How not to suck at surviving and changing harsh academic systems: A cynical optimist’s perspective

June 3, 2015

In my last blog post I discussed some of the issues related to kindness in academia and how to survive academia with your soul intact. Coincidentally, my chair gave a brief lecture at the most recent department meeting on the value of being at the office with doors open, increasing intradepartmental collaboration, being available for students, and making a more collegial environment. In addition, on academic Twitter there is a constant drumbeat of outrage that shouts about what academia must, ought, should, or needs to do in order to become the Platonic perfect work environment; or tear-the-whole-system-down rants. Although I appreciate in others and engage in wishful thinking myself, there needs to be straight talk on the most effective methods of creating systemic change in academia.

I have become jaded to the point that I dismiss completely most statements that use the words “must,” “ought,” “should,” “needs,” and other similar judgy and scolding words. Statements such as, “Professors must be public scholars.” “Professors ought to be figures for social justice.” “Professors should support adjunct rights.” “Professors need to be more supportive of others.” are mostly a waste of space, even though the goals are laudable. The response to such judgy words is: Or else what will happen if these things are not done? Why? Are there negative consequences if we do these apparently laudable things? These words are ineffective unless there is a more compelling case other than the writer believes passionately solely based on their limited perspective. I appreciate the writers’ passions for causes. Nearly every time I agree with the goals. Yet, the judgment words usually refer to methods rather than goals. For example, in order to achieve X you must do Y. There are multiple methods of achieving X. You can also achieve X using a different method; therefore, no one absolutely must do Y. In reality these judgy words are usually more of a social media primal scream of frustration than a serious effort to change a system or provide practical advice.

My personal interests and goals are to change the university and scientific culture to become more innovative, productive, implementation oriented, and effective at translating knowledge to policymakers and society at large. I make the assumption that such grandiose goals can only be accomplished by using all possible talent available. A diversity of perspectives and experiences can only add to the population of ideas to be explored and achieved. In addition, all of these perspectives and experiences are likely to be most effective when there is a culture of collective collaboration, inclusion, and team approaches. Marginalizing or chasing groups of people out of university and scientific culture defeats these goals. Racism, sexism, classism, and all other forms of discrimination are antithetical to my goals. Empowering low income, minority, disabled, immigrant, sexual minorities, women, and other groups are the best hope for universities and science to achieve my personal goals for society. So those are my biases and assumptions going into this argument.

Well…the above paragraph expresses lovely thoughts but is little different from the use of judgy words. The big problems involve the reinforcement structure currently in place in university and scientific systems. I very much like and respect my department chair, but those behaviours he wanted to promote will not occur unless we get reinforced for them and are not penalized if these behaviours lead to reduced research productivity. Universities (especially R1) have evolved into a factory model where the production of widgets (i.e., refereed journal publications and grant funds) lead to status, promotion, salary, and power. Unless the desired behaviours that we should, ought, must, or needs have direct positive effects on the production of widgets or the nature of what academics are reinforced for doing, then there will be no systemic change. The factory model also leads to a class system in which those in power work to maintain their power and those actually manufacturing the widgets (i.e., postdocs and grad students) receive low pay, have low status, and are constantly reminded of their low status by people in power.

Since the late 1970s the trend is to fetishize business models and structures in politics, government, public policy, and universities. The focus on efficiencies, productivity, competition, and short-term fiscal outcomes creates specific culture. Peter Higgs, of Higgs-boson particle and Nobel Prize fame, said that he was not productive enough to thrive in modern academia. I am sure someone of that talent would have thrived in modern academia, but I am not sure he would have discovered his namesake particle. The short-term factory model keeps universities from achieving potential. Although there have always been some problems, academia has also seen an increase in the common concerns of business such as fraud, financial mismanagement, lawsuits, chasing status and public recognition, and worrying more about the metrics of success (e.g., what is your h-index?) than actual success in the important work we were trained to do.

Sorry for the political rant. The point is that there is a huge amount of inequality built into the current university system of reinforcement for scholars. To expect scholars with power to voluntarily give their power to others against their own interests solely to create a more just world is not especially realistic. Many of the rants I hear about the current state of academia are equivalent to cries that people should give up their jobs and their salaries and donate everything to the poor. There may be a few saints who do such a thing, but it is unlikely to affect the level of systemic change required to have a more equal society in university settings.

This sounds like an unnecessarily pessimistic and hysterical screed. The purpose is to describe how the behaviour of academics is unlikely to change due to systemic realities. The emotional words mean little or nothing when it comes to systems level change. When large systems fail to respond, then more outrage occurs. This is closely followed by pessimism, despair, resignation, depression, and turning away from a valuable societal institution.

For those of you who have read my blog regularly, you know that I typically do not engage in political discussions; the major interest of this blog is how not to suck in graduate school. Most of the time this means surviving and thriving in a culture that can often be hostile, especially at R1 universities where the expectation for the production of widgets is especially high and the status of graduate students is especially low. Although there is nothing wrong with setting the outrage phaser to kill for purposes of a therapeutic scream, there are some approaches to surviving and thriving in the harsh system with your souls intact.

Personal survival.

Although it is frustrating to find that the system in place has power differentials built in that are unfair, you still need to survive and thrive as an individual. Recently, there were two related posts addressing personal survival in the world of academia.

The first post was a positive and productive essay on career advice in The Chronicle written by Dr. Robert Sternberg ( with thanks to Dr. Stacy Cahn for bringing this essay to my attention. Dr. Sternberg provided a series of personal long-term strategies to promote a positive and happy career in academia. I especially enjoyed his advice to avoid jerks and work in environments that make you happiest. My only quibble with Dr. Sternberg’s post is that it was written from the perspective of a highly successful professional with many career options. Many of us are barely scraping by in our career trajectory and may not have the options that he recommends. That is a minor concern. He can only write such advice effectively from his own perspective. I found his words to be wise, generous, and helpful.

The second post was from the career advice section of Science by Dr. Alice Huang. A writer requested advice concerning a supervisor who continuously looked down the female postdoc’s shirt ( Dr. Huang replied that such behaviour is inappropriate, but recommended that this postdoc “put up with it” because the postdoc needed the advisor and his advice. Dr. Huang was widely criticized for this acceptance of dehumanization and blatant sexism in the research lab. Dr. Huang was giving advice for personal survival, but not addressing larger issues. There are people who will sacrifice their personal careers for a systemic larger goal. Yet most academics value personal career survival over larger causes. Although my advice would have been far different from Dr. Huang’s I understand her position as that supporting personal survival. (FYI — my advice would come from the adjudication of ethical complaints under the American Psychological Association where the first step is to try to resolve the ethical complaint with both parties. This places the postdoc in the difficult position of telling her supervisor that the direction and intensity of his gaze not only makes her feel personally uncomfortable, but detracts from the professional atmosphere of the supervisory relationship and laboratory in general. This personal comment should be followed up with a receipt notification email to establish a paper trail should the problem continue and the concern need to be addressed at the next level.)

Personal survival in the face of systemic challenges requires self advocacy, courage, resilience, confidence, and social and peer support. Academia is not a uniform profession. There is a host of skill sets, attitudes, ambitions, and approaches that all work well in the academic world. For example, the demands of an R1 university are very different from the demands of a liberal arts college. Personally, I do not have the skills to be an effective professor at a liberal arts school. I wish I did. My skill set and approach to my career is most consistent with graduate-level professional training and a research university. Personal survival means finding the best career and employment fit to your skills and having the persistence necessary to overcome systemic challenges. It is not up to others to suggest what you should, must, ought, or need to do; it is up to you to create a person-system fit that works best for you.

The focus on personal survival may seem selfish to some. In some cases personal survival is a systems change statement. For example, I have a colleague who is both gay and a paraplegic. He usually declines opportunities to be involved in or sponsor student or faculty protests and major gay- and disability-rights initiatives on his campus. He told me that he barely has enough energy to survive and thrive in his chosen profession. And also his very existence and success is the most powerful statement he could make. You cannot make systemic change unless you are engaged with the system.

