How Not to Suck at Identifying and Coping with “Rhymes with ‘Glass Bowls’”

April 2016

From the vocabulary.com definition: “insulting term of address for people who are stupid or irritating or ridiculous or unpleasant. If you call someone an asshole, then they’re probably doing something not just stupid and annoying, but mean. Like all slang words and obscenities, this is a word you need to be careful about using. Saying asshole in class, in a paper, at a job interview, or even on television could get you in serious trouble. If you’re not alone with your buddies, stick to a safer word like jerk or doofus.”

Academia is rife with examples of destructive and hostile behaviour among professors who hold power over others. Not a week goes by without a newspaper report of a well-known university professor who is a serial sexual harasser. Every graduate student has a story of at least one professor who has behaved in a way that can be considered manipulative, angry, insulting, demeaning, degrading, vengeful, and otherwise taking advantage of humans with little power. Careers are often ended before they begin by graduate students identifying their supervisors as assholes too late in their educational process to make changes. Such experiences are devastating personally and professionally. The ability to identify, avoid, and cope with academic jackholes is a major predictor of career success for people without power (i.e., graduate students, postdocs, untenured faculty).

To be fair to assholes, there are many systems that encourage a high degree of assholery. For example, some universities bestow credit or honours for authorship of a refereed publication only if the professor is the first or sole author. In such systems, graduate students or postdocs, who do the majority of work on a study, may be deprived authorship or given secondary authorship. Much of academia has a “zero sum game” approach. In other words, a given professor does not receive credit and the consequent rewards if someone else has success. Therefore, it is just as effective and sometimes easier to undermine others and prevent success of underlings rather than demonstrate quality of work. Although there are cases of active sabotaging the work of others, most frequently passive-aggressive undermining of others is the tool of the asshole. There are always finite amounts of dollars in a grant envelop, usually only one person can win an award every year, and annual faculty evaluations tend to be norm-referenced. As long as there are competitive rewards, there will be assholes. And most galling, assholes often win.

Identifying Bleepholes

A major skill is to identify challenging people as early as possible and then avoid situations where the asshole will have any power over you. There is no level of funding, professional connections, inspiration or knowledge that is worth being abused and slowly having your soul crushed. There are many outstanding well-funded, inspirational, and knowledgeable scholars who are also supportive humans and productive mentors. Most typically we do not find out which supervisors are assholes until it is too late. Early identification and avoidance of assholes is a critical variable in making your life as a scholar easier, more enjoyable, and more productive. There are keywords to identifying assholes — a vocabulary of assholery. Unfortunately, this is one of the confusing aspects of identifying the asshole. The keywords words used to identify assholes are quite similar to the vocabulary used in successful grant proposals or by the orange 2016 US GOP presidential candidate. Self-aggrandizing and superlative language is common. If, in an introductory discussion with a senior faculty member, more than three of these words or phrases are used, then there is a high probability that you are talking to an asshole: best, state-of-the-art, paradigm altering, innovative, superior, elite, most demanding, highest achieving, most productive, most highly cited, award-winning, highly selective, high standards, and hardest working. And it nearly goes without saying that anyone who uses the expression “we work hard and play hard” is to be avoided.

A major feature of senior faculty assholes is their belief that they are the self-appointed arbiters of what is true science. Although they may be talented and productive, and sometimes correct, they insist on evaluating the work of others when no one asks their opinion with phrases such as, “What you are doing is interesting, but it does not reach the level of what I would consider to be science.” Another common feature is that the criteria used to evaluate whether something is true science tends to shift depending on how the outcomes of the evaluation can benefit the asshole.

Egocentrism and the pathological desire to control every aspect of their world are also primary factors. From an academic perspective such people are far more interested in using graduate students, postdocs, and junior faculty as mechanisms by which they can leave a legacy. They are far more interested in how others can support and promote the asshole’s own ideas and agenda. The concept that the asshole’s ideas (and therefore the asshole him/herself) are the centre of the universe is quite common. Of course, criticism of the ideas is considered a personal attack. Moreover, even if the junior scholar chooses an independent trajectory that goes outside of the orbit of the asshole’s ideas, then that is also considered a personal attack or slight. Any behaviour that suggest that the asshole and his or her ideas are not the most important thing in the universe will be perceived as an attack or slight. And there will be ramifications.

