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How Not to Suck at Identifying and Coping with “Rhymes with ‘Glass Bowls’”
From the vocabulary.com definition: “insulting term of address for people who are stupid or irritating or ridiculous or unpleasant. If you call someone an asshole, then they’re probably doing something not just stupid and annoying, but mean. Like all slang words and obscenities, this is a word you need to be careful about using. Sayingasshole in class, in a paper, at a job interview, or even on television could get you in serious trouble. If you’re not alone with your buddies, stick to a safer word like jerk or doofus.”
Academia is rife with examples of destructive and hostile behaviour among professors who hold power over others. Not a week goes by without a newspaper report of a well-known university professor who is a serial sexual harasser. Every graduate student has a story of at least one professor who has behaved in a way that can be considered manipulative, angry, insulting, demeaning, degrading, vengeful, and otherwise taking advantage of humans with little power. Careers are often ended before they begin by graduate students identifying their supervisors as assholes too late in their educational process to make changes. Such experiences are devastating personally and professionally. The ability to identify, avoid, and cope with academic jackholes is a major predictor of career success for people without power (i.e., graduate students, postdocs, untenured faculty).
To be fair to assholes, there are many systems that encourage a high degree of assholery. For example, some universities bestow credit or honours for authorship of a refereed publication only if the professor is the first or sole author. In such systems, graduate students or postdocs, who do the majority of work on a study, may be deprived authorship or given secondary authorship. Much of academia has a “zero sum game” approach. In other words, a given professor does not receive credit and the consequent rewards if someone else has success. Therefore, it is just as effective and sometimes easier to undermine others and prevent success of underlings rather than demonstrate quality of work. Although there are cases of active sabotaging the work of others, most frequently passive-aggressive undermining of others is the tool of the asshole. There are always finite amounts of dollars in a grant envelop, usually only one person can win an award every year, and annual faculty evaluations tend to be norm-referenced. As long as there are competitive rewards, there will be assholes. And most galling, assholes often win.
A major skill is to identify challenging people as early as possible and then avoid situations where the asshole will have any power over you. There is no level of funding, professional connections, inspiration or knowledge that is worth being abused and slowly having your soul crushed. There are many outstanding well-funded, inspirational, and knowledgeable scholars who are also supportive humans and productive mentors. Most typically we do not find out which supervisors are assholes until it is too late. Early identification and avoidance of assholes is a critical variable in making your life as a scholar easier, more enjoyable, and more productive. There are keywords to identifying assholes — a vocabulary of assholery. Unfortunately, this is one of the confusing aspects of identifying the asshole. The keywords words used to identify assholes are quite similar to the vocabulary used in successful grant proposals or by the orange 2016 US GOP presidential candidate. Self-aggrandizing and superlative language is common. If, in an introductory discussion with a senior faculty member, more than three of these words or phrases are used, then there is a high probability that you are talking to an asshole: best, state-of-the-art, paradigm altering, innovative, superior, elite, most demanding, highest achieving, most productive, most highly cited, award-winning, highly selective, high standards, and hardest working. And it nearly goes without saying that anyone who uses the expression “we work hard and play hard” is to be avoided.
A major feature of senior faculty assholes is their belief that they are the self-appointed arbiters of what is true science. Although they may be talented and productive, and sometimes correct, they insist on evaluating the work of others when no one asks their opinion with phrases such as, “What you are doing is interesting, but it does not reach the level of what I would consider to be science.” Another common feature is that the criteria used to evaluate whether something is true science tends to shift depending on how the outcomes of the evaluation can benefit the asshole.
Egocentrism and the pathological desire to control every aspect of their world are also primary factors. From an academic perspective such people are far more interested in using graduate students, postdocs, and junior faculty as mechanisms by which they can leave a legacy. They are far more interested in how others can support and promote the asshole’s own ideas and agenda. The concept that the asshole’s ideas (and therefore the asshole him/herself) are the centre of the universe is quite common. Of course, criticism of the ideas is considered a personal attack. Moreover, even if the junior scholar chooses an independent trajectory that goes outside of the orbit of the asshole’s ideas, then that is also considered a personal attack or slight. Any behaviour that suggest that the asshole and his or her ideas are not the most important thing in the universe will be perceived as an attack or slight. And there will be ramifications.
Faux generosity and selflessness is another common feature. Any senior person who sounds like a martyr by humble bragging about how successful their students are due to his or her extensive and outstanding supervision is a problem. An example of the faux generosity is, “He needed the publication, so I gave him a paper topic and some data that I developed.” Another tactic of the asshole is bragging about how selfless their supervision style is. For example, “My students are so successful because I invest so much time and money in them. Supervision probably detracts from my other work, but I do it anyway because the students need me.” The not-so-subtle message is that the students would not be capable of success without the brilliant involvement and sacrifices of the senior scholar-hole.
When talking with potential supervisors and colleagues, one of the most effective questions involves asking them to evaluate their colleagues. Some will straight out trash talk their colleagues. For example, “Most of the faculty in this department are inept or lazy.” Assholes with a semblance of social skills tend to make comparative and evaluative comments about peers. For example, “Dr. Smith runs a very good lab, but their work is not as cutting-edge as what is done in our lab.”
A common approach to identifying sphincter-centric academics is to interview current students, previous students, and other professors. This is an excellent idea that I strongly encourage. However, there is only one predictive variable. That is the long pause after you asked the direct question. For example, “I am thinking of working with Dr. Jones. What is your experience in working with him (or her)?” If the first word in the response is, “Um” or if there is a noticeable pause before the first word is said, then you have your answer.
You want to examine the publication record of potential supervisors and colleagues. Examining authorship of refereed publications for the presence of student co-authors is an important factor. Graduate student and postdoc co-authors who have first or second authorship on a large number of papers indicate at least some general decency in assigning authorship. In addition, try to find out how many students begin working in that person’s lab, but transfer or drop out prior to graduation. Such information must be evaluated as a function of the norms of the Department; but if the majority of students who begin their graduate school careers in the lab do not graduate, then obviously red flags are raised.
A major mistake that many students and postdocs make when selecting a supervisor is that they focus entirely on the subject area, funding, and the reputation of the potential supervisor in their field of study. A better method is to look for signs of assholiness and, if found, keep looking for a supervisor with a productive style of respectful supervision.
Because assholes tend to be egocentric their sphere of influence in any academic community is limited. Despite the grudging respect of colleagues, most of them have peers who understand how challenging it is to work with these individuals. Even if you have managed to avoid the direct supervision of an asshole they can still make your life difficult. Assholes will frequently offer their opinion on their peers, provide passive-aggressive commentary, and dismiss students who are not working directly with him as being inferior. This is not so bad because you have the support of your own supervisor, lab peers, and other colleagues who can be supportive. My favourite response to digs, passive-aggressive slights, and veiled or not-so-veiled insults is to say: “I am having a difficult time interpreting what you said in a productive manner. Can you please reframe that in a manner that I can use it productively?” Sometimes the jerk will actually rework the statement so that the statement or question is actually helpful. However, the true and irredeemable asshole will say something like, “I did not intend that statement to be productive.” Your only logical response should be, “ I know.”
Coping with Bleepholes
Although my default line of recommendation is that everyone should avoid working with an asshole, many of us find ourselves in an unavoidable situation. Moreover, one person’s asshole is another person’s driven and inspirational advisor. I know that many people considered my mentor to be an asshole, but I have always found him generous and to be an excellent advisor. So how does one survive the challenges of being supervised by one of these people?
Find the Strengths. I have a colleague who has a mentor, who is well known far and wide to be an asshole. This mentor moves from university to university as he wears out his welcome. However, my colleague finds this supervisor to be an inspiring and generous mentor who opens career doors. She speaks glowingly of his kindness in working with others. She is well aware of the flashpoints and topics that will lead to conflict. She is aware enough to avoid these areas while benefiting from his skill set. She simply refers to the challenges of working with this mentor as “the price of admission.”
Negotiate everything, then get it in writing. Perhaps the most important feature of working with the asshole is the lack of trust and capricious nature of decision-making. Write everything. I like to have students summarize our individual meetings and send that summary to me in an email. This is an excellent idea to protect yourself from the whims of a senior author who have been known to change their minds. Everything must be negotiated before beginning. Make sure that all financial, vacation, responsibilities, hours to be worked, authorship on papers, travel opportunities, and other relevant issues are in writing. Ensure that the supervisor has a copy of all this writing and agrees to it. Likewise, having student or collaborator write exactly what they will contribute to a project or to laboratory life is equally important. It is not insulting to insist on all commitments being clarified.
Resilience. There are many, if not most, graduate students in this difficult situation simply accept their situation. They do their work, take abuse, and then go home. The next day they wake up and repeat. Although I am impressed with the perseverance and resilience of these quietly desperate young professionals, I hope they are not paying too large of a price for their compliance. Constantly working in a stressful environment is corrosive to one’s mental health. We know that graduate students and new scholars have a high incidence of anxiety disorders, depression, and withdrawal from their studies due to abusive mentoring relationships with supervisors. In addition, I am concerned that the asshole mentor serves as a role model for the behaviour of the next generation of senior scholars. However, quietly avoiding the wrath of the asshole and escaping with a degree or research experience is enough for many people. Frankly, that does not work for me. I do not have the strength and resilience of many graduate students.
Confrontation. Confrontation can be a valuable tool, but is extremely difficult to use. Being firm, polite, and professional in establishing and creating boundaries in working with superiors is an extremely difficult social skill under any circumstance. I have a friend who engaged in weekly hostile shouting matches with her mentor. The tone was often ugly, dramatic, personal, and emotional. They screamed at each other for at least 15 minutes and then the conflict was over. Neither seemed to hold a grudge for long and their work was productive. When asked how they can function in such a hostile environment, the response was, “This is not hostile. He respects me for standing up to him.” Okay. I am not sure that this is an approach that I would recommend, but I guess it works for a few brave souls. Some people thrive on drama.
If you are working in the academic world, then you have almost certainly failed to avoid working with assholes. No matter how resilient and strong you may be as an individual, everyone working with difficult supervisors or senior colleagues will eventually get tired and discouraged. We all require external supports to serve as protective factors to the corrosive effects of working with assholes. Some protective factors include personal supports (significant others, family, non-academic friends), peer supports (colleagues, virtual communities, co-authors), and systemic support (high status academics, ombudsmen, administration). Do your homework, prepare, and protect yourself. The early stages of your academic career do not have to be miserable. Identifying, avoiding, and coping successfully with assholes is a major predictor of your success, satisfaction, and long-term mental-health.
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.
Academic To Do List Development and Management: How Not to Suck in Graduate School
February 20, 2016 academia, graduate school, productivity, Uncategorized efficiency, how not to suck at grad school, productivity, work habitsLeave a comment
There are an endless number of variations on how to develop and manage a to do list for maximum work efficiency. Books, workshops, motivational speakers, and efficiency gurus propose what they say are the best methods of using the tried-and-true to do list. There is no one best type of to do list. They all have strengths and weaknesses. However, being mindful in selecting the appropriate methods for developing and managing a to do list is a major factor in how effective they can be for you. Like most people, I have tried multiple different forms of the ubiquitous lists with mixed degrees of success. Here are some ideas and factors that have proved important for making the list useful for me.
Whatever the form of the to do list takes, there are six variables that make this tool helpful:
Deadlines. The first items to be entered onto your to do list are those with fixed deadlines. These are hard deadlines where there is no opportunity to put off the project because you are not in the mood. These are grant deadlines, contractual deadlines, class assignments, end of fiscal year budgets, examinations, tax returns, and other externally imposed drop dead dates. Because these activities are not negotiable they serve as the bones of your list. Self-imposed deadlines do not fit into this category. You may wish to complete a chapter by May 1, but there are no immediate consequences if the assignment is completed a week later, a month later, or year later. Deadlines are must dos and must dos by a certain date.
Stages, Phases, and Steps. One of the real challenges of developing a productive to do list is to estimate accurately how long each item will take to complete. Most of us are pretty poor at this form of estimation. Some items on the to do list can be completed in 10 minutes while others require 80 to 100 hours and significant resources to finish. My preference is to make a sub entry for every four hours of estimated work. Given that many items on my to do list are writing projects and I know that I can typically write about 1600 words in a four hour stretch, I can begin to make estimations. For example, the to do list entry might be “complete chapter 1.” And let’s say I know that chapter 1 requires 7500 words. So under the heading of “complete chapter 1” there will be subheadings: a) pages 1-6, b) pages 7-12, c) pages 13-18, d) pages 19-24, e) pages 25-completion. In this fashion, at least one subheading can be checked off each day. Crossing off an item from the to do list is reinforcing. Working for an entire day on an item, yet not be able to eliminate that item from the to do list is discouraging. Breaking down large tasks into small projects that can be completed in the available time is a major factor in using this tool to allocate your energies.
Importance. Importance is independent of deadlines or urgency. These are the tasks that need to be accomplished in order to achieve your long-term professional goals. For academics, writing and editing of manuscripts are common items of importance. The items that get lost in the allocation of your time and energy are typically those of high importance, but without deadlines and with no particular urgency. Completing and submitting that article has no deadline and no one will get particularly upset if it is not completed by a certain date. However, a successful academic career depends on submitting that article and many more like it. Time needs to be carved out of each day to complete items of importance that are at risk of being forgotten or long delayed.
Delegation. Many items on to do list are team projects or require the input and cooperation of others. The biggest mistake that we make is to cross an item off the to do list that looks something like, “negotiate with Jane concerning writing of the methodology section.” This often means there was a meeting and an agreement that Jane will complete some work. A common mistake is that frequently once the item is checked off the to do list, the delegated task is out of sight and out of mind. Any time a team or cooperative task is delegated to another person, there needs to be an additional entry concerning checking or following up on the delegated task in order to ensure completion.
Making effective meetings. Preparing for and following up is about 80% of the value of any meeting. However, most often only the meeting time is in our calendar. Preparing for meetings and following up on the results of the meeting is efficient, but also time-consuming. Meetings can only be successful if time is allotted for preparation and follow up. For many people, unless an item has room on the calendar or to do list these activities do not take place in meetings become a waste of time.
Non-work life. My to do list does not only have academic and business items, I have personal items on there as well. Things like, “buy chocolate for Joyce,” “call Dad,” “remember Karen’s birthday,” and “do not forget to ask Isabel about her preparation for an upcoming math exam.” I know that it would be nice to be able to spontaneously remember to engage in self-care, attention to your family, and to make thoughtful gestures. However, I can be absent-minded and overly focused on work related activites. When I write it down, I can be assured that it gets done.
Maintenance and Management of the List
Writing items on your to do list is necessary but not sufficient to make the list an effective productivity tool. The list must be maintained, managed, and acted upon. For me, this is a daily activity. I am fortunate to have about 40 minutes in the morning and 40 minutes in the afternoon to commute on a train. I spend that morning reviewing my daily time commitments and then allotting items from the to do list into the remaining space. I always give special attention to items labelled as important, because these are the items that so easily fall in the cracks of the schedule. On the return commute I review completed items, items that were not completed, and urgent tasks that may require evening work.
Each week receives the same treatment. Sunday evening or Monday morning means that the items for the week are reviewed and time is allocated for each. Items will not get completed unless there is time dedicated to them. Friday afternoon is the time to review the week, determine which items fell through the cracks and did not get completed, and exactly how much work versus play will be accomplished on the weekend. At the end of the week, I also pay special attention to list items in which there has not been sufficient progress. Sometimes, items need to be put in the long term bin. This bin is for items that may be important in the long term, but you are not able to get to them at all within a week. Be sure to check the long-term bin each week to determine if that item can be shifted from a long-term task to an active task. A major mistake is taking important long-term items, placing them in the bin, and then forgetting them. At this point the long term bin has become the garbage bin.
What Not to Put on the List
Knowing what not to put on the to do list is equally as important as what is put on the list. It is not efficient to use the list as a repository for activities that you are putting off until a later time. There are two well-known rules that I take seriously. The two-minute rule means that any item that requires less than two minutes to complete should be done immediately. Never put a two-minute item on your to do list. A related rule is the never-touch-paper-twice rule. Any piece of paper or memo that comes across your desk is most effectively addressed immediately. This is not always possible as some memos require a great deal of time, multiple steps, or require delegation. But if possible address such tasks as quickly as possible.
Repeated items also do not need to be put on the to do list. Working out, answering emails, teaching class, office hours, and so on are not tasks; but scheduled activities. These items go into your calendar along with meetings.
Beware of the to do list as the product. If “managing your to do list” is on your to do list, then the list no longer functions as a tool but is a productivity thief. I know people who spend hours colour coding, revamping, and giving loving care to every aspect of the functionality and aesthetic of their to do list. The perfect stationery, font, background colour, or pen used to complete your absolutely perfect to do list is procrastination. Finding something that works well for you may be a good investment of time. However, daily functionality with little maintenance is the goal. Whether you use a highly sophisticated piece of software from the latest management guru or a series of post-its affixed to your wall does not really matter. Make your to do list work for your goals and methods of getting tasks completed. Do not lose track of the goal of the to do list: a systematic approach to increasing efficiency, minimizing problems with follow through and forgotten tasks, and keeping perspective about how you should use your valuable time.
How Not to Suck When Life Seems to be Falling Apart
December 31, 2015 Uncategorized 9 Comments
In early November, Joyce, my spouse and partner of 26 years, was diagnosed with cancer. There has been much worry, shock, fear of the unknown, and all of the things that go along with that. There is the pain, fatigue, and general trauma of treatment. Yes, everything sucks just as bad as you would think. There is also support from family, colleagues, neighbors, and friends. But work is also a part of life. There are many issues and experiences that come with this specific life event that I will not discuss in this forum; and I know that the primary issues are not about me. For purposes of the blog entitled, “How not to suck in grad school,” the work is what I want to talk about.
Work can be therapeutic. Joyce works mostly from home in the field of business intelligence. She insisted on working after her diagnosis. She would likely still be working, but this is the time of year when she typically takes a couple weeks of vacation anyway. She will be back at work when her vacation is over. My kids are also working. My older daughter finished her first semester at university and continues to work at her part time job as well. My younger daughter has not missed a day of high school. Normalcy is therapeutic.
Obviously, we are not automatons. We have a rule that no one is allowed to be scared alone. We have dropped anything at any time to be together when needed. We discuss Joyce’s status every day. We make sure to laugh and cry together. The prognosis is good. Joyce has shown a productive sense of humor. We exercise together. We eat and fast together. We do not spend a lot of time worrying because we are busy managing every aspect of her treatment, making sure that household tasks are completed, keeping the whole family involved, and taking everything one day at a time. There will be tough times ahead to be sure. But we do this together.
When it comes to my academic work, the family is working, but I have been unable to do much. That is fine and completely understandable. The world does not revolve around me (much to my chagrin), and there are many projects that I am late to complete and other deadlines that are unlikely to be met. I am not upset by this because I am comfortable with my priorities. Nonetheless, for me to be a fully functioning human being projects need to be completed.
For academics, work requires focus, concentration, and creative thought. Even on the days where we are not 100% on point, there are administrative jobs, basic activities, and relatively mindless tasks to be done. But there is a lack of control, stress, panic, and a host of emotions that makes the most basic tasks challenging for me. Sometimes life seems to be falling apart and work is irrelevant. Yet, work is an important part of life and is therapeutic. Even when real and productive work is not possible, the effort to get back to productive work is the active ingredient in maintaining a sense of normalcy.
Cancer is a conversation ender. There is no way to bring this up in a conversation without making everyone uncomfortable (so…sorry to you blog readers). People fall over themselves to help, offer sympathy, and generally step up. Friends, colleagues, and family have showed up to help, offered assistance, and been an important source of strength. My department chair has been supportive. He assigned a strong TA to the course I am teaching in the winter so that the TA can take over if I am needed at home on the day of a class meeting. I will simply prepare all class meetings one week ahead of time so that my TA can to serve as an understudy. Other faculty members have offered and I have yielded some of my program director responsibilities to them. My students (i.e., the impressive labbies) are amazing and patient. They have taken initiative on projects and made things happen while I am out of action. Reassigning tasks, renegotiating deadlines, seeking help, and being part of a team are all important activities. I have not told many of these people about my family circumstance—it is not a secret—it is that I do not really want to spend time and emotional energy talking about it and I do not want to make an excuse (even if it is a good one). Co-authors and other partners are aware that some of my work will be delayed, but only personal friends and people who need to know, have all of the details. Opening conversation and negotiation is the goal, mentioning cancer tends to close down any discussion.
I have learned exactly how many people are counting on me to do my daily work. Between my role as teacher, supervisor, scholar, journal editor, program director, chair or member of various committees; there are over 200 people directly influenced by my inability to work for the last several weeks. This is a motivator to get back to work. There are many people right now waiting on me. There are days that I do not want to do anything, but it is constructive to be motivated. Everyone has been extremely patient and kind, but it is time to do my best for all of these people. To be clear, my work responsibilities are still second in importance to my family, but they are a strong second.
This has always been a strength for me. I have the ability to shut out all noise and distractions and can work in any environment under any circumstances. I have a lot of experience with this. Anyone with clinical experience as a psychologist knows how to leave work at work and never let it interfere with your personal life; and home life stays home so as to not affect work. That ability has taken a hit. This current distraction is one that is tough to beat. Waves of emotion will wash over me when I least expect it and work does not happen. I ride the wave, address the emotion, handle the problems, seek support, and try to get back to it when I am able. Yes, it is frustrating to have a former strength turn into a weakness, but this is okay. I interpret these events as signs that work needs to stop and family time needs to take over with full attention.
The essence of my problems have been with focus. Typically, my concentration is a strength of my work habits. I can usually work for 4 to 6 hours without taking a break. And I can do this for a total of 14 to 18 hours a day. That superpower has eluded me for the last 8 weeks. I have not been able to work for longer than 15 minutes before my focus drifts away. I set my Pomodoro timer to 15 minute segments. Take a break and check in with the family, do a household task, exercise with or massage wife, or walk the dog. I have gradually worked my way back up to a 25-minute Pomodoro segment, but the breaks are 20 to 60 minutes, rather than the traditional 5 minutes. Not fantastic, but I can work with this. Attention is fragile.
This is another new problem. I usually do not sleep that much, but nearly always have high quality sleep. I can sleep anywhere at any time. There have been times of stress or mental health issues that have affected sleep in the past, but these were rare events. Sleep is now fitful. Sleep problems are probably as debilitating to my work as any other aspect of this experience. Sleep quality is improving slowly.
Joyce knows that I can be sloppy with self care, so we do a lot together. We meditate every morning. I fast with her before and during those treatment days. I make sure that we both drink a lot of water. I make soup often. I am improving my diet. We both know that I need to be healthy in order to be useful in her recovery. Now my favorite thing is to go to the gym. When I annoy Joyce, she says, “Go write.” I say, “I can’t.” “Then maybe you should go to the gym.” When I cannot focus and do work, then I can always lift heavy things. No offense to weight lifters, but it is not a high cognitive load task (“I pick things up and put them down”). Self care is not complex, but requires a bit of vigilance.
Life happens. Academics talk endlessly and tediously about work-life balance. Usually the problem is that work takes over, invades everything, and interferes with our personal lives. I know many people who have been through multiple marriages or unable to have relationships at all because work rules everything in their lives. This is not to say that one should avoid personal problems and seek solace in work, but work can be a therapeutic activity that reminds us of normalcy in times of crisis.
This news may be a surprise to many Twitter followers (@Shawpsych) as I have not mentioned Joyce’s medical issues at all. Twitter is a cancer-free zone for me that is the place to be silly, make coffee talk, try to inspire others, get inspired, and to be a tool for easing back to work. I will probably keep that status.
Joyce and I experience every day together. We still laugh and have fun. We still argue (apparently I suck at folding laundry). We learn every possible way to make her treatment better and increase the chances of a complete and rapid recovery. We are amused that everyone we know tells a story about an aunt, mother, sister, roommate, friend, or boyfriend’s mother’s 2nd cousin who went through a similar experience (or worse) and is “just fine now.” We have a long road ahead, but will simply take each day as it comes. We are ready and developing the skills to survive and even thrive. I am confident that we will get through all of this; healthier, better, and closer than before.
When something big and life altering, like cancer, enters your life; then everything is thrown off balance. Work is something that we can rely on. Sometimes it is an anchor that weighs us down with stress, imposter syndrome, absurdity, rejection, p = .051, and long hours; but others times it is an anchor of stability in rough waters. I appreciate all of it and am working to regain balance.
How Not to Suck at Being a Tough Scholar
Graduate students, adjunct faculty, and tenure-track junior faculty are often unprepared for the world of academia. Not because they lack skills, accomplishments, motivation, organization, or discipline; but because they are not emotionally prepared for the rigours of academic life. There are petty jealousies, cutthroat competition, high school-like cliques, sexism, larger societal political pressures, harassment and bullying, apparently arbitrary decisions, funding cuts, racism, hazing-like activities, good ol’ boy networks, power struggles, and a host of factors irrelevant to research and teaching that serve as barriers to success in academia. These factors become more than issues of quality of work, but are soul sucking and personally devastating. Many young scholars give up on academic careers entirely rather than put themselves and their loved ones through an environment that can be hostile and take a personal toll. Many academics believe that a “thick skin” is required for successful academics. It not clear whether a thick skin is a character trait that one is born with (i.e., a genetic predisposition toward dermal density) or that thick skin is something that can be acquired and learned. Yet, I am not convinced that developing a surface armor against the rigours of academic life is the answer. Toughness may be a virtue, but a hard and thick skin is likely to be a long-term failing.