Small scale changes.

Systemic change can be as much bottom-up as top-down. I try to control what I can. As graduate program director, I have encouraged students to start their own formal graduate student association specific to our field of study. In this fashion there is a formal and informal network of students designed for peer support. My research lab consists of 13 graduate students and multiple undergraduate research assistants, and am also graduate program director of our little graduate program. We try to create an environment that is as inclusive as possible. I insist that most people considering working under my supervision talk to current lab members. The lab members have veto power and control over who their peers in the lab will be. My role as supervisor is to be a liaison between the students in my lab and the larger systems of the department, faculty (i.e., college), and the university. I believe that all of my students know that I am their advocate who has the responsibility to support students in the achievement of their professional goals. I certainly use the judgment words. However, I back those up with a rationale. For example, you must do X because the university policy requires X for your graduation. In this context the word must is less of a judgment in more of an imperative describing both methods and goals. Take care of your corner of the world to try to make it as just as possible and help people thrive in a harsh environment.

Initiating large scale changes.

Large-scale systemic change is a long process. I am a grumpy cynic. I do not believe that most people and systems make decisions for reasons of fairness or any other virtue. I doubt I would be an advocate of kindness, fairness, and equality unless I truly believed that such an approach leads to improved productivity in the outcomes for which I am rewarded. I always try to make cases for systemic change on the basis of efficiency, long-term sustainability, and productivity. Usually, such long-term thinking leads to kindness, fairness, and equality. A good example is that the state of Nebraska recently eliminated capital punishment. In this generally conservative state, capital punishment was stopped not because of any moral reasons or long-term efficacy issues, but because it is so expensive to administer. Money swayed legislation to make a decision for the good. For universities, sexism and racism for example, lead to a loss of academic talent, discouraging diverse points of view and innovation, wasted resources when students drop out of school, tainted reputation of the university, and eventually financial loss due to lack of support from donors and government policymakers. The cost of this inequality will eventually drive universities to move from the short-term thinking of a factory model to the value of long-term thinking and planning. Under the current culture any effort to make change starts by speaking the language of policy makers.


I understand that this post is the blog of a cynic. I respect the passion and enthusiasm of those trying to make systemic change because something is just and right. I also respect those who have been wronged to such a degree that they feel the need to have a therapeutic primal scream across blogs or social media. Passion is necessary for breaking inertia, but little more than that. Let’s make real change. Change happens when you survive and thrive as an individual; make your little corner of the world a just corner; and learn the goals of the system that you are trying to change, provide alternative approaches, and more just methods to achieve those goals. Using the judgy words of must, ought, should, or need without justification does not lead to change; but gets you labeled as an emotional scold who is not taken seriously by policy makers.

S. R. Shaw


How Not to Suck at Saving Your Soul

May 2, 2015

The dismissive, arrogant, negligent, and emotionally abusive supervisor is so common as to be the clichéd default of the academic world. Academic Twitter has become a therapy couch from where the cries of aggrieved graduate students, wailing of terrified junior professors, and loud calls to tear down the entire system from adjuncts (and many others) are heard. Fortunately, there are many sources of academic kindness, understanding ears, and sage advice available to those who are being run through the spin cycle of an early academic career. I would like to be more positive, however the vast majority of young academics eventually fall into four large categories: those who quit graduate school or leave academic life altogether upon graduation; those who become successful and acquire the dismissive, arrogant, negligent, and emotionally abusive behaviours that they experienced as a graduate student and a post doc; those unable to find satisfactory employment and struggle with serial postdocs or adjunct work; and those who successfully obtain tenure, but are then experience existential crises as to what to do with the rest of their careers and lives. None of these options are especially appealing to an aspiring academic. All four outcomes can be corrosive to the soul. I believe it is possible (but not easy) to have a fulfilling academic career, a good life, and keep your soul intact.

For me there are only two ways to survive academia and keep your soul intact. Those are: to have an appropriate and well-established set of personal perspectives and priorities; and to be kind.

Perspectives and Priorities:

Perspectives and priorities are difficult to establish and usually require hard knocks, experiences, and a clear worldview. The value of having effective perspectives and priorities is that the rejection, being treated unfairly, or any number of slings and arrows of academia can be disappointing; however, they are not personally devastating. To survive it is necessary to shake it off, learn, and move on to the next task armed with better skills and knowledge.

Perspectives are the points of view that establish exactly what is truly important to you. This process is different for everyone. I have what I refer to as “hard earned blessings.” For example, before entering academia I was a school psychologist for 16 years in schools, hospitals, and private practice. During this time I was cut by a teenager with a knife, bitten by a six-year-old (and still have a small scar), many of my patients in pediatric oncology succumbed to their illnesses (exactly 33), performed CPR twice (both with unsuccessful outcomes), came home with vomit or blood on my clothes several times, and was the first person to tell many parents that their child has intellectual disabilities or autism. Putting things into perspective, a rejected manuscript is just not that big of a deal. I also have a lightness of being about my career and little career ambition. That is, I do not worry about it much, am happy to be employed, and have the joy of doing the work that I want to do. I simply do the best that I can, try to improve every day, hope that is good enough, and if it is not then I will get another job. My perspective is not for everyone and may be unique, but be mindful about your perspective.

Establishing priorities also comes fairly easy for me. I am fortunate enough to have been married for 23 years and still going. I have two teenage children who are healthy. They are the priorities. Nearly every student has experienced me rescheduling a regular meeting to take a child to the dentist, attend a school function, or go to one of my wife’s office functions. Just last week I missed our lab party in order to register my younger daughter for extra math tutoring at school. I am sure the party was much more fun without the boss present. Nonetheless, everyone who works with me knows that I need to be home at a reasonable hour on most nights so I can cook dinner for my family, take the dog on a long walk, and be present almost every day. I certainly could publish more papers or do more travelling in order to become a high status or famous academic (or maybe not). To what end? To be a rock star academic (*snort laugh*)? I am never going to be rich and famous because I have a different set of priorities and I am happy with that. All families and professionals prioritize features of their lives differently, but this is what works for me and I am comfortable with it. However you establish your priorities, the most important thing is that you are comfortable with them.


Trying to change the culture of academia or the behaviour of a challenging colleague is not an especially fruitful endeavor. We have to live with a career that can be capricious at times (like most careers); and an environment that often seems to reward arrogance, Machiavellian actions, and prideful behaviour. Railing against this environment is fine for outlets such as Twitter, but an exhausting way to function on a day-to-day basis. The only inoculation against the soul corrosive nature of academics is to be an unwavering and expanding island of kindness.

Somehow kindness has been conflated with a lack of scientific rigour. I believe strongly that one can be demanding, rigorous, and have the highest possible expectations without in any way sacrificing or diminishing the humanity of colleagues or students. There are times when students mistake the negative evaluation of their work for me being unkind to them personally. This is not the case. It is extremely rare for me to think poorly of a student simply because some of their work is not up to my expectations—I just don’t. Some exceptions are lack of work effort, unethical behaviour, not behaving in a manner that supports the team, and making excuses; but these are rare events. I see my job as that of a teacher. Some lessons are hard and unpleasant, but I will not lose perspective and will support students in their effort to reach their own objectives and my expectations. If I do my job well, then all students know how much I respect them and wish for their success. This is simple. “This work needs to be better. Here is exactly how you can make it better. Good. I believe in you and I know you can make these improvements.” Kind, demanding, and rigorous. I believe strongly in the three principles of Chinese Zen leadership: clarity, courage, and humanity. When you lose your humanity or forget the humanity of others, then you cannot be a leader or teacher. I view the clarity principle as that of scientific rigour and expectations; and the courage principle as the insistence that clarity and humanity be connected.