Faux generosity and selflessness is another common feature. Any senior person who sounds like a martyr by humble bragging about how successful their students are due to his or her extensive and outstanding supervision is a problem. An example of the faux generosity is, “He needed the publication, so I gave him a paper topic and some data that I developed.” Another tactic of the asshole is bragging about how selfless their supervision style is. For example, “My students are so successful because I invest so much time and money in them. Supervision probably detracts from my other work, but I do it anyway because the students need me.” The not-so-subtle message is that the students would not be capable of success without the brilliant involvement and sacrifices of the senior scholar-hole.

When talking with potential supervisors and colleagues, one of the most effective questions involves asking them to evaluate their colleagues. Some will straight out trash talk their colleagues. For example, “Most of the faculty in this department are inept or lazy.” Assholes with a semblance of social skills tend to make comparative and evaluative comments about peers. For example, “Dr. Smith runs a very good lab, but their work is not as cutting-edge as what is done in our lab.”

A common approach to identifying sphincter-centric academics is to interview current students, previous students, and other professors. This is an excellent idea that I strongly encourage. However, there is only one predictive variable. That is the long pause after you asked the direct question. For example, “I am thinking of working with Dr. Jones. What is your experience in working with him (or her)?” If the first word in the response is, “Um” or if there is a noticeable pause before the first word is said, then you have your answer.

You want to examine the publication record of potential supervisors and colleagues. Examining authorship of refereed publications for the presence of student co-authors is an important factor. Graduate student and postdoc co-authors who have first or second authorship on a large number of papers indicate at least some general decency in assigning authorship. In addition, try to find out how many students begin working in that person’s lab, but transfer or drop out prior to graduation. Such information must be evaluated as a function of the norms of the Department; but if the majority of students who begin their graduate school careers in the lab do not graduate, then obviously red flags are raised.

Avoiding Bleepholes

A major mistake that many students and postdocs make when selecting a supervisor is that they focus entirely on the subject area, funding, and the reputation of the potential supervisor in their field of study. A better method is to look for signs of assholiness and, if found, keep looking for a supervisor with a productive style of respectful supervision.

Because assholes tend to be egocentric their sphere of influence in any academic community is limited. Despite the grudging respect of colleagues, most of them have peers who understand how challenging it is to work with these individuals. Even if you have managed to avoid the direct supervision of an asshole they can still make your life difficult. Assholes will frequently offer their opinion on their peers, provide passive-aggressive commentary, and dismiss students who are not working directly with him as being inferior. This is not so bad because you have the support of your own supervisor, lab peers, and other colleagues who can be supportive. My favourite response to digs, passive-aggressive slights, and veiled or not-so-veiled insults is to say: “I am having a difficult time interpreting what you said in a productive manner. Can you please reframe that in a manner that I can use it productively?” Sometimes the jerk will actually rework the statement so that the statement or question is actually helpful. However, the true and irredeemable asshole will say something like, “I did not intend that statement to be productive.” Your only logical response should be, “ I know.”

Coping with Bleepholes

Although my default line of recommendation is that everyone should avoid working with an asshole, many of us find ourselves in an unavoidable situation. Moreover, one person’s asshole is another person’s driven and inspirational advisor. I know that many people considered my mentor to be an asshole, but I have always found him generous and to be an excellent advisor. So how does one survive the challenges of being supervised by one of these people?

Find the Strengths. I have a colleague who has a mentor, who is well known far and wide to be an asshole. This mentor moves from university to university as he wears out his welcome. However, my colleague finds this supervisor to be an inspiring and generous mentor who opens career doors. She speaks glowingly of his kindness in working with others. She is well aware of the flashpoints and topics that will lead to conflict. She is aware enough to avoid these areas while benefiting from his skill set. She simply refers to the challenges of working with this mentor as “the price of admission.”

Negotiate everything, then get it in writing. Perhaps the most important feature of working with the asshole is the lack of trust and capricious nature of decision-making. Write everything. I like to have students summarize our individual meetings and send that summary to me in an email. This is an excellent idea to protect yourself from the whims of a senior author who have been known to change their minds. Everything must be negotiated before beginning. Make sure that all financial, vacation, responsibilities, hours to be worked, authorship on papers, travel opportunities, and other relevant issues are in writing. Ensure that the supervisor has a copy of all this writing and agrees to it. Likewise, having student or collaborator write exactly what they will contribute to a project or to laboratory life is equally important. It is not insulting to insist on all commitments being clarified.