Academic Twitter is rife with primal screams about the unfairness of academia. There are calls to reform or scrap entirely the graduate school, postdoc, adjunct, tenure-track, and promotion systems of academia. The sociology of the professorship receives much scrutiny. Such discussions usually generate more heat than light and rarely create any substantive and sustainable change. Creating change in a large, hidebound, and entrenched system is an epic undertaking. Devoting so much time and emotional energy to such a windmill rarely results in a positive outcome for most scholars. Academia, like most of life, is not fair. I am not sure why anyone is surprised by this. The big question is: how does one survive and thrive in such an environment?
We have chosen to spend our career in a system that can be toxic. We need to be a clown fish among the anemone — covered with a layer of slime that protects from the sting of the environment. Or like the man in black from the movie, The Princess Bride, we need to develop a tolerance and immunity to the toxin of iocane powder. These analogies give too much power to the negative aspects of the environment of academia. They are false analogies. Succeeding in academia is a matter of understanding what is important, discipline, developing and maintaining effective coping strategies, avoiding comparison, and having useful perspective and priorities.
The mistake many junior faculty and graduate students make is that they feel they must build emotional calluses around themselves. The sting of repeated rejection is something they subject themselves to in order to develop extremely raw skin that they hope will eventually become callused. Moreover, they do not share these rejections or seek emotional support from others because they perceive rejections as failure and repeated failure is a sign of weakness. As a method of coping some scholars cease to care and lose their passion for their work in the light of repeated rejections. Those who cease to care lose the characteristics that made them a creative, courageous, innovative scholar or outstanding graduate student in the first place. The idea that success in academia can only be obtained through pain, hazing, losing oneself, intense anxiety, and continuous emotional distress is overly dramatic and counterproductive.
I have a friend who is a well known and accomplished female colleague who is nearing retirement. She is one of the best known psychology professors in her country. And every day to every one of her graduate students she preaches the value of being tough and brave. Expectations are high, work habits are demanding, and feedback can be harsh. She is explicit that the goal of this supervision style is to prepare young academics, especially female academics, for the potentially toxic environment in which they will work. She encourages her graduate students to argue, defend their ideas, and be persistent in carrying out their duty no matter what obstacles lie in their way. This professor has an interesting perspective as much of her early career was spent under Communist control of universities and many of her professors functioned as underground teachers in violation of the WWII-era German Generalplan Ost (e.g., en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massacre_of_Lviv_professors). She strongly believes that her role is to help to develop strong professors who will create new ideas and keep those new ideas alive under any circumstances. I know four of her former students and can attest that they are talented, kind, and incredibly tough. Moreover, they truly love Professor Bogdanowicz.
Mentorship would be improved by focusing on creating tough scholars. Toughness is a combination of persistence, resilience, confidence, and sense of purpose. Toughness is not in attribute that people are born with. Most graduate students tend to be introverted, slightly anxious with perfectionist tendencies, eager to please professors and supervisors, and take their work extremely seriously. Although these are valuable characteristics, they are not naturally consistent with toughness. Frequently, graduate students are so talented that they may have received little negative feedback throughout their educational careers. They may have always been a shining star in every academic setting. Graduate school or at least the junior faculty position may be the first time that some individuals have experienced negative feedback, unfair decisions, setbacks, and criticisms concerning their work or themselves as professionals. Many graduate students and junior faculty members are brittle and do not handle this first-time experience well. Mentors have an obligation to take students who have a great deal of talent, but sensitivity, and turn them into tough academics. This does not mean that graduate students must be forged in the hottest of fires, prepare for Communists or Nazis, or be bullied so that they get used to the negative experiences of academia. Students benefit from being taught to use criticism and negative evaluations in such a way as to improve their work. In addition, expectations must be raised to the highest level. Good work cannot be acceptable. Extremely talented students succeed when they are expected to produce innovative work, advance their field, and communicate their findings with the highest level of skill. No matter how good the work of a student is, mentors have the responsibility to assist graduate students to create a constantly improving level of performance.
In order to accomplish this, many students require the introspection to change their attitudes about professionalism, reviews, feedback, rejection, and life as a scholar. Although mentorship can be important for helping students adopt positive approaches to academia without losing themselves, students and junior faculty are well instructed to consider developing productive coping mechanisms:
Perspective and Priority: This is a difficult topic for me to discuss because I am aware of how many fortunate advantages and earned blessings I have in this area. I am a white male, which gives the significant advantage of privilege. I also have a wife and children, who are always my top priority and I would gladly give up an academic career if it would benefit my family (this is not the case for every academic with a family, but few would admit to it). I am also a school psychologist. Unlike my colleagues in philosophy, if my academic career would suddenly end, then I could still get a high paying and high status job and my family could still eat (Despite the rise of alt-ac careers, there are few philosophy factories currently hiring). Therefore, success in academia is not my entire life or career. I have also worked as a psychologist for 16 years before entering academia. I have performed CPR (twice with unsuccessful outcomes), been cut with a knife, was threatened with a gun, was bitten Walking Dead style (have not yet turned zombie, but had to get several shots), gave life-changing diagnoses concerning young children with autism or intellectual disabilities to well over 100 parents, testified in court on cases of horrific infant and child abuse and neglect cases, and attended far too many funerals of infants and children when I practised in the department of pediatric oncology. For me, perspective and priority is fairly easy. A rejected paper or grant that does not receive funding is no big deal. I still care about the quality of work and would much rather have a paper accepted than rejected. There is still some frustration when I feel a review is unfair or simply wrong. Hopefully, I learn from the negative outcomes and become better today than I was yesterday. But the role that a paper or grant or job plays in the story of my life is tiny. Scholars need to learn that they are bigger than a single paper, a failure experience, or not receiving accolades that their heart depends on. Be bigger.
Stop the Entitlement: No one is guaranteed success. You may be a star scholar at every opportunity, you may work harder and longer hours than anyone, and you may have the most impressive CV that is filled with stellar accomplishments. Failure and rejection will still find you. There is no guarantee of success and many extraordinarily hard-working and talented people fail. You are not a special snowflake. Sorry. Failure is not a problem; not getting back up, improving, and attacking the next task with enthusiasm is a problem.
Probability: Although failure and rejection will happen to everyone, there are approaches to minimizing the probability of permafail. The odds are often against your application for a single academic appointment or grant proposal. There are often arbitrary reasons for the failure of a single opportunity. Many times those reasons have nothing to do with you or your work. Although the reasons for failure and rejection can be infinite, some of those are – reviewer two is an idiot, the funding envelope for granting agency may be especially small in a given year, reviewer three knows your mentor and thinks he is a jerk, a grant reviewer may hold a grudge against your university, you are too female or gay or disabled or Hispanic or heavy or young or old or Black or Conservative or outspoken for the job. This stuff happens and it should not happen and it sucks. The secret to overcome is to produce a lot and make a lot of professional connections. Eventually, good work will find a way. When a single paper is rejected there may be error in the process. This error is minimized when you submit 20 papers. Do more. Continuous rejection is either an indication that there is bias (nonrandom error) in the system or your work does not meet the appropriate standards and requires improvement. Fight against the former and improve for the latter.
Comparison: Generally, comparison is the enemy of happiness. The only truly valuable comparison is comparing what we were like today to what we were like yesterday. In academics, it is extremely easy to lose track of the value of intra-individual comparison. There are grant competitions with only X number of funded proposals, there can only be one award winner, there can only be one person hired for a job, and so on. Much of academics is focused on a norm-referenced approach to success. This is where the knowledge of the standards for accomplishments in your field in relation to your own comfort level are useful. For example, it is important to know that in your field eight top-tier journal publications and holding $500,000 in grants per year will make you competitive for an award or promotion. This is a level of productivity that you are comfortable with and provides a good benchmark and goal to assess your professional accomplishments. However, if a colleague publishes nine top-tier publications or has $800,000 in a given year and they win the award or receive the promotion, then this needs to be okay with you. Competition and comparison will not improve the quality of your work and only lead to frustration, personal conflicts, and eventual burnout. Norm-referenced benchmarks are not completely under your control and not helpful. In a norm-referenced model you can succeed simply by sabotaging everyone else—not good for science or improvement—and perpetuates the current oft-toxic system. Criterion-referenced benchmarks are positive and attainable.
Your Work: Separating yourself from your work is an important survival mechanism. I know your work is important and you have passion and commitment to it, but your work is not you. It is the work that you may have created. The work may need to improve. The work may suck. The work may require extensive support from multiple people. This does not reflect upon your worth as a student, junior professor, or human being. Your goal is to make sure that your work is better every single day. Every review or failure experience is an opportunity to improve your work and is deserving of your gratitude.
So How Do You Accomplish These Things?
The negative or shadow CV has been a valuable experience for me. My first contact with the Shadow CV was in the description by Devoney Looser in the Chronical of Higher Education. In the shadow CV is placed every article rejection, unfunded grant proposal, award application not received, poor teaching evaluation, rejected book proposal, and unsuccessful job application. For me, this is a reminder of two things: one is to ensure that I learn something positive from each of these experiences. What have I gained or learned and how has my work improved? Two is to remember that the majority of lines in my proper CV are the products of the entries that once appeared in my negative or shadow CV.
Let it go, shake it off, move on, and laugh a little. I actually received this review during my first article submission as an assistant professor, “… this paper truly stinks. I really hope that this submission is from an undergraduate student because the content is worse than awful and is the product of a woeful scholar.” Wow. What a douche. It did not hurt my feelings. I felt sorry for the person who wrote those words. It must be difficult to have your work set such a negative tone. Yet, there were some valuable points in that review. I revised the paper and it was eventually published in a good journal.
Self reflection and honesty are important. However, most of us can never truly be honest with ourselves. I have never met anyone who claims to have a poor sense of humour or be a less than high quality driver. Yet everyone knows someone who fits these descriptions. Likewise, not everyone is appropriate for an R1 university or an academic career. The scary part is that the culture is such that we must work our hardest and put our heart and soul into academia in order to succeed. This creates delusion. Just because you want to achieve a goal more than anything in the world does not mean that you can reach that goal. Sometimes our best is not enough. It is an extraordinarily and unusually mature person who has that level of honesty with themselves.
One’s worldview can dramatically affect toughness. Some of us have personal and closely held beliefs that may be counterproductive or lead to excessive levels of sensitivity. Other beliefs may engender toughness. Personal beliefs stem from culture, family, religion, and experience. Here are a few that seem to work for me, I suspect that they may only work for some of you.
· The world is not fair. The fair is where they judge jams and pigs (and that is not likely to be just either). Things will not always work out for you despite your best efforts, high quality of your work, and your optimistic and positive mental outlook. All you can do is work to change the probability of success. But do not expect anything other than to work hard.
· Take the work seriously, but do not take yourself seriously.
· I always enjoyed the quote attributed to Gandhi, “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” The act of doing is your achievement.
· Pride is a fault. I am never proud of my work. I am gratified that it helped others in some small way, but wish it was more. Pride is opposite of humility and creates self-satisfaction that interferes with learning and continuous improvement.
· Your sole purpose on the planet is to ease the suffering of others to the greatest degree possible. If you cannot ease the suffering, then at least do not contribute to it. Of course, do not harm or impede others, but also do not set up your career so that it is defined by martyrdom and self-flagellation. Have fun and be happy.
I think of myself as a happy warrior — ferociously optimistic, endlessly seeking improvement, and honoured and humbled to have the opportunity to serve others. Such a mindset demands toughness and confidence. I have limitations and am okay that those. Many of us desire a thick skin in order to ward off the slings and arrows of a challenging profession. This form of armor hardens, isolates, and suffocates us; and changes our outlook in negative ways, where fear of failure rather than opportunity to innovate and discover becomes the primary motivating factor. Developing hard and thick skin is not a productive goal. The goal is to use the environment as energy, no matter how hostile and potentially toxic, to assist you in achieving your personal and professional goals that are consistent with your worldview. I prefer the translated quote from Lao Tzu, “water is the softest thing, it can penetrate mountains and earth. This shows clearly the principle of softness overcoming hardness.” Nothing is as tough as water.
A version of this blog post will appear in a forthcoming book edited by Staci Zavattaro and Shannon Orr on the topic of academic survival, This book will be published by Palgrave Macmillan.
How Not to Suck At Academic Job Interviews
As per usual on these blogs the following represents my experiences and opinions. I defer to those who have made serious study of job interviews. In addition, there are also field specific interview issues. As someone who has been on about a dozen job interviews and has served on nine search committees I have developed some pretty good ideas on effective strategies and ineffective strategies.
I approach job interviews little bit differently than some people. The best wisdom I have ever heard is that if you are invited for a job interview, then the hiring committee believes you are qualified for the job. This helps a lot. If you are invited for one interview, then most likely it will not be the only interview you have. The purpose of the interview is to determine if you fit with the culture and personality of the department. If you try to be someone that you are really not and you get the job, then it is unlikely that the fit will be good and you are going to have a bad time. I believe that I am interviewing my host as much as they are interviewing me. Both sides are doing the best they can to determine if there is potential for long-term working relationship. This mindset removes a lot of the pressure. However, the advice that I received from my advisor in graduate school when I had my first job interview was, “You know how people say to ‘just be yourself’ at a job interview? Well, that is not going to work for you. Just try as hard as you can not to be a complete jerk.” Solid advice.
Preparation is an enormous part of all professional activities. Preparation comes in three forms: preparation for the content of the job, the informal gossip pipeline, and general preparation for any travel.
I am surprised how many applicants for faculty jobs have read every single paper that every single faculty member in the department has written. That seems excessive. It is more important to review departmental websites and websites of faculty members. By doing this you can understand the role of students and what each faculty member values the most. Identifying potential collaborators and co-authors is helpful. Also helpful is identifying a potential niche within the department that you believe you fill. More time should be spent reviewing the university than anything else. Understanding human resources, regulations for tenure, benefits, average salary, and other university-based issues are critical. It is also worth looking into the housing market and affordability in the region around the university.
Also critically important is the gossip pipeline. Most fields that you will be applying for are fairly small. As such, your supervisor and other experienced people in the profession whom you know well are quite likely to have some contacts at the university where you are interviewing. Ask for gossip. You will find critical information such as: the last three assistant professors were denied tenure, they are facing giant budget cuts, they were denied accreditation, Professor X is a raging alcoholic, Professor Y is an impossible to work with jerk, or two of the professors are having an affair. Gossip is part of your preparation. You need to determine how much this gossip reflects a dysfunctional system.
General preparation is what you typically do for any conference, presentation, or travel. Because you are generally travelling to job interviews you need to pack for all kinds of contingencies. Stuff happens and you do not need the daily hassles of travel and being away from home to be the determining factor in whether you perform at your best in a job interview. Here is my list of things I typically pack for a job interview or any other travel:
- Batteries (AA, AAA, and 9 Volt). Laser pointers, microphones, and all sorts of things lose power at the most inopportune times. Even if you are not responsible, it is good to be prepared for anything.
- Extra shoelaces. They break.
- Extra socks, shirt, necktie, and underwear. You do not want a spilled coffee to ruin your entire interview.
- Do not forget your medicines.
- A set of dry erase markers. They often come in handy for an impromptu opportunity to demonstrate your expertise.
- Familiar snacks for the airport or late night in the hotel. Eating a dicey airport burrito the day before an interview is usually a bad idea. I typically pack almonds, a water bottle with built-in filter (you can empty it when you go through airport security and fill it in the drinking fountain, no matter what the quality of the local water is like), candied ginger (great for nausea and a delicious snack), whey protein powder (easily mixes with water and is a convenient meal replacement), and a favourite calming tea (I prefer lemon and ginger).
- A travel size Tide2Go or other travel size stain remover.
- Two large Ziploc bags.
- A bandanna or handkerchief.
- Check the weather forecast and prepare appropriately.
- Have a hard copy of your presentation with presentation notes. My best job talk occurred when the entire building lost power (I am still not sure if this was a test). I worked from my paper notes and gave the entire job talk in the semi darkness without skipping a beat. Plus — bonus points for being a trouper, overall good sport, and clearly demonstrating mastery of your research.
The Job Talk or Colloquium
This is the most important part of your interview. Many members of the faculty in the department will have their only exposure to you during the colloquium.
- Every department has a troll. That insecure person who tries to build himself up by asking you impossible or unfair questions. Everyone else in the department has already identified this person as the troll. In this case and only in this case, you are allowed to smack them down. My favourite smack down, “Well, that is certainly a convoluted and mostly unrelated question, and here why that is not relevant to my presentation…” You will not lose any points with the rest of the faculty. Quite often, other faculty members will apologize to you for the behaviour of that troll or congratulated you on how well you managed it. Expect it. The troll seems to be a feature of every department and does not necessarily indicate that the department is flawed.
- Sometimes people ask good questions that you are not able to answer. The correct way to handle this is to say, “I don’t know the answer to that. But it is an excellent question that needs to be addressed. Maybe we can have a talk afterwards and see about how we can address this in future research.” Composed, willing to learn, and always looking forward.
- Memorize your talk. Can you do this talk if the power goes out?
- Overdress. Your business best.
- Time the talk out. Know exactly how much time that your talk is scheduled for and finish well within the deadline. Never go over time in any talk ever. This takes practice.
- If it is possible for you, then ask and allow questions and interruptions in your talk. It shows that you have confidence and mastery of your material. However, if you prefer questions to wait until the end, then do not say anything. Most typically other faculty members will cut off anyone who interrupts and insist the questions wait until the end. You do not want to appear brittle.
- Open your talk with a compelling discussion of why your material is important. Immediately after this skip ahead to the most complex aspect of your methodology or analysis. You are trying to make the case that your research is interesting and important, but also can blow people away with its complexity and your mastery of technique. Remember you that you are not trying to communicate the details of what you do, you are trying to communicate your own awesomeness. Clarity is preferred, but it is okay for an audience member to say, “I am not really sure I understood everything, but it sure sounded impressive.”
- If you are asked to do a teaching talk in addition to your research talk, then never rely on participation of the group. This places your job interview outside of your control and that is never a good idea. It is perfectly okay to say, “I generally like to have interactive classroom sessions that use X technique. But for purposes of this talk I will be using a lecture format.” And then demonstrate your ability to explain a complex topic.
- Thank people for coming to the colloquium. A large turnout indicates how interested the people are in your position.
- Before you begin the talk, go to the bathroom. Check yourself in the mirror for spinach in your teeth, crooked neckties, missed belt loops, sweatiness, smeared make up, and other signs of being disheveled. You are putting on a show. Make it professional show business.
You will be interviewed by administration, groups of faculty members, individual faculty members, and others. Here are some tips:
- Have a lot of questions prepared. I have upwards of 50 to 60 questions written. I then divide those questions based on the audience. For example, I may have five question written for the dean, five questions for the program director, five questions for students, and so on. Some of those questions will be specific to this university and program based on your homework, and other questions will be generic and asked at every job interview you do.
- Ask the same question to multiple audiences to gauge for differences in perception. It means something when the dean’s response to a question is significantly different than from an assistant professor in the program.
- Request to meet and interview (or at least have lunch) with a faculty member who recently received tenure and promotion. Ask them about that process.
- Prepare for the inevitable stupid or predictable questions:
- How do you manage stress?
- What are your weaknesses?
- How do you manage work-life balance?
- What you add to our department?
Request to have extra time interviewing with students. This is a simple method to ensure that you are perceived as student friendly. So if the preliminary itinerary has the students meeting with you for one hour, ask for 90 minutes. Students are also the most honest and will give you the most information.
This is not the time to negotiate salary or anything else. Don't. Once they make the offer, then it's on. Even if they say, how much money ya want? Don't go for it. Say, "Given the data on salary in this department I am sure we will be able to negotiate a satisfactory salary (or start up costs, summer salary, course release, or whatever)." Just hint that you are easy to work and negotiate with. As a heads up, after they make the offer -- a good salary starting point for your first job is the median departmental salary for assistant professor.
Meeting with Students
Students can be surprisingly scary and snarky during this interview. This is especially true if you are about the same age as most of the students. I find that the best strategy in working with students is to spend the vast majority of your time listening and asking them questions. Students frequently know about the weaknesses of the department and are not afraid to tell you some important gossip. Mostly, students are the barometer of the department. You can tell if they have been neglected, subject to abuse, or are legitimately unhappy with the direction of the department. Mostly, listen. When you actively listen to their concerns you will automatically be perceived as more competent than someone who gives long-winded answers to simple questions.
Mealtime and Off Hours
The rule of all job interviews is that you are always being interviewed. Even at lunch, dinner, and at receptions you are being interviewed.
- Be unfailingly polite to wait staff, administrative assistants, janitors, taxi drivers, and everyone else. Assume somebody is watching.
- Unless you have allergies or dietary restrictions, be flexible. Don’t be high maintenance.
- There may be a reception or something that looks a bit like a party in your honour. It is not a party. You are being judged at all times. So mingle, pretend to have fun, and do not drink too much. My rule is to have one drink and nurse it all night. If you do not drink alcohol, than that is okay.
- During these periods, people are looking to see cracks in your façade. This is often when candidates for jobs appear to be stressed and otherwise make unguarded comments. You may be exhausted, but stay friendly and positive.
- These are also times when people are looking to see if you are a colleague that people want to hang out with or generally will be a pleasant co-worker.
- When you are exhausted, this is the time to be a listener. For example, if someone asked you about how you manage worklife balance, the correct response is to say, “I struggle with it like everyone else. How do you manage it?”
Weird Things That Happen and Other Odds and Ends
A lot of weird things can happen during interviews. The only universal rule is to be composed.
- Horrible and inappropriate questions. Questions about significant others, family, and children are typically out of bounds. Women are far more likely to be asked these questions than men. It is perfectly okay to say that you prefer to keep your personal life personal. You can answer them if you want to or if you think that helps you. My preferences is not to discuss personal life.
- I heard one of my colleagues say to an applicant that she is “articulate.” I was stunned by this codeword. Of course he meant, articulate for a black woman (with a PhD in quantitative psychology and expertise in nonlinear modelling). She was incredibly composed and simply said thank you. She and I spoke about it afterwards. I was upset. Unfortunately, she was used to it.
- I have a colleague who said that she was propositioned while interviewing. Honestly, that is too bizarre to comprehend. Her perspective is that any department that would allow such behaviour is not one that fits her needs.
- Recently, I talked to a colleague who placed his briefcase in the car of his host while they went to lunch. The car was broken into and his briefcase stolen (along with his computer and his job talk). Luckily, he stored a copy of his presentation in dropbox and was able to retrieve it and present the paper on a borrowed computer.
- The concierge at the hotel is your friend. They can help you if you forget a razor, a necktie, pantyhose, medication, or need directions to the nearest bar. Moreover, most hotels have a business office in case you need some printing or other last-minute updates.
As a member of the search committee, I am typically looking for three things: do they have potential to be successful in our department, do they add anything to the department, and do I want them to be my colleague. I have argued against people who had incredibly impressive CVs and performed very well at the job interview. But often I thought they had a little too much Tracy Flick, seem to follow the textbook of interviewing behaviours, or are generally a stiff. I much prefer the woman with a black belt in karate, the guy who skydives, the political activist dude, the person with many tattoos, and the lady who quotes Emerson. Who laughs, is creative, understand systems and politics of the Department, cares about students, thinks outside the box, listens, and is innovative? These are the people who can drive a program in a department forward to the future. If they have research productivity and teaching skills, then I really want to hire a full human being.
Have fun. Really. This is a great opportunity to present your research, your experiences, and yourself to a group of peers. Spend some time debriefing with peers or more experienced colleagues after you complete your interview. You do not typically receive feedback from your host. However, you can always work to improve your presentation and performance.
I always advocate being completely honest in all of your interactions during job interviews, but there is one exception: act like you belong. The people interviewing you are colleagues and not supervisors or superiors.
How Not to Suck at Creating an Online Presence
Admit it. You have Googled yourself. And depending on your degree of shame, ego, and self-worth you may have felt guilty about doing so. But every employer, client, collaborator, romantic partner, creditor, and nearly anyone else who needs to know you has first started by exploring your online presence. As an academic or graduate student, your online presence is likely to be the primary tool that people use to investigate and judge your impact on the field of research and suitability for opportunities.
View your online presence through the eyes of people who may want to work with you. If your name is Zolton Murphy Lipschitz, then your online presence is wide open for you to develop. If your name is John Smith, then you may have difficulty having your presence appear within the first 20 pages of Google search results. I once Googled a prospective student and found out that she had the same name as a porn star (I am sure that search got me on a special list at the university). She then began including her middle name prominently as she developed her online presence. As someone with a common name, I know that Steven Shaw is a famous photographer, magician, swim instructor, food critic, personal trainer, athletic director, college football official, college professor (but not me), and many other things. Steven Shaws are everywhere. My goal is to differentiate myself from others who would be seen on the Google search of my name and to appear somewhere on the first page of such a search.
An even more important aspect of your online presence is to ensure that the image projected is one that you wish to create for people who may want to work with you. As an academic, I have a lot of leeway in the nature of this presence. It is acceptable and even desirable for academics to be quirky, prickly, whiny, and opaque. Yet, most of my students are preparing to be psychologists who work with children. These students must have an online presence that is scrubbed clean. They may have to work hard to ensure profanity, photographs with alcohol or drugs, sexually explicit or suggestive pictures or messages, and even excessive sarcasm and cynicism are minimized in an online presence. Frequent self searches are necessary as photos can be tagged (on Facebook and other sites) by others and appear online without your knowledge. For the most part, there is some wiggle room for graduate students. Colleagues and the general public expect to see some pictures with your significant other or having a glass of wine with friends. That is what young people do, so just show some discretion. However, a picture of me (a middle-aged guy) drinking with students (mostly young females) will send the wrong message for most audiences. That said, education and psychology are among the most difficult professions in which to manage an online presence because parents are entrusting their children to you as a professional and are rightly cautious. Consider what you are communicating about yourself.
