priorities. Nonetheless, for me to be a fully functioning human being projects need to be completed.

For academics, work requires focus, concentration, and creative thought. Even on the days where we are not 100% on point, there are administrative jobs, basic activities, and relatively mindless tasks to be done. But there is a lack of control, stress, panic, and a host of emotions that makes the most basic tasks challenging for me. Sometimes life seems to be falling apart and work is irrelevant. Yet, work is an important part of life and is therapeutic. Even when real and productive work is not possible, the effort to get back to productive work is the active ingredient in maintaining a sense of normalcy.


Cancer is a conversation ender. There is no way to bring this up in a conversation without making everyone uncomfortable (so…sorry to you blog readers). People fall over themselves to help, offer sympathy, and generally step up. Friends, colleagues, and family have showed up to help, offered assistance, and been an important source of strength. My department chair has been supportive. He assigned a strong TA to the course I am teaching in the winter so that the TA can take over if I am needed at home on the day of a class meeting. I will simply prepare all class meetings one week ahead of time so that my TA can to serve as an understudy. Other faculty members have offered and I have yielded some of my program director responsibilities to them. My students (i.e., the impressive labbies) are amazing and patient. They have taken initiative on projects and made things happen while I am out of action. Reassigning tasks, renegotiating deadlines, seeking help, and being part of a team are all important activities. I have not told many of these people about my family circumstance—it is not a secret—it is that I do not really want to spend time and emotional energy talking about it and I do not want to make an excuse (even if it is a good one). Co-authors and other partners are aware that some of my work will be delayed, but only personal friends and people who need to know, have all of the details. Opening conversation and negotiation is the goal, mentioning cancer tends to close down any discussion.


I have learned exactly how many people are counting on me to do my daily work. Between my role as teacher, supervisor, scholar, journal editor, program director, chair or member of various committees; there are over 200 people directly influenced by my inability to work for the last several weeks. This is a motivator to get back to work. There are many people right now waiting on me. There are days that I do not want to do anything, but it is constructive to be motivated. Everyone has been extremely patient and kind, but it is time to do my best for all of these people. To be clear, my work responsibilities are still second in importance to my family, but they are a strong second.


This has always been a strength for me. I have the ability to shut out all noise and distractions and can work in any environment under any circumstances. I have a lot of experience with this. Anyone with clinical experience as a psychologist knows how to leave work at work and never let it interfere with your personal life; and home life stays home so as to not affect work. That ability has taken a hit. This current distraction is one that is tough to beat. Waves of emotion will wash over me when I least expect it and work does not happen. I ride the wave, address the emotion, handle the problems, seek support, and try to get back to it when I am able. Yes, it is frustrating to have a former strength turn into a weakness, but this is okay. I interpret these events as signs that work needs to stop and family time needs to take over with full attention.


The essence of my problems have been with focus. Typically, my concentration is a strength of my work habits. I can usually work for 4 to 6 hours without taking a break. And I can do this for a total of 14 to 18 hours a day. That superpower has eluded me for the last 8 weeks. I have not been able to work for longer than 15 minutes before my focus drifts away. I set my Pomodoro timer to 15 minute segments. Take a break and check in with the family, do a household task, exercise with or massage wife, or walk the dog. I have gradually worked my way back up to a 25-minute Pomodoro segment, but the breaks are 20 to 60 minutes, rather than the traditional 5 minutes. Not fantastic, but I can work with this. Attention is fragile.


This is another new problem. I usually do not sleep that much, but nearly always have high quality sleep. I can sleep anywhere at any time. There have been times of stress or mental health issues that have affected sleep in the past, but these were rare events. Sleep is now fitful. Sleep problems are probably as debilitating to my work as any other aspect of this experience. Sleep quality is improving slowly.

Self care

Joyce knows that I can be sloppy with self care, so we do a lot together. We meditate every morning. I fast with her before and during those treatment days. I make sure that we both drink a lot of water. I make soup often. I am improving my diet. We both know that I need to be healthy in order to be useful in her recovery. Now my favorite thing is to go to the gym. When I annoy Joyce, she says, “Go write.” I say, “I can’t.” “Then maybe you should go to the gym.” When I cannot focus and do work, then I can always lift heavy things. No offense to weight lifters, but it is not a high cognitive load task (“I pick things up and put them down”). Self care is not complex, but requires a bit of vigilance.


Life happens. Academics talk endlessly and tediously about work-life balance. Usually the problem is that work takes over, invades everything, and interferes with our personal lives. I know many people who have been through multiple marriages or unable to have relationships at all because work rules everything in their lives. This is not to say that one should avoid personal problems and seek solace in work, but work can be a therapeutic activity that reminds us of normalcy in times of crisis.

This news may be a surprise to many Twitter followers (@Shawpsych) as I have not mentioned Joyce’s medical issues at all. Twitter is a cancer-free zone for me that is the place to be silly, make coffee talk, try to inspire others, get inspired, and to be a tool for easing back to work. I will probably keep that status.

Joyce and I experience every day together. We still laugh and have fun. We still argue (apparently I suck at folding laundry). We learn every possible way to make her treatment better and increase the chances of a complete and rapid recovery. We are amused that everyone we know tells a story about an aunt, mother, sister, roommate, friend, or boyfriend’s mother’s 2nd cousin who went through a similar experience (or worse) and is “just fine now.” We have a long road ahead, but will simply take each day as it comes. We are ready and developing the skills to survive and even thrive. I am confident that we will get through all of this; healthier, better, and closer than before.

When something big and life altering, like cancer, enters your life; then everything is thrown off balance. Work is something that we can rely on. Sometimes it is an anchor that weighs us down with stress, imposter syndrome, absurdity, rejection, p = .051, and long hours; but others times it is an anchor of stability in rough waters. I appreciate all of it and am working to regain balance.

SR Shaw



How Not to Suck At Academic Job Interviews

As per usual on these blogs the following represents my experiences and opinions. I defer to those who have made serious study of job interviews. In addition, there are also field specific interview issues. As someone who has been on about a dozen job interviews and has served on nine search committees I have developed some pretty good ideas on effective strategies and ineffective strategies.