There is always snarkiness and even some pathology in the academic world. I have teased people by telling them that academia is one of the few jobs in which you can be successful with close to zero social skills. Those who have forgotten their humanity and appear to receive pleasure and status from making others feel less are extremely sad people. They have had poor role models, are insecure, and lack perspective of the value of their opinions. The response to these people needs to be kind as well. I recall my first conference presentation at which I was insecure about how to handle the dreaded pointed and unfairly harsh question. My mentor told me to say, “I am having difficulty interpreting your comment and question as being productive. Could you please rephrase the question so that I may interpret it more productively?” In this way the questioner must either reword the question so that it is easier to address or acknowledge that the purpose of their question was not to be productive. I have never had to use that response, but it is nice to know that it is still there.

As a professional, I am mild-mannered and take all efforts to find a compromise solution to any conflict, which demonstrates clarity, courage, and humanity. However, I will call out individuals who consistently behave in a destructive manner. I will not reject their papers or deny their funding, but will recuse myself from any participation in their work in any way. If there needs to be a confrontation, then I am completely comfortable with that tactic. But destructive behaviours will not be allowed to pass. We need to remove the professional reinforcement for being an asshole. They are not eccentric or delicate geniuses, but are damaged, damaging, and are an impediment to the advancement of their field of study.

I do not believe that most academics are destructive or pathological on purpose. They simply believe that kindness takes additional time and energy that they do not have. My belief is exactly the opposite. Kindness is free. Be generous with it.  My worldview is that everything good in my life is because my intention is to help others and everything bad in my life is because I thought of myself first. Not everyone shares this world view. But, kindness is pragmatic. When I am kind to a student they will work harder. Fear and bullying are poor long-term motivators. Scholars who are fearful produce mundane studies of minutia rather than fearless advances of knowledge. This is the difference between fanning a spark into a flame and extinguishing the spark. When I model kindness to students, they learn to expect to be treated with respect. They become kind when they are placed in a position of authority. This helps to create a culture of a team or lab that is creative, fearless, collaborative, and highly motivated. They produce quality ideas and return energy to me through their enthusiasm, ideas, and work habits.  Kindness is a simple and productive investment of my time.


As seen on academic Twitter, there is a not-completely-met need for kindness in the academic world. There are many examples of professionals attempting to expand academic kindness via social media (e.g., the Twitter accounts of @CitizenAcademic; @AcademicKindnes; @raulpacheco) and in their personal behaviours. Kindness is not a personal characteristic only. It is a winning strategy for developing individuals and advancing thought within a field. Unfailing kindness in conjunction with perspectives and priorities are the best ways for saving your soul as an academic and being a productive contributor to your field

S. R. Shaw


How Not to Suck When You Don’t Want to Work

“Writer’s block is another word for laziness” — Elmore Leonard.

All respect to the late, great Elmore Leonard, but dial it back a little. We all have those days. The to-do list is long, you are sleep deprived, you have put in too many consecutive 12 hour days, and there is no end in sight. You drink your coffee and open the computer, yet the blinking cursor does nothing but mock you. You have the time to write, the ideas are well outlined, and deadlines are approaching. However, your mind is blank. Meanwhile, dishes need to be done, the dog wants to play, emails continued to pile up and there are several television shows on your DVR that demand to be watched. There are other appealing options such as day drinking, inviting a friend for lunch, and the ever popular going back to bed. Yet, you say to yourself, “This is my sacred writing time. I must work on this manuscript (or grant proposal or book chapter or report). Come on words. Start flowing.” But nothing happens. Dominating your thoughts are increasing frustration, questioning your career choices, and worrying that you will never ever be able to write another word again. These are the basics of writer’s block. Sometimes you have time, ideas, motivation, and deadlines; but you just are not in the mood to work.

First, the basics. Prevention is one of the best ways to prevent holes in productivity during inevitable ebb times. Developing a habit of writing every single day creates a situation analogous to building muscle memory. So even on days that you do not feel like writing, it is still automatic to sit down at the computer and begin work. On the worst days words will begin to flow so that some semblance of productivity can be achieved. Yet, most scholars have so many activities such as meetings, administration, teaching, supervision of students, grading, budget preparation, and other professional obligations that developing a daily writing habit can be challenging. This uneven schedule puts an enormous amount of pressure to produce during those precious time periods protected and set aside for written productivity. For me, I write every day even if I can only fit 20 minutes into my schedule and produce 100 words. It keeps the habit going and words flowing.

Second, identification of the exact nature of the problem is the most important step of any problem-solving process. Putting off writing to address pressing unmet basic needs such as sleep, food, exercise, time with friends and loved ones, and other acute self-care activities is often a quality investment that will lead to improved long-term writing productivity. So do it. Moreover, there must be the self-awareness to determine if the problem is burnout or depression. These are extremely serious situations that often require significant external supports from professionals and should not be underestimated, ignored, or simply worked through. Unless burnout and depression are successfully addressed there are short and long-term career consequences; and far more importantly major ramifications for health and quality of life. Identifying other internal short-term states that take away motivation such as waves of anxiety, situational stress, unresolved conflicts, self-doubt and many other factors also interfere and need to be addressed. Once you have ruled out or addressed all of these potentially severe causes of not wanting to work, there remain some times when you just don’t feel like it.

Third, you may not be in the mood to write because deep down you know that your project is not a good one. All scientist and writers tend to be self delusional to some degree. We frequently talk ourselves into believing that our mediocre ideas are valuable ideas. Having a discussion with an honest and forthright co-author, colleague, or other knowledgeable and supportive person might help you to reconsider and revise the outline or thesis of your paper. Sometimes not being in the mood is an excellent indicator that your thinking needs to change. Easy writing usually equals high-quality thinking (or, cynically, your level of self-delusion is extraordinarily high).

Most serious writers have rituals. My preference is for the least restrictive environment. This means I simply walk up to my computer and get to it. My only slightly unusual habits are that about 75% of my writing time is at a standing desk. I use the Pomodoro system where I work as hard as I can for 25 minutes and take an enforced five-minute break no matter where I am in the writing process. This allows me to be fresh and sharp for an entire day without working to exhaustion. Frequently, I use dictation software when I am tired of being at the keyboard. Dictation software has the advantage of speed (140 wpm dictation v. 55 wpm typing), posture (I frequently dictate with my eyes closed while lying on the couch and scratching my dog), and sometimes changing up the mode of written output can be a refreshing change. When the words are still not flowing at all I have a several part ritual: 1) turn off the Wi-Fi radio [no Internet] on my computer; 2) put earphones on and listen to a metronome that is timed to my resting heartbeat [about 52 bpm]; and 3) dim or turn off the lights. These activities allow for overcoming difficulties with focus. But sometimes the problems are not about the focus, they are about avoiding aversive and difficult work.

Sometimes you don’t feel like writing because the project is especially difficult or challenging. I write all manuscripts and grants from a prepared outline with completed tables and figures. Usually this gives me a structure to write the prose in at least a semi-organized fashion during the first draft. Because of the advanced organization of the outline and detailed preliminary thinking about the paper, once I write the first word usually everything begins to flow. When it does not flow, then I go through the outline and write the topic sentence for every paragraph within each section. The next step is to write the closing sentence for each paragraph. Then supporting details can be filled in. This process is laborious and much more like unskilled labour than scientific communication or creative writing. As Henry Miller said, “On the days that you cannot create, you can work.”

Most typically I write using the ubiquitous word processing program, Word. But when I have an especially long, challenging to organize, or difficult project; or the words are simply not coming at all, I use the Scrivener program. This program has an especially easy to use corkboard function where you can move paragraphs and topics around in an intuitive manner. This replaces the less efficient note card approach. There is also an excellent outlining system that can be quite effective. When things are really difficult I switch to the full-page view that I have set up with a black background with blue lettering. Sometimes such a jarring change of perspective can loosen some creative juices.

Most experienced academics are experienced writers, if not born writers. True writers can’t not write. They are called to write as if it is an addiction and even when they are not in the mood. Most graduate students have yet to be afflicted with this addiction. Many scientists eschew writing as much as possible and delegate the tasks to science writers or graduate students. Personally, I enjoy and cultivate this addiction. My retirement goal is to become an unsuccessful novelist and garlic farmer. Despite my addiction and retirement plans there are still days that I just don’t want to write. It may be laziness. It may be Netflix calling. But I will buckle down and try to reestablish equilibrium in my role as a scholar.

