Monday, December 15, 2014

First-Year Faculty: Survival Skills

Evaluating advice. As a new faculty member, I've had a lot of people offer their advice on how to be successful. (I've also sought a lot of advice, as noted.) Much of what I've absorbed as been spot on and immensely helpful. Though I have raised my eyebrows in surprise and skepticism more than once, which also has been useful. As we come to the end of the first semester, here are my tips for surviving the first year.

(1) Read, read, read. You're not alone. Thousands have made this transition before, and hundreds have shared their advice in books and blogs. Make a habit of searching for their tips; download Kindle books, search Google and Twitter, follow links from blog to blog. No matter how busy you are in the few months before you start, you can set aside a few minutes per day to prepare yourself. My list included:

  • From Student to Scholar: A Candid Guide to Becoming a Professor - Cahn & Stimpson
  • The Academic Self: An Owner's Manual - Hall (particularly good for promoting self-awareness and reducing egotism)
  • What They Didn't Teach You in Graduate School - Gray & Drew
  • Preparing for Your First Year as a Faculty Member - compiled by Brown University
  • Get a Life, Phd (blog) - Tanya Golash-Boza

(2) Trust your training. Much of what you'll read warns that an academic job is unlike training. It's true that you haven't done this job before, and that neither grad school nor postdoc fellowship prepared you for exactly the challenges you'll encounter in your first semester (e.g., politics, managing your own time, managing TAs, preparing lectures, choosing service "opportunities"). But if you made it through graduate and postdoc training successfully, then you know how to juggle classwork, academic writing, meetings, requests from supervisors, and student assistants. 

The difference is that no one tells you which of these to work on at any given time. This may require some adjustment, and might seem overwhelming at first. Rely on the techniques that got you through training - lists, designated work time, working (or not) from home, or whatever helped you be successful to this point. Those can keep working for you if you adapt them to your new situation.

(3) Work on long-term mind. You kept your eyes on the prize (an academic job) for years, and it helped get you through some tough moments. Well, it starts all over again, with the new prize of tenure several years away. As frustrating as this can be, you know how to do it. And what's different is that now you can work on the projects that are most meaningful to you. Write the papers that matter to you; choose your assistants based on your own values and goals. Chip away a little bit at a time and mix in some relaxation. Remember that you don't have to do everything at once. You have a few years to make your tenure case, so plan thoughtfully.

(4) Pick your battles, but stand up for yourself. As the new kid, well-intentioned colleagues will offer you their insights, and only some of these pearls of wisdom will be solicited. Some of it will inspire gratitude, and some of it will make your blood boil - particularly if it comes across as unnecessarily condescending. No matter what the culture of your institution or department, they hired YOU, and they hired you to be a colleague. As long as you're being reasonable, don't let seniority equal disrespect. When necessary, make your expectations known, and provide warm but firm feedback. (Because not everyone is willing to do this, unacceptable behaviors persist. Often, people are grateful when someone finally says something.) *If you don't preserve your self-respect, you may find yourself bitter and resentful right quick.

Of course, not every technique is optimal for everyone, so I refer back to #2 - do what works! Though do adapt it to your new environment.

I had a fantastic first semester, which included manuscript submissions/acceptances and earning a teaching grant to purchase materials for a new course. It can be done.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

#AcWriMo - Academic Writing Month (Part 3)

AmbivalenceAs #AcWriMo2014 winds down, I have mixed impressions of my success. I produced what I set out to (and then some), which is gratifying during such a busy time of year. As planned, I:
  • Completed and submitted a teaching enhancement grant application
  • Completed and submitted my first year self-report
  • Finished and submitted two in-progress papers (including my first solo-authored!)
  • Make significant progress on a (major) revise and resubmit invitation for my dissertation manuscript
I also submitted four conference abstracts (three with student co-authors), attended the Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies conference to present two posters (one an Obesity & Eating Disorders SIG citation selection), and received word that my submission to the Society of Behavioral Medicine annual meeting was accepted as a paper presentation. All of this is fantastic, and I'm delighted to share the success with students.

Up next, I'll find out whether my department votes to keep me (i.e., the result of my first year report) on Tuesday, December 2nd; I'll hear about the teaching grant sometime before the end of the semester (December 16th). Manuscript submissions? As always, it's anyone's guess. (Though very nice to have them on someone else's plate, so they can linger for a while without complaint from me.) I hope to send the R&R off to co-authors for feedback in the next few days.

So why the ambivalence, if I met my goals? The goal that I didn't meet had much less to to with outcome than with process: I committed to writing for one hour per day (or two half hours), and as noted, I did not meet this goal 2-3 days per week. Even after recommitting to blocking out time, the MWF teaching/office hours/seminar schedule got the best of me. I did meet my goal on two of four Mondays and one of four Wednesdays and Fridays, which is decent considering everything else going on. But every blog, book, and tweet about being a productive writer, from productive writers, recommends a daily writing habit, and there is something alluring about such consistency. 

Perhaps what #AcWriMo has taught me is that I don't need daily writing to be "productive" at my desired level. I can continue to strive for this goal or knuckle down when I need to finish something, but beating myself up isn't necessary. Maybe relief, or disbelief, is manifesting as ambivalence? Either way, maybe it's time to lighten up.