I approach job interviews little bit differently than some people. The best wisdom I have ever heard is that if you are invited for a job interview, then the hiring committee believes you are qualified for the job. This helps a lot. If you are invited for one interview, then most likely it will not be the only interview you have. The purpose of the interview is to determine if you fit with the culture and personality of the department. If you try to be someone that you are really not and you get the job, then it is unlikely that the fit will be good and you are going to have a bad time. I believe that I am interviewing my host as much as they are interviewing me. Both sides are doing the best they can to determine if there is potential for long-term working relationship. This mindset removes a lot of the pressure. However, the advice that I received from my advisor in graduate school when I had my first job interview was, “You know how people say to ‘just be yourself’ at a job interview? Well, that is not going to work for you. Just try as hard as you can not to be a complete jerk.” Solid advice.


Preparation is an enormous part of all professional activities. Preparation comes in three forms: preparation for the content of the job, the informal gossip pipeline, and general preparation for any travel.

I am surprised how many applicants for faculty jobs have read every single paper that every single faculty member in the department has written. That seems excessive. It is more important to review departmental websites and websites of faculty members. By doing this you can understand the role of students and what each faculty member values the most. Identifying potential collaborators and co-authors is helpful. Also helpful is identifying a potential niche within the department that you believe you fill. More time should be spent reviewing the university than anything else. Understanding human resources, regulations for tenure, benefits, average salary, and other university-based issues are critical. It is also worth looking into the housing market and affordability in the region around the university.

Also critically important is the gossip pipeline. Most fields that you will be applying for are fairly small. As such, your supervisor and other experienced people in the profession whom you know well are quite likely to have some contacts at the university where you are interviewing. Ask for gossip. You will find critical information such as: the last three assistant professors were denied tenure, they are facing giant budget cuts, they were denied accreditation, Professor X is a raging alcoholic, Professor Y is an impossible to work with jerk, or two of the professors are having an affair. Gossip is part of your preparation. You need to determine how much this gossip reflects a dysfunctional system.

General preparation is what you typically do for any conference, presentation, or travel. Because you are generally travelling to job interviews you need to pack for all kinds of contingencies. Stuff happens and you do not need the daily hassles of travel and being away from home to be the determining factor in whether you perform at your best in a job interview. Here is my list of things I typically pack for a job interview or any other travel:

  • Batteries (AA, AAA, and 9 Volt). Laser pointers, microphones, and all sorts of things lose power at the most inopportune times. Even if you are not responsible, it is good to be prepared for anything.
  • Extra shoelaces. They break.
  • Extra socks, shirt, necktie, and underwear. You do not want a spilled coffee to ruin your entire interview.
  • Do not forget your medicines.
  • A set of dry erase markers. They often come in handy for an impromptu opportunity to demonstrate your expertise.
  • Familiar snacks for the airport or late night in the hotel. Eating a dicey airport burrito the day before an interview is usually a bad idea. I typically pack almonds, a water bottle with built-in filter (you can empty it when you go through airport security and fill it in the drinking fountain, no matter what the quality of the local water is like), candied ginger (great for nausea and a delicious snack), whey protein powder (easily mixes with water and is a convenient meal replacement), and a favourite calming tea (I prefer lemon and ginger).
  • A travel size Tide2Go or other travel size stain remover.
  • Two large Ziploc bags.
  • A bandanna or handkerchief.
  • Check the weather forecast and prepare appropriately.
  • Have a hard copy of your presentation with presentation notes. My best job talk occurred when the entire building lost power (I am still not sure if this was a test). I worked from my paper notes and gave the entire job talk in the semi darkness without skipping a beat. Plus — bonus points for being a trouper, overall good sport, and clearly demonstrating mastery of your research.

The Job Talk or Colloquium

This is the most important part of your interview. Many members of the faculty in the department will have their only exposure to you during the colloquium.

  • Every department has a troll. That insecure person who tries to build himself up by asking you impossible or unfair questions. Everyone else in the department has already identified this person as the troll. In this case and only in this case, you are allowed to smack them down. My favourite smack down, “Well, that is certainly a convoluted and mostly unrelated question, and here why that is not relevant to my presentation…” You will not lose any points with the rest of the faculty. Quite often, other faculty members will apologize to you for the behaviour of that troll or congratulated you on how well you managed it. Expect it. The troll seems to be a feature of every department and does not necessarily indicate that the department is flawed.
  • Sometimes people ask good questions that you are not able to answer. The correct way to handle this is to say, “I don’t know the answer to that. But it is an excellent question that needs to be addressed. Maybe we can have a talk afterwards and see about how we can address this in future research.” Composed, willing to learn, and always looking forward.
  • Memorize your talk. Can you do this talk if the power goes out?
  • Overdress. Your business best.
  • Time the talk out. Know exactly how much time that your talk is scheduled for and finish well within the deadline. Never go over time in any talk ever. This takes practice.
  • If it is possible for you, then ask and allow questions and interruptions in your talk. It shows that you have confidence and mastery of your material. However, if you prefer questions to wait until the end, then do not say anything. Most typically other faculty members will cut off anyone who interrupts and insist the questions wait until the end. You do not want to appear brittle.
  • Open your talk with a compelling discussion of why your material is important. Immediately after this skip ahead to the most complex aspect of your methodology or analysis. You are trying to make the case that your research is interesting and important, but also can blow people away with its complexity and your mastery of technique. Remember you that you are not trying to communicate the details of what you do, you are trying to communicate your own awesomeness. Clarity is preferred, but it is okay for an audience member to say, “I am not really sure I understood everything, but it sure sounded impressive.”
  • If you are asked to do a teaching talk in addition to your research talk, then never rely on participation of the group. This places your job interview outside of your control and that is never a good idea. It is perfectly okay to say, “I generally like to have interactive classroom sessions that use X technique. But for purposes of this talk I will be using a lecture format.” And then demonstrate your ability to explain a complex topic.
  • Thank people for coming to the colloquium. A large turnout indicates how interested the people are in your position.
  • Before you begin the talk, go to the bathroom. Check yourself in the mirror for spinach in your teeth, crooked neckties, missed belt loops, sweatiness, smeared make up, and other signs of being disheveled. You are putting on a show. Make it professional show business.


