What to Do When You Are Overwhelmed with Work: How Not to Suck in Grad School

Ambitious graduate students and academics inevitably run into a big problem, being overwhelmed with the volume and complexity of work. This happens to nearly everybody. Becoming overwhelmed will happen, even if you are the most disciplined, organized, meticulous, strategic, and well prioritized scholar. Efficiency is a useful characteristic, but it does not make one immune from being overwhelmed. The ability to say no frequently is another useful characteristic, yet becoming overwhelmed is still inevitable. It happens to everybody. The question is, what do we do when the sheer volume of work surrounds and suffocates.

Most academics are wise enough to adhere to the Linus Pauling adage, “the best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” That is, important and productive researchers have multiple projects ongoing at all times. There are additional papers and projects that are somewhere in the publication pipeline and require energy and time. All researchers working at universities also have time requirements for teaching, administration, university governance, and other supervisory or training with students. In addition, there are professional responsibilities such as journal editorship, engagement with professional organizations, reviewing papers, and evaluating grant proposals. The projects resemble a Jenga tower of precariously stacked projects that grow taller and taller. At some point the tower becomes too tall and collapses due to its inherent instability or the presentation of some external event (e.g., illness, a surprise or last-minute project, personal problems). The careful balance of multiple ideas and projects then becomes an incoherent mess of pieces that have buried you in a massive disorganized and chaotic jumble. The purpose served by balancing multiple projects and ideas is lost when the tower collapses.

Once your fragile tower of ideas collapses around you, it is time to rebuild. Even the most organized and disciplined scholar finds themselves in a cycle of building careful to-do lists and series of projects, which is followed by a collapse. Symptoms of the collapse include missed deadlines, the feeling of being spread so thin that nothing is done with high quality, there is no time to reflect and think about scholarly products and process, your day has become entirely about work, relationships and health again to suffer, and feelings of hopelessness and high anxiety are the norm. Rebuilding your tower mindlessly will result in repeating the process of building and collapse until there is burnout and intense frustration.

Step Back

The first instinct for most professionals when they become overwhelmed (after panic, tears, and hyperventilation) is to grab the first task available and begin working on it. Working extra hours, reducing sleep, sacrificing friends and family, and giving up exercise are frequent consequences of immediately beginning to work on a task. There are two major problems with this hard-working approach: one is that as you are working on a task, new tasks are accumulating and re-filling the bucket; and two is that there is an increased feeling of hopelessness as you work harder and harder while falling further and further behind.

The better first move (after panic, tears, and hyperventilation) is to step back and take stock of the situation. A mindful and well-organized plan of attack for reorganizing the to-do list and establishing a realistic timeframe for each task is required. Also consider what were the planning errors or events that created the circumstances for the overwhelming breakdown to have occurred in the first place. These are to be addressed if at all possible. Even when it comes to the overwhelming collapse of the to-do list, a thoughtful and mindful approach is more effective than haphazard busyness. Failing to plan is planning to fail.

Long Term Planning

Because there is so much to do, most conscientious scientist will begin working on tasks as quickly and efficiently as possible. This is a mistake. This is the ideal moment for long-term planning. Assess exactly what your one-year and five-year personal and professional goals are. Then review all of the pieces of the to-do list in order to determine if all tasks are consistent with professional goals. Items on the to-do list that are not consistent with professional goals need to be eliminated or given low priority.

The purpose of the long-term planning exercise just at the moment that things are most overwhelming is to ensure that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Simply working harder and longer without a goal or purpose can be discouraging, frustrating, and eventually self-defeating. By occasionally reconsidering whether the to-do list matches with long-term goals helps to avoid the cycle of massive to-do lists followed by inability to meet deadlines. The best time to audit your to-do list is when things become the most chaotic and you feel most overwhelmed.

