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

Communicating Science: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

Science, and especially the way science is funded, is changing dramatically. A laboratory that produces only esoteric work with results published in esoteric scientific journals will find that funding, attracting new and high quality students, collaborating with other laboratories, and receiving necessary support from the university is far more challenging than in the past. Government and foundation funding agencies want to know the applied applications of nearly all research, no matter how basic. Science communication is now a required activity. However, there is so much energy and expertise concerning science communication that it is overwhelming for graduate students and new scientists to figure out how to allocate their time and resources. Sometimes so much time is spent updating CVs, creating websites, and managing communication that there is little time left for actual research and data generation.

As always, I am not an expert in science communication, but that does not stop me for offering my two cents about what works for me. I am a director of a professional program in school psychology at a large research university. Certainly, some of the strategies will not work in other fields or in more basic science areas.

Tree-Shaped Communication

The communication of thinking, science, implementation, and data produced by the lab is most effectively thought of as a tree-shaped process. The first stage is the trunk and roots of the tree, which serves as the foundation for all communication. The trunk consists of refereed scholarly articles. The roots are the data and theory development upon which ideas are created. Scientific articles that have been peer reviewed begin to form the trunk from which science communication spreads. Without such foundation, communications can be speculative, fictional, aspirational, or otherwise not tethered to any scientific thought. The branches and leaves of the tree spread communication to professionals in your subfield, to related professionals, to policymakers, to thinkers in other fields, to implementing professionals, to the general public. The traditional academic laboratory consists solely of the trunk — although it is a strong foundation, there is no reach beyond the restricted group of dedicated colleagues. Speakers, popular science communicators, talk show hosts, and other communicators may have a broad popular reach; but those communications consist only of the branches and leaves (like a shrub or vine) — a broad reach with an uncertain anchor in science. We all know people who do this and view them as dilatants who have sold their soul, but are still someone envious of their notoriety and bank accounts. As a graduate student or new scientist, this framework allows for strategic use of time and energy to both create a respectable core of knowledge and communicate findings to the most appropriate audiences.

Possessing a framework is only a tool. Every graduate student or young scholar must have a communication goal in mind. For me, that goal is to be respected by my research peers and also have the opportunity to influence the clinical practice in education and psychology. There is a necessary middle ground to occupy between being a dusty tweedy professor writing papers that collect dust and are only read by other people who write papers; and serving as a spray-tanned veneer-smiled consultant and media personality. There are many types of trees in this framework that you can choose to emulate. Some professional goals are more like a lodge pole pine that is tall and narrow; and others are more like an oak tree that is shorter, but spreads far and wide. The tree analogy can work, but you must know what your goals are.

The Trunk

Within the building of a foundation for communication there are a variety of options. Every field in science has narrow journals that focus on a subset of knowledge. Narrow focus journals allow for strong peer review by experts in the field. This level of professional journal most typically serves as the foundational aspects of any research program. These narrow focus journals serve as the core of the trunk of the tree. The next level is the broad journal. These journals have a wider readership and cross into many related areas of study. Most fields have multiple levels of journals. For example, in my field of school psychology there are narrow journals such as the Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment and Journal of Psychological and Educational Consultation; more broad journals such as School Psychology Review; and very broad journals such as Psychological Bulletin or American Psychologist. Typically, the foundation of a research program begins at narrow journals and works its way out to broad journals as the theoretical implications of data become more mature. Both types of journals are necessary for building the strongest possible roots and trunk of the communication tree.

The Branches and Leaves

Not all research programs are intended for a broad audience. It is helpful to grow from the established trunk of the tree outward to the broad and general audience. Most people in science prefer to stay close to the scientific community (i.e., thick branches). The further the communication spreads to a general audience, the less structure and less control the scientist has (i.e., the leaves).

Professional newsletters/professional organization websites/magazines — Many fields of study have professional newsletters, websites, or related magazines that are widely read in the field, but are not refereed or a primary outlet for scientific results. These outlets may include interviews with scholars, book and paper reviews, and broad descriptions of scientific activities. Such outlets reach a wide professional audience and the editors of newsletters and magazines are familiar with the language of science and your discipline, specifically. Although these outlets tend to have a larger reach than broad refereed journals, they lack professional status. These are excellent communication resources when you want to publicize your research activities within your broader field.