Credit where it is due. I'm immensely grateful to Charlotte Frost at PhD2Published, who started the initiative, and to the hundreds of academics who posted tweets of progress and support. Especially @ATRWibben, @JosephsonJyl, and @iladylayla (aka the Global #AcWri Team) for their company and encouragement during writing episodes. Being part of the community has made the frenzy of #AcWriMo enjoyable. Sign me up for next year!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

#AcWriMo - Academic Writing Month (Part 2)

November. The first semester has hummed along at a steady clip for two months. I've had time to get to know colleagues, write and submit, run, and even relax a little. It seemed that I might achieve work-life balance after many years without it. 

Then, BAM - November! This is me on 11/14:
Let's review. I knew that it would be a busy month. I had decided to apply for a teaching grant (due 11/3) to buy materials for a new course. I'm traveling for a conference the weekend before Thanksgiving, and then again for the holiday, plus I agreed to  do a guest lecture on eating disorders in a sports psychology course. And that first year self-report, due the 24th, which needs to be drafted early enough that generous colleagues can provide feedback. So I needed to get ahead of the game. 

My #AcWriMo goals included a mix of necessary tasks and additional objectives, which I thought were reasonable:
  • Complete teaching enhancement grant
  • Complete first year self-report
  • Finish and submit two in-progress papers
  • Revise and resubmit dissertation manuscript
It started with the teaching grant application. Syllabus for a new course I've never taught, timeline, budget, proposal, and letter of support (which I wrote myself). Despite my head start, there was a bit of cramming the night before to make the pieces cohere. Fortunately, the eating disorders lecture occurred in the same week span as the same topic in my own courses, so there was only a bit of extra work there. Though I learned that four straight hours of teaching with no break = fatigue and the 10,000-step buzz from my FitBit by 1:00 pm. Conference poster is nearly done, I've made steady progress on the revision and first year report. And I submitted one of those in-progress manuscripts.

So where am I? The concrete achievements sound pretty good, except that the workload is catching up to me. I set a goal of writing for at least one hour every day, as I would really like to get into a daily writing habit. The first week went well; I skipped one day, but exceeded the total for the week. I realized that finishing the revisions for an invited resubmission is NOT reasonable, considering the work involved. So I edited that one to "address revise and resubmit invitation," which I can make progress on for the next few weeks. 

But this week, I skipped three days of writing - my teaching days, which are exceptionally busy, and require either early mornings or late evenings to squeeze in writing. One hour isn't that much, so I could have done this. Though I realized that I really, really enjoy having nights off during the week. Right now, I don't think I'm willing to spend two or three nights per week working. I've done it for years and I'm tired. I could feel guilty about this, but I think it's reasonable. I think about Tanya Golash-Boza's commitment to a 40-hour week and wonder if it's possible to achieve it as a junior faculty member. So I have to think of another way.

Some options include:
  • Spending less time on Twitter
  • Breaking the hour into 20-minute blocks
  • Closing the door after office hours, no matter who wants what
  • Accepting that MWF are not writing days
I don't like the first or the last; I get a lot from the academic support and suggestion network on Twitter, and I learn about valuable research in my area. And I'm not a quitter. So this week, despite travel, I will schedule time to write each day and commit to sticking with it. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

#AcWriMo - Academic Writing Month 2014 (Part 1)

It starts! November 1st marked Day 1 of Academic Writing Month - a month-long effort to set goals, work toward them, and hold yourself accountable. You can read the history and full instructions here; in brief, you set writing goals, identify your plan for accomplishing them, and check in each day using the publicly shared accountability spreadsheet. Many academics say that this burst of community-oriented writing invigorates them and increases their productivity. As this is my first year participating, it's a good time to (1) discuss goals, and (2) reflect on how to improve my writing process.

#1: Goals. November already is a busy month for me, so setting goals wasn't terribly difficult. Here are the ones I included on the accountability sheet:
  • Finish and submit a teaching enhancement grant (i.e., a proposal to earn extra money for teaching equipment and other resources)
  • Put the final touches on two nearly-done manuscripts, and submit both
  • Complete requested major revisions to my dissertation manuscript, and resubmit
  • Complete my first year faculty self-report (i.e., a summary of what I've done so far/why my institution should rehire me for year two/goals for next year)
The teaching grant and the self-report have hard deadlines, which are early and late in the month, respectively. (At the time of this post, I've already submitted the teaching grant. Hooray!) In the middle, I have two manuscripts that require a few hours each, and a set of major revisions that will take several days (at least). 

My plan is to focus one hour per day on writing, either all at once or split up into chunks. It's not much every day. But considering that teaching prep takes a good deal of time, and I have endless stacks of exams to grade this month, an hour every day will be an accomplishment. Writing here, counts, as well :)
#2: Process. I realized long ago that being a great writer takes more effort than I've been willing to give. For example, this excerpt from an advertisement for Hands On Writing sums up my process while in training (red = my edits):
This is how I (unrealistically) thought I would improve my academic writing back at the start of my PhD. Please feel free to laugh:
  • I write something. I send the first un-revised draft to somebody (usually) more senior than me asking for feedback. 
  • I will go to “track changes” and accept all of them automatically (so I save time). 
  • Write some more and re-do the feedback accept-all-changes step. 
  • Rarely - When the reviewer says it is good enough, read the document, try to find the 13498986 differences with my first draft so I can  learn some lessons for next time I have to write. 
  • Forget everything quite a lot the next day.
I internalized some basics, like how NOT to use a colon and striving to keep sentences short. And my academic writing has improved dramatically over the past few years; I can tell when I read others' writing and I find ways to improve clarity. But I wonder how much better my writing would be today had I paid more attention to the process during training. 