Or I could work on my blog.

S. R. Shaw

How Not to Suck at Meeting with Your Supervisor

There is wide variability in how supervisors meet with their graduate students. Some see each other every day and are otherwise continuously available. Others see their supervisor at the beginning of the academic year and say, “Good luck and God bless. I will see you at the end of the term.” Somewhere in the middle are the regular or semi-regular meetings. So how should this time be used? And how can you make the most of the precious time that you have with your supervisor?

Regular meetings with your supervisor reduce the drama in graduate school. There is a time and place for drama, but progress through graduate school is neither. Goals, timelines, frequent assessment of progress toward goals, taking advantage of teachable moments, and allowing students increasing independence and responsibility are all positive aspects of supervisions. Clear expectations, deadlines, with some how-to liberally sprinkled about lead to a no drama (or minimal drama) graduate experience.

Unless your supervisor has really given a lot of thought to supervision, then their supervision style is likely a bit chaotic. Not neglectful, but simply something that occurs in fits and starts ranging from sharing brilliant insights to total forgetfulness of your existence. As such, it is up to the students to add a bit of structure to supervision without rocking the supervisor boat. Here are some tips:

  1. Have regularly scheduled meetings. They could be daily or monthly. But make them regular. I meet with each student in my lab individually for 30 minutes per week. Sending your supervisor a reminder note the day before is never a bad idea.
  2. Just like students do not need drama, neither do the supervisors. Make sure they have a heads up before you drop really big questions on them. Academics like surprise less than sleepy cats, so some foreshadowing before big questions please (e.g., What if I want to change my thesis research to something entirely different?). If your discussion requires that the supervisor prepare for the meeting, then send these topics and questions to the supervisor in advance.
  3. Come prepared with a list of topics and specific questions for discussion. The rule for face-to-face meetings is that news or a simple Q&A can be transmitted through e-mail/text; but topics that require discussion, debate, and consensus building are for meetings. So make sure that your topics are such that a face-to-face meeting is required. Usually the act of preparing such a list is extremely helpful in articulating your needs and clarifying your own thinking.
  4. I always like a little chit chat to start a meeting. Not everyone does. I want to get a sense that students are in good physical and mental health, and are generally available to get work done. Any big events in their lives that might be stressors are good to know. Sometimes work is just not the most important thing.
  5. Always review important events in your timeline. For example, “Chapter one is due in three weeks. I am on pace to meet that deadline and will have a draft to you on time.” Or “This chapter is taking longer than I thought it would. I will have it finished in four weeks.” Excuses, no matter how good are not productive to discuss. I care about the student, but do not care about the excuse. FYI—there is no difference between an excuse and a reason. What I want to hear is: there is a problem, the student has developed an alternative approach that reduces the impact of the problem, and the student checks to see if their solution is satisfactory. I also do not really care that you tried really hard. Just say that you do not know how to do something and you require knowledge or skills on how to complete a task. My fault for not providing appropriate support. Science is a results-driven business. And do not apologize. I am not personally offended or usually harmed if things do not go well. Stuff happens: the original deadlines were unrealistic, the student did not have the requisite skills, some unexpected event occurred that interfered with task completion, or something else. The problems are rarely totally the student’s fault. My major concern is: how can we overcome the problems and get back on the timeline?
  6. Listen and take notes. Thinking, “I don’t need to write this down, I will remember” is a recipe for disaster—or at least forgetting.
  7. After the meeting send the supervisor an e-mail/text that summarizes the major points of the meeting. This serves many purposes. So you can ensure agreement on the results of the meeting. It is amazing how two people can be at the same meeting and draw very different conclusions. A reminder of the action plans and deadlines. Sometimes students say to me, “Don’t forget to do that thing that we talked about.” And I am totally clueless as I have forgotten. Or worse, “I don’t remember agreeing to do that.” The student can then say, check your e-mail of X date. I usually look for that e-mail, find it, and say, “Damn, I did agree to do that. Okay.” It just ensures that we are on the same page and creates strong accountability for both parties.
  8. The final step in the meeting is to schedule the next meeting. If you have regularly scheduled meetings then a quick reminder of the day and time of the next meeting is adequate.

A good rule of meetings is that 40% of the purpose of the meeting is done before, 20% at the meeting, and 40% after the meeting. The act of preparing and reviewing the outcomes of meetings with the supervisor will go a long way in minimizing the big stressors and avoidable headaches of graduate school; and just as importantly, keep your relationship with your supervisor on a productive footing.

S. R. Shaw

How Not to Suck at Administrative Tasks

An underrated factor differentiating successful graduate students and academics from their less successful peers is completing mundane administrative tasks efficiently and on time. In my previous career as a school psychologist and later as the lead psychologist in a major hospital, completing administrative tasks was a challenge. By that, I mean that I sucked at these tasks. I struggled to complete psychological reports, expense requests, staff evaluations, billing activities, and budgetary plans on time, following appropriate procedures, and with high quality. When working in a school district I had more than a small reputation among the clerical staff as being an inept psychologist because I could never remember which forms needed to be signed in blue ink and which forms needed to be signed in black ink. Secretaries, administrative staff, and other support personnel frequently nagged me to correct errors, submit a late report, or remember a specific bureaucratic rule. (The movie Office Space hit too close to home: “There seems to be a problem with the new cover sheet on your TPS reports. Let me resend that memo.”) Administrative tasks were always the activities that I avoided and consistently gave the lowest priority. Intellectually, I knew that these administrative tasks were essential to the job. Correct and timely completion of administrative tasks leads to improved allocation of resources, operating funds, accreditation, and ultimately everything that allows for professional service delivery to our clientele. However, my disdain for administrative tasks had more than a small underpinning of arrogance. The implicit message was that I was a highly trained professional who is beneath small bureaucratic tasks—George Costanza’s “delicate genius.” Such an approach is clearly not productive and kind of the attitude of a jerk. I have since learned and matured to the point that I understand that administrative tasks are essential to any job and must be completed efficiently and accurately.

As I made the transition from clinician to university professor, I quickly learned how much I relied on my secretary (I still miss Patti a lot). I honestly did not know that the university departmental secretary was not available to manage my schedule, edit correspondence, make phone calls on my behalf, and remind me to complete the administrative tasks that were part of my job. Fortunately, the department secretary laughed, took pity on me, and sat me down to explain the situation. And graduate students are also not available for these tasks unless I explicitly pay them to do so, which is not a good use of their time. Equally as quickly, I learned that there were many administrative tasks that professors are required to complete. Grading, evaluating teaching assistants, grant budgets, expense reports, and many other tasks are essential, can interfere with research productivity and teaching, and frequently are put at the lowest priority of the to-do list.

The first things that I needed to learn in order to get administrative tasks under control, rather than them controlling me, were to become good at these tasks and what can be best delegated. When there is a major task on the horizon I still sit down with our department secretary or other knowledgeable administrator to discuss the goals, details, timelines, and exactly what my role is in the completion of these administrative tasks. Clarify the parameters of the task. Then I set out to complete my duties. The only thing worse than administrative tasks is to spend hours on such tasks only to learn that you have completed the wrong forms, used the wrong ink, or made significant errors. I am still not especially excited about the tasks. Yet, I understand that they are important and that the best way to minimize the time and energy spent on such task is to become a master of these tasks.

As someone who has often shunned or ignored administrative tasks I have grudgingly learned that the key is to be early, rapid, and efficient. Submit forms and reports as early as possible. Seek advice and delegate when possible. Consider that every moment spent on fairly dull and tedious administrative tasks increases the likelihood that you will not be interrupted or disturbed when you need to spend time on tasks that are most important to you. Therefore, students and professors benefit from mastery of all of the rules, details, and bylaws that govern their functioning. Once you have mastery of these administrative rules, then you can develop efficient methods of meeting your requirements. Administrative tasks are the grease that makes all systems run efficiently. All successful in academics have spent significant time plowing through tasks considered to be mundane, bureaucratic, and clerical. Do it well, do it efficiently, and the time for your priorities and goals will be best protected.

