Thursday, July 24, 2014

Ending

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

Transitions

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.

Progress
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.

Stagnation
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.