These days, I still rely on others' feedback. I'm rubbish at finding the holes in my own logic and even worse at spotting typos. So a good friend and I trade documents and give each other comments, which has been helpful. I also include my undergraduate students in the process, by encouraging them to compare early- and late-stage cooperative pieces and asking them to proofread for me. And I read as much as I can. I often read about writing, of course. 

But I've also recommitted to reading books, for several reasons. One of which is that staying immersed in others' writing helps me stay in tune with what writing should (or shouldn't) look like. I'm partway through David Quammen's Spillover (about zoonotic diseases) and William Deresiewicz's Excellent Sheep (about problems with higher education). Both informative and timely for entirely different reasons. (More to come on these, I suspect.)

It's Day Four of #AcWriMo, and I'm going strong. Fingers crossed that we all keep it up!

Monday, October 27, 2014

The 50-Minute Lecture

50 minutes. Depending on the activity, this could sound like a lot. Actually, having 50 minutes of uninterrupted reading time, or 50 minutes to go for a run, or 50 minutes to watch an episode of House of Cards sounds luxurious. But in the context of teaching a subject you know well, it's nothing. Nothing! It amounts to consistently running out of time and having to cut from your carefully-designed slides. Which throws off the schedule and gives students an excuse not to read ahead. And leaves me considering whether to leave material out completely or expect that (undergraduate) students learn it on their own. 

Let's figure out why 50 minutes is so difficult. Well, the first few minutes are occupied with housekeeping, announcements, collecting or returning homework, and students coming in late. (The last is something to work on.) So 45 minutes at best. Any review takes up another 5 minutes. (I do this once per week in my 100-level class.) So as not to bore students to tears, I try to craft learning exercises, which take up 10 minutes at the very least.* Add or substitute one video clip with any discussion whatsoever (5 minutes). For example, today we covered psychotic disorders in Abnormal Psychology, and I worked in some Ryan Gosling. Effective, but time-consuming.

That's 20-30 minutes of actual lecture. How many slides can you get through in 30 minutes? I can get through 10, if it's a really good day (i.e., if students have read and there aren't any tangential questions). How many do I have prepared for each lecture? Minimum is 12, mean is 14. Compounded over a week, that's almost a full lecture behind.

So what goes wrong? Well, most students don't read, so we waste time with me waiting for them to answer my questions. (Sometimes they don't even seem to have opinions about concepts like identity or friendship, which is beyond me.) Maybe I should pick out only one or two main concepts, and cover those in detail. Maybe I should give more quizzes to ensure that students are reading, so that I don't feel any pressure to review everything important in class. Something needs to change; my midterm evaluations were quite positive, but it seems as though we've gone downhill since then. Though I'm not yet sure how much is me and how much is middle-of-the-semester laziness.

Based on several sources of recommendation (e.g., word of mouth, student feedback, this recent article about using PowerPoint in the classroom) I've started breaking up even non-wordy slides to make sure that each one is visible and useful. My "lecture" style relies heavily on eliciting responses from students; I naturally pause at least once every 2-3 minutes to ask students for factual information (from the readings) or their opinions about concepts. What keeps my prep time down is that I don't plan out these questions in advance. Keeps the lecture conversational, but likely wastes a lot of valuable time.

I need resources. What else do you recommend as a source for tips on planning lectures? I regularly read research/academic writing sources, but I haven't found the treasure trove of teaching wisdom yet. Share your favorites in the comments.

*I admit that sometimes I dispense with this.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014


Week 5. Five weeks into my first semester, and it's starting to seem.... normal. I'm beginning to settle into the weekly routine of teaching, office hours, research, and lab meetings. Extras like department and union meetings, coffee with colleagues, working through sticky professional situations, and student inquiries can make or break a productive week. 

But as many seasoned academics recommend, I'm learning to see the big picture.

For example, 2013 was a rough year for publications. The main paper from my dissertation and my first paper on postdoc each were rejected by multiple journals, and other papers were VERY slow-going. It wasn't until this summer that submissions really picked up, and I'm happy (and grateful) to report that I recently received three revise and resubmit invitations. (Three rejections, too, but that's still a marked improvement.) 

The R&R invitations coincided with the first few weeks of classes, of course, so I haven't turned them around as quickly as I would have six months ago. And I came very close to being frustrated with myself for not doing any revision last week, which was a difficult and stressful week all around. Why? Each paper has a deadline, of course, but those aren't for a few weeks yet. But my first year review occurs at the beginning of December (yes, after three months on the job), and I have to submit my report before Thanksgiving. Wouldn't it be great to have a paper acceptance - or at least, revision submissions - listed as completed during my first few months?

In addition, one of the recent R&R invitations was for my former undergrad research coordinator's first first-authored manuscript, so I have quite a bit of mentorly pride about that one. And it's motivating me to get my new undergraduates going on their own projects ASAP. Two are assisting with a conference submission (due in two weeks), and two will have an independent study with me next semester to prepare for their senior theses. That will look great on my report! Plus the new course I'm creating for the university and prepping from scratch!

Wait - I've only been on the job for five weeks?!? What am I getting myself into?