Prioritize

As you survey the rubble of high priority tasks and try to figure out how to reestablish an orderly method of completing your work, you will need to prioritize tasks. The two primary methods of prioritizing tasks are by urgency and by importance. Urgent tasks tend to have rapidly approaching timelines or an expectation of rapid turnaround (e.g., emails, grading). The tendency is to immediately work on urgent tasks first. Timelines are to be respected, but tasks deemed to be most important in your long-term planning exercise must also receive immediate attention. In the most efficient approaches to addressing to-do lists there is always a tension between important task and urgent tasks. No matter how busy, it is always a good investment of time to allocate 20% of your energies towards tasks that are considered important, but not urgent.

Considering your priorities and long-term planning are also essential when it comes to considering which new tasks that you should say yes to and which opportunities need to be politely declined. Declining, then missing out on new opportunities is a common victim of the overwhelmed scholar. There is nothing wrong with taking on new tasks even when overwhelmed, but make sure that these task are consistent with your highest priorities and your long-term planning.

Renegotiate

The overwhelming collapse of the to-do list is something like a financial bankruptcy. In order to get out from under the avalanche of impossible-to-complete tasks some sacrifices may need to be made. Tasks with hard deadlines (e.g., grant proposals and conference deadlines), may need to be sacrificed if they are not of highest importance. Semi-firm deadlines such as manuscript reviews, agreed-upon delivery of work with co-authors, grading, and other tasks can often be renegotiated to a later time. The major mistake is to hide from overdue work. Stand up and address each person you owe work to and negotiate a new deadline. Clearly, this is not an activity that you want to do often and it is not fun at all. Negotiating a new deadline date with a research partner, student, or journal editor is far more professional than being late with no warning. In addition, tasks that do not have a formal deadline are often ignored. These tasks, such as submission of journal manuscripts, can be extraordinarily important. Ignoring this writing because your to-do list is too full will result in minimizing your research productivity and will affect the trajectory of your research program.

What Not to Do

There is nothing wrong with increasing work rate. However, all nighters, skipping meals, avoiding exercise, and working with high levels of anxiety are recipes for burnout. Effective self-care is impossible when extra work replaces normal life and this becomes a permanent state of being. There is nothing wrong with high intensity long and hard work. There is a problem when work is no longer productive for achieving goals and work is a never-ending hamster wheel of busyness.

A Couple of Pointers

Even after stepping back, creating long-term plans, prioritizing, renegotiating, and avoiding maladaptive practices; there is still a lot of work to do. Quite often the avalanche of work is due to a personal problem, illness, or some other event that has made work difficult to complete. Moving from no work to full speed work can be a challenge. An exercise to get back into the habits and rituals that are necessary to be most productive can be valuable. It is not too difficult for frequent readers to determine that this is the purpose of my blog posts. A blog post does not take full and intense concentration like a manuscript for publication in refereed journal, but it requires the discipline and productivity skills necessary to jumpstart efficient work habits. So a brief and manageable task is often enough to get you back on track. The second pointer is to create only a mild increase in time spent working on to-do list tasks. Rarely do you ever want to increase the time spent on your to do tasks by more than 25%. Multiple all nighters and marathon sessions usually result in poor quality work and quality of life problems. The last pointer is to fully complete your first couple of tasks in one sitting. Completing a task and checking it off of the list is reinforcing and launches your reboot of the to-do list in a positive direction.

Conclusions

Far too many academics despair when the to-do list becomes overwhelming and collapses into a disorganized and insurmountable mess. This happens to everyone who is making every effort to take advantage of all the opportunities to become a productive scholar no matter how organized they may be. The mistake happens when becoming overwhelmed leads to panic and mindless busyness. This form of work crisis is an opportunity to reestablish priorities and to work most efficiently on the projects that are of highest importance. Taking the time to step back and be mindful about how you conduct your daily tasks goes a long way towards sustainable productivity.

