Ways to Boost Your Ph.D. and Science Career 2019
Did you just get offered a research position? Congratulations, enjoy the feeling of success and triumph and celebrate it. Then, fasten your seatbelt, you are in for a bumpy ride.
Regardless of the point in your science career, you always need to have a plan and roadmap for your next steps. We are talking about a career in science in general –whether that be at a university as an academic or an industry position. The key here is that having a plan gives you more determination.
However, never forget to be flexible. If your dream position does not show up, then start cobbling together something that makes you happy, and that still more or less points towards your north. Many people (myself included) work a few parttime jobs to assemble a career for themselves. Create your own possibilities.
Don’t lean back in defeat when something does not work out. You never did that after you first failure, did you? In this blog, we explain the 50 Best ways to improve your Ph.D. and Science Careers.
Remember that nothing is written in stone, and if you feel like a certain path is plainly making you miserable, then be true to yourself and look for alternatives. Now, let’s look at how you can put your goals into action!
1. Understanding the requirements
The first step might sound like a no-brainer, but in reality, the requirements to move forward might not always be that clear. If you are on a tenuretrack path, then maybe you have a rigid set of criteria that you need to fulfill within a certain amount of time, before you can move up.
In most cases, there is a lot of reading in between the lines going on. Values differ from workplace to workplace, even from boss to boss. As such, it can be a challenge to see what is valued most highly for a career option in a certain place. If the list of requirements looks endless, the top priority might be hard to find.
When the requirements need some digging to uncover, go and observe people in that workplace. This doesn’t mean walking into a place and asking “Hey folks, how do things work here?”
Instead, go to open days, meet people at industry events and listen to their stories. Meeting groups of people from the same place can be particularly interesting to observe their group dynamics.
2.Learning from example
Who is doing what you would love to do in five or twenty years from now? What did this person do prior to achieving that position? Study a number of people whose career path seems in line with your dreams.
Try to identify the tipping points in their careers (from “hit publications” to involvement in industry organizations), and learn from these examples.
To broaden your outlook on achieving excellence in general, look at examples outside of your field. Read biographies of inspiring leaders, and see in which ways you can add a bit of their oomph to your life. Dare to be your best.
3. Show up and lean in
Be visible. If you want to climb the academic ladder, then go to the right conferences, get involved in committees, visit other labs, expose your name through publications, etc.
You know the drill – or you should have distilled the drill from your examples. If you are shooting for a job in the industry, then start getting involved in industry events, industry organizations and more
Don’t hide in a dark hole and slave away at getting your very best work out. You might be tempted to tell yourself “I’ll wait another six months before I go out to a conference and present my work so that I can be sure it’s worth showing to the world.” Come out now and put yourself out there.
4. Stay authentic
After finding your inspiration, you might be tempted to become a copy of a successful person who you admire. Keep in mind that an example should only serve as inspiration: something to learn from and add your own sauce to.
It might sound preachy and fluffy, but only when you are true to yourself can you stand out. If you are true to yourself, people will notice you for who you are instead of seeing an anonymous copycat of someone who you are not, will never be and can never be.
5. Take your personal life into account
Last but not least: don’t forget to plan within the opportunities and constraints of your personal life. If you have a family, moving abroad to your ideal lab might be a big challenge.
If you’re ready to take the plunge, make sure you have everyone on board in this adventure – otherwise you’ll end up either separated from those who give you the energy and love to excel at your work, or dragging along a bunch of unhappy people who will bring your mood and energy down.
Your career is an important part of your life. It’s something you can take pride in, something that can fulfill you intellectually. But it’s just a part of your life – there are other aspects you should never forget unless you consciously make that choice.
When I decided to move to the Netherlands and leave my then partner/now husband in the USA, it was a conscious choice.
It motivated me to work hard and finish quickly. At the same time, we had a plan for afterward, and having that light at the end of the long-distance relationship tunnel was something I had to remind myself of regularly. Now go and reflect on what your ideal next step looks like, what you need to achieve to get there, and make it come true!
HIGHLIGHTING YOUR ACADEMIC SKILLS
After three or four years of working hard on your Ph.D., you may wonder: what’s next? Very few Ph.D. graduates remain in academia after obtaining their doctoral degree.
