Training for the Productivity Load in Academia: How Not to Suck in Graduate School
We usually think of the development of scholars from their undergraduate days to tenured professor as a journey of continuously increasing content specific knowledge, skills, and abilities. We also think of scholars evolving increasing independence from relying on experienced professionals to becoming supervisors and innovators. These are normal processes that are formally or informally supported through mentorship. However, the ability to cope with increasing demands of productivity may be one of the most important skills that scholars develop and is frequently one of the most ignored in supervision and mentorship.
This is not to say that undergraduate or graduate students do not work hard. My experience is that they work incredibly hard and ridiculously long hours to master their craft. Ultimately, undergraduate and graduate students do not produce as much new material as experienced professors. In addition, my experience is that older professors, with sufficient motivation, can produce more high quality new findings than a younger professor. With experience comes practice and expertise. I have concluded that I can produce much more quality writing and thinking with less stress than ever before. I figure that just about the time I have total mastery of the process, it will be time to retire.
As is typical of this blog, I have no data on this process and this is only my experience. But here are some mechanisms that new researchers can use to systematically train themselves for increased quantity, quality, and ease of producing original thinking and written products.
I am sure there are a lot of readers who do not accept my initial assumption that more experienced professors can write more than highly energetic and motivated postdocs or tenure track academics. Certainly, full professors have fewer monetary or career goals for producing a lot of work. As such, many, if not most, full professors begin to slow down in terms of their productivity on their own volition. For me, I have the feeling that I still have a lot to say and study, but not that many years left to produce. So my productivity is increasing each year and I am finding the increased productivity far easier than when I first started in academia. However, this does not happen by accident.
There are two variables that simply are a function of time in the profession. First, you become extremely knowledgeable of all the literature in the field through accumulation of reading. Students need to learn the literature of the field from the ground up, having to grow from seminal articles up to current studies. Advanced professionals have the theories and important research findings as part of their routine vocabulary. This makes identification of important research topics and questions easier. Second, is simply practice. The writing, revising, editing, publishing, and persistence of publishing papers is now second nature. Most of us have found relatively effective habits. Yet, waiting to get old is not a particularly good strategy for advancing quickly.
The best analogy I can think of concerning gaining the ability to produce a lot are sports requiring long-term intensive training. Teenagers and young adults have incredible physical energy and strength. However, most of the best marathoners are older — in their late 20s up to 40 years of age. Powerlifters are often older than that. Even amateur marathoners and powerlifters find that they achieve their personal best times or weights at an advanced age for an athlete, most often in their late 30s to mid 40s. They have learned to overcome injury, setbacks, life events, and many other disruptions to advance and improve their performance with consistent and disciplined training. A lifetime accumulation of training and advancement is required to get to the highest levels of competition.
Goal setting. I tell my students that the most effective way to be productive is to be consistent and persistent in production. I tell them that their goals are to write 1000 words on research and publishable tasks and read 100 pages five days per week. Most of them cannot do it. There are distractions, class work, other professional responsibilities and tasks, personal life, mental energy, and other factors they keep new students from this reasonable production goal. No one can run a marathon or bench press 300 pounds on their first day of training. You need to set a training schedule that allows you to work toward goals.
Assessment and initial goals. The first challenge is to determine exactly what your levels of productivity are now. Keep track of exactly how many pages you read that advance your knowledge for purposes of research productivity and how many words are written in a week. Assess over a three-week period exactly how many words were written and how many pages read that are directly relevant to research and this serves as the baseline. I would argue in the initial stages that there should be relatively more reading than writing, because students often are at a deficit of knowledge in terms of full understanding of the literature. A reasonable baseline might be writing 100 words and reading 80 pages per day.