SR Shaw

Advertisements

Losing Your Way as a Scientist: How Not to Suck

Nearly every researcher feels as if they have lost their way at one time or another. The big plans may not have worked out. The daily stressors and environment of their employment place are not conducive to achieving professional goals. A series of projects have worked themselves into an intellectual cul-de-sac that do not advance the big goals. Personal stressors and responsibilities restrict the time necessary to achieve professional goals. Work is tiring and tedious. There is a vague, but loud and persistent, feeling that what you are doing right now is not what you are meant to do with your career. These are not same as the day-to-day hassles of a researcher. Some of these hassles involve things like broken equipment, spoiled samples, difficult relationships with collaborators, data collection sites falling through, disagreements with supervisors, papers rejected, and grants unfunded. These day-to-day hassles are the price of admission to being a researcher. The big question is what to do when one finds that the big and slow moving ship of the research program and career are going in the wrong direction.

Frankly, many researchers do not have this dread because they never look up from their day-to-day work to see the big picture. They go from project to project with little mindfulness—usually conducting the research that is the most fundable. But many have goals, strategies, and an understanding of how their work fits into the big picture of scientific thought and discovery. Quite often these scientists survey the road map, find the point on the map that says “YOU ARE HERE,” locate the desired destination, and determine, “I cannot get there from here because I am on the wrong road.” Sometimes this conclusion is based on an analytical consideration, other times it is a feeling that things are just not going right. How does one get back on track?

Assessment

In any problem-solving situation, at least half of the time and energy needs to be spent identifying exactly what the problem is. There are three big questions that need to be asked before you determine that you have completely lost your way. First, is this a short-term or long-term problem? Success takes time and patience. Rarely are the big goals quick and easy. Also, estimating how long it takes to achieve goals is something that nearly everyone underestimates. Be patient. Making a radical change may result in deviating so far off of your career path that you may end up in the swamp. Second, is this simply a nonlinear path that is different than your expectations, but will take you to the same destination? Success is not a linear path. In our minds, achieving dreams and goals are always linear and stepwise. In reality, success is winding path with starts, bypasses, and stops. Step back and determine whether you are lost or have simply found a less direct way to travel to your goals. There is nothing wrong with the scenic route. What may seem to be a dead-end position, evil or ineffectual supervisors or colleagues, a series of failures, or a research program that is not as fruitful as desired; all may be opportunities in disguise. They can all get you to the same place. Third, are the original goals, plans, and paths that you set out for yourself the correct ones? We often cling to goals out of habit. The goals we made in our undergraduate days may not be realistic or useful anymore. You now have more experience. Changing goals is perfectly fine.

Implied in the above paragraph is that I do not find timelines for career goals useful, but once did. Things like, “Earn a PhD before the 25th birthday.” “Tenure track position before 30.” “Full prof by 40.” I had all of these types of goals. As a middle-ager in retrospect, the journey is infinitely more important than the destination. And if you have a destination, reaching it by a certain time is more stressful than helpful. This is your life, not a train schedule.

Analysis

Problem analysis involves careful consideration of the personal, environmental, and situational elements that are negatively influencing the trajectory toward your goals. Be brutally honest. Maybe you do not have the talent or drive to achieve your goals. Maybe your supervisor is not supporting you in a fashion that leads to excellence. Maybe you would prefer culinary school. What would need to change to get you back on the path to your goals? Are you willing to do those things?

I am a terrible person to give advice on this because I am completely without ambition as a scientist. I am not that smart, disciplined, or driven. I once missed a grant deadline to help my daughter study for an exam. Because my partner tends to burn food or cut herself, I try to be home early to cook dinner every night. I publish 3 to 6 papers per year and write a book every few years. I try to make the papers good and helpful to my profession. But I am never going to be a rock star academic. I have incredible respect for those who are and do not begrudge their ambition and skill. My goal is to ensure that upon graduation all of my students are better and more skilled than me. I have a pretty good idea what it would take for me to be a major scientist and I am not willing to that (even when entertaining the possibility that I have the requisite abilities).