Resilience. There are many, if not most, graduate students in this difficult situation simply accept their situation. They do their work, take abuse, and then go home. The next day they wake up and repeat. Although I am impressed with the perseverance and resilience of these quietly desperate young professionals, I hope they are not paying too large of a price for their compliance. Constantly working in a stressful environment is corrosive to one’s mental health. We know that graduate students and new scholars have a high incidence of anxiety disorders, depression, and withdrawal from their studies due to abusive mentoring relationships with supervisors. In addition, I am concerned that the asshole mentor serves as a role model for the behaviour of the next generation of senior scholars. However, quietly avoiding the wrath of the asshole and escaping with a degree or research experience is enough for many people. Frankly, that does not work for me. I do not have the strength and resilience of many graduate students.

Confrontation. Confrontation can be a valuable tool, but is extremely difficult to use. Being firm, polite, and professional in establishing and creating boundaries in working with superiors is an extremely difficult social skill under any circumstance. I have a friend who engaged in weekly hostile shouting matches with her mentor. The tone was often ugly, dramatic, personal, and emotional. They screamed at each other for at least 15 minutes and then the conflict was over. Neither seemed to hold a grudge for long and their work was productive. When asked how they can function in such a hostile environment, the response was, “This is not hostile. He respects me for standing up to him.” Okay. I am not sure that this is an approach that I would recommend, but I guess it works for a few brave souls. Some people thrive on drama.

Conclusions

If you are working in the academic world, then you have almost certainly failed to avoid working with assholes. No matter how resilient and strong you may be as an individual, everyone working with difficult supervisors or senior colleagues will eventually get tired and discouraged. We all require external supports to serve as protective factors to the corrosive effects of working with assholes. Some protective factors include personal supports (significant others, family, non-academic friends), peer supports (colleagues, virtual communities, co-authors), and systemic support (high status academics, ombudsmen, administration). Do your homework, prepare, and protect yourself. The early stages of your academic career do not have to be miserable. Identifying, avoiding, and coping successfully with assholes is a major predictor of your success, satisfaction, and long-term mental-health.

SRShaw

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How Not to Suck in Academic Consultation and Speaking Activities

Professors, and even graduate students and postdocs, are frequently invited to serve as consultants, workshop presenters, or to provide other services to organizations and industry. My experience is that most professors are extremely poor at negotiating fees, expenses, and the scope of the services to be provided. Consultation and speaking can lead to immediate reinforcement in a job that typically requires epic delay of gratification. In addition, consultation can be lucrative, assist in creating and expanding a personal/professional brand, and provide the introduction to a host of important partnerships.

The first rule of consultation as an academic is to understand completely the formal requirements of your employment contract at your university and the informal culture of your department and university. For example, my contract allows an equivalent of one day per week to engage in consultation outside of typical university duties. As I am in a department of educational and counselling psychology, some of my colleagues use this one day per week to engage in independent practice as a psychologist, work with school boards, or engage in statistical and research design consultation for program evaluation. Exterior consultation is not an expectation, but is widely accepted. Some universities or units within universities may not allow external consultation at all. Others strongly encourage or require partnerships with business and industry because external consultation is considered to be a core component of the role and function of the professor. Evaluating the formal and informal expectations for external consultation is a necessity. Discuss this with your faculty mentor or department chair before pursuing any such activities.

A rule that I tend to follow is that I do not do anything unless it is fun, makes money, or is important for my career. The only real exception I have to this rule is that occasionally I will do some work as a favour to a friend. Knowing who you are working with and the general working environment and culture of the system with which you are consulting are important. Some systems are chaotic, rife with political discord, and without direction. They are hoping that by engaging a university professor as a consultant that they will gain some clarity or have a scapegoat for their inevitable failures. These situations are far from fun. They may earn money for you, but will be bad for your career and professional well being. Say, no frequently. It is better not to consult than to get involved in a quagmire of time, energy, and soul sucking activity. For me, the default answer is no unless I am confident that my efforts will be productive and rewarded.