Consistency. Inconsistent performance is quite common. I have students who write zero words for two or three consecutive weeks and then write 8000 words over the next week. I would argue that this is an extremely stressful approach and that typically this inconsistent pattern is due to writing only when there are deadlines approaching. Smooth the work periods into short, consistent, and feasible daily work. Being consistent is the first step towards being disciplined and mindful. The best way to train for a marathon or powerlifting is to have a consistent training schedule with appropriate amounts of rest and recovery scheduled.
Discipline. Inspiration is perfectly fine, but the discipline of reading and writing habits is more effective for achieving your long-term objectives. Schedule writing periods and reading periods. I place 30 minute Pomodoro writing segments into my schedule. I check my schedule, see that there is a writing segment on the agenda, set the Pomodoro timer and go. Also, on my schedule is rest time. Turning your brain off, having fun, and spending time with other people is required to have a quality life, rest, and recover. My own experience is that when the non-academic parts of your life are ignored, large disruptions in your home and work life are sure to follow; just like overtraining can lead to injury and burnout in an athlete. Making long-term gains if you only work when there is a deadline or when you are in the mood is not possible. Over the long term, discipline with appropriate rest and recharging is superior to inspiration in terms of quality and quantity of work.
Improvement. To move forward from your baseline, consistency and discipline are necessary but not sufficient. A reasonable approach is to create a writing and reading diary such as that suggested in Paul Silvia’s fine book entitled, “How to Write a Lot.“ Divide the writing diary into one-week segments. The goal is to achieve your quota of words written and pages read for the week. The following week, the goal is simply to write more words and read more pages. Even if it is one more word and one more page, that is successfully advancing your goals. Nearly every week needs to be a personal best until the goals are achieved. Cumulative gains happen faster than you think if gains are pursued with consistency and discipline.
Advanced goals. In any form of training or long-term preparation, there will be setbacks, discipline will fail, and motivation will be hard to find. Falling into a rut is inevitable. The first thing to do is to make sure that you have had enough rest, energy and attention have been given to the non-academic parts of your life, and you have determined that the line of work you are pursuing is rewarding and exactly what you wish to do. Even if these things are addressed, ruts will occur. In the case of athletes, they often change up their training. So a marathon runner may train using swimming, jump rope, cycling, soccer, or spirited games of tag for a change. Powerlifters may engage in gymnastics, strongman activities, or kettle bell work. The purpose is to change things up and to have fun. If you have been disciplined, consistent, and improving for a long period using the same mechanisms, then you will find that any change is rewarding and fun. The key is to keep moving forward in a positive manner. For a scholar working on reading and writing productivity some excellent activities are to form a journal club, create writing circles, or engage in timed writing sprints. I am constantly in search of methods to improve my efficiency and quality of work. Currently, I use voice-to-text recognition and try different patterns of work. The voice-to-text recognition is something I will probably continue. I find that I can write much faster than typing. I also find that my fingers get sore quickly as I age–so there is an accommodation for the physical limitations of aging. I also found that I was in a bit of a rut with some of my thinking. Therefore, I am now in a heavy load period of production: I wanted to try eight weeks of producing 10,000 words per week. This is now week three: 9987 words for week one and 7985 words for week two. My plan is to reduce back down to 5000 words per week at the end of this heavy load period. Change things up and avoid the rut.
Effective writing cannot be reduced entirely to work count. Obsession with word count could lead to an unfortunate Jack Torrance situation. Writing is a proxy variable for prolific and creative thought. One cannot write a lot without reading a lot of background information, experimenting, collecting and analysing data, outlining and organizing thoughts, and having an approach to contributing to the knowledge base of your field. The written word is solely the visible part of the iceberg. By pushing reading and writing productivity, you are pushing thinking and experimenting.
Relentlessly seeking improved performance is a fundamental trait of high achievers in any field. Nearly everyone I know in academia is a high achiever. And nearly everyone I know gets stuck at one time or another. By keeping the goals of completing a marathon or achieving a personal best lift, training has a reinforcing goal at the end of the journey. Likewise, academics train for managing increasingly heavy productivity loads that will last throughout your career.