Action

Once you are certain that you have fallen off of the desired path into a large ditch and are willing to do what it takes to get back on, then it is time for action. This is more than searching for greener pastures, this is about meeting essential professional goals and achieving what you desire as a professional. Nearly all academics I know are constantly searching for new and different academic posts. That is a normal activity. However, setting fire to the lab or otherwise rage quitting is not normal. Nearly as bad is breaking contracts and agreements. Not meeting your end of a contract is something that could shadow your entire career—and not in a good way. So do not walk away, except under extraordinary circumstances. New jobs, research programs, supervisors, employers all require massive and painful amounts of work. Are you sure you want to and need to make changes?  Once you are sure, then pull the trigger and give the new situation full and complete energy. Do not look back, just begin sprinting on your new path to your destination.

Emotions

All of the above recommendations are logical and reasonable. However, often the first signs that you are losing your way as a scientist are feelings of dread, confusion, frustration, anxiety, depression, hopelessness, disappointment, homesickness, and other emotions. Any solution to the idea of losing your way is not only a matter of career strategy, but emotional factors as well. Most scientists are passionate, serious, and conscientious. The negative side effect is that all career issues are heavy and fundamentally alter scientists’ self-image. Feeling that your science career is going in a bad direction almost by definition means that your life is going in a bad direction. For most scientists finding the right path to their professional goals is the essence of their being.

I am on the other end of the spectrum and tend to be light in being for a university professor. I take the work seriously, but not myself. If academics does not work out for me, then I am sure I will be happy as a school psychologist, window washer, farmer, or street sweeper. This sounds a bit silly, but it is far easier to experiment and try new paths when you do not feel the weight of the world on your professional shoulders.

The vast majority of times that a scholar feels lost, the issue is primarily that of emotional upset, frustration, or general unhappiness rather than a fundamental strategic career mistake that requires a dramatic course correction. I would make the case that the feelings of frustration and being on the wrong track is a sign of an impending positive major breakthrough. When engaging in difficult work, there are often setbacks, self-doubt, and frustration. Rather than despair, the best approach is to seek counsel, acknowledge the emotional component, take a short rest, and approach the problem from a new angle. This increases the likelihood of a reinvigorating breakthrough. Most often uncomfortable emotions related to scientific progress are signs to make very minor changes with the reinforcement of a major breakthrough on the way. If you have the major breakthrough or have a big success and still feel that you are going in the wrong career direction, then a change is justified. But dramatic change prior to success could disrupt the process and minimize the chance of scientific breakthrough.

This is where courage is necessary. When you believe that your entire professional life is at stake, you know that your situation requires a course correction, and your emotions are screaming that you are on the wrong track but are too scared to change; then a change is required because it is terrifying. By far the largest mistake you can make is failing to steer away from a path that is leading you in the wrong direction. But make absolutely sure that your direction is wrong first.

Conclusions

All scientists feel that they are going in the wrong direction at one time or another. There is a significant emotional component to this that needs to be addressed. Most importantly a scientist needs to step back from the emotions, make the best possible assessment of the current scientific trajectory, make a realistic assessment of goals; and then make a difficult decision. The majority of times a major course correction is not required — they are simply negative emotions to be processed with difficult, tedious work ahead before a major scientific breakthrough can be earned. However, if you are clear that the change is needed (preferably after a success), then make the leap quickly, completely and do not look back. The most difficult part is being honest with yourself.

SR Shaw

@Shawpsych

 

 

 

What Happens after Tenure and Happily Ever after? A Look-into-the-Future Edition of How Not to Suck in Grad School

For many graduate students, postdocs, and adjunct faculty members a tenure-track job represents the Holy Grail of academic career achievement. The lucky few who earn the coveted tenure-track position spend the next five years experiencing stress, panic, extremely long hours, and stomach-churning worry over whether they will lose the, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime, job. But then…through hard work, talent, strong mentorship, and luck your university decides to grant you tenure and a reasonably permanent contact. Well, then what?