The best advice that I ever received was from my postdoctoral supervisor, who said, “Never do anything cheaply. Do it for free or for an incredibly large amount of money.” Many young and even experienced professors dramatically underestimate the value of their time and expertise. Your consultation services are not like Walmart, where systems are looking for the cheapest possible deal. What is true is that more people will be interested in your services when your fees are higher. This may be counterintuitive in retail, but well-known in consultation. When you require a lot of money to engage your services, you are saying that your services are valuable. This is not simply for ego, but for the power to make systemic change. Your advice, workshops, or report will have much more impact on the system if they believe that the service you are providing is valuable. The amount of money that is paid for that service is an important variable for the perception of the worth of your service. Occasionally, a system wishes to engage my services, but has very little money. In these cases, I determine whether this system is a good one to work with, can help my career or brand, and will be fun. If so, then I will engage in such consultation for free or for expenses only. The goodwill generated by doing pro bono work is often worth just as much as the money. You never want to be known is doing something for cheap, but it is perfectly acceptable to donate your services to a worthy system.

Never be afraid to ask for exactly what you want. Many academics are extremely uncomfortable talking about money. By asking for what you want you are not seen as arrogant or greedy, but as a professional. Academics are well known in business as being inefficient with time management, unable to make hard decisions, and without knowledge concerning real world application of research. Strong negotiation performance will address this stereotype. Be prepared to put into writing exactly what the financial compensation and what goods and services and time will be required. When money is to be paid for your service, prepare a formal invoice (there are many forms for invoices available online). Write everything. This is professional show business. Academics tend to be extraordinarily trusting people when it comes to business and money. There are reasons why businesses employ lawyers. Trusting people with a handshake or with their word is an unwise business practice. Everything in writing!

I am sure people want exact numbers. As a psychologist and educator who works mostly with school districts and professional organizations there may be different financial expectations than for people who consult with business or industry. My fees are $450 per hour of work plus expenses. I will negotiate. Expenses include air travel, ground travel, lodging, meals, copying, postage, and other necessary components. Equally important is to have hard numbers on how many hours and which dates that you are expected to work. Plan this carefully or your seemingly lucrative contract will become a black hole for your time and energy. I am typically asked to do four-hour or eight-hour workshops for professional development activities. I tend to be pretty good at these and have much experience. However, I request $450 per hour of actual speaking time. Obviously, a lot of preparation goes into these workshops, but I only charge for the time that I am actually providing direct service. Always let the system know if you are going to charge them for your preparation time. And let your university know when you will be out of town or otherwise unavailable.

Do not do too much. Most of my friends and colleagues avoid consultation and conducting workshops. They are uncomfortable talking about money and prefer to avoid these activities. However, I also know people who do way too much consultation and speaking. There is a fine line between defining your academic brand as that of a public intellectual and simply being a huckster. I know quite a few people who more than double their academic salary with 40 to 50 speaking engagements per year. They are often charismatic speakers with well-made suits, spray tans, and well-rehearsed multimedia infotainment shows. This is an amazing and impressive skill set. Their talks are replete with ever-changing buzzwords (e.g., mindfulness, grit, everything prefaced with neuro-). Yet, it is rare that these speakers are respected as scholars. There is no question that I am just a little bit jealous of their impressive skills and healthy bank accounts. Doing too much consultation or speaking will damage your brand. For me, being considered by my peers to be a dilettante and purveyor of BS in my field is not something to which I aspire.

I am not paid exceptionally well in my academic job, but I do not need to consult or speak frequently. Due to family issues, I have been politely declining all requests that involve travel for a while. Consultation and travelling to speak weigh heavily in work-life balance. As an academic, when you find work life balance tilting in the wrong direction, one of the best places to cut back on is consultation and speaking if you have any options in this matter.

Consultation and speaking engagements provide an excellent opportunity to mobilize and transfer knowledge and to deliver your scholarship to a wide audience. However, this is a business. Clarity, sense of purpose, professionalism, and complete understanding of what you are trying to achieve as an academic are important to the effective delivery of consultation and public speaking.

SR Shaw

@Shawpsych

 

 

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.

 Conclusions

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

@Shawpsych

 

 

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.

Others

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.

Responsibilities

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.

Compartmentalizing

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.

Concentration

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.

Sleep

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.

Conclusions

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 Being a Tough Scholar

Graduate students, adjunct faculty, and tenure-track junior faculty are often unprepared for the world of academia. Not because they lack skills, accomplishments, motivation, organization, or discipline; but because they are not emotionally prepared for the rigours of academic life. There are petty jealousies, cutthroat competition, high school-like cliques, sexism, larger societal political pressures, harassment and bullying, apparently arbitrary decisions, funding cuts, racism, hazing-like activities, good ol’ boy networks, power struggles, and a host of factors irrelevant to research and teaching that serve as barriers to success in academia. These factors become more than issues of quality of work, but are soul sucking and personally devastating. Many young scholars give up on academic careers entirely rather than put themselves and their loved ones through an environment that can be hostile and take a personal toll. Many academics believe that a “thick skin” is required for successful academics. It not clear whether a thick skin is a character trait that one is born with (i.e., a genetic predisposition toward dermal density) or that thick skin is something that can be acquired and learned. Yet, I am not convinced that developing a surface armor against the rigours of academic life is the answer. Toughness may be a virtue, but a hard and thick skin is likely to be a long-term failing.