You will be interviewed by administration, groups of faculty members, individual faculty members, and others. Here are some tips:

  • Have a lot of questions prepared. I have upwards of 50 to 60 questions written. I then divide those questions based on the audience. For example, I may have five question written for the dean, five questions for the program director, five questions for students, and so on. Some of those questions will be specific to this university and program based on your homework, and other questions will be generic and asked at every job interview you do.
  • Ask the same question to multiple audiences to gauge for differences in perception. It means something when the dean’s response to a question is significantly different than from an assistant professor in the program.
  • Request to meet and interview (or at least have lunch) with a faculty member who recently received tenure and promotion. Ask them about that process.
  • Prepare for the inevitable stupid or predictable questions:
    • How do you manage stress?
    • What are your weaknesses?
    • How do you manage work-life balance?
    • What you add to our department?
  • Request to have extra time interviewing with students. This is a simple method to ensure that you are perceived as student friendly. So if the preliminary itinerary has the students meeting with you for one hour, ask for 90 minutes. Students are also the most honest and will give you the most information.
  • This is not the time to negotiate salary or anything else. Don’t. Once they make the offer, then it’s on. Even if they say, how much money ya want? Don’t go for it. Say, “Given the data on salary in this department I am sure we will be able to negotiate a satisfactory salary (or start up costs, summer salary, course release, or whatever).” Just hint that you are easy to work and negotiate with. As a heads up, after they make the offer — a good salary starting point for your first job is the median departmental salary for assistant professor.

Meeting with Students

Students can be surprisingly scary and snarky during this interview. This is especially true if you are about the same age as most of the students. I find that the best strategy in working with students is to spend the vast majority of your time listening and asking them questions. Students frequently know about the weaknesses of the department and are not afraid to tell you some important gossip. Mostly, students are the barometer of the department. You can tell if they have been neglected, subject to abuse, or are legitimately unhappy with the direction of the department. Mostly, listen. When you actively listen to their concerns you will automatically be perceived as more competent than someone who gives long-winded answers to simple questions.

Mealtime and Off Hours

The rule of all job interviews is that you are always being interviewed. Even at lunch, dinner, and at receptions you are being interviewed.

  • Be unfailingly polite to wait staff, administrative assistants, janitors, taxi drivers, and everyone else. Assume somebody is watching.
  • Unless you have allergies or dietary restrictions, be flexible. Don’t be high maintenance.
  • There may be a reception or something that looks a bit like a party in your honour. It is not a party. You are being judged at all times. So mingle, pretend to have fun, and do not drink too much. My rule is to have one drink and nurse it all night. If you do not drink alcohol, than that is okay.
  • During these periods, people are looking to see cracks in your façade. This is often when candidates for jobs appear to be stressed and otherwise make unguarded comments. You may be exhausted, but stay friendly and positive.
  • These are also times when people are looking to see if you are a colleague that people want to hang out with or generally will be a pleasant co-worker.
  • When you are exhausted, this is the time to be a listener. For example, if someone asked you about how you manage worklife balance, the correct response is to say, “I struggle with it like everyone else. How do you manage it?”

Weird Things That Happen and Other Odds and Ends

A lot of weird things can happen during interviews. The only universal rule is to be composed.

  • Horrible and inappropriate questions. Questions about significant others, family, and children are typically out of bounds. Women are far more likely to be asked these questions than men. It is perfectly okay to say that you prefer to keep your personal life personal. You can answer them if you want to or if you think that helps you. My preferences is not to discuss personal life.
  • I heard one of my colleagues say to an applicant that she is “articulate.” I was stunned by this codeword. Of course he meant, articulate for a black woman (with a PhD in quantitative psychology and expertise in nonlinear modelling). She was incredibly composed and simply said thank you. She and I spoke about it afterwards. I was upset. Unfortunately, she was used to it.
  • I have a colleague who said that she was propositioned while interviewing. Honestly, that is too bizarre to comprehend. Her perspective is that any department that would allow such behaviour is not one that fits her needs.
  • Recently, I talked to a colleague who placed his briefcase in the car of his host while they went to lunch. The car was broken into and his briefcase stolen (along with his computer and his job talk). Luckily, he stored a copy of his presentation in dropbox and was able to retrieve it and present the paper on a borrowed computer.
  • The concierge at the hotel is your friend. They can help you if you forget a razor, a necktie, pantyhose, medication, or need directions to the nearest bar. Moreover, most hotels have a business office in case you need some printing or other last-minute updates.

In Closing

As a member of the search committee, I am typically looking for three things: do they have potential to be successful in our department, do they add anything to the department, and do I want them to be my colleague. I have argued against people who had incredibly impressive CVs and performed very well at the job interview. But often I thought they had a little too much Tracy Flick, seem to follow the textbook of interviewing behaviours, or are generally a stiff. I much prefer the woman with a black belt in karate, the guy who skydives, the political activist dude, the person with many tattoos, and the lady who quotes Emerson. Who laughs, is creative, understand systems and politics of the Department, cares about students, thinks outside the box, listens, and is innovative? These are the people who can drive a program in a department forward to the future. If they have research productivity and teaching skills, then I really want to hire a full human being.

Have fun. Really. This is a great opportunity to present your research, your experiences, and yourself to a group of peers. Spend some time debriefing with peers or more experienced colleagues after you complete your interview. You do not typically receive feedback from your host. However, you can always work to improve your presentation and performance.

I always advocate being completely honest in all of your interactions during job interviews, but there is one exception: act like you belong. The people interviewing you are colleagues and not supervisors or superiors.


How Not to Suck at Creating an Online Presence

Admit it. You have Googled yourself. And depending on your degree of shame, ego, and self-worth you may have felt guilty about doing so. But every employer, client, collaborator, romantic partner, creditor, and nearly anyone else who needs to know you has first started by exploring your online presence. As an academic or graduate student, your online presence is likely to be the primary tool that people use to investigate and judge your impact on the field of research and suitability for opportunities.

View your online presence through the eyes of people who may want to work with you. If your name is Zolton Murphy Lipschitz, then your online presence is wide open for you to develop. If your name is John Smith, then you may have difficulty having your presence appear within the first 20 pages of Google search results. I once Googled a prospective student and found out that she had the same name as a porn star (I am sure that search got me on a special list at the university). She then began including her middle name prominently as she developed her online presence. As someone with a common name, I know that Steven Shaw is a famous photographer, magician, swim instructor, food critic, personal trainer, athletic director, college football official, college professor (but not me), and many other things. Steven Shaws are everywhere.  My goal is to differentiate myself from others who would be seen on the Google search of my name and to appear somewhere on the first page of such a search.