Fortunately, I realized something important that has buffered against the worst of the stress and guilt that can come from an "unproductive" week. (And by "unproductive," of course I mean that I've prepared for my classes, given exams, and participated in meetings.) I've worked for more than a decade to acquire a faculty job. Which I have now. In a place where research productivity is fully supported, but no one breathes down your neck abut the number of papers or grants you have. I don't need to keep up the same pace that I had over the past eight years. I need to get out of the trainee mindset.

I don't intend to stop being productive, certainly. Having acquired a job doesn't mean that I can just sit around now. But I need to think long-term and pace myself, so that I don't burn out. (I used to think that I'd never burn out. Ha!)

So far, my first year report will include:

  • Midsemester evaluations for three courses
  • Two guest lectures and an extracurricular seminar
  • Creating a new course
  • Supervising six RAs and three TAs (two RAs on a conference submission with me)
  • Two IRB submissions, data collection for one project underway
  • Attending one conference (four posters, one as first author) and submitting to two conferences (four or five abstracts total, three as first author)
  • Three R&R invitations and resubmissions, one new submission
  • Two external grant submissions (one as co-investigator and one as consultant), one internal teaching grant submission
  • Participation in new faculty mentee activities and union meetings

This needs to be enough for three months of work. My goal for this weekend is to plan when to work on projects and papers that are not on this list, with emphasis on intersession and summer. And to add me-time goals to this list, like training for a half-marathon that will happen in April, and taking a real vacation

Somehow it always comes back to vacation.... Leave me some suggestions for my first real one in ages.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The First Two Weeks

Well, it's for real. I wrote syllabi. Students showed up last Monday, pens in hand, and made frantic attempts to write down everything I projected onscreen. Three interesting points about this simple observation:

(1) Yes, I said PENS, not keyboards. And WRITE, not type. Three classes, approximately 110 students (less than half of whom are freshmen), and only three who regularly type during class. A pleasant surprise - definitely cuts down on the time I spend policing in class. Though they still seem surprised that I want hard copies of their assignments.... go figure.

(2) Some things haven't changed since I last taught, in 2011 - students made the mistake of assuming that the words on the PowerPoint were the (only) important ones. Or they tried to write down everything on the screen and everything I said, which is a nonsignificant improvement. I decided to nip this behavior in the bud with the freshmen by doing a bit of coaching. 

On day 2, I asked everyone to put down their pens/stop typing and just engage with what I presented. I spent a few minutes discussing the "nature-nurture" question with respect to human behavior and ended by guiding students toward the conclusion that both contribute. Then I asked students to summarize the discussion in their own words. After a few lengthy summaries, we got down to a one-sentence overview; I encouraged students to write down this one-sentence summary, rather than trying to record all of the detail and missing the context of the conversation. The goal was to help them learn, rather than simply memorize. We'll see how well it worked when the first exam comes around.

(3) Eight months after I accepted a faculty position, I stood at the front of a classroom and didn't have to correct students who called me "professor." I have a two-room office, a one-room research lab, six research assistants, and three teaching assistants. I spend a lot of time on my own work. I'm getting used to this, but it's still strange, in a very pleasant way.

One final note about the first week of class, in particular: I spent most of it without a voice, due to a bad cold and consequent laryngitis. I croaked through two of three class days, three hours each day, plus a lab meeting. I got creative on the second bad day, by spending extra class time on an activity and inviting my TAs to give students feedback as they started an assignment. And in between teaching, I took a real sick day - watched/slept through several movies while lying on the couch. 

Eventful, and enjoyable, first two weeks as faculty. Now I need to work on my website.

Saturday, August 23, 2014


So close! With less than one week to go before the semester commences, the house was (mostly) unpacked, my office was (mostly) in order, and syllabi were (almost) ready to go to the printer. Still so much to do: create a website, order lab equipment, organize my research team, and finalize the first week of class. I could have made significant progress in each of these areas, if not for the mandatory welcome party - three days of university orientation.

Let me be clear. I looked forward to meeting other new faculty and learning something about Jesuit education. (I'm woefully ignorant.) But few faculty - and really, few employees across the board - have fond memories of orientation. And the week before classes begin seemed (and still does seem) like the worst possible time to tear us away from actual preparation, in order to talk about preparation. Logistics rule the planning here, as there isn't another time when new faculty all will be in town and not otherwise occupied. That I understand. And I've taught my own classes before, so I should be able to make significant progress on course prep without orientation.

Yet here are all of the incredibly useful information I learned this week, which would have been even more helpful a month ago:

- How to write and assess student learning outcomes (and that this is mandatory)
- How to use the new online course management system, Desire2Learn (already rebranded  as Brightspace, though no one seems to know that)
- What to include in a syllabus (summary: everything you can think of, or you'll spend the  entire semester answering questions about policies)
- Who my assigned mentor is (another resource for preparing to move!)
- What the tech support center does and does not do/have (no, they don't loan out  PowerPoint remotes; thank goodness for Amazon two-day shipping!)
- How long it takes to get approved to edit your own website (many days, and I don't have  access yet)

In addition, some fun tidbits:

- The faculty union meetings (and its president) are VERY entertaining
- The Provost is new; he started on July 1st (repeat, repeat, repeat....)
- The library administration redirects absolutely every possible topic to the library, its resources, and new student study center (and I do know a lot about the library now)
- The library administration assumes that you come from an institution where you had to pay for interlibrary loan (poor souls who did)
- Time/priority management is on the agenda, but we will run out of time and not discuss it (yes, this happened)

My wish for more advanced notice notwithstanding, I must say that my university did a wonderful job of making us feel welcome and supported. This is a consistent theme here; not a day has gone by that hasn't included friendly offers for help, advice, and/or lunchtime companionship. Even though this often presents a jarring contrast to my previous job environment, the transition couldn't have been more smooth for me. In addition to the move, setting up, and orientation, I even managed to draft 95% of a manuscript this month!