Academic Twitter is rife with primal screams about the unfairness of academia. There are calls to reform or scrap entirely the graduate school, postdoc, adjunct, tenure-track, and promotion systems of academia. The sociology of the professorship receives much scrutiny. Such discussions usually generate more heat than light and rarely create any substantive and sustainable change. Creating change in a large, hidebound, and entrenched system is an epic undertaking. Devoting so much time and emotional energy to such a windmill rarely results in a positive outcome for most scholars. Academia, like most of life, is not fair. I am not sure why anyone is surprised by this. The big question is: how does one survive and thrive in such an environment?

We have chosen to spend our career in a system that can be toxic. We need to be a clown fish among the anemone — covered with a layer of slime that protects from the sting of the environment. Or like the man in black from the movie, The Princess Bride, we need to develop a tolerance and immunity to the toxin of iocane powder. These analogies give too much power to the negative aspects of the environment of academia. They are false analogies. Succeeding in academia is a matter of understanding what is important, discipline, developing and maintaining effective coping strategies, avoiding comparison, and having useful perspective and priorities.

The mistake many junior faculty and graduate students make is that they feel they must build emotional calluses around themselves. The sting of repeated rejection is something they subject themselves to in order to develop extremely raw skin that they hope will eventually become callused. Moreover, they do not share these rejections or seek emotional support from others because they perceive rejections as failure and repeated failure is a sign of weakness. As a method of coping some scholars cease to care and lose their passion for their work in the light of repeated rejections. Those who cease to care lose the characteristics that made them a creative, courageous, innovative scholar or outstanding graduate student in the first place. The idea that success in academia can only be obtained through pain, hazing, losing oneself, intense anxiety, and continuous emotional distress is overly dramatic and counterproductive.

I have a friend who is a well known and accomplished female colleague who is nearing retirement. She is one of the best known psychology professors in her country. And every day to every one of her graduate students she preaches the value of being tough and brave. Expectations are high, work habits are demanding, and feedback can be harsh. She is explicit that the goal of this supervision style is to prepare young academics, especially female academics, for the potentially toxic environment in which they will work. She encourages her graduate students to argue, defend their ideas, and be persistent in carrying out their duty no matter what obstacles lie in their way. This professor has an interesting perspective as much of her early career was spent under Communist control of universities and many of her professors functioned as underground teachers in violation of the WWII-era German Generalplan Ost (e.g., en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massacre_of_Lviv_professors). She strongly believes that her role is to help to develop strong professors who will create new ideas and keep those new ideas alive under any circumstances. I know four of her former students and can attest that they are talented, kind, and incredibly tough. Moreover, they truly love Professor Bogdanowicz.

Mentorship would be improved by focusing on creating tough scholars. Toughness is a combination of persistence, resilience, confidence, and sense of purpose. Toughness is not in attribute that people are born with. Most graduate students tend to be introverted, slightly anxious with perfectionist tendencies, eager to please professors and supervisors, and take their work extremely seriously. Although these are valuable characteristics, they are not naturally consistent with toughness. Frequently, graduate students are so talented that they may have received little negative feedback throughout their educational careers. They may have always been a shining star in every academic setting. Graduate school or at least the junior faculty position may be the first time that some individuals have experienced negative feedback, unfair decisions, setbacks, and criticisms concerning their work or themselves as professionals. Many graduate students and junior faculty members are brittle and do not handle this first-time experience well. Mentors have an obligation to take students who have a great deal of talent, but sensitivity, and turn them into tough academics. This does not mean that graduate students must be forged in the hottest of fires, prepare for Communists or Nazis, or be bullied so that they get used to the negative experiences of academia. Students benefit from being taught to use criticism and negative evaluations in such a way as to improve their work. In addition, expectations must be raised to the highest level. Good work cannot be acceptable. Extremely talented students succeed when they are expected to produce innovative work, advance their field, and communicate their findings with the highest level of skill. No matter how good the work of a student is, mentors have the responsibility to assist graduate students to create a constantly improving level of performance.