Although academics have much freedom, there been high-profile cases of untenured and tenured professors losing their jobs due to tweets, blogs, and other aspects of their online presence that have offended their employers. I am fortunate to be at a university that does not micromanage online presence. However, I try not to comment on religion, politics, or sex. I also usually do not advocate for social issues as they are often entangled in politics. Of course I have opinions that are not too difficult to infer based on my tweets, blog, and website — but I try not to express them directly. It is also generally not in my nature to attack or troll others, but I make an extra effort to ensure that none of my comments can be perceived as insulting or diminishing others. The goal of my online presence is to convey hard work, continuous efforts to improve myself, the value of scientific thinking and quality written expression, a normal and relatable human, and someone who values the efforts of students and colleagues. There is no question that I could do more with my online presence, yet I try to provide a reliable message to establish a consistent personal and professional brand.
I know some students and colleagues who completely ignore the concept of an online presence and generally leave it to the fates. Withdrawing from social media and other online outlets for fear of making an error or minimizing their importance is equally as problematic. I am not a digital media or online expert. However, I wish to control the narrative of how my thoughts, work, and general message are received by colleagues and the general public. If you do not control your online presence then someone else will. How you are perceived is essential to advancing in your career and communicating your message to the appropriate outlets in such a manner that it will be heard, respected, and valued.
Professional and Social Divide. The hard part is that the Internet does not care whether your pictures are intended to be social or professional. Facebook posted photos from your last vacation are intended for you, your family, and friends. But clients may view these photos as well. I recommend setting privacy settings on your social media accounts so that only approved friends and family can have access. Try your best to make the professional and social divide clear for all those investigating your online presence.
Social Media. There seem to be some informal rules concerning social media outlets. Linkedin seems to be primarily for business. In this setting, a highly disciplined and entirely business focused approach is recommended. Facebook is mostly social. Yet, businesses and academia often use Facebook to engage with the general public. Twitter is an effective communication platform for developing learning networks and reaching specific audiences. The primary problems with Twitter is that in 140 characters responses can be created and sent quickly and it is easy to be misunderstood. Be sure to double check tweets before sending. There are a host of other social media sites. Each has its own quirks. It is still best to keep most of these accounts private and control who can view them if there is any chance at all that your desired professional narrative would be diluted or undermined by social media.
Research Portals. Research portals such as Google Scholar, ResearchGate, and others provide outlets for academics to place research products online and available to other scholars. These portals are valuable for communication and dissemination of research articles within a scholar’s area of research. Research portals are safe and essential aspects of the scholarly online presence. The weaknesses that research portals are not typically used by the public and do not lend themselves to knowledge transfer and communication with professionals outside of field study.
Websites. Standalone websites are static and serve as a repository for information about scholars as professionals and as people. Static websites have the advantage of providing full control over the message.
Audio and Video. The use of video through dedicated YouTube channels and other mechanisms is a valuable way to get messages across in a convenient approach. Lectures, demonstrations, and PowerPoint plus lecture can all be effective mechanism for communicating information to a wider audience. Likewise digital audio files can be stored on websites and used as a method of relaying lectures and small talks to others.
There are certainly digital media planners, strategists, and other extraordinarily knowledgeable people who can assist in the development of detailed strategies for improving one’s online presence. However, online presence has become as important to an academic career as a CV. Be clear, be strategic, and have an understanding of how you want to be perceived by employer, client, collaborator, creditor, and nearly anyone else who needs to know you. Be cautious not to get carried away with the time spent in developing online presence. You run the risk of spending more time developing an online presence than doing the actual work that you are trying to publicize, transfer, or otherwise disseminate. Be mindful, strategic, and have an effective online presence that allows you to control the narrative of who you are as a person and as a professional.
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.
How Not to Suck at Efficiency: Some Technology Suggestions
Here is a bonus blog as we prepare for the fall term.
Nearly all graduate students and academics complain that they wish they had more time for the details of science, discovery, and writing results for publication. We all seem to struggle to find the time to write, think, and communicate. Time in the classroom, office hours, meetings, administration, and other professional tasks function to take away from research productivity. And there is always real-life: sleeping, eating, going to the bathroom, relationships, family, illness, stress, exercise, and coping with mental health issues all take time away from productivity. These are essential disruptions. A well-balanced life is critical for long-term work, well-being, and happiness. However, scholars are required to maximize efficiency in the few hours per day that are available for research productivity.
Everyone will find the work habits that are best for them. I have written about many of these habits before, but this post is about some tools that I have found to assist me in being as efficient as possible. I have no financial or other stake in these products. I only found that they work well for me.
Priority matrix: This is a fancy to-do list that helps to prioritize tasks by long-term, short term, due dates, importance, and other variables. It has a free trial, but is fairly expensive to subscribe to. I have purchased this item. The flexibility is the true strength of Priority Matrix. I like that it has the ability to break down large tasks into small chunks and integrate tasks with calendars. The program sends me an e-mail with my list of tasks every day. At the end of the day I check off each task completed and update the tasks for the next day. It could also be a good idea for a lab as there are group rates for integrated project teams. The price is a little high and there are other good to do lists on the market, but I find this one to be extremely helpful.
DragonNaturally Speaking Premium Version 13: This is my dictation software. I use it for all first drafts and nearly all e-mails. It is a remarkably easy product to use. I have heard that this does not work especially well for people with soft voices or strong accents. I have a southern-inflected Midwestern twang, but have no problems. The program learns your vocabulary by going through your e-mails and other documents and learning the words that you use the most, even highly technical terms and phrases. It’s kind of spooky. The only problem is that most people do not write in the same tone or style as they speak. It takes some practice to say the words in the same style as your writing. Your writing will be a bit chatty at first. But once you get that down, then your speed of writing goes from around 50 words per minute (or however fast you type) to about 140 words per minute. The pace of thinking increases and first drafts can be finished in a couple of hours. I also like using a wireless microphone. I will lay on the couch, close my eyes, scratch the dog, and complete a draft of a paper. Be sure to edit carefully. The types of errors you make when typing are different from dictation errors. Slurred or mumbled speaking makes for odd errors. In a recent paper a student was editing, she asked, “When did we start working with German children?” I meant to say “certain children,” but slurred my speech and the wrong word was recognized. Those types of errors take some practice to identify while editing. Overall, it is a major time saver and enhancer of creativity. I also find it to be useful when I am just sick of being at the keyboard.
Scrivener: A wonderful outlining and word processing program. I enjoy the corkboard and notecard features. For me, these features are helpful because I tend to write decent paragraphs, but sequencing and flow can be problems in the first draft. It works well for any writing activity, but I find it to be essential for large and multipart projects like books or grant proposals. The special strength is for outlining projects. I have found it extremely intuitive and it work easily with Word and other word processing programs. I have also found that the technical support, instructional support and videos, and frequently asked questions parts of the website are excellent.
aNote: This is a simple note taking system for the iPhone. I used it for a while, but have switched to OneNote because I use a tablet and pen now and OneNote quickly and easily transfers to my other devises. But aNote is pretty strong note taker.
ShopShop: Grocery list. There are many complex grocery lists with recipes, prediction of items that you might want and other factors. But ShopShop is a stripped down and super simple model. Free.
30/30: This is an iPhone app for the truly obsessive. Anyone who likes to plan every minute of their day will benefit well from this time management system. My daughter uses this to organize her day and swears by it. This is the kid who has published four books by the age of eighteen, was on the college Dean’s list, and is an efficiency savant. It is somewhat similar to a Pomodoro system, except more flexible. The 30/30 program allows you to dedicate a set amount of time to each task. Then a timer tracks the amount of time that you dedicate to each of the tasks. I have found the structure a little too much for me. I enjoy some degree of flexibility (i.e., semi structured laziness). But for those developing the discipline to organize your day for the completion of specific tasks, I recommend this app.
Google Calendar: I know there are many fancy and sophisticated calendar systems available. I have tried several. This basic default calendar seems to meet my needs.
LoseIt!: For keeping track of what I eat as I am working to drop some weight and generally improve fitness. A really wonderful program for computer and iPhone. The free version is pretty good. But I use the Premium version to keep track of additional data (especially my sugar intake) and for motivation. The program does a nice job of identifying patterns that can be helpful. For example, the program noted that on days that I consume branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), I tend to consume less sugar (a major problem for my eating habits). Good to know.
A lot of people use various apps for concentration. I know there are many for blocking or avoiding favorite procrastination websites. But honestly, often I just turn off the wifi and do not use those systems. When focus is a problem, then I listen to a metronome set to my resting heartrate (around 56bpm) with headphones https://www.metronomeonline.com/. I also use the pomodoro timer online to keep track of time segments. http://tomato-timer.com/
Zotero: An open-source manuscript management system. EndNote, Mendeley, and others all have their strengths. The interface is a bit clunky and not as pretty on Zotero compared to its commercial competitors. However, it is a functional, intuitive, and a valuable addition. I just prefer open source software as a personal preference. I also have an issue with high profit manuscript management software that have now paired with major academic publishers. Let the price gouging commence. I have a stand-alone version of Zotero for my projects and we have a group version that is shared among lab members.
SurfacePro3: I am new to this hardware as I have recently shifted from a laptop to a tablet. I am still getting used to it. The keyboard is not great. I recommend a full-sized external keyboard for long and fast typing (or just switch to dictating). So far, it has just made writing, internet work, storing information and other basic work much simpler. The wireless HDMI display to my basement TV/sound system is pretty cool as well. The light weight and ease of interface removes any excuse. I can work anywhere at any time. (note: I wrote this blog on the train and finished it waiting for daughter #2 at the dentist--so that is cool). It is a bit expensive, but so far I like using it.
I am not a fast adopter of every new technology or app that comes down the pike. I use two simple criteria: does adoption of something new save or cost time? and Does it improve the quality of work required to achieve my aims? There are hundreds of apps, software, and hardware that claim to lead to improved efficiency. What works depends on your needs and style of working. These are just a few of the things that I use.
How Not to Suck at Taking Initiative
How Not to Suck at Creating a Professional Network
How not to suck at reviewing articles for scholarly journals
July 4, 2015
The well-known writers of fiction and science often report that the best way to be an effective writer and to write a lot is simply to read a lot. Nearly all graduate students and scholars consume an amazing amount of written material. Usually we read professional material because it is necessary scholarship for the specific project that we are currently working on or general reading simply to keep current with the field of study. This reading is usually rapid and interpreted at a surface level. However, for reading to make an essential contribution to becoming an effective writer the reader must think deeply and critically. Many departments or labs hold a “journal club” in which a specific paper is discussed and analysed in a group format. I would estimate that more is learned in a single journal club discussion then in multiple lectures or many rapid and surface readings. Another form of deep and critical reading is the evaluation of articles for scholarly journals. Engaging in peer review is one of the best methods for the development of skills as a writer and scholar is to review articles for professional journals.
There is much criticism about the value of peer review as a measure of worthiness for publication in selective scholarly journals. This occurs most frequently in the social sciences where assumptions are often not clear and social and political agendas implicitly carry more weight than anyone would care to admit. Despite bias and random error I still support peer review as the strongest method of advancing the science and scholarship in any field of study. Although decision-making for publication ultimately lies with the journal editor (or associate editors), peer review not only strengthens the quality of published papers, but also requires the deep and critical reading that inspires productivity and writing skills of the peer reviewers.
When requesting that a scholar be a peer review on a submitted article for publication, journals are maddeningly unclear on exactly what this review should look like. Further complicating matters is that different journals emphasize different types of reviews. Some journals would like the reviewer to suggest an editorial decision such as reject, revise and resubmit, accept with major revisions, or accept with minor revisions; while other journal specify that the peer reviewer is not to make an editorial decision. Some journals provide scoring rubrics that may provide structure, but may not be relevant to the format of the specific paper being reviewed. Are there common features that a peer review should contain that not only provide a valuable service to the profession but can facilitate the deep and critical reading required in the development of an outstanding graduate student and scholar?
The first question is how does a graduate student become a peer reviewer? I know one professor who is on eight editorial view boards and has his graduate students write all of his peer reviews. Although this is ethically sketchy (okay, it is flat out wrong), it is a great opportunity for his students to engage in the peer review exercise. Many journals have a small student review panel that is designed for graduate students to be peer reviewers and have their reviews evaluated and mentored by journal editors or associate editors. Finally, many journals are so overwhelmed with articles and with so few available reviewers that they accept graduate student volunteers as peer reviewers. Thus, for many situations it is a matter of sending information concerning your availability, expertise, and a CV to a reviewer. My experience as an editor is that the best reviews I get are from graduate students, postdocs, and faculty members within their first three years of the job. The big shots and established scholars are often unavailable; or tend to write short, dismissive, and lazy reviews (there are notable exceptions to this gross generalization). Most editors are excited to have anyone volunteer to be a reviewer.
Many reviewers focus on relatively unimportant details. Emphasis on APA style, manuscript preparation, and grammar usually indicate that the reviewer has not given the paper the deep and critical reading that a strong review requires. Although poor writing can be annoying, as long as the major points are clear, then the writing can be revised and journals have copy editors for a reason. Excessive amounts of energy spent line editing are usually wasted. Manuscript preparation can be identified as a problem, but is rarely a strong reason for rejection.
There are two major areas of focus: internal and external. I follow generally the same process for all reviews. Step one: has the rationale for the research question been established and couched in the current literature. This step involves a logical flow of scholarship. There does not need to be a running history of every single study done on the topic, yet the need for the current study needs to be clear. Step two: the overall research question and specific hypotheses need to be clear and well stated. Step three: methods must be appropriate to answer the research questions and hypotheses. It is surprising how many studies using sophisticated methods and analyses and answer a valuable research question, but the methods do not answer the question that was developed in the introduction. Step four: do the results logically flow from the methods and are the best possible way to answer the research question. Step five: are the conclusions consistent with the results. This is basic article reviewing 101, but I would estimate that over 80% of papers are rejected because the rationale for the study is not established or there is no logical flow to the sections. By the way, being the first article that studies any topic is not a rationale (many times no one else has studied the topic because it was not worth studying). Most commonly, the conclusions do not logically follow from the results. I am also somewhat amused that many conclusion sections include a limitation segment that is overwhelming. Just because the author acknowledges that the paper has significant weaknesses does not mean that those weaknesses cannot be used to reject the paper. This complex and critical part of the review represents the internal aspects of a review and are necessary, but not sufficient, for an article to receive a positive evaluation.
The external part of the review s most difficult for graduate students and new reviewers. This is the “so what” question. The majority of papers I see published within psychology do not seem to have answered the so what question. These are papers that are perfectly internally consistent with logical flow from problem identification to literature review to research question and hypothesis to methods to results to conclusions; yet, the final results do not make a significant contribution to the field. If an article does not advance the field of study, then there is no need for this paper to be published in a scholarly outlet. Leave program evaluations, button sorting and bottle washing, and other tedious minutia to government reports and grant reports rather than publication in a scientific journal. The external part of the review is where experience can be a great benefit. Reviewers need to not only know their own specific and narrow areas of expertise, but understand where the frontier of knowledge is and what type of studies are required to advance that frontier. There is nothing wrong with an inexperienced reviewer seeking guidance or consultation from a more experienced person when preparing an article review.
Here are a few key features to remember when preparing your article review:
• The goal of the review is to improve the paper. Therefore, the tone of the review is to highlight the changes necessary to make the paper a publishable one. My personal style does not focus on struggling to find a strength of the paper or providing moral encouragement. My style tends to be along the lines of, “in order for this paper to be publishable the following changes must be made…” Sometimes those changes are significant and include redesigning of the experiment and collecting new data. However, common comments such as, “This paper should be reviewed by a native English speaker.” Or “This paper was clearly written by a graduate student.” Are not productive and should be avoided. Taking the tone of speaking directly to the author with the goal of improving the paper is most productive.
• Most journals have a section for confidential comments for the editor. This is the space to advise the editor concerning publication status.
• When a rubric is provided by the journal, please use that rubric. Many associate editors and editors adhere closely to the results of the rubric when making final decisions.
• In a recent change, I have begun to attach my name to all reviews. Reviews are a form of scholarship. Reviewers also need to make sure that they are completely accountable for everything stated in a review. This is also a reminder to make all reviews helpful and productive for authors and editors alike. A couple editors have taken my name off of the reviews before sending to the authors. However, being accountable for our work is a good idea.
• Some journals have begun providing feedback to reviewers. This is a wonderful idea. All reviewers could benefit from feedback and improvement in their manuscript reviewing.
• Typically, reviews range in length from one to two single-spaced pages.
• Reviews usually require two to four hours to complete.
• The time that editors require for the completion of a review has been reduced significantly over the last few years. Six weeks for a review used to be the norm. Now the expectations most commonly range from 14 to 30 days. It is better to turn down an opportunity to review a journal, then to not be able to complete the review during the time allotted. A simple “I cannot get this review completed in the time allotted, but would like to review an article in the future” is sufficient.
• As soon as the invitation to review an article is accepted, then schedule approximately one half day to complete the review in your calendar or to do list.
• As mentioned before, it is acceptable to receive consultation or advice from others with expertise in the area. It is also completely acceptable to consult with the associate editor or editor if you have any questions about the preparation of your review. Although reviewers are supposed to be blind as to the name of the author, many times reviewers can figure out who the author is. Under no circumstances should you consult with the author of the paper on any topic.
By conducting a deep and critical review of papers in progress, graduate students can gain insight into preparation of manuscripts, data reporting, and development of research studies. There are a host of lessons that can be learned in a positive direction (e.g., being inspired by an especially creative research design or particularly useful turn of phrase) or in a negative direction (e.g., appreciating how certain forms of expression can be superfluous or misleading). Receiving a practice reviewing articles for journals is not only a service to your profession, but serves as an excellent mechanism to improve your research and writing skills.
S. R. Shaw
How not to suck at surviving and changing harsh systems: A cynical optimist’s perspective
June 3, 2015
In my last blog post I discussed some of the issues related to kindness in academia and how to survive academia with your soul intact. Coincidentally, my chair gave a brief lecture at the most recent department meeting on the value of being at the office with doors open, increasing intradepartmental collaboration, being available for students, and making a more collegial environment. In addition, on academic Twitter there is a constant drumbeat of outrage that shouts about what academia must, ought, should, or needs to do in order to become the Platonic perfect work environment; or tear-the-whole-system-down rants. Although I appreciate in others and engage in wishful thinking myself, there needs to be straight talk on the most effective methods of creating systemic change in academia.
I have become jaded to the point that I dismiss completely most statements that use the words “must,” “ought,” “should,” “needs,” and other similar judgy and scolding words. Statements such as, “Professors must be public scholars.” “Professors ought to be figures for social justice.” “Professors should support adjunct rights.” “Professors need to be more supportive of others.” are mostly a waste of space, even though the goals are laudable. The response to such judgy words is: Or else what will happen if these things are not done? Why? Are there negative consequences if we do these apparently laudable things? These words are ineffective unless there is a more compelling case other than the writer believes passionately solely based on their limited perspective. I appreciate the writers’ passions for causes. Nearly every time I agree with the goals. Yet, the judgment words usually refer to methods rather than goals. For example, in order to achieve X you must do Y. There are multiple methods of achieving X. You can also achieve X using a different method; therefore, no one absolutely must do Y. In reality these judgy words are usually more of a social media primal scream of frustration than a serious effort to change a system or provide practical advice.
My personal interests and goals are to change the university and scientific culture to become more innovative, productive, implementation oriented, and effective at translating knowledge to policymakers and society at large. I make the assumption that such grandiose goals can only be accomplished by using all possible talent available. A diversity of perspectives and experiences can only add to the population of ideas to be explored and achieved. In addition, all of these perspectives and experiences are likely to be most effective when there is a culture of collective collaboration, inclusion, and team approaches. Marginalizing or chasing groups of people out of university and scientific culture defeats these goals. Racism, sexism, classism, and all other forms of discrimination are antithetical to my goals. Empowering low income, minority, disabled, immigrant, sexual minorities, women, and other groups are the best hope for universities and science to achieve my personal goals for society. So those are my biases and assumptions going into this argument.
Well...the above paragraph expresses lovely thoughts but is little different from the use of judgy words. The big problems involve the reinforcement structure currently in place in university and scientific systems. I very much like and respect my department chair, but those behaviours he wanted to promote will not occur unless we get reinforced for them and are not penalized if these behaviours lead to reduced research productivity. Universities (especially R1) have evolved into a factory model where the production of widgets (i.e., refereed journal publications and grant funds) lead to status, promotion, salary, and power. Unless the desired behaviours that we should, ought, must, or needs have direct positive effects on the production of widgets or the nature of what academics are reinforced for doing, then there will be no systemic change. The factory model also leads to a class system in which those in power work to maintain their power and those actually manufacturing the widgets (i.e., postdocs and grad students) receive low pay, have low status, and are constantly reminded of their low status by people in power.
Since the late 1970s the trend is to fetishize business models and structures in politics, government, public policy, and universities. The focus on efficiencies, productivity, competition, and short-term fiscal outcomes creates specific culture. Peter Higgs, of Higgs-boson particle and Nobel Prize fame, said that he was not productive enough to thrive in modern academia. I am sure someone of that talent would have thrived in modern academia, but I am not sure he would have discovered his namesake particle. The short-term factory model keeps universities from achieving potential. Although there have always been some problems, academia has also seen an increase in the common concerns of business such as fraud, financial mismanagement, lawsuits, chasing status and public recognition, and worrying more about the metrics of success (e.g., what is your h-index?) than actual success in the important work we were trained to do.
Sorry for the political rant. The point is that there is a huge amount of inequality built into the current university system of reinforcement for scholars. To expect scholars with power to voluntarily give their power to others against their own interests solely to create a more just world is not especially realistic. Many of the rants I hear about the current state of academia are equivalent to cries that people should give up their jobs and their salaries and donate everything to the poor. There may be a few saints who do such a thing, but it is unlikely to affect the level of systemic change required to have a more equal society in university settings.
This sounds like an unnecessarily pessimistic and hysterical screed. The purpose is to describe how the behaviour of academics is unlikely to change due to systemic realities. The emotional words mean little or nothing when it comes to systems level change. When large systems fail to respond, then more outrage occurs. This is closely followed by pessimism, despair, resignation, depression, and turning away from a valuable societal institution.
For those of you who have read my blog regularly, you know that I typically do not engage in political discussions; the major interest of this blog is how not to suck in graduate school. Most of the time this means surviving and thriving in a culture that can often be hostile, especially at R1 universities where the expectation for the production of widgets is especially high and the status of graduate students is especially low. Although there is nothing wrong with setting the outrage phaser to kill for purposes of a therapeutic scream, there are some approaches to surviving and thriving in the harsh system with your souls intact.
Although it is frustrating to find that the system in place has power differentials built in that are unfair, you still need to survive and thrive as an individual. Recently, there were two related posts addressing personal survival in the world of academia.
The first post was a positive and productive essay on career advice in The Chronicle written by Dr. Robert Sternberg (http://m.chronicle.com/article/Career-Advice-From-an-Oldish/230335/) with thanks to Dr. Stacy Cahn for bringing this essay to my attention. Dr. Sternberg provided a series of personal long-term strategies to promote a positive and happy career in academia. I especially enjoyed his advice to avoid jerks and work in environments that make you happiest. My only quibble with Dr. Sternberg’s post is that it was written from the perspective of a highly successful professional with many career options. Many of us are barely scraping by in our career trajectory and may not have the options that he recommends. That is a minor concern. He can only write such advice effectively from his own perspective. I found his words to be wise, generous, and helpful.
The second post was from the career advice section of Science by Dr. Alice Huang. A writer requested advice concerning a supervisor who continuously looked down the female postdoc’s shirt (http://web.archive.org/web/20150601150626/http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2015_06_01/caredit.a1500140). Dr. Huang replied that such behaviour is inappropriate, but recommended that this postdoc “put up with it” because the postdoc needed the advisor and his advice. Dr. Huang was widely criticized for this acceptance of dehumanization and blatant sexism in the research lab. Dr. Huang was giving advice for personal survival, but not addressing larger issues. There are people who will sacrifice their personal careers for a systemic larger goal. Yet most academics value personal career survival over larger causes. Although my advice would have been far different from Dr. Huang’s I understand her position as that supporting personal survival. (FYI -- my advice would come from the adjudication of ethical complaints under the American Psychological Association where the first step is to try to resolve the ethical complaint with both parties. This places the postdoc in the difficult position of telling her supervisor that the direction and intensity of his gaze not only makes her feel personally uncomfortable, but detracts from the professional atmosphere of the supervisory relationship and laboratory in general. This personal comment should be followed up with a receipt notification email to establish a paper trail should the problem continue and the concern need to be addressed at the next level.)
Personal survival in the face of systemic challenges requires self advocacy, courage, resilience, confidence, and social and peer support. Academia is not a uniform profession. There is a host of skill sets, attitudes, ambitions, and approaches that all work well in the academic world. For example, the demands of an R1 university are very different from the demands of a liberal arts college. Personally, I do not have the skills to be an effective professor at a liberal arts school. I wish I did. My skill set and approach to my career is most consistent with graduate-level professional training and a research university. Personal survival means finding the best career and employment fit to your skills and having the persistence necessary to overcome systemic challenges. It is not up to others to suggest what you should, must, ought, or need to do; it is up to you to create a person-system fit that works best for you.
The focus on personal survival may seem selfish to some. In some cases personal survival is a systems change statement. For example, I have a colleague who is both gay and a paraplegic. He usually declines opportunities to be involved in or sponsor student or faculty protests and major gay- and disability-rights initiatives on his campus. He told me that he barely has enough energy to survive and thrive in his chosen profession. And also his very existence and success is the most powerful statement he could make. You cannot make systemic change unless you are engaged with the system.
Small scale changes.