Most of us enter the industry. And every now and again, especially in the Netherlands, you may hear this question during the hiring process:
“Why did you spend your time doing research if you wanted to come and work in the industry? Shouldn’t you have gone to work straight after your Master’s degree and used these past years to gather real-life experience?”
Do not feel offended or misunderstood if this or a similar question comes up. Instead, highlight your academic skills as a function of your job search. Needless to say, think thoroughly about this subject before you walk into an interview.
While a number of years of experience in practice are certainly very valuable, these years in academia, especially while working on your Ph.D., provide you with skills that might make you a more attractive candidate.
Let me restate clearly: your doctoral training has made you an independent researcher, with an array of unique skills that are highly valuable in the industry. Depending on your field, here are the skills that put you ahead of other applicants:
1. Analytical skills
Whether your Ph.D. research relies on qualitative or quantitative data analysis, there is almost always a large chunk of analytical work involved in Ph.D. research. Being able to handle large amounts of data is a skill needed by consultancy offices, private labs as well as many large technology companies.
Getting a Ph.D. is all about becoming an independent researcher. You might be working for weeks on end on something, trying out different paths, iterating, and making your own decisions.
This large level of autonomy gives you the ability to work on larger projects, all by yourself, while being able to communicate your decisions and the reasons for these decisions to your superiors.
3. Ability to learn new topics and skills
A very typical situation during your Ph.D. studies is one in which you run into a subject that you don’t know much about or one in which you seem to be needing a different computer program or programming language to continue.
Instead of shrugging and thinking: “Well, too bad, I don’t know that…”, you head out to the library to pick up a book on the subject, read a couple of papers on the subject, follow an online tutorial or start getting involved in a programmer’s forum.
This ability to learn new topics and skills by yourself, combined with your autonomy, gives you the ability to advance quickly in your career in almost any field.
4.Deep understanding of your field
Since a doctoral degree is the highest level of education you can achieve, you can pride yourself on the fact that you know more about a certain topic than most people.
In fact, when it comes down to your subtopic of research, you can claim that you are the expert in your field on that topic – you simply are the only person who knows all the ins and outs of your Ph.D. topic.
5. Teamworking skills
A Ph.D. degree is always the result of cooperation: with your supervisors, funding institutions, other researchers, and laboratory technicians.
No one ever graduated by brooding in their room in complete isolation for a couple of years and then publishing 1,000 pages of innovative research material. Being able to work in teams is one of the great skills you learn during your doctoral studies.
6. Writing skills
Your papers and thesis didn’t write themselves, and they certainly did not get written without developing sound academic writing skills.
With all the writing practice you get during your doctoral years, you will be able to whisk together reports and briefings faster and in a clearer style than your peers who did not go into a Ph.D. program.
7. Presentation skills
Along with excellent training in academic writing, you also were very well trained at giving presentations. Remember your very first presentation in graduate school?
Remember how nervous you were, and how afterward you learned how to better structure your talks until they almost became second nature? You need to realize that this communication skill is also very valuable to prospective employers.
8. Other skills you learned during your Ph.D.
During your Ph.D. years, you certainly picked up a few extra, general skills besides your analytical and communication skills. You might have taught yourself a programming language, might have learned how to speed read or might have taken a number of courses to sharpen your soft skills.
Think about all these extra skills, and use them to your advantage to show the benefit of your years of doctoral study.
As I mentioned earlier, make sure that you prepare for your interview by thinking about the additional benefits you can bring to a company through the skills and topics you mastered during your Ph.D. research.
Highlight your value and your skills’ function for the company you are applying to: show them clearly what unique characteristics you will bring them, and they will benefit.
Life in academia can take you from one temporal contract in country A to another challenge in country B, with stops for fieldwork in countries C and D and maybe a few months as a visiting scholar in country E. Most academics are hired for a period of 2two to four years, depending on the type of work that they do.
I like to call those that hop from country to country as their career meanders over the years the academic nomads. Most of us might not be expecting this ever-evolving and ever traveling path when we start our careers in academia.
But then research life happens and you get to know people and opportunities come up, and before you know it you’re boxing up your life for the umpteenth time.