In order to accomplish this, many students require the introspection to change their attitudes about professionalism, reviews, feedback, rejection, and life as a scholar. Although mentorship can be important for helping students adopt positive approaches to academia without losing themselves, students and junior faculty are well instructed to consider developing productive coping mechanisms:

Perspective and Priority: This is a difficult topic for me to discuss because I am aware of how many fortunate advantages and earned blessings I have in this area. I am a white male, which gives the significant advantage of privilege. I also have a wife and children, who are always my top priority and I would gladly give up an academic career if it would benefit my family (this is not the case for every academic with a family, but few would admit to it). I am also a school psychologist. Unlike my colleagues in philosophy, if my academic career would suddenly end, then I could still get a high paying and high status job and my family could still eat (Despite the rise of alt-ac careers, there are few philosophy factories currently hiring). Therefore, success in academia is not my entire life or career. I have also worked as a psychologist for 16 years before entering academia. I have performed CPR (twice with unsuccessful outcomes), been cut with a knife, was threatened with a gun, was bitten Walking Dead style (have not yet turned zombie, but had to get several shots), gave life-changing diagnoses concerning young children with autism or intellectual disabilities to well over 100 parents, testified in court on cases of horrific infant and child abuse and neglect cases, and attended far too many funerals of infants and children when I practised in the department of pediatric oncology. For me, perspective and priority is fairly easy. A rejected paper or grant that does not receive funding is no big deal. I still care about the quality of work and would much rather have a paper accepted than rejected. There is still some frustration when I feel a review is unfair or simply wrong. Hopefully, I learn from the negative outcomes and become better today than I was yesterday. But the role that a paper or grant or job plays in the story of my life is tiny. Scholars need to learn that they are bigger than a single paper, a failure experience, or not receiving accolades that their heart depends on. Be bigger.

Stop the Entitlement: No one is guaranteed success. You may be a star scholar at every opportunity, you may work harder and longer hours than anyone, and you may have the most impressive CV that is filled with stellar accomplishments. Failure and rejection will still find you. There is no guarantee of success and many extraordinarily hard-working and talented people fail. You are not a special snowflake. Sorry. Failure is not a problem; not getting back up, improving, and attacking the next task with enthusiasm is a problem.

Probability: Although failure and rejection will happen to everyone, there are approaches to minimizing the probability of permafail. The odds are often against your application for a single academic appointment or grant proposal. There are often arbitrary reasons for the failure of a single opportunity. Many times those reasons have nothing to do with you or your work. Although the reasons for failure and rejection can be infinite, some of those are – reviewer two is an idiot, the funding envelope for granting agency may be especially small in a given year, reviewer three knows your mentor and thinks he is a jerk, a grant reviewer may hold a grudge against your university, you are too female or gay or disabled or Hispanic or heavy or young or old or Black or Conservative or outspoken for the job. This stuff happens and it should not happen and it sucks. The secret to overcome is to produce a lot and make a lot of professional connections. Eventually, good work will find a way. When a single paper is rejected there may be error in the process. This error is minimized when you submit 20 papers. Do more. Continuous rejection is either an indication that there is bias (nonrandom error) in the system or your work does not meet the appropriate standards and requires improvement. Fight against the former and improve for the latter.

Comparison: Generally, comparison is the enemy of happiness. The only truly valuable comparison is comparing what we were like today to what we were like yesterday. In academics, it is extremely easy to lose track of the value of intra-individual comparison. There are grant competitions with only X number of funded proposals, there can only be one award winner, there can only be one person hired for a job, and so on. Much of academics is focused on a norm-referenced approach to success. This is where the knowledge of the standards for accomplishments in your field in relation to your own comfort level are useful. For example, it is important to know that in your field eight top-tier journal publications and holding $500,000 in grants per year will make you competitive for an award or promotion. This is a level of productivity that you are comfortable with and provides a good benchmark and goal to assess your professional accomplishments. However, if a colleague publishes nine top-tier publications or has $800,000 in a given year and they win the award or receive the promotion, then this needs to be okay with you. Competition and comparison will not improve the quality of your work and only lead to frustration, personal conflicts, and eventual burnout. Norm-referenced benchmarks are not completely under your control and not helpful. In a norm-referenced model you can succeed simply by sabotaging everyone else—not good for science or improvement—and perpetuates the current oft-toxic system. Criterion-referenced benchmarks are positive and attainable.