Nearly all mentorship from graduate school through to assistant professor positions focuses on earning tenure. This is a single-minded obsession for at least the first 10 years and as many as 20 years of an academic career. Every piece of guidance, encouragement, support, and wisdom is integrated into the behaviors necessary to achieve the elusive and ultimate goal of tenure. Rarely do we discuss why we want tenure, what we will do with it, or how your life changes. Yet, most academic careers spend only 4 to 6 years as an assistant professor under extreme pressures to receive tenure and anywhere from 20 to 50 years in the fairyland of post-tenure. I would argue that at least half of all junior academics have no idea what they will do post-tenure. I would bet that most will say, “More of the same.” That would be a waste of the opportunity that tenure affords. Once you have achieved tenure and your own personal happily ever after, then what happens?

As always, this blog is based on my personal experiences and may not generalize. My work is in the employ of a large research university where I direct a professional program. Academia is clearly not a homogeneous profession. There are many different roles and expectations for academics. This post reflects my experiences only and certainly will not be useful to all academics.

Existential Dread

I had no idea that after I received tenure and during my sabbatical year that I would be spending so much time thinking about who I am as an academic and what I want to accomplish for the rest of my career. Existential dread is a major component of life immediately post tenure. This dread will need to be addressed in order to have the post-tenure career begin on a well-organized and productive footing. As someone who has come to academia fairly late in life after having a career as a practicing psychologist, I did not have a professional identity as an academic. Once I achieved tenure, I realized that I was an academic whether I like it or not.

Motivation to achieve and meet milestones are not big things to me like they are for many academics. I just like the work. Others live for milestones such as tenure and awards. When such huge emphasis is placed on tenure, there is a post reinforcement pause that frequently happens after getting tenure, which looks an awful lot like lack of motivation to achieve. The purpose of re-establishing the purpose of your work and processing the potential existential dread is to minimize the post reinforcement pause, which if not addressed successfully can become a long-term lack of motivation to produce.

I strongly recommend that much of the sabbatical year be spent in contemplation. What do you want to do with the rest of your career now that you do not have to publish large numbers of minor refereed scientific articles to keep your job? What is your niche within science or within your profession? What you aspire to do or to be? Post tenure results in a state similar to the legendary midlife crisis: Is this all there is? What do I do now? I am actually considering my proposal for my next sabbatical leave to be simply this: “to walk the earth like Kwai Chang Caine” so I can figure out what my years as a senior professor will be like. Failure to resolve these questions may lead to burnout, cynicism, and status as a deadwood professor.

Senior Scholar Issues

Some of the issues related to becoming an older scholar have little to do with tenure. As your reputation grows, there are more opportunities and responsibilities. Universities from around the world are interested in having you serve as an external reviewer to doctoral theses or to be an external reviewer for tenure files. Some of these documents are over 500 pages long and require a significant amount of time, energy, and responsibility. You will be asked to serve on editorial advisory boards for journals or to be an associate editor. Professional organizations want you to be an officer. You will be invited to contribute book chapters or articles to special issues of journals. You will receive invitations to provide workshops, consultation, or colloquia to a variety of audiences. Some of these opportunities are exciting and you wish you had them when you were pre-tenure. However, every opportunity requires significant time commitment and your time is a finite resource. These things simply come with the territory. When you know who you are and what you want to accomplish, then the decisions on whether to accept or decline these opportunities are much easier than if you wander through mid career without a plan.

Role and Function

The big change that nobody talks about is the day-to-day responsibilities post tenure. There is a tendency to have far more leadership roles and responsibility for governance of your university post tenure. Most universities try to protect their pre-tenure faculty members so that they can develop the teaching skills and research productivity necessary for tenure. Once tenure is obtained the floodgates open. Pre-tenure involves sitting as a member of a variety of departmental and university committees, post tenure involves chairing those committees. One thing that becomes clear is that chairing a committee is an order of magnitude more time consuming than simply attending meetings a couple times per semester.