Very often, I read stories of fellow academics who move from continent to continent as they amass scholarships, short-term job contracts etc. If you are headed for a life as an academic nomad, then you might want to take the following tips into account:
1. Go digital
Books are heavy, so to avoid having to move by container all the time, try to buy as many digital books as you can. Similarly, buy music digitally, scan your important notes, and go paperless as much as you can.
2. Choose an airline
As an academic nomad, you will be flying a lot. Pick an airline, and be loyal to them in return for getting miles. Mileage status will give you extra perks over time.
3. Sort out your clutter
Unless you want to keep a room filled with boxes in your parents’ house “until you get a tenured position in your home country”, you might just need to sort through all your stuff and sell/throw out/recycle what no longer need.
4. Identify a few items that you value
Even though the hardcore minimalists might disagree, I think it’s perfectly OK to have a couple of items that you cling to, and that you use to make your new place truly feel like your home.
I have a number of totally random items and a cat that I drag along with me wherever I go. These little things just make me feel more comfortable wherever I try to settle.
5. Embrace the best of every country
Moving means being culture shocked. That’s the plain truth. But in order to overcome the Ihatethisplace phase, you’ll have to learn to see the best in every country. Go out and explore the natural beauty of your new place, visit local events, and try to bond with the locals. Before you know it, you’ll miss yet another country.
FROM Ph.D. STUDENT TO INDEPENDENT SCHOLAR
During your Ph.D.., you might have your advisor’s help and protection. He/she can give you ideas to further develop, tell you where to publish and which conferences to attend, and will teach you the ropes of research. But once you graduate with your doctoral diploma, you are on your own.
You might benefit from your alma mater’s protection if you decide to stay at the same institution, but for those of us who moved away after our Ph.D.., it is time to grow up and become an independent scholar.
As an independent scholar, your peers will not see you as “the Ph.D.. student of Prof. Advisor”. They will see you Dr. Yourself, with your own field of expertise and your own network.
To reach this position, you will need to establish yourself as a researcher with a clear focus. This clear focus does not mean that you have to focus on a single topic.
On the contrary, within your area of study, you are encouraged to branch out: participate in projects within the industry, carry out desk research on tangentially related fields and broaden your scope.
To develop your own network, you need to attend conferences and industry events. Publishing helps as well, as you will typically be invited to review for the journal in which you published – this is another way to establish yourself as more of an authority in your field.
Here are a few tips:
1. Collaborate with other institutions
While it is nice to keep working with the researchers and professors with whom you worked during your Ph.D., it is time to explore other horizons. This certainly does not mean you should burn your bridges with your alma mater, but it is time to broaden your scope.
These new institutions may be situated somewhere else in the world, could be public research institutes or could be industry partners. To more varied your collaboration portfolio, the better.
You could consider outreach as a time-consuming fringe activity, but it is actually quite rewarding. Outreach can be blogging and tweeting about your research, volunteering for charities, or getting involved in student support groups and on campus networks.
Consider outreach as an opportunity to show to the world the value of your research and how your work makes this world a better place.
3. Write your own research proposals
It’s time to establish what you are interested in working on, identify the needs in that regard, and turn these needs into research proposals. It can be frightening to start your very own line of research, as you might feel inexperienced, but once you get going, you will see how rewarding it is.
Think about it: you can fully choose what you find interesting to work on, without having to explore ideas that might have been imposed on you by your advisor.
4. Become active in your research community
Review papers, participate in committees, publish your work, attend conferences – you know the drill, so do your part and volunteer to move your field forward. Showing up and working hard will show your peers that you are serious about your research field and willing to moving things forward.
5. Read a lot
Keep a finger on the pulse of your field by reading recently published papers on a weekly basis. Try to set aside a few hours a week (I know it is hard, but it is necessary) to read recent publications.
Follow the important journals in your field, and read them to get an overview of which topics are being explored, and who is working on what. Then identify the papers that are of particular interest for you, and read these in more detail.
6. Pick your fights and carry them out
What are you fascinated by? Canalize your energy and devote time to the causes you care about. Pick your fights wisely – you can’t carry all the worries in the world on your shoulders.
Do you want to raise your voice on the way women are undervalued in academia? Would you prefer to put energy into the guidance of first-generation students?
7. Develop your own writing voice
Practice makes perfect, and this is particularly true in academic writing. You could also say that practice develops your voice.