As my ability and willingness to undertake administrative tasks improved, the opposite problem began to arise. Manuscripts, book chapters, and grant proposals were delayed and otherwise put off because I was engaged in the completion of administrative tasks. The routine nature of these tasks makes them relatively easy. Moreover, there is immediate positive feedback from secretaries, committee chairs, administrators, and editors; whereas manuscripts are projects with long-delayed and uncertain feedback. In this case, urgent but not necessarily important administrative tasks served as a convenient avenue for procrastination. These administrative tasks needed to be completed, but can certainly wait. And yet I allowed them to cut into my writing time. When most people talk about being busy, they are probably conscientiously completing urgent, but not important, administrative tasks (e.g., e-mail backlog). As most academics know, these tasks add up and can quickly fill up each day, every day. Over-reliance on the completion of administrative tasks gives the impression that you are continuously and chronically busy. But at the end of the day there is little to show for it in the areas of research productivity or teaching.

As in most things, setting priorities and goals is a key. At the beginning of each week and at the beginning of each day I set priorities as to the most important task of the week or task of the day. Therefore, I have goals concerning what I want to accomplish and how I will spend most of my time. Concerning administrative tasks, my primary goal is to ensure that I am not interrupted in working toward my priorities and goals. Thus, I attempt to avoid situations where I force payroll, administrative support services, funding agencies, or colleagues to nag me over completion of an overdue administrative task. This is my primary motivation for administrative tasks: not to be interrupted or disturbed in my effort to achieve my priorities and goals.

Priorities and goals are reflected in how one spends time. My default is to allocate 10% of the work week for conducting and maintaining administrative tasks. Usually this means that I spend four hours per week on some aspect of routine administration. Even in weeks where there are no apparent tasks to complete (rare, now that I am a program director), I still find it productive to update my CV, check grant budgets, complete research ethics reports, ensure student grades are accurate, and develop agreement forms for research partners. These preemptive tasks are helpful in organizing information so that when large tasks are due, they are not quite as onerous. In addition, extra time is allocated for end-of-term tasks such as grading, grant proposals, student evaluations, and other issues that arise regularly throughout the academic year. Very large administrative tasks will require more time and need to be planned well in advance so that other priorities and goals can also be achieved. Some very large administrative tasks include program accreditation, review of applications for admissions to graduate school, and financial audits of expenditures. The primary point is that administrative tasks are important and require planned time and effort; yet cannot be allowed to take over your calendar to the point that your priorities and goals are overwhelmed.

There is no doubt that I still struggle to complete administrative tasks. My cluttered desk, a variety of projects, and a stack of expenses to be submitted are evidence of the struggle. Yet, I work hard to ensure that my challenges as a bureaucrat do not interfere with my priorities and goals as a teacher, researcher, supervisor, and program director. Administration has its place. I no longer avoid the completion of these tasks, nor do I use these tasks to procrastinate when other work becomes difficult. It still is not fun and I envy the bureaucracy savants. But there are times carved into my calendar to ensure that these tedious and essential tasks are completed efficiently and on time.

S. R. Shaw

How Not to Suck at Setting Annual Goals

December 31, 2014

I was inspired by @lauracshum’s blog post on her annual goals for 2015 ( Her organization and the ambition of her goals are fun to read and will certainly be helpful for her.

This inspiration led me to think about how best to use annual goals. Most people who know me, know that I have about zero ambition. I truly enjoy the process of work and whatever results from that work is fine with me. Things generally work out when I put the work in. Being rich, famous, having a good reputation, or some other professional destination do not seem like worthwhile goals—too dependent on the perceptions of others. But goals are useful in deciding what activities I want to spend my time on. Saying “no” is only useful if you have a strong “yes” in mind (I think that is a Stephen Covey phrase, but am too lazy to look it up). My “yes” will be focused on achieving these goals. I should say “no” to all requests that do not help me to achieve these goals. So goals help with the development of time management decisions.

I am also a fan of SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. Goals also serve to keep one accountable. And because I am posting these goals—publicly accountable. There are so many things I want to do or think that I should do, but these all seem challenging and reasonable. Borrowing liberally from Laura’s organization, here are my 2015 goals:


• Lead the School/Applied Child Psychology program at McGill University to CPA accreditation in 2015
• Increase the applicant pool to our program to over 125 applicants in 2016
• Build a stronger level of community support for the program by involving alumni, community leaders, sessional instructors, and field supervisors in the development of the direction of the program
• Reduce the turn-around time for manuscripts to School Psychology Forum ( to a median time of less than 35 days. FYI–I am the editor of this journal.
• Increase outreach and strategic placement of School Psychology Forum
• Do one extra activity, idea, or task for every class session, lab meeting, or supervision session


• Submit more than 8 manuscripts to refereed professional journals in 2015
• Complete the first draft of the book “Children with Genetic Disorders at School: Translating Research into Practice” with Prof. Ania Jankowska for Springer
• Submit 3 proposals for external funding
• Continue outreach efforts to expand data collection throughout North American schools.
• Develop remote data collection capacity

• Have a successful Spartan Race run in May 2015
• Consistent 5 day per week workout schedule
• Consistent 6 day per week healthful eating schedule
• Be under 15% body fat by year’s end
• Average 7 hours of sleep per night

• Teach Indie (our dog) a new trick every month
• Completely unrushed time holding my wife every day
• Appreciate and support the wonderful adult that daughter #1 has become (and tell her)
• Make sure that daughter #2 knows how impressed and proud I am at how she is negotiating a challenging adolescence—and provide all of the supports that she needs
• Get and engage in a hobby (considering renewing my knife throwing activities and/or start writing a novel) weekly. FYI—drinking fine wines and cocktails really should not be a hobby
• Socialize with non-academic friends at least once per month
• Be present

We will see how I did next December.

S.R. Shaw

How Not to Suck at Being a Male Supervisor of Female Students

Often I make recommendations for graduate students or supervisors. This entry is about sharing problems that do not have a one-size-fits-all solution. As always, I am not an expert and clearly do not have everything figured out. There are errors, failures, and horrible decisions on my part. Hopefully, these stories will be helpful for others.

One of the many benefits that I have received from being a scholar on Twitter is that I follow a large number of female scholars and experts in feminist theory. This has been an eye-opening experience. I have been made aware of the challenges that female scholars face. I am more than a little embarrassed that I had no idea that female scholars routinely face harassment, lack of earned respect, intimidation, hostile environments, threats, and even physical dangers. As an academic, we are diminished by losing such intellectual talent to this environment. As a human, we are just diminished.

Many of my role models are female scholars such as Nadine Lambert at UC-Berkeley, Marta Bogdanowicz of University of Gdansk, and Brenda Milner of McGill University. I am in a field that is mostly female in clinical practice and increasingly female in academia. We are fortunate to have many female leaders and a strong culture of outstanding and respected female scholars. Although admittedly naïve, I understand that my female students face challenges and risks that male students do not; moreover, they may also face disadvantages because they have a male supervisor.

There are some basics that have nothing to do with gender. I have a general philosophy to hold people to high expectations, give support, and treat everyone with respect. Independent, initiating, and strong people tend to have better outcomes. All students have different goals and I negotiate expectations to meet our mutual needs. If they are not meeting agreed upon milestones, then there is private remediating and renegotiation of goals, establishment of a paper trail of efforts to fix problems, and possible dismissal from my supervision for those not responding.

The culture of the lab is that students work together in a supportive environment. Senior students are expected to model appropriate behaviours and mentor the newer lab members. I often ask for student feedback and input into who to accept into the lab. Empowering students to make decisions helps to create leadership, ownership, and a productive work environment.