So, am I 'oriented?" Let's see. I know where the campus coffee shops are, and their employees know me. I've been extremely productive in my office - both course prep and manuscript writing have enjoyed significant progress there. My syllabi have been printed, typos and all. (I managed to misspell the first and last names of one TA. Can you beat that?) Still plenty to do before 9:00 am on Monday, but I'm feeling pretty good.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

In the Middle

It looms. My first semester as a professor starts in ten days. TEN DAYS!! Very exciting, and daunting. The past three weeks have gone something like this:

- Wake up between 6:00 and 6:30
- Run 3-4 miles
- Pack/unpack/clean OR campus for teaching prep
- Run errands
- Leisurely dinner at home, with wine
- Re-watch Frasier (we're currently on Season 5)
- Bed by 10:00

Oh, what a lovely break it has been. I have worked consistently throughout, by editing manuscript drafts and submitting one to a new journal, as well as keeping up with email and conference calls. But I don't have a strict schedule, or hard deadlines for these projects. I even managed to spend an afternoon at the park and public pool just around the corner from my new residence. It has been a marvelous interlude. (Although interestingly, I haven't noticed feeling more rested in the mornings. Something to investigate.)

And then, there is the semester. Like many new assistant professors in the sciences, I have spent the past two years focused almost entirely on research. There was some clinical work, in the context of a research trial, and several guest lectures in classrooms and training seminars. The year before that, I was on clinical internship (i.e., full-time clinical work), with a part-time research elective mixed in. But the last time I prepared a syllabus and coordinated online learning management was more than three years ago. (And the online system is one I've never used.) Plus, I didn't have TAs back then. TAs at my new institution are advanced undergraduates who volunteer their time; although having assistance will be lovely, there is a lot of management to do, including learning what I can and cannot expect them to do for me.

As emails flood in about orientation schedules and start-of-semester events, there's also the anticipatory concern about effectively managing my time.* I'm at a primarily undergraduate institution with a emphases on teaching AND getting students involved in research. (Oh yeah, and keeping up my own scholarly pursuits.) Sounds great, but getting the latter set up is slow going. I started the process of acquiring equipment for my lab in May, and I only just received the purchase request for my computers. I can set up online studies, of course, pending IRB approval. When might I be able to start running live participants? Your guess is as good as mine.

In terms of teaching, I've slowly chipped away at course prep since the beginning of June. So where am I now, ten days before classes start? 

- Syllabi = 90% set; I still need learning objectives and a final reading list
- First two weeks of lecture slides = 85% complete
- Classroom activities = ....
- Online course coordination = ....
- TA management = in progress
- IRB applications = figuring out the process is first

There is a lot to do. I have no doubt that I will get it done, but my beloved "break" is officially over. I'll be excited to see you, Summer 2015.

*Incidentally, no one has ever been as excited as I am to get a dual monitor setup! More to come on this.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Life. Really.

Balance. I admit that I have had little, if any, balance between work and "life" over the past 20 years. (I'm in my early 30s. I started young.) If anything, work has been my life. And not in the sense that I'm an incredibly productive workaholic. But recently, I have had to recognize that work accounts for the overwhelming majority of variance in my identity. For example, a new colleague recently commented on the progress of her DIY home renovations and how enjoyable the process has been. My internal response was How on earth does she have time for that? She's only been in her job two years - doesn't she feel pressure to spend more time on her work?

There was absolutely no negative judgment in my reaction. Just awe. And I remained in this state of mind for several weeks. Fortunately, I eventually recognized that there is something unnatural about my response. Not only because it indicates an absence of balance, but also because it is completely out of touch with social reality. Plenty of people  - including academics - have time for and do their own home repairs! They also read novels, play instruments, and go to the theater! And, most important of all, they take vacations. Real ones! Away from work and visiting family. 

These all are activities that I enjoy, and would love to spend more time on. But I don't. Particularly scary is that I haven't taken a real vacation (for more than two days) in several years. Living to work is great when work goes well (e.g., when I get to start my independent career), but as many of you have experienced, it's soul-crushing when it does not. And then what?

My next response: Home repairs, novels, vacations, etc. are what sustain you when work doesn't go well. You need to make time for them. This is by no means a revelation to anyone but me. I'm a health psychologist, and I would be the first to guide a patient toward such an insight, because I know that it's true. Yet somehow, I was the exception. I spent the past two years in a major city and did not take advantage of it. Partly because I do love my work, partly because of my particular circumstances, partly because I lived in that city when I was younger and took advantage of it then. But I missed out on seeing it through the eyes of an adult. I won't make that mistake again.

So. For someone like me, what does "life" actually mean? Is it simply "whatever I enjoy doing when I'm not working?" It's much more than that, I'm sure, but I'll start there. I just moved to a new, smaller city, which afforded two excellent opportunities: 

(1) A full week of not working, because there was that much packing and unpacking to do (which continues), and
(2) A chance to appreciate a new location, which I know little about. And it's gorgeous! Every day, I marvel at how beautiful it is (see below), and how no one tells you that when they describe it. I won't make that mistake, either.