You will notice that, as you gain more practice writing papers, and will receive less and less feedback from your coauthors, and you will start to feel comfortable writing about your research in an authoritative voice that is distinctly yours.
NAVIGATING RESPONSIBILITIES AS A YOUNG FACULTY MEMBER
Once you finish your Ph.D.., you might think that the busiest period of your life and the largest project you’ll ever do, are over. In a sense, that is absolutely true – especially because of the learning curve involved with a Ph.D..
But, unless you join a large laboratory to work on a postdoc, chances are that you will be getting quite a different number of responsibilities once you get your first academic job after your Ph.D..
And there you are, fresh from the lab bench, getting ready for a new challenge and trying not to get sucked in by academia’s sometimes bitter surroundings.
While in previous years your priority may have been crystal clear (to solve your research question), it might be more blurred once you get your first faculty position.
All of a sudden, there is research, teaching, outreach, service, and plenty of admin work in your job description. Not only may some of these new additions to your task list require a new skill set, they also require a different way of managing your time: you’ll simultaneously need to move a whole number of projects forward.
1.Use the urgent-important matrix to set your priorities
When you are confronted with a large number of tasks, it helps to first make a list of everything that is on your plate and to then check which ones are urgent, and which ones are important. You’ll end up with four categories:
Urgent and important: obviously, you need to work on these tasks
Not urgent but important: the tasks that are easily forgotten
Urgent but not important: visits, emails, phone calls, administration deadlines and more of what you wish you didn’t need to do
Not urgent and not important: stop doing them – or just do them sparingly. If you start as a young faculty member, it is easy to let that “not urgent but important” category slip to the background.
And this category has one red hot flashing name – Writing Papers. Don’t postpone writing your articles. Don’t think you can write an article in a few days or weeks because you’ll never find 8 hours in a day to work on it. Instead, have a planning to move your articles forward slowly but surely.
2. Get a streamlined time management system
My current time management tools are Google Calendar and ToDoist, and I use a notebook and Evernote to capture ideas and make notes.
I’ve started scheduling my time, pretty much to the minute, on a weekly basis, to know exactly what I need to be working on in a given week. I also make an overview of my tasks on a monthly basis, combined with a review of the past month.
No loose ends and no tasks that remain behind. Figure out what works for you, and consistently use your system. Bonus tip: integrate your time and task management systems with the way you process email.
3.Do a braindump when you need it
Even though all your tasks and appointments are in your calendar and on your to-do list, you may sometimes feel a mild to a severe sense of panic when you picture what still needs to be done.
That’s when it’s time for a braindump. You can either take a break and write about all the demands that are placed on you, or you can sit down and make a list of all you need to do, and then review what you are going to do and when you are going to do it.
4. Use chunks of time to move projects forward
I’ve mentioned this before, but can’t stress it enough: the times of sitting down for a couple of days in a row and cranking out a paper are over (unless you want to work through the night on a weekend).
You can’t pull that off a couple of days before a deadline anymore. It’s time to gear up in terms of efficiency and being organized: plan two hours daily (or a few times a week) for a few weeks to move your writing forward.
The same advice holds true for any (new) research project that you will be working on. And of course, you’ll have to schedule in blocks to prepare your classes, grading, office hours etc. Leave enough buffer time between tasks, or you may feel “behind” all day. Experiment with your optimum chunks of time.
5.Make smart choices
As you advance in your career, you’ll be met with increasing opportunities. But at a certain point, you’ll have to start saying no and learn to make smart choices.
If your schedule is beyond packed, accepting to review a paper might not be the right choice. Sometimes, however, the exact opposite could be true: reviewing that paper might be just the right move.
Do not forget one very important aspect: the joy of science. Don’t reach the point where you start feeling suffocated by your todo list and don’t have time to fiddle around with ideas or play around in the lab.
Stay true to yourself and what brings joy to your work and invest in those areas. They are your natural strengths, and will ultimately have a positive effect on your career.
6.Set an ending time to your day
With an endless task list, you might feel as if the day is never long enough and you need to work until late. Stop that now. I learned this the hard way, and now I stop working at 6 pm every day when working in Ecuador. For my short research-intensive month in the Netherlands, I stay a bit later, but that’s exceptional.