Systemic change can be as much bottom-up as top-down. I try to control what I can. As graduate program director, I have encouraged students to start their own formal graduate student association specific to our field of study. In this fashion there is a formal and informal network of students designed for peer support. My research lab consists of 13 graduate students and multiple undergraduate research assistants, and am also graduate program director of our little graduate program. We try to create an environment that is as inclusive as possible. I insist that most people considering working under my supervision talk to current lab members. The lab members have veto power and control over who their peers in the lab will be. My role as supervisor is to be a liaison between the students in my lab and the larger systems of the department, faculty (i.e., college), and the university. I believe that all of my students know that I am their advocate who has the responsibility to support students in the achievement of their professional goals. I certainly use the judgment words. However, I back those up with a rationale. For example, you must do X because the university policy requires X for your graduation. In this context the word must is less of a judgment in more of an imperative describing both methods and goals. Take care of your corner of the world to try to make it as just as possible and help people thrive in a harsh environment.
Initiating large scale changes.
Large-scale systemic change is a long process. I am a grumpy cynic. I do not believe that most people and systems make decisions for reasons of fairness or any other virtue. I doubt I would be an advocate of kindness, fairness, and equality unless I truly believed that such an approach leads to improved productivity in the outcomes for which I am rewarded. I always try to make cases for systemic change on the basis of efficiency, long-term sustainability, and productivity. Usually, such long-term thinking leads to kindness, fairness, and equality. A good example is that the state of Nebraska recently eliminated capital punishment. In this generally conservative state, capital punishment was stopped not because of any moral reasons or long-term efficacy issues, but because it is so expensive to administer. Money swayed legislation to make a decision for the good. For universities, sexism and racism for example, lead to a loss of academic talent, discouraging diverse points of view and innovation, wasted resources when students drop out of school, tainted reputation of the university, and eventually financial loss due to lack of support from donors and government policymakers. The cost of this inequality will eventually drive universities to move from the short-term thinking of a factory model to the value of long-term thinking and planning. Under the current culture any effort to make change starts by speaking the language of policy makers.
I understand that this post is the blog of a cynic. I respect the passion and enthusiasm of those trying to make systemic change because something is just and right. I also respect those who have been wronged to such a degree that they feel the need to have a therapeutic primal scream across blogs or social media. Passion is necessary for breaking inertia, but little more than that. Let’s make real change. Change happens when you survive and thrive as an individual; make your little corner of the world a just corner; and learn the goals of the system that you are trying to change, provide alternative approaches, and more just methods to achieve those goals. Using the judgy words of must, ought, should, or need without justification does not lead to change; but gets you labeled as an emotional scold who is not taken seriously by policy makers.
S. R. Shaw
How Not to Suck at Saving Your Soul in Graduate School
May 2, 2015
The dismissive, arrogant, negligent, and emotionally abusive supervisor is so common as to be the clichéd default of the academic world. Academic Twitter has become a therapy couch from where the cries of aggrieved graduate students, wailing of terrified junior professors, and loud calls to tear down the entire system from adjuncts (and many others) are heard. Fortunately, there are many sources of academic kindness, understanding ears, and sage advice available to those who are being run through the spin cycle of an early academic career. I would like to be more positive, however the vast majority of young academics eventually fall into four large categories: those who quit graduate school or leave academic life altogether upon graduation; those who become successful and acquire the dismissive, arrogant, negligent, and emotionally abusive behaviours that they experienced as a graduate student and a post doc; those unable to find satisfactory employment and struggle with serial postdocs or adjunct work; and those who successfully obtain tenure, but are then experience existential crises as to what to do with the rest of their careers and lives. None of these options are especially appealing to an aspiring academic. All four outcomes can be corrosive to the soul. I believe it is possible (but not easy) to have a fulfilling academic career, a good life, and keep your soul intact.
For me there are only two ways to survive academia and keep your soul intact. Those are: to have an appropriate and well-established set of personal perspectives and priorities; and to be kind.
Perspectives and Priorities:
Perspectives and priorities are difficult to establish and usually require hard knocks, experiences, and a clear worldview. The value of having effective perspectives and priorities is that the rejection, being treated unfairly, or any number of slings and arrows of academia can be disappointing; however, they are not personally devastating. To survive it is necessary to shake it off, learn, and move on to the next task armed with better skills and knowledge.
Perspectives are the points of view that establish exactly what is truly important to you. This process is different for everyone. I have what I refer to as “hard earned blessings.” For example, before entering academia I was a school psychologist for 16 years in schools, hospitals, and private practice. During this time I was cut by a teenager with a knife, bitten by a six-year-old (and still have a small scar), many of my patients in pediatric oncology succumbed to their illnesses (exactly 33), performed CPR twice (both with unsuccessful outcomes), came home with vomit or blood on my clothes several times, and was the first person to tell many parents that their child has intellectual disabilities or autism. Putting things into perspective, a rejected manuscript is just not that big of a deal. I also have a lightness of being about my career and little career ambition. That is, I do not worry about it much, am happy to be employed, and have the joy of doing the work that I want to do. I simply do the best that I can, try to improve every day, hope that is good enough, and if it is not then I will get another job. My perspective is not for everyone and may be unique, but be mindful about your perspective.
Establishing priorities also comes fairly easy for me. I am fortunate enough to have been married for 23 years and still going. I have two teenage children who are healthy. They are the priorities. Nearly every student has experienced me rescheduling a regular meeting to take a child to the dentist, attend a school function, or go to one of my wife’s office functions. Just last week I missed our lab party in order to register my younger daughter for extra math tutoring at school. I am sure the party was much more fun without the boss present. Nonetheless, everyone who works with me knows that I need to be home at a reasonable hour on most nights so I can cook dinner for my family, take the dog on a long walk, and be present almost every day. I certainly could publish more papers or do more travelling in order to become a high status or famous academic (or maybe not). To what end? To be a rock star academic (*snort laugh*)? I am never going to be rich and famous because I have a different set of priorities and I am happy with that. All families and professionals prioritize features of their lives differently, but this is what works for me and I am comfortable with it. However you establish your priorities, the most important thing is that you are comfortable with them.
Trying to change the culture of academia or the behaviour of a challenging colleague is not an especially fruitful endeavor. We have to live with a career that can be capricious at times (like most careers); and an environment that often seems to reward arrogance, Machiavellian actions, and prideful behaviour. Railing against this environment is fine for outlets such as Twitter, but an exhausting way to function on a day-to-day basis. The only inoculation against the soul corrosive nature of academics is to be an unwavering and expanding island of kindness.
Somehow kindness has been conflated with a lack of scientific rigour. I believe strongly that one can be demanding, rigorous, and have the highest possible expectations without in any way sacrificing or diminishing the humanity of colleagues or students. There are times when students mistake the negative evaluation of their work for me being unkind to them personally. This is not the case. It is extremely rare for me to think poorly of a student simply because some of their work is not up to my expectations—I just don’t. Some exceptions are lack of work effort, unethical behaviour, not behaving in a manner that supports the team, and making excuses; but these are rare events. I see my job as that of a teacher. Some lessons are hard and unpleasant, but I will not lose perspective and will support students in their effort to reach their own objectives and my expectations. If I do my job well, then all students know how much I respect them and wish for their success. This is simple. “This work needs to be better. Here is exactly how you can make it better. Good. I believe in you and I know you can do make these improvements.” Kind, demanding, and rigorous. I believe strongly in the three principles of Chinese Zen leadership: clarity, courage, and humanity. When you lose your humanity or forget the humanity of others, then you cannot be a leader or teacher. I view the clarity principle as that of scientific rigour and expectations; and the courage principle as the insistence that clarity and humanity be connected.
There is always snarkiness and even some pathology in the academic world. I have teased people by telling them that academia is one of the few jobs in which you can be successful with close to zero social skills. Those who have forgotten their humanity and appear to receive pleasure and status from making others feel less are extremely sad people. They have had poor role models, are insecure, and lack perspective of the value of their opinions. The response to these people needs to be kind as well. I recall my first conference presentation at which I was insecure about how to handle the dreaded pointed and unfairly harsh question. He told me to say, “I am having difficulty interpreting your comment and question as a being productive. Could you please rephrase the question so that I may interpret it more productively?” In this way the questioner must either reword the question so that it is easier to address or acknowledge that the purpose of their question was not to be productive. I have never had to use that response, but it is nice to know that it is still there.
As a professional, I am mild-mannered and take all efforts to find a compromise solution to any conflict, which demonstrates clarity, courage, and humanity. However, I will call out individuals who consistently behave in a destructive manner. I will not reject their papers or deny their funding, but will recuse myself from any participation in their work in any way. If there needs to be a confrontation, then I am completely comfortable with that tactic. But destructive behaviours will not be allowed to pass. We need to remove the professional reinforcement for being an asshole. They are not eccentric or delicate geniuses, but are damaged, damaging, and are an impediment to the advancement of their field of study.
I do not believe that most academics are destructive or pathological on purpose. They simply believe that kindness takes additional time and energy that they do not have. My belief is exactly the opposite. Kindness is free. Be generous with it. My worldview is that everything good in my life is because my intention is to help others and everything bad in my life is because I thought of myself first. Not everyone shares this world view. But, kindness is pragmatic. When I am kind to a student they will work harder. Fear and bullying are poor long-term motivators. Scholars who are fearful produce mundane studies of minutia rather than fearless advances of knowledge. This is the difference between fanning a spark into a flame and extinguishing the spark. When I model kindness to students, they learn to expect to be treated with respect. They become kind when they are placed in a position of authority. This helps to create a culture of a team or lab that is creative, fearless, collaborative, and highly motivated. They produce quality ideas and return energy to me through their enthusiasm, ideas, and work habits. Kindness is a simple and productive investment of my time.
As seen on academic Twitter, there is a not-completely-met need for kindness in the academic world. There are many examples of professionals attempting to expand academic kindness via social media (e.g., the Twitter accounts of @CitizenAcademic; @AcademicKindnes; @raulpacheco) and in their personal behaviours. Kindness is not a personal characteristic only. It is a winning strategy for developing individuals and advancing thought with in a field. Unfailing kindness in conjunction with perspectives and priorities are the best ways for saving your soul as an academic and being a productive contributor to your field
S. R. Shaw
How Not to Suck When You Don’t Want to Work
April 2, 2015
“Writer’s block is another word for laziness” -- Elmore Leonard.
All respect to the late, great Elmore Leonard, but dial it back a little. We all have those days. The to-do list is long, you are sleep deprived, you have put in too many consecutive 12 hour days, and there is no end in sight. You drink your coffee and open the computer, yet the blinking cursor does nothing but mock you. You have the time to write, the ideas are well outlined, and deadlines are approaching. However, your mind is blank. Meanwhile, dishes need to be done, the dog wants to play, emails continued to pile up and there are several television shows on your DVR that demand to be watched. There are other appealing options such as day drinking, inviting a friend for lunch, and the ever popular going back to bed. Yet, you say to yourself, “This is my sacred writing time. I must work on this manuscript (or grant proposal or book chapter or report). Come on words. Start flowing.” But nothing happens. Dominating your thoughts are increasing frustration, questioning your career choices, and worrying that you will never ever be able to write another word again. These are the basics of writer’s block. Sometimes you have time, ideas, motivation, and deadlines; but you just are not in the mood to work.
First, the basics. Prevention is one of the best ways to prevent holes in productivity during inevitable ebb times. Developing a habit of writing every single day creates a situation analogous to building muscle memory. So even on days that you do not feel like writing, it is still automatic to sit down at the computer and begin work. On the worst days words will begin to flow so that some semblance of productivity can be achieved. Yet, most scholars have so many activities such as meetings, administration, teaching, supervision of students, grading, budget preparation, and other professional obligations that developing a daily writing habit can be challenging. This uneven schedule puts an enormous amount of pressure to produce during those precious time periods protected and set aside for written productivity. For me, I write every day even if I can only fit 20 minutes into my schedule and produce 100 words. It keeps the habit going and words flowing.
Second, identification of the exact nature of the problem is the most important step of any problem-solving process. Putting off writing to address pressing unmet basic needs such as sleep, food, exercise, time with friends and loved ones, and other acute self-care activities is often a quality investment that will lead to improved long-term writing productivity. So do it. Moreover, there must be the self-awareness to determine if the problem is burnout or depression. These are extremely serious situations that often require significant external supports from professionals and should not be underestimated, ignored, or simply worked through. Unless burnout and depression are successfully addressed there are short and long-term career consequences; and far more importantly major ramifications for health and quality of life. Identifying other internal short-term states that take away motivation such as waves of anxiety, situational stress, unresolved conflicts, self-doubt and many other factors also interfere and need to be addressed. Once you have ruled out or addressed all of these potentially severe causes of not wanting to work, there remain some times when you just don’t feel like it.
Third, you may not be in the mood to write because deep down you know that your project is not a good one. All scientist and writers tend to be self delusional to some degree. We frequently talk ourselves into believing that our mediocre ideas are valuable ideas. Having a discussion with an honest and forthright co-author, colleague, or other knowledgeable and supportive person might help you to reconsider and revise the outline or thesis of your paper. Sometimes not being in the mood is an excellent indicator that your thinking needs to change. Easy writing usually equals high-quality thinking (or, cynically, your level of self-delusion is extraordinarily high).
Most serious writers have rituals. My preference is for the least restrictive environment. This means I simply walk up to my computer and get to it. My only slightly unusual habits are that about 75% of my writing time is at a standing desk. I use the Pomodoro system where I work as hard as I can for 25 minutes and take an enforced five-minute break no matter where I am in the writing process. This allows me to be fresh and sharp for an entire day without working to exhaustion. Frequently, I use dictation software when I am tired of being at the keyboard. Dictation software has the advantage of speed (140 wpm dictation v. 55 wpm typing), posture (I frequently dictate with my eyes closed while lying on the couch and scratching my dog), and sometimes changing up the mode of written output can be a refreshing change. When the words are still not flowing at all I have a several part ritual: 1) turn off the Wi-Fi radio [no Internet] on my computer; 2) put earphones on and listen to a metronome that is timed to my resting heartbeat [about 52 bpm]; and 3) dim or turn off the lights. These activities allow for overcoming difficulties with focus. But sometimes the problems are not about the focus, they are about avoiding aversive and difficult work.
Sometimes you don’t feel like writing because the project is especially difficult or challenging. I write all manuscripts and grants from a prepared outline with completed tables and figures. Usually this gives me a structure to write the prose in at least a semi-organized fashion during the first draft. Because of the advanced organization of the outline and detailed preliminary thinking about the paper, once I write the first word usually everything begins to flow. When it does not flow, then I go through the outline and write the topic sentence for every paragraph within each section. The next step is to write the closing sentence for each paragraph. Then supporting details can be filled in. This process is laborious and much more like unskilled labour than scientific communication or creative writing. As Henry Miller said, “On the days that you cannot create, you can work.”
Most typically I write using the ubiquitous word processing program, Word. But when I have an especially long, challenging to organize, or difficult project; or the words are simply not coming at all, I use the Scrivener program. This program has an especially easy to use corkboard function where you can move paragraphs and topics around in an intuitive manner. This replaces the less efficient note card approach. There is also an excellent outlining system that can be quite effective. When things are really difficult I switch to the full-page view that I have set up with a black background with blue lettering. Sometimes such a jarring change of perspective can loosen some creative juices.
Most experienced academics are experienced writers, if not born writers. True writers can’t not write. They are called to write as if it is an addiction and even when they are not in the mood. Most graduate students have yet to be afflicted with this addiction. Many scientists eschew writing as much as possible and delegate the tasks to science writers or graduate students. Personally, I enjoy and cultivate this addiction. My retirement goal is to become an unsuccessful novelist and garlic farmer. Despite my addiction and retirement plans there are still days that I just don’t want to write. It may be laziness. It may be Netflix calling. But I will buckle down and try to reestablish equilibrium in my role as a scholar.
Or I could work on my blog.
S. R. Shaw
How Not to Suck at Meeting with Your Supervisor
February 28, 2015
There is wide variability in how supervisors meet with their graduate students. Some see each other every day and are otherwise continuously available. Others see their supervisor at the beginning of the academic year and say, “Good luck and God bless. I will see you at the end of the term.” Somewhere in the middle are the regular or semi-regular meetings. So how should this time be used? And how can you make the most of the precious time that you have with your supervisor?
Regular meetings with your supervisor reduce the drama in graduate school. There is a time and place for drama, but progress through graduate school is neither. Goals, timelines, frequent assessment of progress toward goals, taking advantage of teachable moments, and allowing students increasing independence and responsibility are all positive aspects of supervisions. Clear expectations, deadlines, with some how-to liberally sprinkled about lead to a no drama (or minimal drama) graduate experience.
Unless your supervisor has really given a lot of thought to supervision, then their supervision style is likely a bit chaotic. Not neglectful, but simply something that occurs in fits and starts ranging from sharing brilliant insights to total forgetfulness of your existence. As such, it is up to the students to add a bit of structure to supervision without rocking the supervisor boat. Here are some tips:
1. Have regularly scheduled meetings. They could be daily or monthly. But make them regular. I meet with each student in my lab individually for 30 minutes per week. Sending your supervisor a reminder note the day before is never a bad idea.
2. Just like students do not need drama, neither do the supervisors. Make sure they have a heads up before you drop really big questions on them. Academics like surprise less than sleepy cats, so some foreshadowing before big questions please (e.g., What if I want to change my thesis research to something entirely different?). If your topics require that the supervisor prepare for the meeting, then send these topics and questions to the supervisor in advance.
3. Come prepared with a list of topics and specific questions for discussion. The rule for face-to-face meetings is that news or a simple Q&A can be transmitted through e-mail/text; but topics that require discussion, debate, and consensus building are for meetings. So make sure that your topics are such that a face-to-face meeting is required. Usually the act of preparing such a list is extremely helpful in articulating your needs and clarifying your own thinking.
4. I always like a little chit chat to start a meeting. Not everyone does. I want to get a sense that students are in good physical and mental health, and are generally available to get work done. Any big events in their lives that might be stressors are good to know. Sometimes work is just not the most important thing.
5. Always review important events in your timeline. For example, “Chapter one is due in three weeks. I am on pace to meet that deadline and will have a draft to you on time.” Or “This chapter is taking longer than I thought it would. I will have it finished in four weeks.” Excuses, no matter how good are not productive to discuss. I care about the student, but do not care about the excuse. FYI—there is no difference between an excuse and a reason. What I want to hear is: there is a problem, the student has developed an alternative approach that reduces the impact of the problem, and the student checks to see if their solution is satisfactory. I also do not really care that you tried really hard. Just say that you do not know how to do something and you require knowledge or skills on how to complete a task. My fault for not providing appropriate support. Science is a results-driven business. And do not apologize. I am not personally offended or usually harmed if things do not go well. Stuff happens: the original deadlines were unrealistic, the student did not have the requisite skills, some unexpected event occurred that interfered with task completion, or something else. The problems are rarely totally the student’s fault. My major concern is: how can we overcome the problems and get back on the timeline?
6. Listen and take notes. Thinking, “I don’t need to write this down, I will remember” is a recipe for disaster—or at least forgetting.
7. After the meeting send the supervisor an e-mail/text that summarizes the major points of the meeting. This serves many purposes. So you can ensure agreement on the results of the meeting. It is amazing how two people can be at the same meeting and draw very different conclusions. A reminder of the action plans and deadlines. Sometimes students say to me, “Don’t forget to do that thing that we talked about.” And I am totally clueless as I have forgotten. Or worse, “I don’t remember agreeing to do that.” The student can then say, check your e-mail of X date. I usually look for that e-mail, find it, and say, “Damn, I did agree to do that. Okay.” It just ensures that we are on the same page and creates strong accountability for both parties.
8. The final step in the meeting is to schedule the next meeting. If you have regularly scheduled meetings then a quick reminder of the day and time of the next meeting is adequate.
A good rule of meetings is that 40% of the purpose of the meeting is done before, 20% at the meeting, and 40% after the meeting. The act of preparing and reviewing the outcomes of meetings with the supervisor will go a long way in minimizing the big stressors and avoidable headaches of graduate school; and just as importantly, keep your relationship with your supervisor on a productive footing.
S. R. Shaw
How Not to Suck at Administrative Tasks
February 7, 2015
An underrated factor differentiating successful graduate students and academics from their less successful peers is completing mundane administrative tasks efficiently and on time. In my previous career as a school psychologist and later as the lead psychologist in a major hospital, completing administrative tasks was a challenge. By that, I mean that I sucked at these tasks. I struggled to complete psychological reports, expense requests, staff evaluations, billing activities, and budgetary plans on time, following appropriate procedures, and with high quality. When working in a school district I had more than a small reputation among the clerical staff as being an inept psychologist because I could never remember which forms needed to be signed in blue ink and which forms needed to be signed in black ink. Secretaries, administrative staff, and other support personnel frequently nagged me to correct errors, submit a late report, or remember a specific bureaucratic rule. (The movie Office Space hit too close to home: “There seems to be a problem with the new cover sheet on your TPS reports. Let me resend that memo.”) Administrative tasks were always the activities that I avoided and consistently gave the lowest priority. Intellectually, I knew that these administrative tasks were essential to the job. Correct and timely completion of administrative tasks leads to improved allocation of resources, operating funds, accreditation, and ultimately everything that allows for professional service delivery to our clientele. However, my disdain for administrative tasks had more than a small underpinning of arrogance. The implicit message was that I was a highly trained professional who is beneath small bureaucratic tasks—George Costanza’s “delicate genius.” Such an approach is clearly not productive and kind of the attitude of a jerk. I have since learned and matured to the point that I understand that administrative tasks are essential to any job and must be completed efficiently and accurately.
As I made the transition from clinician to university professor, I quickly learned how much I relied on my secretary (I still miss Patti a lot). I honestly did not know that the university departmental secretary was not available to manage my schedule, edit correspondence, make phone calls on my behalf, and remind me to complete the administrative tasks that were part of my job. Fortunately, the department secretary laughed, took pity on me, and sat me down to explain the situation. And graduate students are also not available for these tasks unless I explicitly pay them to do so, which is not a good use of their time. Equally as quickly, I learned that there were many administrative tasks that professors are required to complete. Grading, evaluating teaching assistants, grant budgets, expense reports, and many other tasks are essential, can interfere with research productivity and teaching, and frequently are put at the lowest priority of the to-do list.
The first things that I needed to learn in order to get administrative tasks under control, rather than them controlling me, were to become good at these tasks and what can be best delegated. When there is a major task on the horizon I still sit down with our department secretary or other knowledgeable administrator to discuss the goals, details, timelines, and exactly what my role is in the completion of these administrative tasks. Clarify the parameters of the task. Then I set out to complete my duties. The only thing worse than administrative tasks is to spend hours on such tasks only to learn that you have completed the wrong forms, used the wrong ink, or made significant errors. I am still not especially excited about the tasks. Yet, I understand that they are important and that the best way to minimize the time and energy spent on such task is to become a master of these tasks.
As someone who has often shunned or ignored administrative tasks I have grudgingly learned that the key is to be early, rapid, and efficient. Submit forms and reports as early as possible. Seek advice and delegate when possible. Consider that every moment spent on fairly dull and tedious administrative tasks increases the likelihood that you will not be interrupted or disturbed when you need to spend time on tasks that are most important to you. Therefore, students and professors benefit from mastery of all of the rules, details, and bylaws that govern their functioning. Once you have mastery of these administrative rules, then you can develop efficient methods of meeting your requirements. Administrative tasks are the grease that makes all systems run efficiently. All successful in academics have spent significant time plowing through tasks considered to be mundane, bureaucratic, and clerical. Do it well, do it efficiently, and the time for your priorities and goals will be best protected.
As my ability and willingness to undertake administrative tasks improved, the opposite problem began to arise. Manuscripts, book chapters, and grant proposals were delayed and otherwise put off because I was engaged in the completion of administrative tasks. The routine nature of these tasks makes them relatively easy. Moreover, there is immediate positive feedback from secretaries, committee chairs, administrators, and editors; whereas manuscripts are projects with long-delayed and uncertain feedback. In this case, urgent but not necessarily important administrative tasks served as a convenient avenue for procrastination. These administrative tasks needed to be completed, but can certainly wait. And yet I allowed them to cut into my writing time. When most people talk about being busy, they are probably conscientiously completing urgent, but not important, administrative tasks (e.g., e-mail backlog). As most academics know, these tasks add up and can quickly fill up each day, every day. Over-reliance on the completion of administrative tasks gives the impression that you are continuously and chronically busy. But at the end of the day there is little to show for it in the areas of research productivity or teaching.
As in most things, setting priorities and goals is a key. At the beginning of each week and at the beginning of each day I set priorities as to the most important task of the week or task of the day. Therefore, I have goals concerning what I want to accomplish and how I will spend most of my time. Concerning administrative tasks, my primary goal is to ensure that I am not interrupted in working toward my priorities and goals. Thus, I attempt to avoid situations where I force payroll, administrative support services, funding agencies, or colleagues to nag me over completion of an overdue administrative task. This is my primary motivation for administrative tasks: not to be interrupted or disturbed in my effort to achieve my priorities and goals.
Priorities and goals are reflected in how one spends time. My default is to allocate 10% of the work week for conducting and maintaining administrative tasks. Usually this means that I spend four hours per week on some aspect of routine administration. Even in weeks where there are no apparent tasks to complete (rare, now that I am a program director), I still find it productive to update my CV, check grant budgets, complete research ethics reports, ensure student grades are accurate, and develop agreement forms for research partners. These preemptive tasks are helpful in organizing information so that when large tasks are due, they are not quite as onerous. In addition, extra time is allocated for end-of-term tasks such as grading, grant proposals, student evaluations, and other issues that arise regularly throughout the academic year. Very large administrative tasks will require more time and need to be planned well in advance so that other priorities and goals can also be achieved. Some very large administrative tasks include program accreditation, review of applications for admissions to graduate school, and financial audits of expenditures. The primary point is that administrative tasks are important and require planned time and effort; yet cannot be allowed to take over your calendar to the point that your priorities and goals are overwhelmed.