Treehouse in the park behind my new residence.
View from a  nearby shopping center.

This is your life moment of the week: This is your LIFE. And it's more than your work.

Thursday, July 24, 2014


Surreal. It's the night before my last day as a postdoctoral fellow. 

I decided that I wanted to be a psychologist at 13 years old. I've had 12 years of higher education to train for the job. And as of tomorrow afternoon, I'll be finished with "training." (Not finished with learning, of course, but finished being supervised in my daily routine.) In exactly one month, I formally start my independent career - the one I spent more than half of my life working toward. 

It's so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day hassles of working and lose sight of work. When that happens, I hope to come back here to relive the happiness (and humility) of these few moments. How many people actually get to live their dreams? I'm incredibly grateful to say that I do. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

(Very) Early-Career Productivity, Part 2

Self-correction. Yesterday's post meandered a bit more than I intended - owe it to more ideas than I could manage in one post - so I'll summarize. Although I haven't been nearly as prolific as Jeffery Bilbro* was as a trainee, I've had success. And I don't find myself lost in the swamps of procrastination or paralyzing impostor syndrome. I do rely on habits that facilitate my productivity, but I've never taken much time to clearly identify them. Doing so will help me stay organized as I transition to an independent position.

Yesterday, I identified these keys to productivity:

(1) Learning to work away from my office. I've accepted that I will not finish all of the tasks that are important to me while I'm "at work." I use evenings to work in the comfort of my home (which often doubles as time spent with my husband, who also is an academic); on the weekends, I haunt my favorite coffee shops and seek out new ones. I've even been known to read in my favorite big-city park. Although I'll have fantastic work spaces at my new house and campus, changing my environment every once in a while may boost my creativity.

(2) Related, planning my off-campus work time. In order to make my free-time work time worth it, I treat it like I would my at-work work time. I may work at a more leisurely pace, but I think ahead and make progress on my ongoing to-do list. The distinction I make between at-work and free-time work is content-related, rather than qualitative: unless a deadline looms, weekends are for my research only. This way, even if I don't make much progress on my research during the week, I know that I will over the weekend. (I recently committed to working only one day of the weekend, and I look forward to my rest-running-cleaning-life day each week.)

(3) My work quality declines if I slog for hours through the same project, so being flexible with the content and order of my work time helps me stay sharp. We all have many, many projects active at any one time, and some people find it helpful to prioritize in succession (e.g., spending two weeks of reserved work time for one project before moving on). I will rotate through multiple projects in a single two-hour block. I work on one until I reach a natural stopping point or tire of the task I'm on. When primary analyses are done or I don't want to stare at SAS code any longer, I switch projects and write, edit, outline, or read for a while. And vice versa.

Today, I add these to the slate: 

(4) Keeping multiple to-do lists. I have a Gmail tasks list that syncs with Google calenar, a huge whiteboard, lined Post-Its galore, a fancy notebook, and a paper planner. (Though I don't use the latter very often, there is something that I like about the old-school method.) Not one of these lists is comprehensive; I write down new tasks whenever and wherever I think of them, and merge periodically. I'm highly unlikely to forget the most pressing tasks, even if I don't write them down. And as I'm rarely out of reach of all of these lists at once, I'm also unlikely to forget the rest - no matter how small. Keeping multiple lists frees me from using "the list" as a procrastination tool.

(5) Listening to podcasts. I've always admired those people who can immerse themselves in their topic(s) of choice and remain well-informed about other areas. I often get so caught up in a set of projects that I forget to stay up on new work in my own area! Twitter helps immensely, as does listening to podcasts; the latter is easier and safer to do while commuting (walking and taking the bus), and I can learn quite a lot in a short period of time. TED talks are an obvious choice. I'm partial to WHYY's weekly The Pulse, which covers health, science, and innovation in my region. Next up is New Books in Psychology.

(6) Making time for projects that excite me. I love what I do. So much so that I didn't sleep a full night for a week before I started graduate school - I was that excited. I do have those periods every once in a while; they're short-lived, and they get overwhelmed by pressure to finish something for someone else. (Hazards of postdoc.) Recently, I started blocking out regular time for reading and outlining ideas for more theoretical work. I got back to writing Introductions and Discussions, rather than only Results sections. (Hazards of being a stats nerd.) And I'm back to being excited. This state is confounded by gaining more independence, but I could have done more of this all along. I'll keep that in mind.

More to come. Share your keys to productivity in the comments!

*It's been said that he had 17 publications as a graduate student.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

(Very) Early-Career Productivity, Part 1

Following the Greats

As I mentioned a few days ago, my newest hobby is reading about others' productivity - specifically, the habits that help them maintain steady research output in the face of competing academic priorities. Habits that consistently top their lists include writing every day (usually #1), creating/sticking to a detailed schedule, setting short-term goals that are designed to help them meet long-term milestones, and keeping track of everything with lists. 

All of this reading has gotten me reflecting on my own keys to productivity. Although I'm just starting my independent career, I have had a bit of success as a trainee, and I do manage to find time for non-work activities. For example, I had more than one part-time job during both college and graduate school, and I trained for my first marathon while maintaining my grades, research, and sanity. After I left my off-campus job in my fourth year of graduate study, I saw clients at more than one psychology treatment site and kept training for endurance events. 