Many departments have a rotation of roles. Once tenure is gained, you are now in the rotation for huge and time-consuming activities. Many of these roles are not simply a function of tenure, but are assigned immediately the year after the sabbatical. In other words, “while you are on sabbatical, we decided to make you chair of time-consuming committee X as soon as you return.” For example, I am now program director, member of the university’s tenure and promotion committee, the department’s executive steering committee, and a member of nearly every new faculty search committee. I would like to advance my research, please. Effective organization of time may be even more difficult post tenure than pre-tenure. Sorry to be the one to share that.

Being director of a professional program is especially time-consuming. My first year was spent writing a 572 page self-study document for program accreditation and then coordinating a site visit from the accrediting body. Every complaint from students or faculty, incidents of clinical problems, budget issues, mediating conflicts between students and supervisors, writing annual reports to accrediting bodies, recruiting and admissions, and making the final decision on difficult and complex issues (e.g., student dismissal) comes across my desk. Ultimately, every challenging decision is made by the program director. Luckily, I have quality support from faculty members, a strong department chair, and high quality students. All you can do is try your best to be efficient, delegate when possible, and upset everyone equally.

There is nothing wrong with these roles. I am used to this level of administration as I spent 9 years as director of psychological services in a hospital setting. But the problem is that promotion to full professor, remaining competitive for increasingly difficult to acquire grants (mostly because you are now competing against extremely well-established scholars and not other noob assistant professors), and continuing to establish an international reputation is dependent almost entirely on research productivity. The year I spent writing the 572 page self-study, I published zero (zero!) refereed publications. That is a big hole in my CV. The next year I only published two papers. So it took more than a full year to fill the pipeline and return to my pre-tenure productivity of about six refereed papers per year.

The dean and department chair completely understand that my role and function have changed. My lack of productivity did not really generate much heat on me as they seem to understand the trade-off that was being made. But to granting agencies and people outside of my university, I looked like I was becoming deadwood.

Deadwood

Deadwood is not the kindest of phrases to describe a faculty member, but it happens. The deadwood professors are those who achieved tenure and then do little above the minimum requirements of the job. Publications slow to a crawl, they teach their classes, attend required meetings, hold office hours, and then go home. Critics of academia point to deadwood professors as the reason that tenure should be abolished or reformed. Honestly, I do not see much of this. In a department of about 35 faculty members only two or three might be considered deadwood and that would be a harsh judgment. This does not include those academics with illness, personal crises, changing research directions and programs, other relatively short-term disruptions of their professional lives, and those slowing down as they near retirement. The deadwood professor relies on a permanent open-ended contract as an excuse to live a lifestyle without doing the core work of an academic. The deadwood professor occurs when there is an environment that treats receiving tenure as the end state or final major accomplishment of academia. We do not have that culture at my university. The other reason for becoming a deadwood professor is when the individual does not find meaning in work and has no plans beyond tenure. The status of the deadwood professor is an indication of a failure to navigate post tenure academia.

Ideas and Solutions

For me there were six activities that helped navigate the challenges of the academic midlife crisis. These may not work for you, but create your own activities. Tenure is opportunity. Be mindful about how you can best use this opportunity to make for a most satisfying career and life.