There is no doubt that I still struggle to complete administrative tasks. My cluttered desk, a variety of projects, and a stack of expenses to be submitted are evidence of the struggle. Yet, I work hard to ensure that my challenges as a bureaucrat do not interfere with my priorities and goals as a teacher, researcher, supervisor, and program director. Administration has its place. I no longer avoid the completion of these tasks, nor do I use these tasks to procrastinate when other work becomes difficult. It still is not fun and I envy the bureaucracy savants. But there are times carved into my calendar to ensure that these tedious and essential tasks are completed efficiently and on time.
S. R. Shaw
How Not to Suck at Setting Anual Goals
December 31, 2014
I was inspired by @lauracshum’s blog post on her annual goals for 2015 (http://shumstuff.blogspot.ca/2014/12/goals-for-2015.html). Her organization and the ambition of her goals are fun to read and will certainly be helpful for her.
This inspiration led me to think about how best to use annual goals. Most people who know me, know that I have about zero ambition. I truly enjoy the process of work and whatever results from that work is fine with me. Things generally work out when I put the work in. Being rich, famous, having a good reputation, or some other professional destination do not seem like worthwhile goals—too dependent on the perceptions of others. But goals are useful in deciding what activities I want to spend my time on. Saying “no” is only useful if you have a strong “yes” in mind (I think that is a Stephen Covey phrase, but am too lazy to look it up). My “yes” will be focused on achieving these goals. I should say “no” to all requests that do not help me to achieve these goals. So goals help with the development of time management decisions.
I am also a fan of SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. Goals also serve to keep one accountable. And because I am posting these goals—publicly accountable. There are so many things I want to do or think that I should do, but these all seem challenging and reasonable. Borrowing liberally from Laura’s organization, here are my 2015 goals:
• Lead the School/Applied Child Psychology program at McGill University to CPA accreditation in 2015
• Increase the applicant pool to our program to over 125 applicants in 2016
• Build a stronger level of community support for the program by involving alumni, community leaders, sessional instructors, and field supervisors in the development of the direction of the program
• Reduce the turn-around time for manuscripts to School Psychology Forum (http://www.nasponline.org/publications/spf/edboard.aspx) to a median time of less than 35 days. FYI--I am the editor of this journal.
• Increase outreach and strategic placement of School Psychology Forum
• Do one extra activity, idea, or task for every class session, lab meeting, or supervision session
• Submit more than 8 manuscripts to refereed professional journals in 2015
• Complete the first draft of the book “Children with Genetic Disorders at School: Translating Research into Practice” with Prof. Ania Jankowska for Springer
• Submit 3 proposals for external funding
• Continue outreach efforts to expand data collection throughout North American schools.
• Develop remote data collection capacity
• Have a successful Spartan Race run in May 2015
• Consistent 5 day per week workout schedule
• Consistent 6 day per week healthful eating schedule
• Be under 15% body fat by year’s end
• Average 7 hours of sleep per night
• Teach Indie (our dog) a new trick every month
• Completely unrushed time holding my wife every day
• Appreciate and support the wonderful adult that daughter #1 has become (and tell her)
• Make sure that daughter #2 knows how impressed and proud I am at how she is negotiating a challenging adolescence—and provide all of the supports that she needs
• Get and engage in a hobby (considering renewing my knife throwing activities and/or start writing a novel) weekly. FYI—drinking fine wines and cocktails really should not a hobby
• Socialize with non-academic friends at least once per month
• Be present
We will see how I did next December.
S. R. Shaw
How Not to Suck at Co-authorship
December 30, 2014
Among the most common sources of conflict between supervisors and graduate students involve credit for authorship in scholarly papers. Although most professions have formal guidelines concerning the ethics of authorship and order of authorship, it is fairly rare for supervisors and students to read these ethical practices. Read your professional guidelines for authorship or read these solid papers: http://www.apa.org/science/leadership/students/authorship-paper.pdf and http://www.apa.org/research/responsible/reflections-authorship.pdf. At McGill University we have an excellent website devoted to issues in graduate level supervision. However, I am not sure how many supervisors or students read and follow the suggestions (https://www.mcgill.ca/gradsupervision/supervisors/roles-and-responsibilities/expectations). Most commonly, students are left to negotiate issues of co-authorship with their supervisors. Yet, the primary problems are that students do not know what is reasonable, have little leverage in negotiation, and are not clear as to the expectations of authorship.
The culture of the University and scientific field sets the context for graduate student authorship. For example, it was once extremely common for university professors to receive university credit for publication only if they were the first author or sole author of a published paper. In these cultures, graduate students rarely received appropriate credit for their work or were completely shut out of any authorship. Fortunately, most universities value student authorship and professors receive significant benefits from having students as first authors and co-authors. Most supervisors behave in the way that they were trained. As such, some supervisors have been trained in this old-fashioned model and make it extremely difficult for students to receive co-authorship. Also, different fields of study have different norms concerning authorship. For example, papers in medical journals are generous with authorship. It is not uncommon to find papers with 15 or 20 co-authors. This is in contrast to the humanities, where single-author publications are often the norm. Although there may be general professional guidelines for what constitutes authorship understanding the philosophy of the University, training and philosophy of the supervisor, and culture of the field of study are critical contexts for graduate student authorship.
What Typically Constitutes Co-authorship
I have a research lab in the field of school psychology. Most of my students plan on going into clinical practice after graduation. As such the motivation for most of my students is to become competitive for national and provincial fellowships and bursaries. Career prospects are more dependent on their clinical skills than their publication record. This culture makes for far less competitive attitudes toward publication and students are much less stressed in my lab than in other fields of study. Because I have a large number of graduate and undergraduate students in my lab, it is easiest to have general rules of what constitutes co-authorship.
• Authorship is earned by anyone who makes substantive contributions to the product.
• Data entry, line editing of manuscript, statistical analysis, brainstorming of initial ideas, data entry, and locating research to be cited do not necessarily constitute a substantive contribution.
• Substantive contributions involve design of the project and writing of the manuscript.
• Authorship and order of authorship are negotiated before the project is begun.
• Renegotiation of order of authorship can be initiated by any contributor of the project at any time. A consensus among all co-authors will be attempted before any change of order of authorship can take place. The most common situation is that someone who has planned to have a small role turns out to a larger role in the project and I recommend that that person moved to a higher level of authorship. And in these cases, consultation and consensus building with other authors is sought.
• Authorship and order of authorship are not dependent on seniority or status. Undergraduates, new graduate students, or collaborators external to the University are equal. The exception is that as lab director, my default order of authorship will be to serve as the last author.
This is a fairly new approach in my lab. Most of my previous work was with medical professionals from outside of the University. I am now in the process of developing a self-contained lab culture within McGill and within my lab. So far, so good. However, I may need to revisit this topic when flaws in the system are uncovered.
There are generally four types of projects in my lab. The first type is a Masters or doctoral thesis. For this type of project one student conducts and carries out all of the substantive work. However, they may receive administrative or other logistical support. The expectation is that any published manuscripts derived from the theses will have the student as first author and lab director as second author. The second type is an invited or theoretical paper. These are projects in which I take initiative and do most of the substantive writing and organization. I may invite students to make contributions or assist as second or third author. The third type is a substantive literature review. We tend to write one or two papers of this type each year. Although such papers are difficult to write and organize, they are good opportunities for new students to learn the literature extremely well and make an early and substantive contribution. Typically, a senior level student runs this project, is expected to be first author, selects and manages a team of co-authors, and negotiates roles and expectations with each member of the team. These papers often have four or five co-authors. The fourth type of paper are the single-study projects. These papers are typically the easiest to write. Like in the literature review paper, one student is designated as the lead student who selects the team for that project. We tend to have small group paper team meetings. This is where the 2 to 5 co-authors meet weekly to discuss progress and make plans for the next stage.
Becoming a Co-author
New graduate students know that authoring papers that are published in refereed scientific journals or presented at professional conferences is the currency that will make them competitive for fellowships, internships, postdocs, and desirable academic jobs. I have had many students approach me or an advanced graduate student and say, “Do you have any papers that I can be a co-author on?” This is not an effective method of entrée into co-authorship. Two better ways to become a co-author on a paper are to say, “I have an idea for a paper and would like to talk it through with you.” Or “I see that the lab has a paper in progress and I believe I can make the following contributions to that paper.” Initiative, preparation, and the presentation of new ideas communicate that the student is prepared to make a substantive contribution that is worthy of authorship. Earn it.
Revisions and Journal Communications
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of publishing scientific papers for graduate students is communication with journal editors. Most submitted papers receive a final decision of accept with major revisions or reject and resubmit. Both outcomes require a detailed, point-by-point description of how the revised manuscript meets the specific concerns of the editor and reviewers. This is a task that requires experience. There are cases where writing the letter to the editor is my primary contribution to the published paper. Communicating with journal editors may be the task in which I work most closely with students. We often sit side-by-side as this letter is discussed, planned, and composed. This task seems to be a rite of passage for students in my lab. When a student receives an editorial decision and says to me, “I’ve got this.” And I say, “Yes, you can do this on your own.” Then that student is ready to graduate and engage in independent research.
I have written in previous blogs about the importance of interviewing and understanding how supervisors work before entering a graduate program agreeing to a supervisory relaitonship with a professor. I still think that the biggest mistake that many students make is selecting a supervisor based on a shared content area of interest. Although content is important, supervision style and match with student needs is even more important. Students need to research to determine how many of a professor’s publications have student co-authors and how many students have first authored publications. Moreover, professors should be asked about the expectations and supervisor support for publications. Some supervisors work closely with students, meet weekly, and are actively involved in every aspect of data collection and writing. Other supervisors may meet with students as little as twice per year. The expectation is that students will figure out how to conduct research on their own when given maximum independence and freedom to succeed. Students should know what they are getting into. A list of yearly expectations developed between student and supervisor in September is extremely valuable and is required by most universities. Revisiting these goals and evaluating the success in meeting the goals at year end is equally as important.
Quality of Work
We talk a lot about writing in the lab. Helping students to revise and improve their writing is a part of this process. I expect their work to show care, professionalism, and expertise. But I do not expect the work to be perfect. I refer to any project as the project or the paper, not your project or your paper. Keeping a distance between the work and the person takes practice. But I want the students to be open contributors to a paper and not paralyzed by perfectionism, ownership, and criticism. Students know that a heavily marked up paper is a good sign—it means I was engaged enough to meticulously consider every word. A bad sign is that the first three pages are heavily marked up, but later pages receive few marks. That usually means that I got bored. If each draft is better and more clear than the last, then I am happy with the progress of the work of my co-authors.
Conflicts and Problems
I am not a fan of drama in research. Life is too short for avoidable drama, stress, and strain. Projects are planned out so that we meet deadlines without having to do all-nighters. Cooperation rather than competition is stressed. Authorship is negotiated in advance and everyone knows what role they have to play in order to earn their authorship. The intent is that preparation, planning, and a culture of open communication will head off any conflict. However, conflict still occurs. Most conflicts occur within a project team. There is a perception that one member is missing deadlines, doing poor quality work, or trying to have other people do their work for them. I hope I have made it clear that letting down your team is among the worst offenses possible in my lab. I have had a student resign from a project because they did not feel they could meet the demands. I appreciated that sentiment. And that student went on to be successful on other projects. However, I have had students who simply did not reach the levels of work quality expected, had interpersonal problems with other members of the lab, or believe that their work merited first authorship. Meeting surrounding these problems are private. We attempt to renegotiate expectations and develop a plan for remediation. That plan is also sent to students via e-mail to provide clarity, mutual agreement, and create a paper trail. Sometimes students are asked to seek a different supervisor and other times students choose to leave voluntarily.
Students are encouraged to be open as to their limitations of time and energy. I do not mind when a student requests to renegotiate a deadline due to a conflict with exams, conferences, exhaustion, or other issues. I also encourage students to seek help or renegotiate when a task proves to be beyond their current levels of expertise (usually because such situations are due to my error). Stress and anxiety are also common for graduate students. Some students receive reduced research expectations if we agree that too many research projects may be overwhelming. Recall that I am in an accredited school psychology program with a large student class load, and field and clinical practica experiences, in addition to research. As such allowances are made for the time demands of their program.
Co-authorship does not have to be difficult. Problems are almost always due to conflicting needs and misunderstandings. Keeping students from earned co-authorship due to massive ego, power issues, or control is simply evidence of unethical and poor supervisory practices. Some old school professors have been socialized along these lines. Trying to force a professor socialized in these practices to comply with the ethics in university policies concerning co-authorship is unlikely to be resolved in a positive way for the student or the supervisor. Receiving co-authorship on a scientific paper does wonders for the confidence and careers of students. Witnessing and contributing to student success is one of the best parts of being a supervisor.
S. R. Shaw
How Not to Suck at Being a Male Supervisor of Female Students
November 27, 2014
Often I make recommendations for graduate students or supervisors. This entry is about sharing problems that do not have a one-size-fits-all solution. As always, I am not an expert and clearly do not have everything figured out. There are errors, failures, and horrible decisions on my part. Hopefully, these stories will be helpful for others.
One of the many benefits that I have received from being a scholar on Twitter is that I follow a large number of female scholars and experts in feminist theory. This has been an eye-opening experience. I have been made aware of the challenges that female scholars face. I am more than a little embarrassed that I had no idea that female scholars routinely face harassment, lack of earned respect, intimidation, hostile environments, threats, and even physical dangers. As an academic, we are diminished by losing such intellectual talent to this environment. As a human, we are just diminished.
Many of my role models are female scholars such as Nadine Lambert at UC-Berkeley, Marta Bogdanowicz of University of Gdansk, and Brenda Milner of McGill University. I am in a field that is mostly female in clinical practice and increasingly female in academia. We are fortunate to have many female leaders and a strong culture of outstanding and respected female scholars. Although admittedly naïve, I understand that my female students face challenges and risks that male students do not; moreover, they may also face disadvantages because they have a male supervisor.
There are some basics that have nothing to do with gender. I have a general philosophy to hold people to high expectations, give support, and treat everyone with respect. Independent, initiating, and strong people tend to have better outcomes. All students have different goals and I negotiate expectations to meet our mutual needs. If they are not meeting agreed upon milestones, then there is private remediating and renegotiation of goals, establishment of a paper trail of efforts to fix problems, and possible dismissal from my supervision for those not responding.
The culture of the lab is that students work together in a supportive environment. Senior students are expected to model appropriate behaviours and mentor the newer lab members. I often ask for student feedback and input into who to accept into the lab. Empowering students to make decisions helps to create leadership, ownership, and a productive work environment.
There are some issues that are explicitly related to being a male supervisor of female students. For example, some supervisors are extremely close and are even personal friends with their students—especially same sex students and supervisors. I feel that I can never do that with my students. I am not sure that developing such close personal relationships with students is a good idea in any case. Nonetheless, I tend to be friendly, but distant from my students. It is rare for me to have lunch with a student, I do not go drinking with them, and we rarely get together when at the same conferences—unless we have shared professional duties. I like these people. Under different circumstances we could be friends. I am not worried that anything inappropriate would happen; yet heteronormative assumptions are strong and suspicions of male mentors and female students are commonplace. However, avoiding the perception of favour toward a specific student or the slightest suspicion that there is a personal relationship that goes beyond the professional will hurt the reputation of that student and the dynamic of the lab. This distance cannot be only for female students. I keep the same distance from male students as well. It does not seem right to be distant from female students and go out drinking or watching sports with male students.
An unfortunate occurrence is when female students have learned that their best method of working with a male supervisor is via flirtation. This has happened with me on three occasions that I perceived. I never had a thought that this flirtatious behaviour was directed at me or constituted a sexual invitation. These students have simply learned that they can curry favour, reduce expectations and workload, or gain some other advantage when working directly with males who are in a supervisory role. It is too bad that there is a culture in place that taught these students that flirtation is an effective set of behaviours. These students are extremely smart, so clearly this strategy must be effective. I even doubt that they are consciously aware of how their behaviour is perceived. At first, I attempted to protect myself. I never met with these students with my office door closed, kept a physical distance, and avoided these students when possible. Because I am mentoring future professionals, this form of self-protection was irresponsible and maladaptive on my part. We now discuss professional dress and body language when required. Touching hair, excessive laughing, too close of a personal space for the culture, touching the person with whom you are speaking, and revealing dress are not the behaviours of professionals. Good listening skills, appropriate friendliness, and developing a repertoire of productive non-verbal behaviours are the goals. So long as there is no question in anyone’s mind that my sole goal is to improve the professionalism of my students, these approaches are successful in assisting the supervisory relationship to return to equilibrium.
A major fear for me as I moved from clinical work to academic work is that I did not want to become a clichéd creepy middle-aged professor or be perceived as such. I am aware that Just to bring up the topic is a bit creepy. I know four male professors who routinely sleep with their students. They often move from one university to another and are widely acknowledged to be toxic and destructive. That is a level of creepy that I cannot comprehend. I know most of my students would lose respect for me and leave my supervision. Even away from campus, I know many middle-aged professors who troll professional conferences for grad students. I do not typically judge. I know many married people who have same-time-next-year relationships at conferences and that works for them. Hooking up with a younger person is also generally fine, but students are different and I get judgey as hell. The power differential between professors and students is so large as to make these hook-ups seem predatory and generally icky (and many times just pathetic). Being at a conference and out of town are not excuses to engage in unprofessional behaviors that are often destructive for students. My students are adults and do not require a protector or big brother, but we have open discussions about professionalism and reputation management in supervision and at conferences.
My goal is to have open communication with students. I would like them to feel as comfortable as possible to let me know when my behaviour is not appropriate. Most are and some are not at that level of comfort with me. Yes, they have told me that a joke was not appropriate (once) or I should not have written something on Twitter (a few times). The intended atmosphere is that students are free to criticize me or make suggestions. These are not secret issues. We have open discussions about conference behaviour, when students feel that have been treated unfairly on campus or in field work, which aspects of the work environment make them less than fully comfortable, and any concerns about safety. Because I have a good sense that I am fairly naïve and a bit clueless (and am really trying to be smarter); open conversations on the topic of fairness, treatment, and issues in cross gender supervision are all on the table for discussions public and private.
For example, in a previous post on this blog I made a mindless and off-the-cuff comment about women in yoga pants. I received a couple of long comments from readers criticizing that sentence. I did not intend to offend, but I was upset that the comment overshadowed the point I was trying to make. That makes it poor writing, which is an egregious error. We discussed this among a couple of lab members. The consensus was that no one was personally offended, but it was a poorly chosen example. They teach and I will improve.
This is a pragmatic issue, not really a social justice issue. I am not nice. Yet, I know that I will consistently attract and retain the best and most diverse students because I listen to my students. The students in my lab will be more creative, hard working, motivated, and productive because they are valued. I will do my best to support students’ relationships, marriages, and families. I do not understand how a hostile or anti-woman environment makes for better science. This is a marathon and not a sprint. Students will have better long-term career outlooks when they are happy, fulfilled, and have balanced lives.
My primary goal is to support and sometimes push students to accomplish more than they ever thought they could possibly achieve. I am not sure how many opportunities and experiences my female students lose by having a male supervisor. I am not sure if they lose confidence or feel less valued or less supported than my male students. They know that I am a white guy who is privileged and somewhat out of touch; but I understand the responsibilities that accompany my role. The intent is that by having open discussions and keeping basic rules of interaction clear, that I am communicating that I respect and value all of my students. The labbies are wonderful in supporting me to become a better supervisor. The essence of mentorship is shared learning. Continuously seeking to improve, keeping a culture of student co-ownership, and willingness to listen and change are hopefully as important to the people in my lab as anything that our research creates, discovers, and uncovers.
S. R. Shaw
How Not to Suck at Finding a Match with a Supervisor (or PI)
November 2, 2014
As always, I acknowledge that there are many ways to find a good supervisor. The culture of matching with a supervisor also varies across fields of study and universities. However, these are my experiences and what I have learned in trying to find the best possible graduate student and supervisor match.
The quality of the relationship between student and supervisor is probably the best predictor of graduate school satisfaction and success. Therefore, the decision concerning matching with your supervisor is the most important graduate school decision that you make. The basics of finding a supervisor are fairly simple and well known: identify supervisors at the same time that you are exploring universities for graduate school; contact potential supervisors as soon as possible; determine the style of supervision that the potential supervisor uses; find out graduation and success rates of students working with this supervisor; interview current and past students who are or have worked with this supervisor; find out if most of the supervisor’s publications are with students and do students have the opportunity to be first authors on papers; and interview trusted people in the field. Obviously, there are the other criteria that are important as well such as, acceptance to the program and university, financial package, quality of life, mobility, and such. The biggest mistake that people make is that they pursue potential supervisors who study in a specific field of interest or are major leaders in the field. Although these are important factors, I would argue that matching supervision style and how the supervisor treats students is far more important.
The most valuable information that students can gather is from current and former students. Any potential supervisor should make current grad students and graduates available to be interviewed. Refusal to do so is a major red flag. Phrases such as task master, high expectations, demanding, and even slave driver are not really bad things. Harsh and extremely demanding supervisors are often most effective. Look for evidence of unavailability, unfairness, or general lack of respect for students. As a prospective student, how professors treat you in this interview process will tell you how they will function as a supervisor.
Anyone looking for a supervisor also must know their own needs. Do you need someone who is more nurturing and supportive? Someone who will leave you alone to do your work? Someone who makes frequent deadlines and continuous oversight? Do you want to be a member of a team or have a more individual relationship with your supervisor? The style that professors use to supervise students varies more than teaching quality, research productivity, and other more easily identifiable traits.
The other part of the equation concerns what potential supervisors are looking for in a graduate student. After all, a match must work for both parties. Again, I am only speaking for myself. The nature of McGill graduate programs is that we have an extensive system of fellowships at the provincial and national level. When students win these awards, then there is no pressure on the supervisor to provide grant or other funding. I look for people who have a record that makes them competitive for fellowships. I am also looking for folks who will produce and work well as a teammate. For me, the best method is to make a follow-up phone call to research supervisors and others who write letters of recommendation. Few people put their reservations to paper, but will discuss them with an interested colleague. The next method I use is to encourage prospective supervisees to talk with my current students, and then I ask my students what they think of the potential student. Students are honest. And they know that I trust and count on their opinion. Letting my students help to select their colleagues is a good way for me to find a solid match.
Although I supervise many students, I do not mentor all of them. Some students do their research and graduate, but I do not have a close personal relationship nor do I give a lot of career advice. That is fine. One cannot force a mentorship relationship upon students or supervisors. The best supervision situation is to have students who are protégés. They become trusted colleagues and research partners. It is with these students that we have the most productive and rewarding relationships. With these students I argue, share, create, and develop partnerships that will last for a long time. I look for students with potential to be protégés. Therefore, I am looking for leadership, initiative, work habits, toughness, confidence, drive, and energy. Passive students do not tend to work for me. In my lab, we have “stupid question time.” This is where students develop their most weird and assumption-challenging questions and comments. The expectation is that people will take chances, be creative, and trust their colleagues not to tease or mock out-of-the-box ideas. I want people who are creative thinkers, are always prepared, and can contribute to stupid question time. In addition, toughness and persistence are enormous factors. Few, if any, graduate students go through an entire graduate program without challenges or rough times. Is there any evidence that they have a drive to complete their goals and can overcome difficult situations? I do not want followers or minions. I want partners and butt kickers. Sometimes I think a student has potential to be a butt kicker, but they do not see it yet. Ultimately, my question is: what can this student bring to my lab? I look for skills or interests that will add to the lab, not duplicate what we already have. Diversity of ideas and background keep the ideas of the lab creative and dynamic. Any evidence of interpersonal problems, arrogance, potential divisiveness in the lab, or lack of work ethic will exclude the student from joining my lab and being under my supervision. Not everyone will be a protégé, yet I am always searching for people with potential to take on that role.
Finding a supervisor is a major life decision. There are so many stories of graduate supervisors abusing, neglecting, or otherwise providing poor supervision as to be cliché. Students can prevent some of these problems by vetting potential supervisors, knowing their own needs concerning supervision style, and determine if they have the skills and temperament to meet the needs of the supervisor in this essential partnership.
S. R. Shaw
Mindful Work Habits
September 12, 2014
There is much blogging and twitter discussion about the how students and faculty work. There seem to be a variety of styles, methods, and approaches to getting work done. Some are consistent with the way I work and others seem downright bizarre. I want to make the case for being mindful, flexible and open minded about the specific approach that students and scholars take to scheduling and work habits. You may think that you are a night owl or binge writer now, and those things might work for you now, but be open minded. Changes in your life and work may necessitate incorporating major new work habits.
Many students are binge writers. They do not write much, but simply listen and think for a long period of time. The ideas are allowed to percolate until they are fully brewed. Then they write for 18 to 24 hours consecutively. Jack Kerouac used to write this way with the help of Benzedrine. He is famous for having written nearly all of On the Road in 48 straight hours of writing. I would write this way in graduate school (with espresso, rather than Benzedrine). Deadlines? No problem. I can write 8,000-10,000 words in 24 hours without any problems at all. Maybe 8 to 12 hours of editing the following day and I can finish an article length paper in 2 days.
I also considered myself a night owl. The best time to write was midnight to 6am. The world was quiet and dark. This was the way for me; classes and meetings in the day and writing all night. My dissertation was written that way. I worked at my internship site from 7:00 to 6:00, ate dinner and wrote from 8:00-4:00.