There are some issues that are explicitly related to being a male supervisor of female students. For example, some supervisors are extremely close and are even personal friends with their students—especially same sex students and supervisors. I feel that I can never do that with my students. I am not sure that developing such close personal relationships with students is a good idea in any case. Nonetheless, I tend to be friendly, but distant from my students. It is rare for me to have lunch with a student, I do not go drinking with them, and we rarely get together when at the same conferences—unless we have shared professional duties. I like these people. Under different circumstances we could be friends. I am not worried that anything inappropriate would happen; yet heteronormative assumptions are strong and suspicions of male mentors and female students are commonplace. However, avoiding the perception of favour toward a specific student or the slightest suspicion that there is a personal relationship that goes beyond the professional will hurt the reputation of that student and the dynamic of the lab. This distance cannot be only for female students. I keep the same distance from male students as well. It does not seem right to be distant from female students and go out drinking or watching sports with male students.

An unfortunate occurrence is when female students have learned that their best method of working with a male supervisor is via flirtation. This has happened with me on three occasions that I perceived. I never had a thought that this flirtatious behaviour was directed at me or constituted a sexual invitation. These students have simply learned that they can curry favour, reduce expectations and workload, or gain some other advantage when working directly with males who are in a supervisory role. It is too bad that there is a culture in place that taught these students that flirtation is an effective set of behaviours. These students are extremely smart, so clearly this strategy must be effective. I even doubt that they are consciously aware of how their behaviour is perceived. At first, I attempted to protect myself. I never met with these students with my office door closed, kept a physical distance, and avoided these students when possible. Because I am mentoring future professionals, this form of self-protection was irresponsible and maladaptive on my part. We now discuss professional dress and body language when required. Touching hair, excessive laughing, too close of a personal space for the culture, touching the person with whom you are speaking, and revealing dress are not the behaviours of professionals. Good listening skills, appropriate friendliness, and developing a repertoire of productive non-verbal behaviours are the goals. So long as there is no question in anyone’s mind that my sole goal is to improve the professionalism of my students, these approaches are successful in assisting the supervisory relationship to return to equilibrium.

A major fear for me as I moved from clinical work to academic work is that I did not want to become a clichéd creepy middle-aged professor or be perceived as such. I am aware that Just to bring up the topic is a bit creepy. I know four male professors who routinely sleep with their students. They often move from one university to another and are widely acknowledged to be toxic and destructive. That is a level of creepy that I cannot comprehend. I know most of my students would lose respect for me and leave my supervision. Even away from campus, I know many middle-aged professors who troll professional conferences for grad students. I do not typically judge. I know many married people who have same-time-next-year relationships at conferences and that works for them. Hooking up with a younger person is also generally fine, but students are different and I get judgey as hell. The power differential between professors and students is so large as to make these hook-ups seem predatory and generally icky (and many times just pathetic). Being at a conference and out of town are not excuses to engage in unprofessional behaviors that are often destructive for students. My students are adults and do not require a protector or big brother, but we have open discussions about professionalism and reputation management in supervision and at conferences.

My goal is to have open communication with students. I would like them to feel as comfortable as possible to let me know when my behaviour is not appropriate. Most are and some are not at that level of comfort with me. Yes, they have told me that a joke was not appropriate (once) or I should not have written something on Twitter (a few times). The intended atmosphere is that students are free to criticize me or make suggestions. These are not secret issues. We have open discussions about conference behaviour, when students feel that have been treated unfairly on campus or in field work, which aspects of the work environment make them less than fully comfortable, and any concerns about safety. Because I have a good sense that I am fairly naïve and a bit clueless (and am really trying to be smarter); open conversations on the topic of fairness, treatment, and issues in cross gender supervision are all on the table for discussions public and private.

For example, in a previous post on this blog I made a mindless and off-the-cuff comment about women in yoga pants. I received a couple of long comments from readers criticizing that sentence. I did not intend to offend, but I was upset that the comment overshadowed the point I was trying to make. That makes it poor writing, which is an egregious error. We discussed this among a couple of lab members. The consensus was that no one was personally offended, but it was a poorly chosen example. They teach and I will improve.

This is a pragmatic issue, not really a social justice issue. I am not nice. Yet, I know that I will consistently attract and retain the best and most diverse students because I listen to my students. The students in my lab will be more creative, hard working, motivated, and productive because they are valued. I will do my best to support students’ relationships, marriages, and families. I do not understand how a hostile or anti-woman environment makes for better science. This is a marathon and not a sprint. Students will have better long-term career outlooks when they are happy, fulfilled, and have balanced lives.

My primary goal is to support and sometimes push students to accomplish more than they ever thought they could possibly achieve. I am not sure how many opportunities and experiences my female students lose by having a male supervisor. I am not sure if they lose confidence or feel less valued or less supported than my male students. They know that I am a white guy who is privileged and somewhat out of touch; but I understand the responsibilities that accompany my role. The intent is that by having open discussions and keeping basic rules of interaction clear, that I am communicating that I respect and value all of my students. The labbies are wonderful in supporting me to become a better supervisor. The essence of mentorship is shared learning. Continuously seeking to improve, keeping a culture of student co-ownership, and willingness to listen and change are hopefully as important to the people in my lab as anything that our research creates, discovers, and uncovers.

S. R. Shaw

Mindful Scheduling and Work Habits

There is much blogging and twitter discussion about the how students and faculty work. There seem to be a variety of styles, methods, and approaches to getting work done. Some are consistent with the way I work and some seem downright bizarre. I want to make the case for being mindful, flexible and open minded about the specific approach that students and scholars take to scheduling and work habits. You may think that you are a night owl or binge writer now, and those things might work for you now, but be open minded. Changes in your life and work may necessitate incorporating major new work habits.

Many students are binge writers. They do not write much, but simply listen and think for a long period of time. The ideas are allowed to percolate until they are fully brewed. Then they write for 18 to 24 hours consecutively. Jack Kerouac used to write this way with the help of Benzedrine. He is famous for having written nearly all of On the Road in 48 straight hours of writing. I would write this way in graduate school (with espresso, rather than Benzedrine). Deadlines? No problem. I can write 8,000-10,000 words in 24 hours without any problems at all. Maybe 8 to 12 hours of editing the following day and I can finish an article length paper in 2 days.

I also considered myself a night owl. The best time to write was midnight to 6am. The world was quiet and dark. This was the way for me; classes and meetings in the day and writing all night. My dissertation was written that way. I worked at my internship site from 7:00 to 6:00, ate dinner and wrote from 8:00-4:00.
But things change. Shockingly, I married the woman I was living with during those hectic times. And I got a job. And then kids. Quickly, I learned that binge writing is basically not compatible with marriage, family, sleep, health, and is otherwise not sustainable. Spending time with family and work demands large amounts of energy. The need for sleep catches up. With babies you learn to sleep whenever possible. At some point, I needed to change. And I changed to a quota method. In this approach, I set a daily quota of 500 to 1,000 words written per day. Usually, this writing was done before work or at lunch. I also learned that the more I read, the easier it was to write. Once I developed the habit and skills, my quota was 100 pages read 1,000 words written each day. BTW—email, tweets, lessons plans and such do not count. The quota works fairly well as a consistent and sustainable method of work. I learned to be an efficient writer using tools such as voice recognition software, standing desks, and even writing text on an iPhone when on a train or bus. I thought this would be my habit forever.

But things change. Shockingly, I am still married 23 years later. But the change is that I am getting a bit older and slower. I need to have at least 6 hours of sleep per night. Moreover, my work tends to be more delegated now. I have matured to the point where I trust my well-trained students to do some of the hard writing and do not need to do everything myself. Also, I now have the role as a graduate program director with significant administrative responsibilities. The quota system is difficult to maintain. I needed to switch to a modified Pomodoro system for writing and editing that focuses on timed segments. The Pomodoro system involves 25 minutes of timed and intensive work and 5 minutes of rest. I use this online timer, although I am sure there are many that are equally as good ( My days are fully scheduled; including exercise, family time, cooking, and such. I now schedule 20 Pomodoros for writing per week. This time is spent writing new text or editing. I needed to learn the skills of popping into writing focus exactly when the writing segment begins. It may seem difficult, but with practice it is not too difficult. And writing segments are set like any other meeting. I may move these times around, but these are not free time slots that get cancelled. There is a lot of pressure off of me. Under the quota method there were days where I had written only 500 words and it was 11:00pm. Those late-night words were invariably terrible and a waste of time and sleep.