Postdoc has been no different. With responsibilities to two PIs and a gaggle of wonderful students, I still wrote my own papers and proposalstrained for marathons, and even saw my husband sometimes. I admit that it's been more difficult in the past few years, but that's mainly because (1) my true interests are adjacent to (rather than overlapping with) those of my mentors, and (2) I'm married and living with my husband now. So working at home has been simultaneously more important and less desirable than ever.

That's my first insight: trainees and new professors rarely are efficient enough to work a 40-hour week and still achieve our goals. So we find ways to be productive away from the office. I used to loathe working from home; it seemed intrusive and unbalanced. (I laugh as I think about this attitude now.) In my second year of graduate school, I stayed in my lab office until all of my classwork and research were done, just to avoid working from home. I went to the lab on the weekends for the same reason. I could relax much more easily when home was a refuge from work. 

But as my activities shifted away from coursework and toward research and teaching (I taught my own course during my fourth and fifth years), I found that I really enjoyed being in the comfort of my apartment - even if it meant working there. I wrote my dissertation during my full-time clinical internship year; although I often stayed late at my (admittedly, lovely) office to work on it, working at home was unavoidable. But I'm also much more flexible with my workspace. Like most academics, my home office is set up as I need it, but I do well with a change of scenery. My husband and I have worked together at many a coffee shop since we met (which also was at a coffee shop).

My temporary home workspace.
Looking forward to my new campus and home offices!

More recently, I've reserved Friday nights and one other weeknight per week for "life" - watching movies or TV shows, reading for pleasure, going out to dinner or brunch, etc. A key distinction now is that I plan to work the other evenings and at least one weekend day, rather than telling myself that I won't unless I have to. (Insight #2.) I'll adjust my schedule to meet immediate needs. Otherwise, I stick to the plan. Moreover, I have a list of projects I could work on during each session. Those with upcoming deadlines take priority, but I find that I am most productive when I have the freedom to (1) choose to work on the project I'm most motivated for at that moment, and (2) switch projects whenever I fancy. This way, I rarely get burned out, even when I work in long stretches. (Insight #3.)

As with anyone blogging about productivity, I'm not reporting this not to promote myself. I easily could say that there isn't much to promote. I decided to share for two reasons. First, I returned to this blog as a place to reflect and improve, so I'm entering the conversation. Second, I find that many early-career academics feel insecure about their accomplishments, and end up minimizing them. We're surrounded by successful people; some of our best friends and colleagues are rockstars in their respective areas. As most of us tend to evaluate ourselves relative to such people, it's easy to see our own successes as minor, or even insignificant. (I study this phenomenon and am by no means immune to it.) 

What we forget is that we didn't get where we are - wherever that is - by making insignificant contributions. More importantly, those of us reading blogs like these are taking the time to figure out how to be even more productive and successful, which reflects our commitment to our work. The best advice I've heard yet is to "take yourself seriously. Starting today, approach your research and writing just like a top scholar in your field would do."

This is your life moment of the week: Don't forget that, through your efforts to learn and improve, you just might have done so. Defer to experts and keep learning, but acknowledge that you're making a place for yourself.

Sunday, July 13, 2014


Surprising Truth: We spend a significant portion of our lives in transition. Many of our early transitions concern new learning environments; from ages 4-22, many of us experience five or more different school buildings (and associated sets of interpersonal dynamics) even before we make it to college. We make it through, though that's pretty impressive when you think about it. Throw in your family moving to a new town, and it's a wonder that we ever know what it's like to be "settled."

For those of us who pursue advanced degrees, it seems that the transitions never end. College, graduate school (which may include different institutions for a Masters and PhD), postdoctoral fellowship (sometimes two), and finally, the first "real" job. You're in your 30s before you feel comfortable unpacking all of the boxes you've trucked from tiny apartment to tiny apartment - why bother with the boxes of items you rarely use, as it will be time to move before you look at them again? My academic colleagues bemoan the situation from time to time, and those outside of academia (whose first post-college jobs at the age of 22 were more than my current salary) have no idea what to make of us. 

I'm fortunate to be the type that gets a bit restless, and eager for a new challenge, every few years. So even though my upcoming move will be to my fourth city (and 10th residence) in a decade, it's never caused too much distress. But like my colleagues, I find it strange that I lived out of at least a few boxes for the past two years, because I knew that my situation was temporary. This state of "unsettled" is tough, and I can see why it's not for everyone. 

Yet one of the best aspects of a transition is the accompanying opportunity for a unique brand of reflection. As sad as it can be to leave a situation that you've only just gotten used to, both the winding down process and the initial months in a new situation provide helpful psychological distance from recent experiences. *For the sake of this post, I'll assume that "work" accounts for a meaningful amount of variance in your identity - your professional self, your goals and development, the quality of your work, etc. all are extremely important to you. (Believe me, I'm with you!) 

When I'm not in (or looking toward) a transition, I am engrossed in the daily operations, hassles, and seemingly all-consuming projects with the highest of high stakes. Everything my bosses/mentors and supervisees do (or don't do) is meaningful. When I'm unhappy with the specifics of such a situation, it is incredibly difficult - if not impossible - to see the forest. I focus on the few trees that represent my worst experiences and lose sight of the rest. (Same goes for when I'm happy, but that tends to be far less problematic.) 

These trees are important, of course. But a transition puts them into perspective. That distance I get allows me to see the full context, to make connections between events that I haven't made before, and to take a more balanced view of the overall experience. It also gives me the opportunity to do some tough self-reflection and to decide what I need to improve for the next experience. There is a relief that comes with looking "at" an experience, rather than looking "through" it (for you ACT folks).