Your Work: Separating yourself from your work is an important survival mechanism. I know your work is important and you have passion and commitment to it, but your work is not you. It is the work that you may have created. The work may need to improve. The work may suck. The work may require extensive support from multiple people. This does not reflect upon your worth as a student, junior professor, or human being. Your goal is to make sure that your work is better every single day. Every review or failure experience is an opportunity to improve your work and is deserving of your gratitude.

So How Do You Accomplish These Things?

The negative or shadow CV has been a valuable experience for me. My first contact with the Shadow CV was in the description by Devoney Looser in the Chronical of Higher Education. In the shadow CV is placed every article rejection, unfunded grant proposal, award application not received, poor teaching evaluation, rejected book proposal, and unsuccessful job application. For me, this is a reminder of two things: one is to ensure that I learn something positive from each of these experiences. What have I gained or learned and how has my work improved? Two is to remember that the majority of lines in my proper CV are the products of the entries that once appeared in my negative or shadow CV.

Let it go, shake it off, move on, and laugh a little. I actually received this review during my first article submission as an assistant professor, “… this paper truly stinks. I really hope that this submission is from an undergraduate student because the content is worse than awful and is the product of a woeful scholar.” Wow. What a douche. It did not hurt my feelings. I felt sorry for the person who wrote those words. It must be difficult to have your work set such a negative tone. Yet, there were some valuable points in that review. I revised the paper and it was eventually published in a good journal.

Self reflection and honesty are important. However, most of us can never truly be honest with ourselves. I have never met anyone who claims to have a poor sense of humour or be a less than high quality driver. Yet everyone knows someone who fits these descriptions. Likewise, not everyone is appropriate for an R1 university or an academic career. The scary part is that the culture is such that we must work our hardest and put our heart and soul into academia in order to succeed. This creates delusion. Just because you want to achieve a goal more than anything in the world does not mean that you can reach that goal. Sometimes our best is not enough. It is an extraordinarily and unusually mature person who has that level of honesty with themselves.

One’s worldview can dramatically affect toughness. Some of us have personal and closely held beliefs that may be counterproductive or lead to excessive levels of sensitivity. Other beliefs may engender toughness. Personal beliefs stem from culture, family, religion, and experience. Here are a few that seem to work for me, I suspect that they may only work for some of you.

  • The world is not fair. The fair is where they judge jams and pigs (and that is not likely to be just either). Things will not always work out for you despite your best efforts, high quality of your work, and your optimistic and positive mental outlook. All you can do is work to change the probability of success. But do not expect anything other than to work hard.
  • Take the work seriously, but do not take yourself seriously.
  • I always enjoyed the quote attributed to Gandhi, “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” The act of doing is your achievement.
  • Pride is a fault. I am never proud of my work. I am gratified that it helped others in some small way, but wish it was more. Pride is opposite of humility and creates self-satisfaction that interferes with learning and continuous improvement.
  • Your sole purpose on the planet is to ease the suffering of others to the greatest degree possible. If you cannot ease the suffering, then at least do not contribute to it. Of course, do not harm or impede others, but also do not set up your career so that it is defined by martyrdom and self-flagellation. Have fun and be happy.

I think of myself as a happy warrior — ferociously optimistic, endlessly seeking improvement, and honoured and humbled to have the opportunity to serve others. Such a mindset demands toughness and confidence. I have limitations and am okay that those. Many of us desire a thick skin in order to ward off the slings and arrows of a challenging profession. This form of armor hardens, isolates, and suffocates us; and changes our outlook in negative ways, where fear of failure rather than opportunity to innovate and discover becomes the primary motivating factor. Developing hard and thick skin is not a productive goal. The goal is to use the environment as energy, no matter how hostile and potentially toxic, to assist you in achieving your personal and professional goals that are consistent with your worldview. I prefer the translated quote from Lao Tzu, “water is the softest thing, it can penetrate mountains and earth. This shows clearly the principle of softness overcoming hardness.” Nothing is as tough as water.

Steven R. Shaw

A version of this blog post will appear in a forthcoming book edited by Staci Zavattaro and Shannon Orr on the topic of academic survival. This book will be published by Palgrave Macmillan.

 

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

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.

Interviewing

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.

SRShaw

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

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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 https://www.metronomeonline.com/. I also use the pomodoro timer online to keep track of time segments. http://tomato-timer.com/

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