I learned my new system from my daughter, who is a time management wiz. I am also now an early morning person, who is awake at 5:00 or 5:30. I see from twitter that @raulpacheco and others use a similar system.

Below is my preliminary schedule for the fall 2014 term. Note that there is a lot of flexibility built in. There are always theses to be edited, journals to be read, and unexpected happenings and events. The main issue is to fiercely protect the 20 writing segments per week. If there is something that interferes with the 20 writing segments and a challenging deadline, then additional writing segments are added on weekends. Almost always, I will turn off the internet when in the writing segments. My first work of the day is a preview. This involves checking calendar, updating to do list, checking e-mail, and just making sure I know what the day brings. Best part about a train commute is I can do my preview, tweet silliness, and check the news. There is also a review at the end of the day. This involves consolidating notes from meetings, updating to do list, answering e-mails and preparing for the next day. I meet with each student under my supervision for 30 minutes per week to discuss research topics. One helpful tool I have just started using is to ask students to summarize and e-mail me a summary of the major points from all one-on-one meetings. This way, I remember what I am supposed to do, can ensure that my understanding and the student’s understanding of the meeting are the same, and have tangible information to use for student evaluation. On a last note, my calendar is publically available. This calendar is posted on my door and website. This makes me accountable for my work and whereabouts. Students also know when and how to contact me.

Fall 2014 draft schedule

The theme here is to be mindful about the consequences of your scheduling and work habits on your life. Be willing to change well-practiced work habits and patterns. There are many ways to be efficient, productive, and balanced. You may need to learn new skills and work habits to maintain a well-balanced life. For my labbies, who are scared of the time commitments in the academic world, I will say that academics is far more flexible and family friendly than clinical practice. I am also a big fan of keeping perspective and priorities in order. I do not think it is odd to schedule family time, exercise or dog walking. Without such things in the schedule, they are taken for granted and sometimes forgotten. It is extremely rare for me to miss my children’s’ dentist appointments, school meetings, judo classes, or other events. I am not a fan of the “quality time” concept with family. Big fat hunks of quantity time work best for us. So this schedule is open to guilt-free change or cancellation if I am needed elsewhere. However you work, have a plan for maximum productivity and protection of your quality of life.

How Not to Suck at Graduate School Over the Summer


For most graduate students the summer brings a bit of a break. Summer classes rarely run from June 1st to August 31st. Even in a year-around lab, summer is the time when supervisors go on vacation, and some of those vacations are quite extended. When post-docs and other contracted students are to work full time, there are still two weeks vacation built in to these employment contracts. Summer is typically the time when there are few grant deadlines or proposal deadlines for conferences. There are also the fortunate few who actually have completely flexible time for 13 weeks over the summer. Nonetheless, how the summer is spent will go a long way toward determining how quickly and effectively you move toward achieving your degree and professional goals.

The key word describing the summer is investment. Even a short lull in summer represents a pause from constantly reacting to course assignments, research demands, proposal deadlines, unreasonable supervisor expectations, last minute requests, and other urgencies. Summer is the time to reflect thoughtfully on your needs and goals. This is when you invest time in the activities that you said you would do when you have time.

The first part of your investment plan is to conduct a self-assessment after the difficult academic year. Did you fall behind on your research? Are you so stressed that it is difficult to function? Does your relationship with family and significant other require mending or renewing? Has it been more than 6 weeks since you have socialized with friends? What activities can you achieve over the summer that will bring your graduate date closer? What is your financial state? What things do you want to do, but never had a chance do with your hectic schedule? What events are coming up in the fall that you can make easier by preparing in the summer? And many more. You need to have a firm grasp of your current status in order to know what the direction of your investment will be. In order to read any map or receive any directions, you need to identify exactly where you are.

Planning your summer allows for priorities and perspective. If you have a good summer, then these plans will probably change due to fun and interesting opportunities that arise. In the summer, your wellness goals can take a high priority. Exercise, catch up on sleep, improve diet, schedule e-mail free weeks, decompress from stress, read a novel, take a vacation can all be top priorities and great investments. The next parts to schedule are the events, specific programs, and research milestones required by your graduate program and supervisor. Remember that you can rarely count on faculty members to meet over the summer. And getting two or more faculty members together for a summer meeting is like herding cats. However, catch up and meet the required deadlines. The next component to plan is the preparation work required for fall. There are often grants due, conferences to prepare for, and data collection events that take place in the fall. What can you do over the summer to make fall deadlines a bit easier? Finally, plan to make gains. While we are all struggling to keep our head above water in the fall and spring, summer can be a chance to make real progress. This is the time to publish an extra paper, get an early start on a thesis, or begin preparation for comprehensive exams. Students who take the most initiative are noticed by faculty members and by fellowship and scholarship committees.

There is a sneaky part of summer that no one really tells you. That is, you do not need to work all that hard in order to make progress. Because there are fewer places that you must be and people are not around the office or lab as often, less time is spent commuting, attending classes, going to required meetings, and the like. Therefore, concentrated time can be spent pursuing summer goals. So putting in a six-hour day of work is a long day in the summertime. Every day that you do a little bit of work in the summer will save a lot of work in the fall.

I am not a graduate student and seem to have no need to take vacations. But here are my summer plans.

  • Self-assessment: there is a massive backlog of manuscripts and a book to write and fall data collection projects to prepare. There is also a need to upgrade the graduate program handbook and website. The journal I edit could use a lot more attention. Recruiting outstanding students for 2015 needs to begin. I need to prepare my lab for a visiting professor, who is starting in the fall. Mental health status is good. I am excited and refreshed after a busy fall and spring. Physical health status is improved. I gained weight and stopped exercising when work became stressful (big mistake) and I experienced some injuries that slowed me down. Although I am in good health, it is time to regain fitness.
  • Planning: Vacations are not something either my wife or I do well. But we are planning a few four-day weekends, several Saturday hikes in the mountains, and an APA conference/family trip to DC. Although always fair complected, my wife has commented that since we moved to Montreal, I have become positively glow-in-the-dark I am so white. So getting a little sun is also a priority.
  • Typical work day:

6:00 Wake up and walk dog
6:30 Yoga and coffee
7:00 Write new material
11:00 Make late breakfast for family (we do intermittent fasting—it’s my wife’s thing)
12:00 Take a short run (4k-5k)with the dog
1:00 Administrative work and editorial work for journal
4:00 Answer e-mails, read novels, and goof off
6:00 Make dinner with family
7:00 More family time
9:00 Workout
10:00 Maybe (likely) an adult beverage to end the day
11:30 Bed

Not every day will be like this, but this will be the typical day for 6 days per week for the summer. It will be nice to wake up a little later than usual and make an effort to get to bed early. Mostly I am hoping to catch up on my research productivity, which was woeful this last year; and get my weight down quite a bit. Another good part about summer that is that there is no real stress when the typical day is disrupted. Friends and family will visit, we suddenly decide to catch a matinee and go out to lunch, or the weather will simply be too nice to work (in Montreal it is a sin to waste the few great weather days we have). That is okay. Follow the plans more days that not and you will be making an excellent investment in reducing graduate school stress, improving your productivity, and moving closer to graduation (with your health and sanity intact).


How not to suck at maintaining your health in graduate school: Stress Management

Blog plans: I will continue to write how not to suck at graduate school for my students and others who wish to follow and comment. In the fall, I will be starting a monthly content-based blog on the science of implementation of educational and psychological interventions. This blog will reflect the work and thinking from the Connection Lab at McGill University. My students will be making many of the contributions. The target audience for this new blog is teachers, school psychologists, educational administrators, and academics.