But things change. Shockingly, I married the woman I was living with during those hectic times. And I got a job. And then kids. Quickly, I learned that binge writing is basically not compatible with marriage, family, sleep, health, and is otherwise not sustainable. Spending time with family and work demands large amounts of energy. The need for sleep catches up. With babies you learn to sleep whenever possible. At some point, I needed to change. And I changed to a quota method. In this approach, I set a daily quota of 500 to 1,000 words written per day. Usually, this writing was done before work or at lunch. I also learned that the more I read, the easier it was to write. Once I developed the habit and skills, my quota was 100 pages read 1,000 words written each day. BTW—email, tweets, lessons plans and such do not count. The quota works fairly well as a consistent and sustainable method of work. I learned to be an efficient writer using tools such as voice recognition software, standing desks, and even writing text on an iPhone when on a train or bus. I thought this would be my habit forever.
But things change. Shockingly, I am still married 23 years later. But the change is that I am getting a bit older and slower. I need to have at least 6 hours of sleep per night. Moreover, my work tends to be more delegated now. I have matured to the point where I trust my well-trained students to do some of the hard writing and do not need to do everything myself. Also, I now have the role as a graduate program director with significant administrative responsibilities. The quota system is difficult to maintain. I needed to switch to a modified Pomodoro system for writing and editing that focuses on timed segments. The Pomodoro system involves 25 minutes of timed and intensive work and 5 minutes of rest. I use this online timer, although I am sure there are many that are equally as good (www.online-stopwatch.com/pomodoro-timer/). My days are fully scheduled; including exercise, family time, cooking, and such. I now schedule 20 Pomodoros for writing per week. This time is spent writing new text or editing. I needed to learn the skills of popping into writing focus exactly when the writing segment begins. It may seem difficult, but with practice it is not too difficult. And writing segments are set like any other meeting. I may move these times around, but these are not free time slots that get cancelled. There is a lot of pressure off of me. Under the quota method there were days where I had written only 500 words and it was 11:00pm. Those late-night words were invariably terrible and a waste of time and sleep.
I learned my new system from my daughter, who is a time management wiz. I am also now an early morning person, who is awake at 5:00 or 5:30. I see from twitter that @raulpacheco and others use a similar system.
Below is my preliminary schedule for the fall 2014 term. Note that there is a lot of flexibility built in. There are always theses to be edited, journals to be read, and unexpected happenings and events. The main issue is to fiercely protect the 20 writing segments per week. If there is something that interferes with the 20 writing segments and a challenging deadline, then additional writing segments are added on weekends. Almost always, I will turn off the internet when in the writing segments. My first work of the day is a preview. This involves checking calendar, updating to do list, checking e-mail, and just making sure I know what the day brings. Best part about a train commute is I can do my preview, tweet silliness, and check the news. There is also a review at the end of the day. This involves consolidating notes from meetings, updating to do list, answering e-mails and preparing for the next day. I meet with each student under my supervision for 30 minutes per week to discuss research topics. One helpful tool I have just started using is to ask students to summarize and e-mail me a summary of the major points from all one-on-one meetings. This way, I remember what I am supposed to do, can ensure that my understanding and the student’s understanding of the meeting are the same, and have tangible information to use for student evaluation. On a last note, my calendar is publically available. This calendar is posted on my door and website. This makes me accountable for my work and whereabouts. Students also know when and how to contact me.
The theme here is to be mindful about the consequences of your scheduling and work habits on your life. Be willing to change well-practiced work habits and patterns. There are many ways to be efficient, productive, and balanced. You may need to learn new skills and work habits to maintain a well-balanced life. For my labbies, who are scared of the time commitments in the academic world, I will say that academics is far more flexible and family friendly than clinical practice. I am also a big fan of keeping perspective and priorities in order. I do not think it is odd to schedule family time, exercise or dog walking. Without such things in the schedule, they are taken for granted and sometimes forgotten. It is extremely rare for me to miss my children’s’ dentist appointments, school meetings, judo classes, or other events. I am not a fan of the “quality time” concept with family. Big fat hunks of quantity time work best for us. So this schedule is open to guilt-free change or cancellation if I am needed elsewhere. However you work, have a plan for maximum productivity and protection of your quality of life.
S. R. Shaw
The Productivity Robbing Myths of Grad School
August 11, 2014
I am not sure if there is a best way to be efficient and productive as there are many very different, but positive, ways to work. However, there are some common and universally terrible ways to work. Here are a few things that I hear students say with pride, when these are signs of an inefficient worker.
“I do my best work at the last minute. I thrive under pressure.”
--No. The first draft of everything is terrible, even for the best writer. You may be an extremely good binge writer, but I promise that the work will be better with another draft and some time to consider and change content. Plan your time well. The draft of any project should be completed three days to two weeks before it is due. The remainder of the time can be spent in the real work of writing: editing.
“I am not a detail person. I am an idea person.”
--Ideas that are well-researched, communicated in detail, completely thought out, and effectively implemented are useful. All others tend to be vague dreams that borderline on hallucinations. Everyone is a dreamer, but the truly useful person works hard and uses detail to convert dreams into reality.
“I am a perfectionist.”
--This is not a positive trait. Trying to pursue perfection is a useless activity that is harmful to well-being and productivity. Being conscientious, detail focused, and striving for excellence are laudable characteristics. Perfectionism is maladaptive.
When I hear people tell me that they are a perfectionist, I feel the need to assess further to determine if we simply are defining perfectionism differently or if their behavior is maladaptive. Usually people mean that they are detail focused and striving for excellence with undertones of anxiety. This is typically a good set of characteristics for grad students. But when they mention the need to be perfect, then we are into a zone where anxiety may be maladaptive. Seeking excellence is good. Seeking perfection is a neurotic waste of time.
“I edit while I write.”
--This is a guaranteed method of getting nothing finished or severely limiting your productivity. Get all of your ideas out on paper. Only edit when you have completed a document or at least a substantial portion. Editing while writing is slow, makes for choppy prose, reduced flow and creativity, and increases anxiety. People with this habit also tend to be perfectionists and have learned this habit while doing last minute work. Take the time to complete a full draft and then edit.
“I don’t want to show this to you until it is ready.”
--I understand this secrecy problem. Some supervisors are extremely judgmental and even hostile to unfinished work. Submitting any work is aversive under these conditions. The best approach is to have students submit work on a timed basis, even if it is raw. The difference between a professional and an amateur writer is deadlines. Working to a deadline is more important than achieving the mythic ideal paper. I also find that when students wait to submit their ideal paper that they are crushed when substantial revisions are to be made. The supervisor can make suggestions, edits, improve the paper and move on without judgment. The goal is to develop a relationship that produces a large amount of scholarly material in an efficient manner. Trust between a student and supervisor is the best way to make this happen. When the secrecy issue is fostered we are teaching grad students to be perfectionists and adding anxiety to their lives.
“I’m a multi-tasker.”
--You are not. You can only attend to one task at a time. Many folks have developed a sophisticated skill set where they actively shift attention from one task to another. You attend to the television for a few minutes and then back to your book—you cannot do both at the same time. That counts for radio or music as well. You can focus on music or focus on your work, not both. What we tend to do is shift attentional focus. If you are listening to music and you know what was playing and enjoyed it, then you are shifting focus. Once you are in an activity where you are shifting focus between two things, then your efficiency is being robbed. There is some evidence that music with a constant beat and no lyrics can actually aid in concentration and focus. Classical music is an example. When I am at my most scattered, I listen to a metronome to help with focus. But no one is truly multitasking, you are rapidly shifting attention and reducing efficiency. This is not necessarily bad, but inefficient and needs to be used sparingly.
My wife works from home with the TV on. She says that she likes the noise while she works. However, when I ask her what she is watching on television, she has no idea. She is certainly losing some focus, but not as much as she would if she was at all attending to the TV. I watch television while working only on weekends. I am mostly watching TV, but get a little work done at commercials. Not efficient and focused work, but better than nothing.
White noise can be a better idea than music or TV. White noise can be ideal for folks who like a level of sound to mask the often jarring ambient noise of your real environment such as construction, lawn maintenance, and loud neighbors. There are several white noise generators available online such as http://mynoise.net/NoiseMachines/whiteNoiseGenerator.php and http://simplynoise.com/ . One of my favorite websites and apps is http://www.coffitivity.com/. This site plays the ambient noise from a coffee shop. You can even select the type of coffee shop noise from “morning murmur” to “lunchtime lounge” to “university undertones.” This style of white noise is also helpful for the folks who actually prefer to do creative work in coffee shops, but cannot get there. I do not understand how people do this as my attention flits to the homeless guy, the hostile person in a long line, the woman who should not be wearing yoga pants, the woman who should never wear anything but yoga pants, and the sounds of coffee slurpers; nonetheless many people do their creative work in coffee shops. The white noise from coffitivity is associated with a place of creativity, which can put you in the mood to work. The secret of white noise is that there is no content in the noise to draw attention away from your work.
Once I learned the skill of unitasking, I became at least twice as efficient as before. Now I do one thing with full focus until completed and then turn my attention to the next task. Not only is my work completed at a faster pace as a unitasker; I enjoy movies, TV, and music much more. And as an extra bonus, there are not the nagging feelings of guilt that go along with such multitasking.
We all develop work habits and there are many ways to be a productive worker. But as grad students and professors have increased pressures to produce the limits of our work habits are often reached and exceeded. What worked as an undergrad no longer works and now falls under the heading of a maladaptive habit. There is a constant need to hone work habits and remove of the productivity robbing myths and habits from your work.
How Not to Suck at Speaking to Difficult Audiences
June 21, 2014
Once you develop the basics of speaking at professional conferences, you have built a sense of confidence. You have conducted a series of good to outstanding conference presentations and each presentation is better than the last. But then you apply your speaking skills to a new situation, new audience, or new environment and you bomb completely and totally. The audience is napping, updating Facebook status, yawning, having side conversations, or just leaving. Your confidence crashes. You used the same skills and techniques that proved successful in the past, but this time everything failed. What happened? Some examples of the scary and new types of talks that often provide speakers with challenges: symposia, professional development activities, long-form workshops (i.e., 6-8 hours), keynote addresses, guest lecturing in classes, and professional colloquia. Each of these scenarios present unique challenges.
The general idea is that you are trying to move your audience with your speaking skills from Point A to Point B. Conference presentations are easy because we know Point A, who the audience is and what they know; and we know that Point B, to communicate the findings of research. But to survive difficult talks you must make the effort to identify Point A and Point B. There are two major reasons why new situations often lead to failure even for competent and experienced speakers: audience is different (i.e., Point A) and the goals of the talk are different (i.e., Point B).
Audiences at conferences are usually in your sweet spot. They are professionals in your area who choose to attend your talk specifically because they share an interest. You already share a vocabulary, professional culture, and knowledge base. They are your people. Difficult audiences have little in common with you. As a school psychologist, I have spoken to audiences of teachers, nurses, physicians, medical residents, parents, social workers, and school principals. This is a matter of homework. What does each audience require. Where is their Point A? What is the current state of their knowledge in the subject area on which you will be speaking? What is their perceived need to know about what you will be speaking? How can we speak the same language and work toward a common goal? In consultation, this is referred to as “referent power.” That is, the power that you gain by sharing similar experiences and goals. Make explicit how your topic directly influences the day-to-day work of each audience. You need to investigate what types of talks that are common to the culture of the audience. For example, parents tend to like activities in workshops and do not sit well for long periods; but activities for medical residents are usually disasters. I ask the coordinator of the talks and often interview potential members of the audience on what they know related to your topic. Know where they are (Point A).
The second concern is the goal of the talk (Point B). Does the audience want to be inspired, informed, supported, influenced, surprised, entertained, or learn more about you? Do they want knowledge or to develop a specific skill? Unless you know the goal of the talk, it is difficult to meet the needs of the audience. I usually negotiate this and interview several potential audience members on this topic. If I cannot or do not want to take the group where they want to go, then I decline the opportunity to speak. Know where they want to go or where they are willing to go (Point B).
Some specific challenges:
Symposia—I hate symposia at conferences. The audiences are nearly the same as for conference presentations, so that is easy. Yet, usually each speaker has only 15 minutes (the most difficult length for any talk). The problem is that fellow speakers do not time their talks and always run over. The last speaker is left with 7 minutes and it creates a mess. You lose friends this way.
Professional Development Activities—Audiences usually want to gain practical skills rather than knowledge. The problem is that truly useful skills are extremely narrow in scope and often apply to only a small segment of the audience, leaving others to be bored. My strategy is to weave specific practical skills with bigger picture theories and ideas, then back to a new specific practical skills. So big picture and rationale, detailed and focus skill, back to big picture, then return to a slightly different detailed and focus skill development.
Long-form Workshops—These 6 to 8 hours talks are physically demanding. You need to stand, move, and constantly bring the energy for an entire day. These are my favorite kinds of talks. You need to have a tour de force of experiences, research results, specific practical skills, jokes, big picture ideas, and integrate the whole thing into a full day. You need to be entertaining and authoritative. They have to like you. These talks are also forgiving. I can go on a rant, anecdote, or tangent and still stay on time. I like audience members to interrupt with questions and comments. I can engage them at all times and ensure that I am meeting their needs. I use the same general strategy as for the professional development activities, but can cover many related concepts. I usually divide the day into 4 equal parts with a mid-morning break, lunch, and mid-afternoon break. As in all talks, never ever, ever run over time. You are taking the audience on a journey with you to get them to their Point B. The hardest part is continuously bringing the energy all day. Another thing is your voice. Make sure that you are physically able to speak for so long. I ask for a microphone for even the smallest rooms. I once took voice lessons to learn how to project and protect my voice.
Keynote Addresses—These are fun. 70% inspiration and 30% information. You usually only have time for one or two points. Usually you want to engage the audience on an emotional level first, but buttress your engagement with research. This is where poignant stories, humour, and anecdotes lead. You are usually there to empower and engage the audience and set the stage for an excellent conference or event.
Guest Lectures in Classes-The main thing here is that you want to be different from the regular course instructor. As an outsider, you are often being given the benefit of your expertise. So engage the class by actually spending time identifying the Point A of the classroom. This starts a brief discussion. Then you can go into your content. Remind the class that you will be giving your outline or slides to the regular instructor for use on exams.
Professional Colloquium—You are being judged. Being judged is the Point B. These are brutal. A group of professors in the same setting is a mine field of score settling, insecurity, and showing off. Whether you are an invited speaker or on a job interview, there are some key points that I use. You must be the alpha dog. They smell fear. I usually start with a warm smile, thanking everyone, making reference to my travel to the site or a meal I before the talk, and make a humorous comment or story. Then I launch into the most detailed and arcane aspect of my talk. Unlike other talks, you do not need to communicate content at first. You are communicating that you are the most knowledgeable person in the room in this area and don’t fuck with me. At least in this small component of science that you are presenting, you are the true expert. All with a smile, of course. Then you can relax and explain the arcane stuff in great and clear detail. If someone is a jerk and is openly hostile, then smile and say, “That is an interesting point. But here is why that is wrong (or irrelevant, dated thinking, or something like that)…” My job talk for my current job, I actually said, “If this was the 1980s you would be right, but much has changed over the last 30 years and here is the current thinking on that.” You put them down hard. Everyone in the room knows who the jerk is, so taking control will not hurt you. Challenging, but respectful questions need respectful answers. Student questions need to be treated with the most respect. Remember the most respectful thing that you can do is expand on someone’s questions and work it into your talk. If someone says something brilliant, insightful, or corrects an error, then say, “I love this idea. Can we talk afterward? I see potential collaboration.”
Speaking is so hard. You have to be an actor, entertainer, wit, truly organized, courageous, and be able to muster your knowledge automatically for rapid use. It just takes practice. The more you practice, the more confident you become. You cannot really conduct a good talk when anxious. Relax and bring the energy. You are doing the talk because someone thinks that you have expertise. But the biggest thing to remember is to identify Point A and Point B.
How Not to Suck at Graduate School Over the Summer
June 1, 2014
For most graduate students the summer brings a bit of a break. Summer classes rarely run from June 1st to August 31st. Even in a year-around lab, summer is the time when supervisors go on vacation, and some of those vacations are quite extended. When post-docs and other contracted students are to work full time, there are still two weeks vacation built in to these employment contracts. Summer is typically the time when there are few grant deadlines or proposal deadlines for conferences. There are also the fortunate few who actually have completely flexible time for 13 weeks over the summer. Nonetheless, how the summer is spent will go a long way toward determining how quickly and effectively you move toward achieving your degree and professional goals.
The key word describing the summer is investment. Even a short lull in summer represents a pause from constantly reacting to course assignments, research demands, proposal deadlines, unreasonable supervisor expectations, last minute requests, and other urgencies. Summer is the time to reflect thoughtfully on your needs and goals. This is when you invest time in the activities that you said you would do when you have time.
The first part of your investment plan is to conduct a self-assessment after the difficult academic year. Did you fall behind on your research? Are you so stressed that it is difficult to function? Does your relationship with family and significant other require mending or renewing? Has it been more than 6 weeks since you have socialized with friends? What activities can you achieve over the summer that will bring your graduate date closer? What is your financial state? What things do you want to do, but never had a chance do with your hectic schedule? What events are coming up in the fall that you can make easier by preparing in the summer? And many more. You need to have a firm grasp of your current status in order to know what the direction of your investment will be. In order to read any map or receive any directions, you need to identify exactly where you are.
Planning your summer allows for priorities and perspective. If you have a good summer, then these plans will probably change due to fun and interesting opportunities that arise. In the summer, your wellness goals can take a high priority. Exercise, catch up on sleep, improve diet, schedule e-mail free weeks, decompress from stress, read a novel, take a vacation can all be top priorities and great investments. The next parts to schedule are the events, specific programs, and research milestones required by your graduate program and supervisor. Remember that you can rarely count on faculty members to meet over the summer. And getting two or more faculty members together for a summer meeting is like herding cats. However, catch up and meet the required deadlines. The next component to plan is the preparation work required for fall. There are often grants due, conferences to prepare for, and data collection events that take place in the fall. What can you do over the summer to make fall deadlines a bit easier? Finally, plan to make gains. While we are all struggling to keep our head above water in the fall and spring, summer can be a chance to make real progress. This is the time to publish an extra paper, get an early start on a thesis, or begin preparation for comprehensive exams. Students who take the most initiative are noticed by faculty members and by fellowship and scholarship committees.
There is a sneaky part of summer that no one really tells you. That is, you do not need to work all that hard in order to make progress. Because there are fewer places that you must be and people are not around the office or lab as often, less time is spent commuting, attending classes, going to required meetings, and the like. Therefore, concentrated time can be spent pursuing summer goals. So putting in a six-hour day of work is a long day in the summertime. Every day that you do a little bit of work in the summer will save a lot of work in the fall.
I am not a graduate student and seem to have no need to take vacations. But here are my summer plans.
- Self-assessment: there is a massive backlog of manuscripts and a book to write and fall data collection projects to prepare. There is also a need to upgrade the graduate program handbook and website. The journal I edit could use a lot more attention. Recruiting outstanding students for 2015 needs to begin. I need to prepare my lab for a visiting professor, who is starting in the fall. Mental health status is good. I am excited and refreshed after a busy fall and spring. Physical health status is improved. I gained weight and stopped exercising when work became stressful (big mistake) and I experienced some injuries that slowed me down. Although I am in good health, it is time to regain fitness.
- Planning: Vacations are not something either my wife or I do well. But we are planning a few four-day weekends, several Saturday hikes in the mountains, and an APA conference/family trip to DC. Although always fair complected, my wife has commented that since we moved to Montreal, I have become positively glow-in-the-dark I am so white. So getting a little sun is also a priority.
- Typical work day:
6:00 Wake up and walk dog
6:30 Yoga and coffee
7:00 Write new material
11:00 Make late breakfast for family (we do intermittent fasting—it’s my wife’s thing)
12:00 Take a short run (4k-5k)with the dog
1:00 Administrative work and editorial work for journal
4:00 Answer e-mails, read novels, and goof off
6:00 Make dinner with family
7:00 More family time
10:00 Maybe (likely) an adult beverage to end the day
Not every day will be like this, but this will be the typical day for 6 days per week for the summer. It will be nice to wake up a little later than usual and make an effort to get to bed early. Mostly I am hoping to catch up on my research productivity, which was woeful this last year; and get my weight down quite a bit. Another good part about summer that is that there is no real stress when the typical day is disrupted. Friends and family will visit, we suddenly decide to catch a matinee and go out to lunch, or the weather will simply be too nice to work (in Montreal it is a sin to waste the few great weather days we have). That is okay. Follow the plans more days that not and you will be making an excellent investment in reducing graduate school stress, improving your productivity, and moving closer to graduation (with your health and sanity intact).
How not to suck at maintaining your health in graduate school: Stress Management
May 1, 2014
Blog plans: I will continue to write how not to suck at graduate school for my students and others who wish to follow and comment. In the fall, I will be starting a monthly content-based blog on the science of implementation of educational and psychological interventions. This blog will reflect the work and thinking from the Connection Lab at McGill University. My students will be making many of the contributions. The target audience for this new blog is teachers, school psychologists, educational administrators, and academics.
Note and Recommendation: My colleague and respected peer mentor, Professor Bruce Shore, has written an excellent book for all graduate students and academic supervisors entitled, The Graduate Advisor Handbook: A Student-Centered Approach. Professor Shore has won every award that McGill University has for teaching and supervision, in addition to being an outstanding scholar. Moreover, he is a good guy. But this book is useful and a must read for all supervisors (and their students). (http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-graduate-advisor-handbook-bruce-m-shore/1117106611?ean=9780226011783) If every graduate-level supervisor read and followed the ideas put forth in this book, then there would be no need for this blog.
STRESS!!! Everyone seems to talk about it all of the time. Stress and busy-ness seem to be a badge of honour for everyone in modern life. To some degree this is a humble-brag (i.e., I am so important that everyone wants me to do everything all of the time). For the most part, I have little patience for professionals who complain about stress and how busy they are. Say, “No” more often and appropriately, delegate effectively, have well-considered priorities and perspectives, self-advocate well; and these take care of most stress for many. These rather flip approaches are effective, but not realistic options for most of us. For example, parents, people with unreasonable bosses, jobs where there is little control—that is, nearly all of us. This is why graduate students inevitably experience uncomfortable levels of stress. They often have the worst of all worlds–high expectations, high volume of work, minimum control, and unclear criteria for success. Stress is inevitable and nearly impossible to avoid.
Graduate students have multiple bosses, who are ego-centric, capricious, and often have a different agenda than helping students cope. I admit to being part of the problem and tell all of my students, “My goal as a supervisor is to have you accomplish more than you think that you can. And it will be difficult.” I push students. I also say, “I love you guys, but I want you to leave. Let’s get you graduated.” Moreover, graduate students tend to be conscientious, ambitious, high achieving, people pleasing, driven, and intense. Add these ingredients to juggling financial concerns, attempting to maintain a social and family life, managing relationships with significant others, coping with physical and mental health issues, navigating university bureaucracy, addressing immigration and tax issues, striving to achieve personal goals and dreams, being resilient to failure experiences (often for the first time), and many more things. These ingredients are a perfect recipe for stress. Even if you are among the lucky few who can manage these stressors effectively, the volume of work and being constantly evaluated will likely cause increases in stress.
I honestly do not have answers. Frankly, I do not trust people who say that they have the answers. The factors leading to stress vary dramatically across students. Solutions also vary. Here are some ideas that I use that seem to work for me (and some that did not work for me). I am hoping that some of these ideas work for of you.
A major way to avoid big stress is to avoid poor short-term coping mechanisms. Stress in grad school made me want to escape. I had graduate school issues with alcohol and drug use, and some other high-risk behaviours. Those behaviours work well immediately. In the long-term these escape behaviours created far more stress than if I had simply stayed stressed. Escape can be fun and not a bad short-term coping mechanism, so long as the behaviours are healthful. Long-term coping with stress usually centres on the concept of control. Oddly, I believed that engaging in these unhealthful escape behaviours were about taking control of my graduate student life. In fact, these behaviours resulted in losing control and creating more stress. I did not have success in graduate school until I developed better coping mechanisms addressing stress that increased my control.
I learned to become a control freak. My day is scheduled to 15-minute chunks. Nearly all of my coping is centred around keeping to my schedule. As such, it is nearly impossible to contact me by phone, I check e-mails every 2 hours, tweet 4 times per day, and do not allow the opportunity for people to just drop in. I have office hours—so there is a planned time for people to drop in. I also teach anyone around me what the definition of “crisis” is. If you are bleeding, someone needs CPR, having an emotional breakdown, having a car breakdown; then I will drop everything and be there right now. But in the history of mankind there has never been a paperwork or signature crisis. Plan and schedule appropriately. I truly become stressed when the boss says, “Just drop by my office in the morning for a chat.” Or there is a meeting that we must schedule “tomorrow.” Or anything else that requires that I deviate from my agenda. My stress sky-rocketed this year as I became the graduate program director. On a weekly basis, I heard things like, “The budget was changed last night. We need to meet this afternoon to re-schedule all of the classes for fall.” Arghhh! I have learned to have a bit of flexibility in scheduling. I have time slots on my calendar for “unexpected events.”
The other aspect of being a control freak is that I must know what is expected of me. The tenure process made me physically ill with stress. The criteria are maddeningly vague. I never received a straight answer. I send my dossier to many people inside and outside of the university to ask if I had a chance to get tenure. They laughed and said, “Of course you will get tenure. Why are you even worried?” It did not matter. Without firm criteria for success, I could not control my anxiety. Given my experiences, which I know are not typical, here are a few tools to control stress:
- Make annual goals with your supervisor. Do this in the fall. Sit down and develop measurable and observable goals. Submit 3 refereed papers, Complete dissertation proposal, Average 20 hours per week in the lab are measurable and clear criteria for success. Improve clinical skills, write more papers, become a better teacher are not measurable. You can handle almost any volume of work, if you have time to plan and the criteria are clear.
- Take each goal and assess the resources required to complete this goal. Supervision, time, materials, personnel, and other needs can be analysed. Also develop a time line for completion of each goal.