An even more important aspect of your online presence is to ensure that the image projected is one that you wish to create for people who may want to work with you. As an academic, I have a lot of leeway in the nature of this presence. It is acceptable and even desirable for academics to be quirky, prickly, whiny, and opaque. Yet, most of my students are preparing to be psychologists who work with children. These students must have an online presence that is scrubbed clean. They may have to work hard to ensure profanity, photographs with alcohol or drugs, sexually explicit or suggestive pictures or messages, and even excessive sarcasm and cynicism are minimized in an online presence. Frequent self searches are necessary as photos can be tagged (on Facebook and other sites) by others and appear online without your knowledge. For the most part, there is some wiggle room for graduate students. Colleagues and the general public expect to see some pictures with your significant other or having a glass of wine with friends. That is what young people do, so just show some discretion. However, a picture of me (a middle-aged guy) drinking with students (mostly young females) will send the wrong message for most audiences. That said, education and psychology are among the most difficult professions in which to manage an online presence because parents are entrusting their children to you as a professional and are rightly cautious. Consider what you are communicating about yourself.

Although academics have much freedom, there been high-profile cases of untenured and tenured professors losing their jobs due to tweets, blogs, and other aspects of their online presence that have offended their employers. I am fortunate to be at a university that does not micromanage online presence. However, I try not to comment on religion, politics, or sex. I also usually do not advocate for social issues as they are often entangled in politics. Of course I have opinions that are not too difficult to infer based on my tweets, blog, and website — but I try not to express them directly. It is also generally not in my nature to attack or troll others, but I make an extra effort to ensure that none of my comments can be perceived as insulting or diminishing others. The goal of my online presence is to convey hard work, continuous efforts to improve myself, the value of scientific thinking and quality written expression, a normal and relatable human, and someone who values the efforts of students and colleagues. There is no question that I could do more with my online presence, yet I try to provide a reliable message to establish a consistent personal and professional brand.

I know some students and colleagues who completely ignore the concept of an online presence and generally leave it to the fates. Withdrawing from social media and other online outlets for fear of making an error or minimizing their importance is equally as problematic. I am not a digital media or online expert. However, I wish to control the narrative of how my thoughts, work, and general message are received by colleagues and the general public. If you do not control your online presence then someone else will. How you are perceived is essential to advancing in your career and communicating your message to the appropriate outlets in such a manner that it will be heard, respected, and valued.

Professional and Social Divide. The hard part is that the Internet does not care whether your pictures are intended to be social or professional. Facebook posted photos from your last vacation are intended for you, your family, and friends. But clients may view these photos as well. I recommend setting privacy settings on your social media accounts so that only approved friends and family can have access. Try your best to make the professional and social divide clear for all those investigating your online presence.

Social Media. There seem to be some informal rules concerning social media outlets. Linkedin seems to be primarily for business. In this setting, a highly disciplined and entirely business focused approach is recommended. Facebook is mostly social. Yet, businesses and academia often use Facebook to engage with the general public. Twitter is an effective communication platform for developing learning networks and reaching specific audiences. The primary problems with Twitter is that in 140 characters responses can be created and sent quickly and it is easy to be misunderstood. Be sure to double check tweets before sending. There are a host of other social media sites. Each has its own quirks. It is still best to keep most of these accounts private and control who can view them if there is any chance at all that your desired professional narrative would be diluted or undermined by social media.

Research Portals. Research portals such as Google Scholar, ResearchGate, and others provide outlets for academics to place research products online and available to other scholars. These portals are valuable for communication and dissemination of research articles within a scholar’s area of research. Research portals are safe and essential aspects of the scholarly online presence. The weaknesses that research portals are not typically used by the public and do not lend themselves to knowledge transfer and communication with professionals outside of field study.

Websites. Standalone websites are static and serve as a repository for information about scholars as professionals and as people. Static websites have the advantage of providing full control over the message.

Audio and Video. The use of video through dedicated YouTube channels and other mechanisms is a valuable way to get messages across in a convenient approach. Lectures, demonstrations, and PowerPoint plus lecture can all be effective mechanism for communicating information to a wider audience. Likewise digital audio files can be stored on websites and used as a method of relaying lectures and small talks to others.

There are certainly digital media planners, strategists, and other extraordinarily knowledgeable people who can assist in the development of detailed strategies for improving one’s online presence. However, online presence has become as important to an academic career as a CV. Be clear, be strategic, and have an understanding of how you want to be perceived by employer, client, collaborator, creditor, and nearly anyone else who needs to know you. Be cautious not to get carried away with the time spent in developing online presence. You run the risk of spending more time developing an online presence than doing the actual work that you are trying to publicize, transfer, or otherwise disseminate. Be mindful, strategic, and have an effective online presence that allows you to control the narrative of who you are as a person and as a professional.

SR Shaw

How Not to Suck at Taking Initiative

The difference in skills and expectations between graduate school and undergraduate is probably larger than the difference between high school and university. In the move from undergraduate to graduate school, the university may be the same. Even the professors may be the same. However, the role, function, and expectations of the student could not be more different. Many students do not understand that. They are still focusing their energies on grades/marks and rely on the work habits that were successful for them as undergraduates. The expectations are qualitatively different in graduate school.

As the Graduate Program Director of a professional program, I can say that the majority of students go on to professional careers as psychologists. A small percentage choose to go on to an academic career. The field of school psychology is also fortunate in that whether students choose to go on to a clinical or academic career, there is a large and growing job market. School psychology may be the only field of academia right now that the present and future is bright. No matter the professional career track that students choose, the primary predictor of success is professionalism.

Successful undergraduates learn many of the requisite skills for becoming a professional. The skills required to earn good grades as an undergraduate are necessary but not sufficient for professionalism. Organization, conscientiousness, timeliness, prioritization, and work habits are often well learned by undergraduate students. In addition, most graduate students learn advanced skills, knowledge, ethics, culture, and systems necessary to be a professional. Again, these are necessary but not sufficient conditions to become a professional. What separates the best and most professional students from good, but not great, students is the ability to take initiative.