With luck and some hard work, my next location could be permanent. That's exciting and disconcerting at the same time - will I have the same opportunities to reflect, learn, and grow? Semester and summer breaks, a sabbatical (I hope!), and earning tenure (I really hope!) will be my new transitions, and I commit to using them in the same way that I've used moving around the northeast. Growing older and wiser in the meantime can't hurt, either.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Renewal and Reading

Wow x 2. It's been 24 hours, and I'm still affected by finding this blog yesterday. Not only was it long-forgotten, but it reappeared at the perfect time for me. I start my first independent academic position in August, which means that I have opportunities for new first impressions. It also means that, for the first time, I get to make my own decisions about my professional identity. My decisions will be informed by experience (see the previous post) and input from trusted colleagues, of course. But I'll get to make the final calls.

In light of this imminent transition, my newest hobby obsession is reading about becoming a productive and successful academic. I've gone through nearly the entire archives at Get a Life, Ph.D. and The Professor is In; I'm exploring related blogs about writing (e.g., Patter, Explorations of Style) and ProfHacker is on my to-do list. I also just finished New Faculty: A Practical Guide for Academic Beginners. This book has a wonderful mix of concrete suggestions (for teaching, scholarship, service, and navigating the environment), as well as thoughtful integration with abstract topics (deciding what success means to you, figuring out what you need to know about the environment). Thanks to the authors of these sources for their invaluable advice.

I've been saying for weeks that I seem to be procrastinating on actually being a productive and successful academic by reading about how others do it. I have two courses to prep and papers to write (as well as a house to pack), but I'm reading as voraciously as ever. I'm reading these sources the way I read novels, when I have the time to do so - spending hours thoroughly immersed. It's been a while since I've read "for work" in this way, which has bothered me for a while now. 

During the past few years, I have been pulled in so many different directions for projects that I haven't spent much time staying current in any one area. I look up what I need when I need it. This works in the very short-term, but it not a sustainable long-term strategy. I took the first step toward rectifying this problem yesterday, by blocking out time in my schedule to read a review article on social-psychological theories of body dissatisfaction in college women. I discovered something surprising - writing in 2011, the author calls for a specific next step in a research area. I answered that call in 2013, but didn't realize I was doing so! Although the manuscript was published, my arguments would have been even stronger if I had integrated this review. Another lesson learned!

Moving into an independent position affords greater control over my schedule and priorities, so I've already identified time for writing and reading in my weekly schedule. And I just established a writing accountability partnership with one of my best friends and collaborators - I'm excited to get started! Renewing this blog also has instilled accountability for reflecting on my own development. Sounds like I need to schedule time for blogging, as well....

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Year 6

Wow. It's been six years since I posted on this blog. In truth, I had forgotten that it existed. (Google is scary - how did it know that this is me??) I just reread posts from 25-year-old me, and I'm stunned. I'm stunned both by how much progress I've made in six years, and how much is exactly the same.

In my first post, I disclosed that I decided to run a marathon. At the time, I was overweight (again), somewhat isolated, and in need of a concrete goal that did not involve a relationship with anyone but me. I studied and trained for that race with the same commitment and drive I applied to my graduate work. It was transformative. I was never athletic, and I became an endurance athlete. It affected all aspects of my life; everything seemed to improve, I was in control again. Looking back, it's hard to imagine how I fit the long hours of training into my schedule. (I'm slow, so it takes a LONG time to run 20 miles.) But I'm eternally grateful to 25-year-old me for making that decision and incorporating running into my life. Since then, I have run six marathons, an ultramarathon (31 miles+), and lots of half-marathons, plus some shorter events. I love the clarity, stress relief, and fitness that it brings me. 

I'm terribly disappointed that, for the first year since 2008, I will not run a marathon. Even though it's for a wonderful reason. Although I've fit training into a busy schedule before, this time I am making the transition from Postdoctoral Fellow to Assistant Professor - in the span of one month. I finished my Ph.D. and additional training, and I earned the position I have been working toward for 12 years. I'm also married now, and my husband might want to see me every once in a while. So I need to focus my energies on making the transition successful and as low-stress as possible. Running will help, but marathon training would put extra strain on a challenging situation. (See above - I'm slow.) I'm grateful that I will live near a beautiful park, where I can work on maintenance and speed this fall. I'll come back to the marathon in 2015.

Speaking of successful transitions.... It's amazing how similar my current professional/interpersonal mindstate is to the one I described in 2008. Apparently, I did not internalize the lessons I "learned" back then, about keeping thoughts to yourself and putting on a professional face. I could have written the same post yesterday, which is somewhat disheartening. This forgotten blog is a record of my development - how did I regress from there!??! My hypothesis is that because I developed strong, stable professional relations that were based on mutual (and explicit) care and respect, I got comfortable "being myself" again. I forgot to chain her down when I started over, and she's a little too much to handle at first. And the worse the response, the harder I tried, and the angrier and more resentful I got. 

Chains be damned! I work hard, so you should want to help me! I'm unhappy and put upon! And YOU SHOULD CARE! I can only imagine how this looked to anyone other than me.

Fortunately, circumstances have improved, and I am grateful. I learned the same lesson, only bigger and harder. Let's hope that this time, I won't forget - about the less or this blog :)

This is your life moment of the week: I'm consistent, if nothing else. Decision = take more time to reflect, so there's less forgetting.