Blogs — The value of blogs varies from field to field. In some areas blogs are often the first repository for new data and new thinking. In other fields of study blogs are used to provide overviews of research. There is no guarantee of size or reach of the readership of a blog. The nature of the readership is difficult to control as well. However, the advantage is that you have complete control of the editorial content and tone of what you wish to communicate. Often referring wide and general audiences to a blog in order to communicate details of research can be valuable.

Social media – Social media such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and others provide a general outlet for information. Savvy marketing is necessary to ensure that the audience to whom you wish to communicate is receiving the information. Most often social media serves as an excellent method of interacting with colleagues and the general public. Scholarly connections frequently began as social media communication. These frequently lead to collaborative work and other partnerships.

Public and professional talks — Scientists are often asked to engage in public or professional talks. In my field, school boards/districts and professional organizations need speakers for professional development opportunities for psychologists or teachers. Engaging professionals with the information developed in the research lab and applying it to clinical activities is a difficult skill. However, developing public speaking skills to assist in having your research information communicate to audiences of potential policy makers and implementing professionals is worth the time and energy.

Press — Newspapers are always looking for interesting stories. As such, they frequently interview scholars to receive an expert perspective on their news story or feature a scientist who has made discoveries. Being interviewed for a newspaper reporter story is a difficult skill. Nearly every scientist who is interviewed for a newspaper claims that they have been misquoted or so heavily edited that their primary message did not appear in the final article. An effective reporter or interviewer will ask an open-ended question upon which a scientist will go into a long and rambling explanation, then the interviewer will select components of the long and rambling explanation that fits into the reporter’s narrative. That selected information is what appears in a newspaper article. Although it goes against the nature of most scientists, answer newspaper interviews with short declarative sentences. An interview is not a social conversation. Taking several seconds to articulate a short and simple answer is perfectly acceptable. If your responses are short and on point, then you are unlikely to be misquoted.

Media — Radio and television interviews reach fairly large audiences, but are extremely difficult to do well. The hardest part about television and radio interviews is that everything is in first draft, there is no opportunity to revise an answer once you speak it out loud. This is also a foreign environment where you need to worry about audio and visual equipment, dress and make up, the tone of your voice, camera angles, strict time limits, and other issues that are irrelevant to most scientists. Engaging with television and radio interviews can be nerve-wracking, is a specific skill, and depends in large part on the quality of the people in the media. The major advantage is that you will immediately reach a large number of people in the general population.

All-Purpose Communication

There are other forms of communication of scientific progress that can cover both trunk and branches and leave of the tree framework.

Grant proposals — Although grant proposals are essential to funding core research, many grant proposals are read and evaluated by people who are not area experts in your field of study (I know, weird). In any grant proposal there must be a weaving of deep foundational aspects of the research with broad implications for application and social import. Writing successful grant proposals often requires mastery of both directions of the tree framework.

Website — All labs require a website that communicates the foundation and the reach/scope of the topics studied. The website is used to recruit new students, indicate the importance of the research for the general public, and provide detailed methodology of current projects. Like a blog, the website is the home for interested parties to receive additional information and more communication than they received from the snippet of information in a television interview or newspaper article. All communication requires a reference to the website. The website is as much the home to your laboratory as the physical space of your lab.

Nerd social media — Nerd social media involves repositories and scientist-focused websites such as Google Scholar, ResearchGate, and related sites. On these sites scientists can search any scholar to view their catalogue of publications and the reach of those publications. Many of these sites have opportunities to interact, share papers and data. Nerd social media is an excellent forum from which to meet and reach collaborators, future research supervisors, and scientific leaders in the field.

Conclusions

Conducting and reporting scientific findings in narrow focused refereed scholarly journals is no longer adequate for any scientist in any field. A communication strategy is required to maximize the reach of a research program and therefore possibilities for funding, recognition, collaboration, and application of science to the larger community. Each graduate student or scientist is now required to develop specific communication skills; whether they are writing for a general audience, public speaking, creating videos, or other methods of communication. Selecting a strategy that fits with scientific and professional goals based on the tree framework of scientific communication is an effective way to create a reputation based on sound scientific principles, yet reach a broad and important audience.

SRShaw

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 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