The challenges of initiative are to develop an expansive knowledge base, to understand the rules and culture of your lab or graduate program, to be able to make a substantive and creative contribution, to be a team player, to be independent, to communicate, to have energy, and to have a great deal of confidence. Taking initiative means doing more than the minimum. I have had some truly outstanding students who complain that they are getting the exact same degree as students who only do the minimum work. I cannot argue with that concern. However, I can say that the students who have been outstanding and take initiative profited more from graduate school and became more of a professional than any student who only completes the minimum activities and requirements. This is a high bar. Many talented students struggle simply to complete all minimum research, classroom, and clinical activities successfully. To expect all students to take initiative may be too much. Graduate school provides opportunities. To fail to take full advantage of all the opportunities is to fail to take advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to launch the best possible professional career. There are challenges to negotiate.

Initiative is not the same thing as going off the reservation, being reckless, inciting a revolution against your PI/supervisor, or pretending that you know everything better than your supervisors and experienced professors. Initiative is doing more in service of a larger goal. In order to do more, you must understand the collective goals of your graduate program, your lab, or whatever system with which you are working. Once you understand those goals, then there is an opportunity to find new and creative methods to achieve those goals. Here are several examples I have seen from some of my best students: two students saw the need to create a formal student association to raise funds, provide support for peers, develop methods to financially support students in need, and to publicize the talents of the school psychology program — so they took the energy and initiative to muster support from their peers and create a formal school psychology student association at the university. Several students have looked at data sets that we have collected for some projects and noticed that those same data would be extraordinarily effective to answer research questions that we never considered. Then they repurposed and reanalysed those data to answer a new question and write their own manuscripts. In classes, students are often faced with opaque assigned readings that they were expected to discuss. Rather than surrender, they investigated related readings that strongly support and made clearer the meaning and intent of the original opaque reading, and engaged in team discussions in order to decode the difficult assigned readings. These are simple everyday examples of graduate students going beyond the minimum requirements to do more in a productive way. The secret is to explore, consider, and completely understand the goals of your system; ensure that such initiative also meets your own personal and professional goals; seek support and input from others where possible; acquire all the resources that you require; and make things happen.

Complaining, identifying a problem without supplying a possible solution, thinking that there must be a better way, and waiting to be told what to do are not characteristics of initiative. Identify gaps and areas for improvement in all goal-directed research, classroom, clinical, and other professional areas and then fill gaps and improve the system. When I interview prospective graduate students for our program or people who work under my supervision, I really only want to know the answer to one question: what is it that you will bring to our program in order to make it better? I do not want even the most talented minions, followers, or henchmen; I want leaders and professionals.

The ability to take initiative effectively is a sign of leadership. I work in a doctoral level program that prepares professionals for clinical work addressing the mental health of children. I understand that it is difficult enough simply to survive and complete graduate school. Yet, to provide a lifetime of services to children requires more than knowledge and doing the minimum required amount of work. It requires initiative, leadership, advocacy, and energy. Graduate school is an excellent place to learn these skills. However, the same advice applies no matter what field you are in. Be a professional. Be a leader. Initiate. Do more — with the purpose.

Have an excellent semester and welcome to graduate school.

SR Shaw

How Not to Suck at Efficiency: Some Technology Suggestions


Here is a bonus blog as we prepare for the fall term.

Nearly all graduate students and academics complain that they wish they had more time for the details of science, discovery, and writing results for publication. We all seem to struggle to find the time to write, think, and communicate. Time in the classroom, office hours, meetings, administration, and other professional tasks function to take away from research productivity. And there is always real-life: sleeping, eating, going to the bathroom, relationships, family, illness, stress, exercise, and coping with mental health issues all take time away from productivity. These are essential disruptions. A well-balanced life is critical for long-term work, well-being, and happiness. However, scholars are required to maximize efficiency in the few hours per day that are available for research productivity.
Everyone will find the work habits that are best for them. I have written about many of these…

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How Not to Suck at Efficiency: Some Technology Suggestions

Here is a bonus blog as we prepare for the fall term.

Nearly all graduate students and academics complain that they wish they had more time for the details of science, discovery, and writing results for publication. We all seem to struggle to find the time to write, think, and communicate. Time in the classroom, office hours, meetings, administration, and other professional tasks function to take away from research productivity. And there is always real-life: sleeping, eating, going to the bathroom, relationships, family, illness, stress, exercise, and coping with mental health issues all take time away from productivity. These are essential disruptions. A well-balanced life is critical for long-term work, well-being, and happiness. However, scholars are required to maximize efficiency in the few hours per day that are available for research productivity.
Everyone will find the work habits that are best for them. I have written about many of these habits before, but this post is about some tools that I have found to assist me in being as efficient as possible. I have no financial or other stake in these products. I only found that they work well for me.

Priority matrix: This is a fancy to-do list that helps to prioritize tasks by long-term, short term, due dates, importance, and other variables. It has a free trial, but is fairly expensive to subscribe to. I have purchased this item. The flexibility is the true strength of Priority Matrix. I like that it has the ability to break down large tasks into small chunks and integrate tasks with calendars. The program sends me an e-mail with my list of tasks every day. At the end of the day I check off each task completed and update the tasks for the next day. It could also be a good idea for a lab as there are group rates for integrated project teams. The price is a little high and there are other good to do lists on the market, but I find this one to be extremely helpful.

DragonNaturally Speaking Premium Version 13: This is my dictation software. I use it for all first drafts and nearly all e-mails. It is a remarkably easy product to use. I have heard that this does not work especially well for people with soft voices or strong accents. I have a southern-inflected Midwestern twang, but have no problems. The program learns your vocabulary by going through your e-mails and other documents and learning the words that you use the most, even highly technical terms and phrases. It’s kind of spooky. The only problem is that most people do not write in the same tone or style as they speak. It takes some practice to say the words in the same style as your writing. Your writing will be a bit chatty at first. But once you get that down, then your speed of writing goes from around 50 words per minute (or however fast you type) to about 140 words per minute. The pace of thinking increases and first drafts can be finished in a couple of hours. I also like using a wireless microphone. I will lay on the couch, close my eyes, scratch the dog, and complete a draft of a paper. Be sure to edit carefully. The types of errors you make when typing are different from dictation errors. Slurred or mumbled speaking makes for odd errors. In a recent paper a student was editing, she asked, “When did we start working with German children?” I meant to say “certain children,” but slurred my speech and the wrong word was recognized. Those types of errors take some practice to identify while editing. Overall, it is a major time saver and enhancer of creativity. I also find it to be useful when I am just sick of being at the keyboard.