  1. One of those insipid inspirational quotes is, “what would you do if you knew that you could not fail?” This really applies to the post tenure life lived well. Without pressures to produce small and frequent articles on the minutia of your field, what would you produce? This is the opportunity to produce vast and important projects. This is the opportunity to produce exciting work that may not result in a positive outcome. This is the opportunity to make work that is innovative and truly important. Keep a list of what you want to study if you did not have to worry about publication quantity. Try to publish that one big paper each year or take on a large book project in addition to your other work. Think big and make a difference.
  2. The five-year plan has always been something that I have (like Stalin). This guides my decision making. Where do you want to be in five years? What projects do you want to accomplish? What outcomes do you want to achieve? I have found that a review of the previous five-year plan and development of a new five-year plan bring excitement, take advantage of opportunities, and help me to make my work continuously progress.
  3. Say no and say yes. Say no to small projects that are not consistent with your five-year plan or big opportunities. Say yes to risky ventures with large opportunities for success and a more than zero probability for failure. Tenure allows risk taking, if you do not take those risks, then what is the use?
  4. Creating a life is hard for academics. As an undergraduate many say that I will wait to live my life until I get into graduate school. Once in graduate school, the same people say I will have fun and start my life after I complete my thesis. Then as a tenure-track professor, I am too busy to have fun or have a real life. After receiving tenure, you are out of excuses. Although, I have heard some say that now they are too old to engage in fun life activities that they should have when they were younger. That can be a sad situation. My advice is to jump in without fear. If your life was out of balance, then post tenure is a brilliant opportunity to get it back in balance. For me, I returned to judo training after 26 years away and am working on converting my neglected dad bod into something that will carry me for the next 30 more years.
  5. Lead something. This is the opportunity to take control and establish leadership as a mid-career and well-established professional. There is no choice for me but to be something of a leader as I have the formal title of program director. However, part of my five-year plan is to organize and make coherent the profession of school psychology in Canada. Being a leader is an empowering activity for senior academics that gives purpose and creates opportunities.
  6. Give back and be generous. Remember all of those people who helped you when you were a junior professor? The chances are good that there was more than one mentor or generally encouraging person as your career was established. This is now your opportunity to give back to the next generation. Reach out and actively take these opportunities to mentor, support, and be generous with your time and effort. Giving back is a wonderful cure for cynicism.

Congratulations on getting tenure. I remember being somewhat disappointed that there was not a secret handshake, dedicated washroom, or lounge with a wet bar. In fact, there are more duties that take time from your research agenda and desire to create. A great deal of planning and mindful approaches to task are required to set forth an agenda for the remainder of your career. Tenure and the security that goes with it are nothing more than opportunities to do something special–so do not waste this wonderful opportunity.

SR Shaw

 

 

 

How Not to Suck at Summer Work Habits

As often happens, I was inspired by Raul Pacheco-Vega’s recent blog post. This one is entitled, “My daily workflow: On focusing on ONE task at a time.” (http://www.raulpacheco.org/blog/). I always learn a lot from his insights and experiences. Moreover, I am always fascinated by the variations in work habits that productive people enjoy. Although I have written about my organization, work habits, and approaches to completing tasks before; summertime work schedules, priorities, and tasks change.

For me, summer is four months without teaching, few grant deadlines, and minimal numbers of meetings. About 75% of my writing volume is completed over the summer. Because so much writing is completed in such a short time, maximum efficiency of work habits is needed. In addition, there are vacations, downtime, children home from school, and wonderful weather that demands time be spent outside. The best part is the flexibility. I have few 10 to 12 hour days. Many days I can complete my daily work in six hours. Even taking a few days off is perfectly fine in the summer. The goal is not to allow this flexible and enjoyable time to slip away without achieving maximum productivity.

Organization. Before the summer begins, I catalog all of  the projects that need to be completed over this four-month period. For me, this is fairly easy. I have several papers and book chapters that are being co-authored with students, there are student theses that require editing, and I have a book contract where I have promised to present a completed manuscript by September 1. I noticed that Raul uses conference deadlines to guide much of his scheduling. At this stage in my career, my personal life, and the priorities of McGill University, travelling and presenting at conferences is a low priority for me. About 90% of my summer work revolves around refereed publications, books, and grant proposals. So my list of projects to be completed over the summer is made with hard deadlines primary and self-imposed deadlines secondary.

Prioritization. I use the website/app Priority Matrix to organize my to do lists and projects. Typically, projects with hard deadlines and long difficult projects are attacked first. I have a tendency to procrastinate productively. In other words when I get tired of working on a long and difficult project, that I will automatically begin working on a shorter easier project just to break up the day (this blog post being an example—I wrote it during the night shift [about 7:30-8:00pm] after a day of writing).