- Assess your progress toward each goal each week. Revise the plan as needed, but do not go more than a week without evaluating progress.
- This same process can be used for classwork, field placements, internships and the like.
When you know exactly what you want to do and accomplish, then it is easier to say “no” to tasks that do not contribute to the short or long-term objectives that you have. This sounds psychotically controlling and a bit obsessive. I think that control reduces stress. The supervisor who says, “Let’s just see how things go” or “We will see what kind of projects pop up” might sound flexible; but vagueness equals stress or getting nothing completed. Yet, the second big part of establishing this style of control is that students know that they can renegotiate goals based on unpredictable stressors and events; or underestimating of the amount of time or resources required to achieve a project. You can have flexibility and control. My students know that if a new project that is not in their goals pops up, that they will have the choice to accept or decline this opportunity. We may need to rework the goals to fit this new project.
Once you have these timelines set out, then put tasks and steps in your calendar. Then add to your schedule time for:
- Free time
Yes, I said to schedule sleep. It is so stressful to need sleep, but feel guilty about going to bed. Sleep—you earned it. Also, I am not a fan of multitasking. I think that it is inefficient and adds to stress and guilt. Don’t write a paper and watch reality TV. Schedule an hour to write the paper and an hour to watch TV. Bonus: the TV is completely guilt free.
A weird and random item. In my schedule is a 5-minute seated meditation in the morning and at noon. It is helpful for me to know how to clear my mind of clutter and have at least 10 minutes of empty time. I find this activity energizing and clarifying. I use a simple breathing meditation. Sit, count, and experience breaths. When an intrusive thought comes to your mind, that is okay; but start counting at one again. It took me two weeks to get past counting one breath before a thought intruded. Now I can usually go 5 minutes with an empty mind. Controlling one’s own thoughts is a stress-reducing form and important form of control.
In case my theme here is not entirely clear to grad students: choose your supervisor wisely. The best way to keep a lid on stress is to have a supportive supervisor and peer group. Stay way from any potential supervisor who says, “Well, I did it this way when I was a student and you will do it that way, too.” There are many successful supervision styles, but they need to acknowledge that graduate school is inherently stressful and support a plan to help you manage and control stress that meets your individual needs.
Frequently, I read about a graduate student who quits school. I completely respect these people. They have not failed, but taken control of their life and their stress. They simply said, “No more.” The priorities of their life were more important than their annual goals and they made a decision and took control.
Stress can overwhelm anyone. When you find yourself in a situation that is paralysing, causing intense physical symptoms, and have nowhere to turn; then I recommend professional support. Counselling can be an important method of helping manage emotions and developing a mindset to cope with extreme challenges. It is a good investment of time worth putting in your schedule. I cannot make promises for others, but I can say that I would have complete respect and support for a student who seeks outside help.
Being a graduate student can take a toll on students and cause a staggering amount of stress. Seek control. Establish priorities. Work with people who are flexible and can help you be your best. This is only one approach to manage a few aspects of stress. Whichever approaches you take, be mindful in how you manage stress.
How not to suck at maintaining your health in graduate school: Sleeping
This is the second of the three wellness blogs to assist graduate students to get through their studies with their mental and physical health intact. The first blog was about eating and cooking, this blog entry is about sleep, and next month’s entry will be about stress management. Also note that this blog is the first entry to appear in two different places: on the McGill website for labbies (https://www.mcgill.ca/connectionslab/blog) and at http://researchtopracticeconnections.wordpress.com/ for folks who want to subscribe and comment. Blogs will appear in both fora.
The biggest problem is that we go to bed when we want to, but get up when we have to.
I do not need to spend much time convincing you that sleep is good. Cognitive performance is dramatically affected by lack of sleep. Adults getting less than 7 hours of sleep are 20% less effective in working memory, short term memory, and attention than adults getting at least 7 hours. In addition, there are not huge individual differences in the required amount of sleep required for maximum efficiency. Some people say that they simply do not need much sleep. The vast majority of these people are just used to being sleep deprived and cognitive inefficiency is normal for them. They simply do not even remember how much better their life would be with a good amount of sleep. Moreover, weight gain, lethargy, high blood pressure, response to stress, and poor blood sugar regulation are all associated with sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation is bad.
If you are not getting enough sleep, then you are not learning at your most efficient. All nighters on projects or cramming for exams nearly always result in worse performance than a well-planned performance where work is spaced out over a long period. In general, spaced practice is better than massed practice. If you are one of those who believe that they work best under pressure and must do things at the last minute, then the kindest thing I can say about you is that you are delusional. Everything is better with a second or third draft, input from others, time to reconsider ideas, and an increase in mindfulness. Study, then sleep.
Nice brief science blog on sleep: http://neuroscientificallychallenged.blogspot.ca/2014/03/why-do-we-sleep.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=Feed:+NeuroscientificallyChallenged+(Neuroscientifically+Challenged)
The key to strong sleep is to plan ahead and schedule. There is no need to do an all nighter if you study each night and are fully prepared for all tests, projects and deadlines. Plan all activities, place stages in your calendar, and execute the plan. Your ability to plan and carry out the plan will be essential to your success for many reasons. Save at least 7 hours per night on your schedule for sleep. Do not cut into sleep time—this is a carved in stone. You must schedule your work around sleep as a highest priority. When life become hectic and the schedule is overwhelming then television, leisure time on the internet, social life, and nearly everything else needs to be cut before sleep.
We all have days when our sleep is disrupted. Anxious or depressive features interrupt sleep. Noisy neighbors. Guilt. Too much coffee or chocolate. Partner is snoring. Baby is crying. Fire alarm goes off. You had a disruptive dream. Or you just cannot shut off your brain. Healthy sleep usually begins within 20 minutes of going to bed and usually we do not notice or remember waking during the night. When you do not get to sleep do you stare at the clock and watch the minutes pass in the 2nd slowest method possible? Treadmill time remains the slowest time passage context. Does counting sheep really work? I doubt it. And warm milk seems so nasty. I am sure there are countless ways and folk tales as to how to fall or get back to sleep. My system seems to work for me: the reboot. That is—I redo my bedtime routine. Get out of bed, check the locks on doors, look in on my kids, check the next day’s to do list and schedule, brief stretch of back and legs, brush teeth, wash face, set alarm, clear head of intrusive thoughts, and get back into bed. Seems to work most of the time.
The one confusing step might be the clearing of intrusive thoughts. I am used to meditating so this is a habit I have developed. But I meditate in the morning as it tends to wake me up, not get ready for sleep. But when I have an intrusive thought, I acknowledge it, write it down (I have a pen and paper by my bed), and think “This is something I really need to address, but morning is the best time for that.” Watch your thoughts go by like a parade. Acknowledge their existence and take note, but do not ask these thoughts to linger for long.
Significant and long-term issues with sleep are symptoms of a variety of mental health issues. Sleep change (too much or too little) are associated with anxiety, depression, substance dependency, adjustment disorders, and other issues. Counselling and other therapies to address these issues can also improve sleep as a primary or secondary effect.
Sleep does not come easy for some people. Getting to sleep and staying asleep are big challenges for many. All you can do is set the stage for the sleep and develop good habits. Creating good sleep hygiene helps nearly everyone.
- No televisions, computers, or other electronic devices in the bedroom. Adults with TVs in the bedroom average one hour less per night than those without.
- Television. I am shocked at how much television that students watch. Terrible television as well. First, you cannot multitask and you do not need noise—both distract you from the task. Second, I see people cut into their sleep time because of their favorite TV show. Stop it. Even worse is Netflix. When you are power watching a great show and it is 1:00am, you tend to say, “Let’s watch one more.” Resist. Sleep is so much better. And will improve your performance and response to stress.
- Your bed is only for sleep (and sex). Do not study, lounge, read, talk on the phone, watch TV, or engage in other activities in your bed. You want to associate bed with sleep (but if you fall asleep during sex that might lead to other problems). Likewise, if you can avoid it, do not try to sleep in a chair, couch, class, or other places—any sleep is better than no sleep. But bed sleep is best and develops best habits. You want to associate bed with long sleep.
- Go to bed at the same time every night and wake at the same time every morning. Some folks get 4-5 hours of sleep on weekdays and try for 10-12 hours on weekend. You can catch up on sleep. But it is stressful on the body and does not promote good habits. You want your body to know when it is ready to sleep every night.
- If you can sleep, then sleep. On those nights when you are bored, have free time, or are wasting time on the internet, then go to sleep. If you have an hour or two between classes and do not want to study, then find a place to sleep and take a nap.
- Avoid energy drinks, herbal stimulants, and such. Stimulants provide short term alertness and improvement in cognitive functions. But really mess up the sleep rhythm. Such stimulants are for crises and emergencies (e.g., driving without enough sleep). Regular use will lead to reliance and long term sleep deprivation. In addition, many stimulants can lead to heart arrhythmias and can be dangerous.
- Avoid sleep aids and alcohol to aid in sleep. This is the same problem as stimulants. For short term or crises they can be effective. You are far better off with good habits.
Sleep is critical to learning, health, and managing stress. Any wellness activity must include long and effective sleep as a priority. Sleep is not an option. You must have effective sleep habits and patterns for long term health, stress management, and effective learning. Many of you have your own quirky ways to get sleep. Whatever it takes to get 7 or more full hours of sleep per day—and you are a big part of the way to wellness.
How not to suck at maintaining your health in graduate school: Cooking and eating
March 1, 2014
Graduate school is a phenomenally stressful activity. The hours are long, students are constantly being evaluated, professors can be unreasonable, and the money is terrible. Moreover, friends, significant others, and family try to be helpful; but they rarely understand what graduate students are going through. This is the first of three wellness blogs for this site. Today’s post will be on cooking, next month will focus on sleep, and finally an entry on stress management.
I am shocked at how many of my students cannot cook. Alternately, students who can cook find themselves without time to prepare a meal or are not highly motivated to spend time cooking for one. As result, students often go out to eat, have pre-prepared meals from a box or freezer, and generally spend too much money for food that is not nutritious. In addition, graduate students are high achieving, conscientious, and often anxious people and are at high risk for eating disorders. Cooking well and eating well have a significant influence on stress, health, socialization, and overall well-being. Eating well can help your energy, stamina, and ability to do your best work.
There are a large numbers of websites on diet and nutrition, and there is also no shortage of people who will give you unsolicited advice on what, when, and where to eat. Some diets are radical and extreme. I do not know what to think of these sites. My view is that we should eat in the most stress free, time efficient, inexpensive, socially relevant and sustainable way possible. Rather than give advice, I would rather give five specific simple and cheap recipes for important issues in eating: something for everyday eating, something for when you want to impress someone, something to bring to a potluck dinner, lunch, and a quick snack.
Everyday eating: Mulligatawny
Mulligatawny is a lightly curried vegetable soup that has many variations and makes wonderful leftovers.
- Celery (3-4 ribs)
- Onion (1 medium)
- Carrots (about 1 cup—15 baby carrots/3-4 medium carrots)
- Red lentils (1.5 cups)
- Butter (4 tablespoons) but can replace with olive oil for vegans
- Vegetable broth (2 litres)
- Small can of tomato paste
- Curry powder (1-2 teaspoons)
- Cayenne pepper (0.5 teaspoons
- Heavy cream
- Boneless chick thighs
- Coconut milk
Chop your onions, carrots, and celery coarsely (this is not an exact science). Place into a large stock pot and cook at medium heat with the butter for about 15 minutes—until vegetables are soft. Add vegetable broth, tomato paste, and red lentils. Cook for about 15 minutes. Add curry powder and cayenne. Stir. Cover and cook for 30 minutes. Use a stick blender (a cheap and valuable tool) or scoop veggies into a blender (that thing you make margaritas with) and blend until there are not veggie lumps. It should be a smooth soup. Simple, cheap, healthful, and flavorful.
Notes: You can add 5-6 saffron stems or bay leafs for extra depth. 0.25 of a cup of coconut milk or heavy cream gives silkiness. Adding cooked boneless chicken thighs makes this a full meal. You can adjust the curry powder and cayenne to taste.
Leftovers: This is great over rice. Add a can of diced tomatoes, shrimp, saffron, and coconut milk for a delicious and different meal.
Impressing someone: Snapper in mustard sauce and asparagus
- Red snapper (but any mild light fish works like tilapia, grouper, or haddock)
- Full fat sour cream
- White wine
- Mustard (coarse grain or grey poupon)
- Olive oil
Put fish fillets in a pan and barely cover the fish with wine. Don’t make the wine too expensive—a generic and cheap pinot grigio is fine. Preheat oven to 350, put the pan with fish and wine in the oven for about 20 minutes. In the meantime, take about ¾ cup of full fat sour cream (fat free sour cream is nasty and light sour cream is barely acceptable) and add a teaspoon of thyme (dry is fine, fresh is best) and a big tablespoon of mustard and mix it up. Chop onions coarsely and put them into a frying pan with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and a pinch of salt. Cook at medium heat, sauté and stir until the onions start to brown. Then add the asparagus until the onions and oil mix in nicely. The onions take about 15 minutes, and the asparagus about 10 minutes more—so time accordingly. You do not want limp and over-cooked asparagus. Back to the fish. After it poaches, cover the fish with the sour cream mixture. It will start to mix with the wine and get yummy. Let it get messy. Return to the oven for 8 minutes. Then take out and serve immediately. You can add a salad or a sweet potato if you need more stuff.
Something to bring to a potluck dinner: Pasta salad
- Penne pasta
- Cherry tomatoes (20 cherry tomatoes)
- Kalamata olives (25 olives—pitted)
- Olive oil (4 tablespoons)
- Balsemic vinegar (1 tablespoon)
- Feta cheese (8 ounces)
- Leeks or onions
- Chopped chicken breasts
- Mint leaves
- All sorts of stuff
Simple. Cook the penne pasta until al dente. Not super soft, but a bit of chew to it. Drain the pasta. And place in a very large bowl. Let it cool just a bit—you do not want the pasta to melt the feta. Just add all of the stuff and mix thoroughly. But slice the leeks or onions into narrow strips. Put the leeks or onions into a very hot frying pan. There should be smoke and charring and all sorts of mayhem. That’s okay. Then add the charred or cooked leeks or onions into the salad. And that is it.
I am not one for fancy lunches. I like fruit, veggies, nuts, and cheese. Or fruit, veggies, nuts, and leftover meats (the biggest problem is that letting food spoil is a major waste of money). Hard boiled eggs can also be good. Really, lots of fruit and veggies and a source of protein. That’s it—do not get fancy. You do not have time. But never skip or have to go out (unless there is a social or work reason).
My favorites are roasted nuts. I buy bulk almond, pecans, or walnuts at Costco. I put about 12 ounces of nuts in a large Ziploc bag. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and shake the bag until all nuts are coated (um…don’t forget to seal the bag first). Spread out on a single layer on a cookie sheet. Add salt and pepper. You can also add dried garlic, a little bit of sugar, a little bit of honey, dried orange peel, herbs, or whatever you want. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes. Then turn the oven off, but leave the nuts in the oven. This dries the nuts out and makes them crunchy. Remove when cooled. Recently I added dried blueberries to roasted pecans—and it was a delicious mix. Nuts are high calorie and high fat—but have a lot of nutrition. When I want something salty or sweet—I reach for nuts, not chips. And don’t eat very many. Ten to fifteen nuts is plenty.
And in sum:
My blog is not a cookbook. But these are some basic, simple and specific things. The big thing is to eat cheap, minimally processed, and nutrition dense foods (more veggies, fruits, nuts, and meat; less grains and sugars). But eat.
A note: I learned to cook for financial reason. I was too poor to go out often and cooking was a great date activity (back when I did the dating thing). When you can cook, you always have friends. My wife married me almost entirely for my cooking. Many of you know that she is quite beautiful and intelligent; and I am significantly less so. My motto--cooking: it helps you marry up.
Another note: I try not to interfer with my students’ personal lives, so long as you are happy then I am good, do not judge, and do not cyber stalk. Frankly, it is not my business. But if I suspect you have an eating disorder, then I will intervene and work with you to get support. All of my students are required to create at least two annual wellness goals. Good eating can be one of them.
How Not to Suck at Professional Use of Social Media
February 1, 2014
At the Connections Lab, we are revamping our use of social media. Soon we will integrate Twitter, Facebook, our Website, and a scholarly blog. We may integrate Tumblr, Instagram, YouTube channel, SurveyMonkey, and other such things; but I have no idea how to use them. Although I am new to the use of social media as an academic, here are a few things that we are planning and few things I have learned.
I am a school psychologist who frequently conducts workshops and keynote addresses at professional conferences and school boards. Applying research to practice is an essential aspect of what we do. Yet, there is no doubt that conducting scientifically sound experiments and writing for scholarly refereed publications is the core of our work. I also like books because they are fun to write and serve as a stationary photo of large amounts of information. Social media provide opportunities to expand the reach and relevance of information, advertise to perspective students, to receive feedback, and engage in discussion with others. Articles and books often take years from conception to publication; and few folks read them anyway. Social media are dynamic and immediate. So let’s jump in.
The General Rules for Labbies
Remember that your internet presence is permanent. All employers, parents of your clients and participants, colleagues, and others will investigate your online presence. So clean up your Facebook page and any other possibly compromising blogs, sites, and such. I do not cyber-investigate (i.e., stalk) my students, but many other people will. Too creepy for me and I am afraid of what I might find (and you know who you are). Police yourself closely.
Some people are afraid of an online presence. I find this odd. You have an online presence whether you want one or not. It is best to take control of it. Moreover, if you are a scholar or clinical professional (and you are), then you are a public figure (if only on a small scale). So use social media to put the best possible face to your online presence.
Do not plagiarize. I love aphorisms and silly photos, and retweet these often. Always give credit to others. If you come up with something interesting or silly, then google it before posting. A few times I thought that I came up with something original and witty, then found that Swift or Poe wrote it first and better. Then I post the quote under their name.
Do not get offended. Social media is like any product; it is being put out there to be judged. Sometimes the judgments can be hurtful. Put that feeling way. The major question is: do negative comments make us better? Usually the answer is “yes.”
We need to be careful of what we post. Although we want to be open with our information, some journals may not accept our work if we publish our data in blog posts. However, I am toying with posting our data sets on the website after we publish our papers in a refereed journal. Also, there is an actual refereed journal on Twitter (@TwournalOf), if we are feeling adventurous, then we might publish something there just to see what happens.
The Chinese Zen principles of leadership apply to social media (and many other things): Be clear, courageous, and humane.
The Connections Lab and Social Media
The primary issue is to remember your goal with each type of social media.
Twitter (https://twitter.com/Shawpsych) is my favorite and the most dangerous form of social media. We first began using Twitter so that all labbies would tweet weekly on their work and progress no matter where they live and work. The goal was to be a sort of electronic lab meeting. The goal was that Twitter take the place of a lab diary, but in only 140 characters. I have learned that Twitter is also a great method to interact with colleagues around the world. My goal with Twitter is to have access to new ideas about my profession, supervision, science, academic life, and keep track of the activities of my labbies (this is why you are required to tweet at least weekly). My presence and contributions are intended to inspire, educate, and make myself more human (or silly) to readers (you guys know I don’t really drink that much, right?). I also want my labbies to know that I have hobbies, friends, family, generally a real life, but work some pretty stupid long hours. I follow psychologists, educators, higher education types, intellectuals, and graduate students at other universities. I retweet links to interesting and valuable articles and blog posts (labbies are supposed to read everything I retweet). Yet, the dangers are manifold. For me, trying to attract followers is a trap. Cynical and snarky tweets are reinforced, insight and encouragement is ignored. Do not worry about how many follower you have—keep your goals in mind. Unintentionally offending others is easy in only 140 characters. People have been fired over ill-formed tweets. So be careful. Being too personal is another danger. Twitter gives everyone a false sense of intimacy. I have felt genuine emotions for followers whose dog died, broke up with a boyfriend, had addictions issues, cheated on a spouse, or were feeling overwhelmed with life. I genuinely like some of these people whom I do not know and will never meet—so odd. Anything you put on Twitter is public information. If you DM something private, then you are trusting a stranger with your private information. You can always create an anonymous or personal account and go nuts on Twitter (giving this serious thought). For your professional account, remember your goals and the purpose for having an account.
Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/ConnectionsLab) is something we have, but have not used much. This is a forum that we use to informally reach out to previous, current, and prospective students. In addition, parents of research participants, teachers, and some others may seek out Facebook first. At this point, we will use Facebook as a repository of pictures, links, and events. I do not see us using this as an information destination.
Our website (https://www.mcgill.ca/connectionslab/) will remain the core of what we do. Now that we have some students helping me make the website into something good, we can make this the resource for teachers, scholars, students, and others to find information about us and what we do. If we are going to be a lab dedicated to research-to-practice using our “open source model,” then our information needs to be available to all. The website will be our repository of our information both published and unpublished.
The scholarly blog (http://researchtopracticeconnections.wordpress.com/) is set up, but there is nothing posted yet. The scholarly blog will be for thinking and philosophy of research-to-practice efforts and ideas. We are going to promote the “open source” model of intervention validation and improvement. It will be a place to think out loud before we publish the ideas in a more permanent academic journal. Look for this blog to be published around the 15th of each month. I will continue to keep the “How not to suck at grad school” blog going. We will reformat it soon into a formal blog post, so that we can get comments, make it searchable, and make it a little prettier. And I will continue to post around the 1st of the month. I have noticed that the popular Twitter account @AcademicsSay has been publicizing this blog. It is really for the labbies, but if others find it useful, then that is great. In addition, either blog would be happy to accept guest blog posts. So if you have interesting or goofy ideas, then send them along and I would be happy to post them.
As we evolve from a genetics X behavior lab to a school-based interventions lab there is a realization that we need collective input and to be an open resource for teachers, parents, students, schools, and other scholars. As such, we plan on growing our social media presence into a coherent and integrated tool for information collection and dissemination. This should be a lot of fun. Much more to come.
How Not to Suck at Writing
January 1, 2014
The hardest part of graduate school is the amount of writing that students are expected to complete. See a previous blog post entitled, “How not to suck at research productivity” for some general information about producing a lot of written output and about writing habits. However, this post is about nuts and bolts of writing.
Remember the Purpose
To be a strong writer you need be able to write in multiple voices. There are different levels of tone, complexity, and rhythm that are used when writing a letter to parents, communicating with teachers, writing psychological reports, completing graduate school classroom assignments, writing grant proposals, writing manuscripts for professional journals, writing book chapters, and writing conference proposals. These forms of writing have different purposes: to engage, to communicate, to review, to explain, to advance, and to innovate. The core of these multiple voices is to always write simply.
Each paper or project can only accomplish one or two themes or concepts. To write well, know exactly what you want to accomplish with your written product and exactly how each word advances that theme or concept. Every word, sentence, or paragraph that does not support your purpose needs to be eliminated. Relentless and ruthless editing is necessary. Remember that the words are not your babies that need to be saved, so do not be afraid to remove them. Words are tools to build your themes, concepts, and purposes. Use only the tools you need because too many tools detract from your themes or concepts.
Good writing is simple writing. Every paragraph should be less than one-half page in length. Every long sentence should be made short. Every complex word should be a simple word. Every word or phrase that can be eliminated must be eliminated.
Words steal from your theme. If the reader is noticing your writing, then the reader is not noticing your theme, concept, or purpose. As an analogy watch a Nicholas Cage movie. He is all quirks, shouts, twitches, and mannered behavior. He is obviously acting. And overacting detracts from what the movie is about. This is why most Nicholas Cage movies suck. If you are obviously writing, then those extra words detract from what you are trying to communicate.
To some degree graduate students need to unlearn what they were taught in high school English classes. Avoid the similes, metaphors, and flashy turns of phrase. Use short declarative sentences. Use active verb tense. Use exactly the word you intend in both denotation and connotation. You are not trying to build imagery, hidden meanings, or a subtext to be interpreted. You are also not trying to show off your vocabulary or jargon. A good test is to have an intelligent non-professional read your work. No matter how sophisticated the concepts that you are trying to communicate might be; your mother, significant other, friend, or bartender should be able to determine your theme or purpose with little difficulty. An unlike your high school English teacher the reader does not need to be impressed, they need to understand.
Writing the same paragraph structure and the same style can sometimes be boring. However, for the reader consistency improves clarity. Keep the same style, format, and paragraph structure throughout the paper.
The highest goal for any form of communication is simplicity. However, this is agoal that is challenging to achieve. Likely, your first draft will be about 30% too long. Michelangelo stated that, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” The first draft usually contains all of the ideas that you will need to make your theme or concept clear. Only through simplifying, carving, and editing will the angel in the marble be set free.
How Not to Miss a Big Career Opportunity in School Psychology
December 1, 2013
One of the major advantages of being involved in the profession of school psychology is the variety of professional career opportunities available. Because I have worked in schools, hospitals, independent practice, and universities, I believe I am in good position to comment on the merits of each professional opportunity provided school psychologists. All four of these careers are enjoyable and rewarding. However, I'm going to make a case that a career as a college professor and trainer of school psychologists may hold the most advantages, yet is the least pursued career. Nearly all of McGill University's graduates go on to have careers in schools, independent practice, or hospital settings; yet our students are well prepared to become academics. Of the very few graduates who go on to university careers, none of them are involved in the training of school psychologists. Too bad, they are missing out on a wonder option.
Why become a school psychology professor as a career?
- Autonomy: Professors choose their own areas of expertise, with minimal limitations professor set their own hours, and are not really supervised or evaluated that frequently. The concept of academic freedom is still strong and relevant, despite recent attacks.
- Salary: Usually salary is less than that of someone in independent practice or hospital settings, but about the same as school-based professionals. Starting salaries are fairly low, but at high levels of academics salaries can get quite high. However, there are many opportunities to gain income through books, consultation, part-time clinical practice, and workshops. Typically, 20% to 30% above your base salary is earned in these roles. There is a bit of entrepreneurship as an academic.