Note and Recommendation: My colleague and respected peer mentor, Professor Bruce Shore, has written an excellent book for all graduate students and academic supervisors entitled, The Graduate Advisor Handbook: A Student-Centered Approach. Professor Shore has won every award that McGill University has for teaching and supervision, in addition to being an outstanding scholar. Moreover, he is a good guy. But this book is useful and a must read for all supervisors (and their students). ( If every graduate-level supervisor read and followed the ideas put forth in this book, then there would be no need for this blog.

STRESS!!! Everyone seems to talk about it all of the time. Stress and busy-ness seem to be a badge of honour for everyone in modern life. To some degree this is a humble-brag (i.e., I am so important that everyone wants me to do everything all of the time). For the most part, I have little patience for professionals who complain about stress and how busy they are. Say, “No” more often and appropriately, delegate effectively, have well-considered priorities and perspectives, self-advocate well; and these take care of most stress for many. These rather flip approaches are effective, but not realistic options for most of us. For example, parents, people with unreasonable bosses, jobs where there is little control—that is, nearly all of us. This is why graduate students inevitably experience uncomfortable levels of stress. They often have the worst of all worlds–high expectations, high volume of work, minimum control, and unclear criteria for success. Stress is inevitable and nearly impossible to avoid.

Graduate students have multiple bosses, who are ego-centric, capricious, and often have a different agenda than helping students cope. I admit to being part of the problem and tell all of my students, “My goal as a supervisor is to have you accomplish more than you think that you can. And it will be difficult.” I push students. I also say, “I love you guys, but I want you to leave. Let’s get you graduated.” Moreover, graduate students tend to be conscientious, ambitious, high achieving, people pleasing, driven, and intense. Add these ingredients to juggling financial concerns, attempting to maintain a social and family life, managing relationships with significant others, coping with physical and mental health issues, navigating university bureaucracy, addressing immigration and tax issues, striving to achieve personal goals and dreams, being resilient to failure experiences (often for the first time), and many more things. These ingredients are a perfect recipe for stress. Even if you are among the lucky few who can manage these stressors effectively, the volume of work and being constantly evaluated will likely cause increases in stress.

I honestly do not have answers. Frankly, I do not trust people who say that they have the answers. The factors leading to stress vary dramatically across students. Solutions also vary. Here are some ideas that I use that seem to work for me (and some that did not work for me). I am hoping that some of these ideas work for of you.

A major way to avoid big stress is to avoid poor short-term coping mechanisms. Stress in grad school made made me want to escape. I had graduate school issues with alcohol and drug use, and some other high-risk behaviours. Those behaviours work well immediately. In the long-term these escape behaviours created far more stress than if I had simply stayed stressed. Escape can be fun and not a bad short-term coping mechanism, so long as the behaviours are healthful. Long-term coping with stress usually centres on the concept of control. Oddly, I believed that engaging in these unhealthful escape behaviours were about taking control of my graduate student life. In fact, these behaviours resulted in losing control and creating more stress. I did not have success in graduate school until I developed better coping mechanisms addressing stress that increased my control.

I learned to become a control freak. My day is scheduled to 15-minute chunks. Nearly all of my coping is centred around keeping to my schedule. As such, it is nearly impossible to contact me by phone, I check e-mails every 2 hours, tweet 4 times per day, and do not allow the opportunity for people to just drop in. I have office hours—so there is a planned time for people to drop in. I also teach anyone around me what the definition of “crisis” is. If you are bleeding, someone needs CPR, having an emotional breakdown, having a car breakdown; then I will drop everything and be there right now. But in the history of mankind there has never been a paperwork or signature crisis. Plan and schedule appropriately. I truly become stressed when the boss says, “Just drop by my office in the morning for a chat.” Or there is a meeting that we must schedule “tomorrow.” Or anything else that requires that I deviate from my agenda. My stress sky-rocketed this year as I became the graduate program director. On a weekly basis, I heard things like, “The budget was changed last night. We need to meet this afternoon to re-schedule all of the classes for fall.” Arghhh! I have learned to have a bit of flexibility in scheduling. I have time slots on my calendar for “unexpected events.”

The other aspect of being a control freak is that I must know what is expected of me. The tenure process made me physically ill with stress. The criteria are maddeningly vague. I never received a straight answer. I send my dossier to many people inside and outside of the university to ask if I had a chance to get tenure. They laughed and said, “Of course you will get tenure. Why are you even worried?” It did not matter. Without firm criteria for success, I could not control my anxiety. Given my experiences, which I know are not typical, here are a few tools to control stress:

  1. Make annual goals with your supervisor. Do this in the fall. Sit down and develop measurable and observable goals. Submit 3 refereed papers, Complete dissertation proposal, Average 20 hours per week in the lab are measurable and clear criteria for success. Improve clinical skills, write more papers, become a better teacher are not measurable. You can handle almost any volume of work, if you have time to plan and the criteria are clear.
  2. Take each goal and assess the resources required to complete this goal. Supervision, time, materials, personnel, and other needs can be analysed. Also develop a time line for completion of each goal.
  3. Assess your progress toward each goal each week. Revise the plan as needed, but do not go more than a week without evaluating progress.
  4. This same process can be used for classwork, field placements, internships and the like.

When you know exactly what you want to do and accomplish, then it is easier to say “no” to tasks that do not contribute to the short or long-term objectives that you have. This sounds psychotically controlling and a bit obsessive. I think that control reduces stress. The supervisor who says, “Let’s just see how things go” or “We will see what kind of projects pop up” might sound flexible; but vagueness equals stress or getting nothing completed. Yet, the second big part of establishing this style of control is that students know that they can renegotiate goals based on unpredictable stressors and events; or underestimating of the amount of time or resources required to achieve a project. You can have flexibility and control. My students know that if a new project that is not in their goals pops up, that they will have the choice to accept or decline this opportunity. We may need to rework the goals to fit this new project.

Once you have these timelines set out, then put tasks and steps in your calendar. Then add to your schedule time for:

  1. Sleep
  2. Eat
  3. Socialize
  4. Exercise
  5. Free time

Yes, I said to schedule sleep. It is so stressful to need sleep, but feel guilty about going to bed. Sleep—you earned it. Also, I am not a fan of multitasking. I think that it is inefficient and adds to stress and guilt. Don’t write a paper and watch reality TV. Schedule an hour to write the paper and an hour to watch TV. Bonus: the TV is completely guilt free.

A weird and random item. In my schedule is a 5-minute seated meditation in the morning and at noon. It is helpful for me to know how to clear my mind of clutter and have at least 10 minutes of empty time. I find this activity energizing and clarifying. I use a simple breathing meditation. Sit, count, and experience breaths. When an intrusive thought comes to your mind, that is okay; but start counting at one again. It took me two weeks to get past counting one breath before a thought intruded. Now I can usually go 5 minutes with an empty mind. Controlling one’s own thoughts is a stress-reducing form and important form of control.

In case my theme here is not entirely clear to grad students: choose your supervisor wisely. The best way to keep a lid on stress is to have a supportive supervisor and peer group. Stay way from any potential supervisor who says, “Well, I did it this way when I was a student and you will do it that way, too.” There are many successful supervision styles, but they need to acknowledge that graduate school is inherently stressful and support a plan to help you manage and control stress that meets your individual needs.

Frequently, I read about a graduate student who quits school. I completely respect these people. They have not failed, but taken control of their life and their stress. They simply said, “No more.” The priorities of their life were more important than their annual goals and they made a decision and took control.

Stress can overwhelm anyone. When you find yourself in a situation that is paralysing, causing intense physical symptoms, and have nowhere to turn; then I recommend professional support. Counselling can be an important method of helping manage emotions and developing a mindset to cope with extreme challenges. It is a good investment of time worth putting in your schedule. I cannot make promises for others, but I can say that I would have complete respect and support for a student who seeks outside help.

Being a graduate student can take a toll on students and cause a staggering amount of stress. Seek control. Establish priorities. Work with people who are flexible and can help you be your best. This is only one approach to managing a few aspects of stress. Whichever approaches you take, be mindful in how you manage stress.