Outlining. Most of my work has extremely detailed outlines. Every heading is written before I begin writing. Usually paragraphs that do not receive headings are also placed within the outline. Any figures or tables are completed before writing begins. The goal is that once writing begins, it should go quickly. The time required to write any manuscript typically involves about one third outlining, one third drafting, and one third revising and editing.

Writing. I write nearly all of the text via dictation with Dragon NaturallySpeaking. This approach increases my speed over typing from about 50 words per minute to 140 words a minute. I typically have Zotero open to the folder related specifically to the project I am working on. I usually have tabs open for four or five PDF papers that have sections I want to emphasize in my papers highlighted. These open papers are most frequently data-heavy papers where I will be citing complex details in the literature review. For me, writing is about getting as much on the page as I possibly can in the shortest amount of time. Given the amount of time and energy I spent outlining, most often writing runs fairly smoothly. Sometimes I find that an outline that appeared to be solid is less so when I actually start writing. Then I go back and fix the outline for future writing sessions. There is always a reciprocal process between outlining and writing.

Editing. Revising and editing is where the differences between a professional writer and a beginning writer are most apparent. The first revision is called the FLOAT pass and works to perfect the bones and muscles of the paper. Float stands for Flow, Logic, Order, Accuracy, and Tone. Flow refers to an easy-to-read paper with strong transitions. Logic refers to whether the arguments supporting the thesis or hypotheses are clear and meet logical standards. Order is related to flow and logic, and refers to the sequence of paragraphs that creates a consistently deductive or inductive approach to making the thesis or testing the hypotheses. Accuracy is simple fact checking and includes appropriate attribution and citation of ideas. Tone refers to word choice and quality of expression. The second pass is editing. Paragraph structure, complete sentences, grammar, and punctuation are the foci. The third pass is formatting. The details of APA or AMA (or other) style are important. In addition to the general professional style, often journals have their own idiosyncratic stylistic issues that must be adhered to. Often the difference between acceptance and rejection of a paper can be traced to style and presentation.

Time Working. I like to work from home mostly because I have an 80 minute commute from my house to my office. Working from home allows me to have almost 3 more hours of productive time in the day. The goal is to work for 40 pomodoros (30 minute segments) per week. I usually exceed this or work without the Pomodoro timer running. There is flexibility for when these hours are worked. 6 to 10 Pomodoro’s per day is typical.

Weekends. My family tends to be fairly late risers on weekends. Since I typically wake up about 5:30 (dogs do not comprehend weekends — all she cares is that it is pee o’clock) in the morning, I have plenty of time to complete at least six Pomodoros on each weekend day before the family is awake. Household chores and family time take up most of the afternoon and evening. I also tend to work with the television on during weekends, but do not watch television on weekdays.

Daily Grind. I go to the office once or twice per week during summers to meet with students, pick up mail, and attend the odd meeting. But if I do not need to go to the office, then I do not. My typical summer day is as follows:

  • 530 to 6 wake up and walk dog
  • 6 to 630 meditation and brief yoga
  • 630 to 830 shower, coffee, breakfast, twitter, farting around
  • 830 to 12 writing
  • 12 to 230 gym, lunch, long dog walk
  • 230 to 5 editorial duties, thesis reading, correspondence, editing (I do this on the patio if the weather is nice)
  • 5 to 7 cooking, family dinner, cleaning
  • 7 to 9 administration, reading, and answering emails
  • 9 to 10 family time

Although this schedule is the default, it is realized maybe 3 to 4 days a week. Real life always is the primary activity, no matter what deadline is pending. Medical tasks, therapies, chatting, and just being together take priorities over any work. And sometimes I just need a nap or to spend some time doing absolutely nothing. I do not worry about days where not much work is done. Guilt is not helpful and robs the day of joy. When the work habits are established, tasks will get accomplished. It takes a lot of planning and hard work to make any task appear effortless.

SR Shaw

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Not to Suck At Academic Job Interviews

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

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

Preparation

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