- Status: University professor is an extraordinarily high status profession. Ego is not everything, but I admit that it is kind of nice.
- Curiosity: There is something endlessly exciting about spending massive amounts of time learning, experimenting, and teaching the most amazing ideas that you can imagine. Few other professions are only limited by imagination. All of those questions that you want to have answered in the profession: well, you can spend your career answering them.
- Stability: School psychology in general is a stable profession. But professors are even more stable. With tenure, professors are just not fired or laid off. This has happened, but is quite rare.
- Flexibility: Being bored as an academic is impossible. If you get sick of one line of research, then find another thing that excites you.
- Time: There is plenty of flexible time off. Although the hours can be long, you can usually work whenever you want. It is the perfect job to have a family, raise children, and be available for significant others. There seems to be a lot of talk about the issues of work-life balance and there are significant gender differences in how this is perceived. For me, I have never missed my children’s recitals, teacher meetings, dentist appointments, or anything else. I have frequent dates with my wife of 22 years. I always have time for the most important things in my life.
- More flexibility: I enjoy working from home. So long as my duties (classes, office hours, committee meetings) are met, I can do my work at home without it being a problem.
- Job market: There are many academic jobs that are left unfilled each year. The job market has never been more wide open. There are many jobs to be had.
- Travel: Conferences, giving or attending workshops, and research partnerships give academics many opportunities to see the world—and it is a part of the job that is often supported financially.
- Sabbatical: Although this concept is being phased out in some places, sabbatical is awesome. For me, every 7 years I can apply for a full year off of teaching and administrative duties to travel, recharge energy, develop big projects, and create partnerships—at full pay. I did this last year and it was a transformative, healing, and incredibly productive time.
- The long term: New graduates might not think about it, but this is the perfect job for a long career. Usually, universities have incredible and stable retirement plans, you can work as long as your physical health remains intact, and there are opportunities to stay active long into retirement. Being an academic keeps one young.
- The role: There are not many jobs that work with new, brilliant, young, energetic people entering their profession of choice. Helping them to meet their goals and sharing ideas, thoughts, and achievements is a wonderful career. Interacting with these talented, creative people with big dreams is about the most exciting career possible (other than Batman).
- Safety: People think I am kidding about this—I am not. In my practice I was threatened with a gun, multiple times threatened with a knife (and was cut once), bitten, kicked, thrown up on, was attacked by a drunk parent, and needed to physically manage a host of children and adolescents. FYI--This is not typical. I had an especially challenging set of duties for a school psychologist. However, so far (fingers crossed) not one student has threatened me. But I am keeping my eye on some of you. Awesome.
- The pragmatic: I was yelled at by my best friend in the profession when I left clinical practice to become an academic. She told me that I was abandoning the children who needed me in order to write papers that no one else will read. But I have now been involved in the training of 41 graduates. They have improved the lives 100s of children. Some of my work has changed the thinking of the entire profession. I could never have this level of influence on the lives of children while in clinical practice.
- The unusual: Schools are wonderful places to work, but are extraordinarily conservative institutions. If you have an unconventional lifestyle, are eccentric, have limited social skills, or are a free thinker; then you need to hide this or face seriously difficult times in schools. At a university, being a bit eccentric is so common as to be cliché. For some of you, and you know who you are, this might be a valuable aspect of your career choice.
- Publish or perish: Depending on the type of university, there is some pressure to produce. Just like any job. Before taking the position you must have some experience publishing papers and getting grants. Also, have co-authors and mentors who are willing to help you produce.
- Tenure: This is scary. Generally, 6 years are probationary. Then you are evaluated to determine if the university wants to give you a permanent contract. If so, you are golden. If not, then you are fired. The bad part is that there are rarely clear criteria. Know the history and general criteria for folks recently winning tenure. Be a good colleague, produce, and teach well.
- Politics: I hear about politics a lot and still have no idea what folks are talking about. Some people like power and control more than is healthy. Do your job, be generous with your time, and do your fair share—and all is fine. My view: just enjoy the work, put your head down and accomplish as much as you can, enjoy your students, and do things for others--and everything will work out well.
- Missing clinical work: Yep, I miss the kids. Many academics have a private practice to keep sharp. There is an allowance that one day per week can be spent on consultation or independent practice. I do not do this, but I can see the value.
- Workload: It can be a lot. I would just guess that I work about 60 to 70 hours per week. But you have control. Remember to say, “no” when you need. People seem to brag about being so busy so as to exaggerate their own importance. I have no patience for this. Get the job done whether it takes 2 hours or 80 hours.
How to Prepare for the Job
- Publish papers in refereed professional journals. Book chapters, books, conference presentations, and giving workshops also help.
- Get some teaching experience
- Have a mentor. This cannot be overemphasized. No one can to this job alone. You need friends, allies, co-authors, confidantes. and someone who will look out for you until you develop your own expertise for the job. Then you will be able to mentor a young professional. You pay it forward.
- Clinical experience is a big plus. However, not too many years—two is ideal. Much more than this and your salary as a clinician will grow. If you then take an academic job, then you will start back at the beginning of the salary ladder. Personally, I took about a 45% salary cut to go to academics. From near the top of the salary ladder as a clinician, to near the bottom as an academic. BTW—my academic salary has gained quickly and I am about the same stage as I was as a clinician.
If you do not like the role or it does not work, then you can go into clinical practice. When philosophy professors reject academia or decide against this line of work, then they cannot open a philosophy factory. They become taxi drivers (just teasing, folks). We can go into practice, feed our families and have an amazing and fulfilling career. No risk.
Also note that McGill has a position opening for a a faculty member in school psychology--see advertisement below. This is a great option for working at a university that is in the top 20 in the world. Contact me if you have questions or have any interest in this position. It really is a wonderful opportunity.
How Not to Suck at Public Speaking
November 1, 2013
There are few things that will turn a confident graduate student into a quivering mess like having to speak in public at a professional event. However, most graduate students have conducted oral presentations in classes for years and, with few exceptions, these sorts of presentations go off without a hitch. Classroom lectures are generally presented in a smooth and easy manner. In some cases, the graduate student has taught classes and has conducted weekly lectures to undergraduates with few nerves. Yet, when a graduate student is faced with an oral presentation to an audience of professionals at a conference, research colloquium, or workshop; the butterflies, nausea, and perspiration of anxiety go into overdrive. There are ways to manage fear, develop a professional speaking style, and glide through these events with excitement and not with panic and dread.
I am a pretty good person to discuss public speaking. You know those people who seem confident and brilliant in front of a crowd. Those people are wonderful, but I am not one of them. Now I am an accomplished and in demand speaker, but have certainly not always been such. I was a terrified and terrible public speaker with distracting nervous tics and a panicky delivery. To evolve into a good speaker, I needed to learn every step along the way to being a confident and strong speaker. Here is how I did it.
Identifying and Analyzing the Problem
All problem solving involves identifying and analyzing the problem. Paralyzing nervousness usually comes from the unknown circumstance and not knowing what to do. Of what are we truly afraid? Here are the big ones: we are afraid that we will have a panic attack and fall into a whimpering, crying, sweating, fetal ball of humiliation; have a nausea attack and be forced to run out of the room; be verbally attacked and filleted by some sadistic expert who wants to figuratively undress you and expose your ignorance for all to see and hear; you simply suck and you might prove to the entire audience that you are a useless know-nothing and imposter; and you might forget the entire presentation and stand in front of 200 people saying, “…um….uh….” for 50 minutes. Maybe I am projecting my worries on to you, but here they are. Are these things harsh and unlikely? Of course they are and you know these things will not happen. But that does not stop you from worrying about them. Personally, I like a little bit of excited energy—it makes me sharper. But that is not paralyzing fear that is energizing motivation.
Preparation is the key to managing nerves. Anticipate everything that could possibly go wrong and have a plan. Here are some things that I have learned: I carry 3 different types of batteries in case the microphone goes out, my laser point gets tired, or the hotel’s TV remote fails to work. I have extra shoelaces, a handkerchief, a ziploc bag (useful for everything from a airsick bag, holding wet clothes, storing food, and a waterproof container if you get caught in the rain), an extra shirt (I once squirted ketchup on myself at lunch), hand sanitizer, instant stain removers, aspirin, candied vanilla ginger (a delicious candy and a powerful anti-nausea aid), a water bottle with built-in filter, a knife/corkscrew (only if you check your bags), sewing kit for popped buttons, glasses repair kit, chewing gum, and an LED mini-flashlight (twice have experienced power failures at workshops). If you have problems, your hotel concierge can save you. Do not forget to eat. Not a big meal, but eat a high protein meal. Crashing blood sugar can be lead to lightheadedness and upset stomach. Rule #1—check yourself in the washroom mirror immediately before your talk. Make sure you are appropriately fastened, zipped, tied, and buttoned. Make sure there is no spinach in your teeth, toilet paper on your shoes, or other appearance issues. Look professional and feel professional.
Preparing the talk is a major issue. I like PowerPoint, but do not rely on it. I use it as an outline. Make sure that you have 3 to 6 points on each slide—no more. Graphics, animations, and other tricks can be used, but sparingly. Often such presentation tricks are distracting. If you want the audience to look at you, then make the presentation screen go blank. Have your presentation on a flash drive in case your computer dies; in which case you can borrow someone’s computer and keep going. Make sure that you have a hardcopy of your slides in case the projector dies. My best talk ever was when the projector died. I just kept going from memory for 30 minutes until the tech people brought a new one. That is the level of preparedness you need. Sounding natural can take a lot of work. Rule #2—have your talk memorized. If you get nervous and go blank, then rely on your slides to help get you back on track.
There are hosts of presentation basics that everyone needs to know. Remember that people are terrible listeners. The trope: "say what you are going to say, say it, and say what you said" is something that I take seriously. Repetition is okay and desirable. You are trying to move people’s knowledge from point A to point B. A critical issue is to know where point A is for the audience. What do they know? What are their experiences? If you do not know, then find out well in advance or simply ask them. You also need to know what they want to gain from the presentation. If it is not completely clear, then I start out workshops by asking what they want to know from the workshop. Even if you do not or cannot change anything in your presentation, they know that you are listening and responsive to the audience. Rule #3—know your audience’s current knowledge and desired outcomes.
How you speak is often more important than what you say. Presenting tables upon tables of data will put even the keenest audience member to sleep. Present data via figures, if possible. However, shadow pictures on the screen and interpretive dance also work. Only kidding a little bit as both methods are preferable to tables. Speak with energy and conviction. Even if you are quiet, little person with a soft voice—you can radiate power and confidence. No upspeak. This is the rising inflection used mostly by young woman. End all sentences on a down note. Watch how TV news anchors do it. An ending down note is authoritative. If you have nervous energy, then move. There is a tendency to grab hold of the dais for dear life. This makes you look more nervous and small. Walk out around the people—it shows power, energy, and eases your nerves. It helps you own the room, which is what all very good presenters do. Hand gestures also can be valuable. They animate your style of presenting. Know your verbal and physical tics. Everyone has these, but try to minimize the most distracting ones. I tend to play with the keys in my pocket—so I remove everything from my pockets beforehand. If you say, “um”, “uh”, “basically” (I hate when people say this), “well”, and other filler words, then you tend to lose credibility. This should go without saying, but never ever read a paper in front of people. Speaking loudly, clearly, with energy and confidence actually addresses a fear. Remember that this is a performance—no matter how technical the information that you are presenting might be. People may forget your data or your points, but they will remember that you presented it well. Rule #4--The only thing that can derail your talk is you being nervous.
Organize, practice, and time your presentation. You do not want to run out of time. This is a disaster. It is also unprofessional and rude. The first thing you do when developing the presentation is create the take home points. What do you want to make sure that the audience knows? You can only create a maximum of one take home point for every 20 minutes of presenting. Say your take home point, support your take home point, and then review the take home point. If you have long talks with multiple points, then be sure to sum up all take home points at the end of the talk. Rule #5—keep the primary points simple and few, but you can use complex data or arguments to support them.
There are distractions and rude people all of the time. People will get up and leave in the middle of your talk. Others are texting and updating Facebook. It would be kind of cool if audience members are live tweeting the talk, but not likely. Some people even have their phone ring during the conference and answer it! Audience members will sleep, sneeze, have conversations, and be rude. Rule #6—take charge, it is your room and your time. When people talk, I tell them to be quiet. When the phone rings, I tell them to take it outside. When someone sneezes, I say bless you. Turn distractions into opportunities.
There are many things that make good speakers; humor, presence, organization, energy, and so on. You will find your own style and turn yourself into the best possible speaker. Being natural (or appearing natural) is a large aspect to being a good speaker. As Joss Whedon said, “Always be yourself, unless you suck.” And if you suck, then listen to a lot of speakers and find parts of their style that you can copy and incorporate into your own style. Rule #7—it is okay to steal style from others until you get your own style.
The big thing. What happens when an impressive and well-known big shot in the field is sitting in the audience? Usually it is a great experience that has helped to build many academic careers. This happened to me, when I was doing a presentation that criticized the big shot’s theories. I was terrified, but he could not have been nicer and more supportive. But what if it goes south? What do you do when some big shot says something such as, “Your presentation sucks, you suck, and you are stupid.” It has never happened, but we all fear this. Telling them to eff-off or punching them in the nose are off limits, but I have a close friend [female] who told a heckler to eff-off and received an ovation from the audience—I admit, it was kind of awesome. But the better thing to do is take a deep breath, keep calm, and say, “I am having a hard time interpreting your comments as productive. Could you please reframe your comments so that I can interpret them in a manner that is conducive to appropriate academic discourse?” Then the person needs to rephrase the comment or question so you can respond well—and give you time to think; or they need to acknowledge that their comments were not productive and they are just being an a-hole. Other issues: many people ask questions that start with “how come you did not do…..” Usually, the meaning of the question is “why did you not do a different study?” The answer is nearly always, “That is an interesting point and potentially a valuable study. But that is not my study. My study answered different questions and used appropriate methodology to answer my question.” If you are feeling cheeky, then you can add, “But I look forward to reading your study that takes into account your ideas.” The third problem is when someone says something like, “Why didn’t you use the 1936 Haggelstein Phister correction in your analysis?” The correct answer is the true answer, “I don’t know.” And make no further comment. The questioner is usually trying to show how smart they are and there is no need to play into that game. If someone says something condescending or stupid, like, “Well, young lady, you clearly do not have much experience, but….” What you do is repeat exactly what they said very slowly. In this fashion, the arrogance and stupidity of the statement is clear for all to see. No need to be witty or cutting. Just allow the stupid to enter the ears of everyone. Then laugh at them and say that you do not need to comment on that.
Constant Evaluation and Improvement
No matter how good you are at presenting, there is always room for improvement. Videotape your presentations. It is painful for most of us to watch. Once you get over the way your voice sounds and how odd your shoes look, it is extremely valuable. Ask your friends to list one thing that you can improve in every talk that you make. Keep improving.
Oral presentations will provide both highlights and low lights of your academic career. Many of us are introverts, anxious, or actually quite shy; making presenting in front of people a major personal challenge. But once you address your fears you can be an outstanding presenter of your ideas and research.
How Not to Suck at Being Efficient and Effective
August 1, 2013
Being a member of the Connections Lab can be an overwhelming experience. You have an extremely intense class load (especially in your first two years), significant clinical activities, and a large research load. The long hours take their toll on your health, relationships, sleep, diet, friendships, and mental health. As an aside, this year all annual goals that are developed with labbies will include at least two wellness goals. I know most of you have developed your own efficient methods of survival. As a professor, there are many demands on my time and energy. I also have family, friends, and hobbies. This is a lifetime activity for me. Most of you will be finished in graduate school in 4 or 5 years and think that you can then decompress. But as a professional, you will be shocked at how many hours you work after graduation. I know I will still be here. I think that it is most healthy for students to function as if they will be doing this forever--and you will. It will make your work more sustainable, happier, and healthier.
Stephen Covey developed a two-factor model with urgency and importance as the factors. Of course, items with high urgency and high importance take of a lot of time and energy (examples include crisis situations, preparing for exams and projects due tomorrow, and rushing to meet deadlines). Good labbies spend little time in low urgency and low importance activities (examples include Facebook status updates, watching reality TV, internet browsing). The trap is high urgency, but low importance activities such as answering e-mails, meetings, spending time on busy work, and managing day-to-day life. This cell gives the impression of work, but results in little achievement or accomplishment. The cell that is most ignored is low urgency and high importance activity such as long-term planning, writing manuscripts, and developing new skills. Most people spend less that 5% of their time on this cell, when you should spend about 40% of your time in this cell.
The general logic is to place each task or activity correctly into one of the four cells and prioritize your time accordingly. As a general rule: spend as much time as possible on high importance, low urgency activities. This will eventually reduce the amount of time you spend in high urgency, high importance activities (e.g., there is less need to cram for an exam if you have studied every night for the last few months). A problem is that many of us are addicted to high urgency activities. For those of you who say, “I do my best work at the last minute” or “I am addicted to adrenaline.” You are wrong. Your work will be much better with additional revisions. Also wrong are people who say that they can multitask. You can do one thing at a time. When you think that you are multitasking, you are actually rapidly shifting attention from one task to another. Sometimes that is fine, but do not lie to yourself. You are doing less than your best work and are simply increasing your stress levels unnecessarily. These common work styles are exhausting. Be systematic, mindful, planful, and organized. Of course, you may need to change your schedule as things pop-up, but try to keep to an organized schedule as your default.
Everyone organizes time differently but here are some general rules:
- First, develop a framework
- Schedule all classes, standing meetings, assignment due dates, and other activities into a calendar
- Schedule personal activities into your calendar as well. It sounds weird, but if you do not schedule time with significant other, calling mom, time to go out with friends, playing on the softball team, and so on; then these things get squeezed out.
- Schedule important wellness activities such as sleeping, eating, favorite activities, and exercising
- These things are not open to change except for rare situations.
- You will find that this framework takes up 80-100 hours per week. Note that there are 168 hours in a week. Bad news: there are no weekends. All work is 7 days per week. But weekends are less likely to be filled up with urgent and important activities.
- Second, develop a list of goals for each term
- Next determine your high importance activities. These ctivities are grants, presentation proposal deadlines, manuscripts to be written, theses, workshops to attend, conferences, and so on.
- The general rule is to write 1000 words per day of original thought and read 100 pages per day. Note that this does not count e-mails, nonacademic work, clinical work, and class assignments. This is a baseline. Many days you will go over, but never go under. If you do this every day, then you will get a lot done at the end of the term.
- Third, be disciplined and execute the plan as written.
- This is where the best intentions fail and guilt sets in. The rest of the blog will be suggestions for how you keep focused.
Technology can be helpful, but my first recommendation is to stop checking e-mails so much. E-mail is a destroyer of productivity. Returning a handful of e-mails is not the same as productive work. I check e-mails about four times per day. I turn off my wifi radio on the computer so I am not distracted or tempted. But here are some tech helpers:
- Have a todo list, but do not get obsessed with it. Many folks spend more time working on their todo list, than they do on the tasks themselves. If your todo list is color coded with emoticons, fonts, and animations—then you are overdoing it. Make sure that all items on the todo list have a deadline attached.
- I listen to a metronome when involved in serious thought. I set it to the same rate as my resting heart beat (about 52 bpm). There is much evidence that metronomes improve concentration and focus.
- My daughter uses 30/30. This is an iphone app that is a detailed time manager. She is quite obsessive about organizing her time. She has published two books and the third was just finished—so it works for her. It is an excellent program.
- Use your calendar. A date book is fine. I prefer my calendar on my iphone and computer, but paper is okay.
- Focus booster is a nice and simple program to help focus in short stretches of intense studying. It is available for free on mac/pc download
- I use Nuance’s dragonspeak voice recognition for much of my writing. It takes practice to speak in the same tone and style as scientific writing. However, I can type about 50 words per minutes, but can dictate at 140 words per minute. At this rate, I can usually write my 1000 words in less than an hour. Also, I can close my eyes, scratch the dog and still be productive. Plus, sometimes you just cannot spend one more second in front of the keyboard.
- There are many excellent technology helpers out there. Do not spend so much time searching for the magic time manager or learning the latest software that you do not get work done.
- Being creative and taking initiative are keys to being an excellent scholar and lab member.
- Creativity requires solitary time. Make sure that you have some time carved out just to think. I have morning and lunch meditation time. Sometimes you just need to think. Schedule thinking time—it may be on the train or bus, at lunch, and between classes. Have the means prepared to write down or record good ideas or you might lose them. Don’t schedule thinking time before sleep or while driving.
- Elmore Leonard said that another word for writer’s block is laziness. Harsh, but he has a point. Some days the words do not come. When you cannot create, then you can work. When the words are not coming, then write your reference pages, create tables, develop figures, and outline papers.
- Just work every day. You will wear down a project with consistent work.
- Working every day is far better than taking a day or two off and then working for 18-24 hours at a stretch. You are creating a work habit that will be permanent.
Real life and health
- Eat well. Whatever works for you. I prefer fruits, veggies, and meats. So I tend to avoid all bread, pasta, cereal, beans, corn, and other grains. There are vegetarian, paleo, weight watchers, high calorie diets that can all work for you. I should avoid sugars, but tend to eat more sweats than I should.
- Exercise. Even if it is just a nice walk. Do what you like, whether intense or casual. But do it every day.
- Sleep. Get what you need. Most people need 8 hours. Some of you need 10 hours. Try to be consistent every day. Don’t get 4 hours of sleep every weekday and then try to make it up on weekends, this is stressful on your body. Few people can survive long term on less than 6 hours per night. Even if you think that you are okay, you are not functioning at your optimum level unless you are at 6-8 hours per night. Protect this time. Very important.
- Alcohol. I know, I know. But be careful guys. It will hurt your sleep and damage your health. It is fine to have fun, but if you are using alcohol as a medication (e.g., to sleep, change mood, reduce anxiety), then you need to slow down a bit.
- Time for friends, family, and significant others. It really helps to have emotional support and to spend time with important people. Do not forget these folks. You can have relationships and be in graduate school. But you have to organize your time wisely. My family gets uninterrupted attention from 6 to 10pm every day on weekdays and from noon to 10pm on weekends. We also schedule weekly date nights with just me and the wife. My dog gets a long walk from 5:30 to 6:00am every day and then again late at night. I tend to answer e-mails from 10:00 to 12:00 at night.
Seriously think about how you are going to organize your time and tasks. Different things work for different people. But you need to be mindful in how you use your energy. I know that you are young and have a lot of energy, but even your time is limited. You need to establish priorities and make difficult choices. You may have to give up videogames, reality TV, feeding pigeons, or other tasks. I am happy to consult with you on this as you develop your schedule for graduate school.
July 6, 2013
How Not to Suck at Returning from Vacation
It is that time of year where summer vacation is winding down and we are preparing for the beginning of the fall term. For some of us the screaming plunge back into the deep end of fall classes, research, and committee meetings will be disorienting, cold and sharp. I have heard so much whining from colleagues and students that many of my friends are trying my patience.
After a year on sabbatical leave, I am envisioning a smooth transition back to work. Everyone who has ever worked with me notes that I do not take vacations, so I am accused of being singularly unqualified to address this issue. This is only partially true. First, to have a vacation it is required that you have a real job to take a vacation from. As a college professor, I am not entirely sure that the things I do for a living should be called work. I read, write, speak, and on rare occasions I have to think. There is no heavy lifting, no blood, and my job is in a comfortable climate controlled setting. The most difficult thing I do is the rare and unnatural act of having to be charming around other people—and this can be painful for me. So when people say that they need a vacation or are upset to have to return to work from a vacation; I have to think that they do not enjoy or appreciate their jobs very much. Second, too many people use a vacation to entirely turn off their minds (when really, you do not need a vacation--that is what tequila is for). I may be incapable of turning off for more than a few hours so I do not understand the attraction. But a rebooted mind sounds like a difficult state of mind from which to return. I prefer vacations to encourage the discovery of new ways to think, but completely on my own schedule. For me, a vacation with a tight schedule and detailed itinerary is not a vacation. A vacation includes travel, embracing new challenges, meeting new people, and turning off the computer, which all help to develop new skills, see new perspectives, and experience new ideas. I am not sure how many frequent flyer miles I have accumulated (around 40,000) or books I have read (a bit over one per week--about 60) on my sabbatical leave . At least half of those books are novels (thanks to Anna for introducing me to Günter Grass , Malcolm for reintroducing me to Huxley, and Erica for introducing me to Wally Lamb). I have learned many lessons from the travels, people, books, and flexible schedule of the sabbatical leave. As I return to a more structured and fast-paced work schedule I will call on the resources developed during vacation. I am ready to write, speak, read more, and continue thinking at a better level than ever. That is always a sign of a good vacation and a smooth return to the job.
For my labbies who are facing a difficult and jarring return to regular lab and school activities: we will have a new coffee maker with strong coffee; teas; regular cold water delivery; dried fruits, nuts, and beef jerky (really, it is homemade and protein is good for your brain); and weekly lunches. Let me know of your preferences and I will try to keep the lab space well stocked. It will be okay, folks. Really.
Not surprisingly, I have received quite a few comments about the previous blog concerning the yearly anniversary ritual where Joyce and I discuss whether we want to continue to be married. A couple of you were genuinely concerned about my marriage (BTW—thanks for your kind thoughts). Of course, we think that we are close, strong, happy, and healthy. So, most of you will be glad to know that we have agreed to try for our 23rd year of marriage. This year's talk was one of our easiest and least stressful discussions ever. My wife says, "We have to stay together for the sake of the puppy, your cooking is good, I am too lazy to get a divorce lawyer, we still laugh together, and I need somebody to reach the things on the high shelves." Fair enough. And I say,