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

 

 

 

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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 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

 

 

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