Scrivener: A wonderful outlining and word processing program. I enjoy the corkboard and notecard features. For me, these features are helpful because I tend to write decent paragraphs, but sequencing and flow can be problems in the first draft.  It works well for any writing activity, but I find it to be essential for large and multipart projects like books or grant proposals. The special strength is for outlining projects. I have found it extremely intuitive and it work easily with Word and other word processing programs. I have also found that the technical support, instructional support and videos, and frequently asked questions parts of the website are excellent.

aNote: This is a simple note taking system for the iPhone. I used it for a while, but have switched to OneNote because I use a tablet and pen now and OneNote quickly and easily transfers to my other devises. But aNote is pretty strong note taker.

ShopShop: Grocery list. There are many complex grocery lists with recipes, prediction of items that you might want and other factors. But ShopShop is a stripped down and super simple model. Free.

30/30: This is an iPhone app for the truly obsessive. Anyone who likes to plan every minute of their day will benefit well from this time management system. My daughter uses this to organize her day and swears by it. This is the kid who has published four books by the age of eighteen, was on the college Dean’s list, and is an efficiency savant. It is somewhat similar to a Pomodoro system, except more flexible. The 30/30 program allows you to dedicate a set amount of time to each task. Then a timer tracks the amount of time that you dedicate to each of the tasks. I have found the structure a little too much for me. I enjoy some degree of flexibility (i.e., semi structured laziness). But for those developing the discipline to organize your day for the completion of specific tasks, I recommend this app.

Google Calendar: I know there are many fancy and sophisticated calendar systems available. I have tried several. This basic default calendar seems to meet my needs.

LoseIt!: For keeping track of what I eat as I am working to drop some weight and generally improve fitness. A really wonderful program for computer and iPhone. The free version is pretty good. But I use the Premium version to keep track of additional data (especially my sugar intake) and for motivation. The program does a nice job of identifying patterns that can be helpful. For example, the program noted that on days that I consume branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), I tend to consume less sugar (a major problem for my eating habits). Good to know.

A lot of people use various apps for concentration. I know there are many for blocking or avoiding favorite procrastination websites. But honestly, often I just turn off the wifi and do not use those systems. When focus is a problem, then I listen to a metronome set to my resting heartrate (around 56bpm) with headphones I also use the pomodoro timer online to keep track of time segments.

Zotero: An open-source manuscript management system. EndNote, Mendeley, and others all have their strengths. The interface is a bit clunky and not as pretty on Zotero compared to its commercial competitors. However, it is a functional, intuitive, and a valuable addition. I just prefer open source software as a personal preference. I also have an issue with high profit manuscript management software that have now paired with major academic publishers. Let the price gouging commence. I have a stand-alone version of Zotero for my projects and we have a group version that is shared among lab members.

SurfacePro3: I am new to this hardware as I have recently shifted from a laptop to a tablet. I am still getting used to it. The keyboard is not great. I recommend a full-sized external keyboard for long and fast typing (or just switch to dictating). So far, it has just made writing, internet work, storing information and other basic work much simpler. The wireless HDMI display to my basement TV/sound system is pretty cool as well. The light weight and ease of interface removes any excuse. I can work anywhere at any time. (note: I wrote this blog on the train and finished it waiting for daughter #2 at the dentist–so that is cool). It is a bit expensive, but so far I like using it.

I am not a fast adopter of every new technology or app that comes down the pike. I use two simple criteria: does adoption of something new save or cost time? and Does it improve the quality of work required to achieve my aims? There are hundreds of apps, software, and hardware that claim to lead to improved efficiency. What works depends on your needs and style of working. These are just a few of the things that I use.

SR Shaw

Next blogs:
How Not to Suck at Taking Initiative
How Not to Suck at Creating a Professional Network

The Productivity Robbing Myths of Grad School


I am not sure if there is a best way to be efficient and productive as there are many very different, but positive, ways to work. However, there are some common and universally terrible ways to work. Here are a few things that I hear students say with pride that are actually signs of an inefficient worker.

“I do my best work at the last minute. I thrive under pressure.”

–No. The first draft of everything is terrible, even for the best writer. You may be an extremely good binge writer, but I promise that the work will be better with another draft and some time to consider and change content.  Plan your time well. The draft of any project should be completed three days to two weeks before it is due. The remainder of the time can be spent in the real work of writing: editing.

“I am not…

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How Not to Suck: APA and torture

July 30, 2015

For every graduate student or professional there is a time to take important professional stands. As someone who enjoys being on Twitter my timeline is constantly bombarded with people in various stages of outrage over some social, professional, or political phenomenon. There is another group of people saying that we must, should, ought, or have to make some change in order to make the world a better place. I usually agree with their goals, but I am not entirely convinced that their suggested solutions adequately address the problem or will not lead to a worse situation than the current methods and practices. For example, I am strongly committed to having scholars with a diversity of backgrounds and experiences contribute to scientific practice. My belief is that a diversity of backgrounds and experiences leads to innovative thinking, creativity, and ultimately advancement of scientific practices and discovery. However, I’m not really a fan of bean-counting representation. When I create a symposium panel or editorial advisory board I do not count the number of Hispanic, female, or disabled scholars. I simply put together the best possible team. My experience is that the panels and advisory boards I select tend to be diverse, by any definition. It is clear to the scholars and to everyone else that the representatives of these panels or boards are there because of their skill and talent and not due to demographic characteristics. My job is to support and mentor the people of diverse backgrounds and experiences to have the confidence, skills, and CVs to be the best possible contributors to such boards and panels. So while I agree with many of my colleagues on the goals, I often diverge when it comes to the process. Choosing to make a professional stand is important, but the methods are most effective when then they are pragmatic.

The independent Hoffman report on torture and APA was a difficult document to read. When I first heard of possible APA involvement in the Guantánamo Bay torture activities, I experienced an incredible emotional outrage. However, I wanted to wait for the formal and independent report before making any decisions with potential professional ramifications. I spent the week going over the Hoffman report and considering how to address this issue in a professional and pragmatic, yet principled manner. All organizations engage in some behaviours that we may find distasteful from time to time. Quite often there can be work within the system to improve the process to ensure that such behaviours do not occur again and improve future functioning. Many of my colleagues will use the APA 2015 convention as a platform to protest and press for organizational change. This is an option chosen by the majority of the colleagues that I know. For me, my decision is to resign from APA after being a member for 23 years.

I respect all of those people choosing to stay with APA and trying to create change from within. APA has been a strong association that advocates for mental health services, improves training, and provides outstanding products for both scholars and clinicians. APA has been a strong part of my professional training, development, and identity. There is no question in my mind that APA will become a better, more open, and more responsive organization after going through this difficult situation. A change in leadership personnel and revisiting ethical guidelines are excellent steps for reconciliation and improvement.

My primary decision making criteria involved which aspects that led to APA’s cooperation in torture can be fixed and what cannot be fixed. The APA decision to change the ethics from a general tenor of protecting the public to that of protecting the psychologist is highly problematic, but can and is being changed. My decision is based on a few aspects of the Hoffman report, my experiences working with program accreditation and APA, and basic history of psychology. One part of the Hoffman report that caught my attention was that APA sought to curry favour and be as cooperative as possible with the US government. APA has a long history of advocating and partnering with the US government to improve funding for research and mental health services, providing improved mental health access, and improving training. If we go back to the history of psychology, then at one time school and clinical psychology were the same profession. The provision of mental health services was almost entirely conducted in schools. After World War II and the massive mental health needs of returning serviceman, the Veterans Administration was created and served as a major training ground for developing and preparing mental health service providers. As part of this movement to support servicemen, the profession of clinical psychology broke away from the child-centered school services to provide mental health service delivery to adults. The Veterans Administration remains a major training site for clinical psychology. Because clinical psychology drives most APA decision-making and has a strong historical tie to the military, APA working with military in the context of behavior change and gaining information from captives seems a logical progression. Moreover, McGill’s school psychology program has been accredited since 1998. However, over the last several years, it became clear that APA standards for accreditation were moving further from our training process. Most concerning was that APA standards became a reflection of the need to enforce United States federal laws. Being a Canadian program, there were frequent conflicts. For example, we were asked to provide figures on the number of African-American (i.e., African-Canadian), Hispanic, and Asian students in our program. In Québec there is a law against gathering and using such demographic information. Preparing students to enforce American laws such as the Americans with Disability Act, HIPAA, and other federal laws seemed more important than training effective psychologist for practice and service delivery to the public. I was pleased and relieved that APA would no longer accredit Canadian psychology training programs or internships as of September 1, 2015. Overall, these components lead me to believe that APA is more interested in working with and enforcing American laws and processes than training mental health professionals or advocating for our clients. Practicing within the limits of relevant law is required, being an enforcement arm of the US government is not. The lack of independence of APA from the US government is a core issue that is unlikely to change.

I am not an anti-government, anti-military, or anti-American extremist. I understand that large professional associations must and should cooperate and collaborate with government, especially the most well-funded aspect of the government; which is the US military. I also understand that to have influence and to be an effective advocate, APA must have a seat at the table were governmental decisions are made. There is a fine line between having a seat at the decision making table and actually being a part of the government decision-making apparatus. My view is that APA is a de facto part, or at least a partner, of the US government. As such, cooperation with all aspects of government behavior, including extreme acts such as torture is not terribly surprising. Therefore, I do not see the torture issue as solely the unfortunate acts of a few members, failed leadership, or lack of openness; but rather the logical consequence of a too close relationship between the professional organization and the US government. When the decision between human rights and protecting the well-being of the public came into conflict with the need to support a government decision, the wrong decision was made. Ethical guidelines were changed to justify this decision. I do not believe that any reform will address the close ties with the US government that influence APA’s ability to make public protection its top priority. Giving up the influence and power that comes from having such a close relationship with the government is extremely difficult for any organization.

APA will improve, but may always be known as the only major professional association that did not condemn torture. The loss of any moral standing to make important professional decisions on behalf of psychologists is not a small factor in my professional decision. Add this to the close and permanent ties to the US government, APA leaving Canadian psychology, and focus on clinical psychology as factors in my leaving. I am not convinced that any of these critical factors will change.  I am choosing to have my professional identity continue to develop apart from APA.

In the interest of full disclosure: my decision is not solely a principled one. It is pragmatic. Another factor is that I am now dual citizen, resident of Canada, and an educator of future psychologists who will mainly practice in Canada. APA remains driven mostly by American clinical psychology and US law. As an academic and school psychologist, APA is well removed from my work. The goals of the US government and APA are not directly relevant to my current work. I do not think of resigning from APA as a protest or any larger statement. It is simply that our interests have diverged and they no longer effectively support my identity as a psychologist.

I wish APA and its members all success. I hope that the changes will result in a responsible and more independent association that improves training, representation of members, advocacy for mental health, and protection of the public.

Links to the Hoffman report and Ken Pope’s commentary:

SR Shaw


How not to suck at reviewing articles for scholarly journals

The well-known writers of fiction and science often report that the best way to be an effective writer and to write a lot is simply to read a lot. Nearly all graduate students and scholars consume an amazing amount of written material. Usually we read professional material because it is necessary scholarship for the specific project that we are currently working on or general reading simply to keep current with the field of study. This reading is usually rapid and interpreted at a surface level. However, for reading to make an essential contribution to becoming an effective writer the reader must think deeply and critically. Many departments or labs hold a “journal club” in which a specific paper is discussed and analysed in a group format. I would estimate that more is learned in a single journal club discussion than in multiple lectures or many rapid and surface readings. Another form of deep and critical reading is the evaluation of articles for scholarly journals. Engaging in peer review is one of the best methods for the development of skills as a writer and scholar is to review articles for professional journals.

There is much criticism about the value of peer review as a measure of worthiness for publication in selective scholarly journals. This occurs most frequently in the social sciences where assumptions are often not clear and social and political agendas implicitly carry more weight than anyone would care to admit. Despite bias and random error I still support peer review as the strongest method of advancing the science and scholarship in any field of study. Although decision-making for publication ultimately lies with the journal editor (or associate editors), peer review not only strengthens the quality of published papers, but also requires the deep and critical reading that inspires productivity and writing skills of the peer reviewers.

When requesting that a scholar be a peer review on a submitted article for publication, journals are maddeningly unclear on exactly what this review should look like. Further complicating matters is that different journals emphasize different types of reviews. Some journals would like the reviewer to suggest an editorial decision such as reject, revise and resubmit, accept with major revisions, or accept with minor revisions; while other journal specify that the peer reviewer is not to make an editorial decision. Some journals provide scoring rubrics that may provide structure, but may not be relevant to the format of the specific paper being reviewed. Are there common features that a peer review should contain that not only provide a valuable service to the profession but can facilitate the deep and critical reading required in the development of an outstanding graduate student and scholar?

The first question is how does a graduate student become a peer reviewer? I know one professor who is on eight editorial view boards and has his graduate students write all of his peer reviews. Although this is ethically sketchy (okay, it is flat out wrong), it is a great opportunity for his students to engage in the peer review exercise. Many journals have a small student review panel that is designed for graduate students to be peer reviewers and have their reviews evaluated and mentored by journal editors or associate editors. Finally, many journals are so overwhelmed with articles and with so few available reviewers that they accept graduate student volunteers as peer reviewers. Thus, for many situations it is a matter of sending information concerning your availability, expertise, and a CV to an editor. My experience as an editor is that the best reviews I get are from graduate students, postdocs, and faculty members within their first three years of the job. The big shots and established scholars are often unavailable; or tend to write short, dismissive, and lazy reviews (there are notable exceptions to this gross generalization). Most editors are excited to have anyone volunteer to be a reviewer.

Many reviewers focus on relatively unimportant details. Emphasis on APA style, manuscript preparation, and grammar usually indicate that the reviewer has not given the paper the deep and critical reading that a strong review requires. Although poor writing can be annoying, as long as the major points are clear, then the writing can be revised and journals have copy editors for a reason. Excessive amounts of energy spent line editing are usually wasted. Manuscript preparation can be identified as a problem, but is rarely a strong reason for rejection.

There are two major areas of focus: internal and external. I follow generally the same process for all reviews. Step one: has the rationale for the research question been established and couched in the current literature. This step involves a logical flow of scholarship. There does not need to be a running history of every single study done on the topic, yet the need for the current study needs to be clear. Step two: the overall research question and specific hypotheses need to be clear and well stated. Step three: methods must be appropriate to answer the research questions and hypotheses. It is surprising how many studies using sophisticated methods and analyses and answer a valuable research question, but the methods do not answer the question that was developed in the introduction. Step four: do the results logically flow from the methods and are the best possible way to answer the research question. Step five: are the conclusions consistent with the results. This is basic article reviewing 101, but I would estimate that over 80% of papers are rejected because the rationale for the study is not established or there is no logical flow to the sections. By the way, being the first article that studies any topic is not a rationale (many times no one else has studied the topic because it was not worth studying). Most commonly, the conclusions do not logically follow from the results. I am also somewhat amused that many conclusion sections include a limitation segment that is overwhelming. Just because the author acknowledges that the paper has significant weaknesses does not mean that those weaknesses cannot be used to reject the paper. This complex and critical part of the review represents the internal aspects of a review and are necessary, but not sufficient, for an article to receive a positive evaluation.

The external part of the review s most difficult for graduate students and new reviewers. This is the “so what” question. The majority of papers I see published within psychology do not seem to have answered the so what question. These are papers that are perfectly internally consistent with logical flow from problem identification to literature review to research question and hypothesis to methods to results to conclusions; yet, the final results do not make a significant contribution to the field. If an article does not advance the field of study, then there is no need for this paper to be published in a scholarly outlet. Leave program evaluations, button sorting and bottle washing, and other tedious minutia to government reports and grant reports rather than publication in a scientific journal. The external part of the review is where experience can be a great benefit. Reviewers need to not only know their own specific and narrow areas of expertise, but understand where the frontier of knowledge is and what type of studies are required to advance that frontier. There is nothing wrong with an inexperienced reviewer seeking guidance or consultation from a more experienced person when preparing an article review.

Here are a few key features to remember when preparing your article review:

  • The goal of the review is to improve the paper. Therefore, the tone of the review is to highlight the changes necessary to make the paper a publishable one. My personal style does not focus on struggling to find a strength of the paper or providing moral encouragement. My style tends to be along the lines of, “in order for this paper to be publishable the following changes must be made…” Sometimes those changes are significant and include redesigning of the experiment and collecting new data. However, common comments such as, “This paper should be reviewed by a native English speaker.” Or “This paper was clearly written by a graduate student.” Are not productive and should be avoided. Taking the tone of speaking directly to the author with the goal of improving the paper is most productive.
  • Most journals have a section for confidential comments for the editor. This is the space to advise the editor concerning publication status.
  • When a rubric is provided by the journal, please use that rubric. Many associate editors and editors adhere closely to the results of the rubric when making final decisions.
  • In a recent change, I have begun to attach my name to all reviews. Reviews are a form of scholarship. Reviewers also need to make sure that they are completely accountable for everything stated in a review. This is also a reminder to make all reviews helpful and productive for authors and editors alike. A couple editors have taken my name off of the reviews before sending to the authors. However, being accountable for our work is a good idea.
  • Some journals have begun providing feedback to reviewers. This is a wonderful idea. All reviewers could benefit from feedback and improvement in their manuscript reviewing.
  • Typically, reviews range in length from one to two single-spaced pages.
  • Reviews usually require two to four hours to complete.
  • The time that editors require for the completion of a review has been reduced significantly over the last few years. Six weeks for a review used to be the norm. Now the expectations most commonly range from 14 to 30 days. It is better to turn down an opportunity to review a journal, then to not be able to complete the review during the time allotted. A simple “I cannot get this review completed in the time allotted, but would like to review an article in the future” is sufficient.
  • As soon as the invitation to review an article is accepted, then schedule approximately one half day to complete the review in your calendar or to do list.
  • As mentioned before, it is acceptable to receive consultation or advice from others with expertise in the area. It is also completely acceptable to consult with the associate editor or editor if you have any questions about the preparation of your review. Although reviewers are supposed to be blind as to the name of the author, many times reviewers can figure out who the author is. Under no circumstances should you consult with the author of the paper on any topic.

By conducting a deep and critical review of papers in progress, graduate students can gain insight into preparation of manuscripts, data reporting, and development of research studies. There are a host of lessons that can be learned in a positive direction (e.g., being inspired by an especially creative research design or particularly useful turn of phrase) or in a negative direction (e.g., appreciating how certain forms of expression can be superfluous or misleading). Receiving practice reviewing articles for journals is not only a service to your profession, but serves as an excellent mechanism to improve your research and writing skills.

S. R. Shaw