When I’m in my regular routine, it’s no later than 6pm: tomorrow is another day. I also try to set a digital curfew at 9 pm to finish the day in a relaxed mode. Try it out, I’m pretty sure you’ll sleep better.
7. Take good care of yourself
Eat well, exercise, get enough sleep and go out for fresh air and sunshine (hello vitamin D!) It’s so obvious, everybody ’s saying it, but you really need to start taking these things seriously if you want to see your productivity soar. It’s all about feeling better and being more focused.
If you currently are living on TV dinners, find yourself surfing the internet late at night and going to bed too late, or are out of breath after climbing a flight of stairs, do not despair.
Just take it slowly, change one habit at a time and try to stick with it for 30 days before adding something new. You will slowly but surely notice the change and will never go back.
Preparing, teaching and managing courses is a challenge if you still want to keep time available for research, writing papers, catching up with the literature, service commitments and more.
1. Plan your lectures
Have an overview in the syllabus of what you’d like to teach in every course hour you’ve been allotted. Try to avoid vague descriptions of “I will cover topics X, Y and Z”, without really knowing how deep you want to go into them. Having a schedule for the entire semester will help you prepare your classes.
You will know how to limit the amount of material to prepare based on time. Your schedule can also work as a booster for your preparations – just like a good plan for a paper can give an impetus to your productivity.
2.Plan class preparation time
It might sound very obvious, but if you teach a lecture, you also need time to prepare for it. The rule of thumb seems to be that you need about two to four hours to prepare each lecture hour.
For new topics, you probably need very close to four hours for the class preparation alone, not taking into account the time it takes to develop homework, exams and to grade.
Since your classes probably run on a fixed schedule on a weekly basis, it can be very helpful to schedule your class preparation time with a weekly template.
3. Plan time for grading
Preparing class might take quite some time, but this is also true for grading homework and exams. If you plan your week or month ahead, you can schedule time after homework due dates to grade it. I try to grade exams and homework within 24 hours of receiving it: I consider it good practice to provide prompt feedback to the students.
4. Sort out the technical part before the semester
If you are going to play around with presentations on your laptop or tablet, it can be helpful to check the classroom in which you will be teaching in advance to see if everything is working.
If you are going to use computer labs, make sure the computers have all the licenses you need for teaching. If you are teaching a laboratory class, try to make sure you have all materials before the semester start.
5. Find your best teaching schedule
If your university allows you to suggest class hours, it can be convenient to take your personal rhythm into account. My most productive hours are in the early morning, a time of the day I set aside for working out and writing my papers.
After lunch, I typically get a little sleepy, and teaching at that time (and standing up and talking) is the perfect way to mitigate my post foodcoma. I would get way less work done if I’d spend that time behind my computer trying to solve some deep problems.
6. Protect your data
As sad as it is, some students will go to great lengths to know exam questions or to change their grades behind your back. Keep an eye on your accounts and your data.
7. Ask for a TA
If you can get a teaching assistant to supervise and grade exams, go for it. It always takes some effort to delegate work, but in the long run, having a TA can be a godsend.
Once you know he/she is trustworthy, you can let go and trust him/her with work that might otherwise take up your precious research time (or, sometimes, unfortunately, the time you spend sitting in meetings).
8. Do you really need to grade every homework assignment?
Ask yourself if you really need to grade every single piece of homework. I ’ve known professors who simply write “1” if it’s been submitted, “0” if it hasn’t. I remember professors who would give us the solutions and let us grade our homework ourselves.
I’m currently trying a combination between short assignments that require students to sit down with their course book and work through something, which is graded based on submission (“1” or “0”), and longer assignments that I need to be fully revised.
9. Highlight possible exam questions in the course book
One way to gather exam questions while preparing lectures is to highlight possible exam questions in the course book while reading it.
Once you are at the point of preparing an exam, you can simply go through these highlights and notes about possible questions, and pick a number of questions.
10.Print all your material at the semester start
I try to print and copy all material (homework assignments, syllabi, notes, homework solutions, additional material) at the very beginning of the semester, and then distribute it as the semester progresses.
Especially if your university complicates the process of actual printing and copying by, for example, sending you to a copy center, it can save you quite some time if you do everything at once at the semester start.
Protip: Don’t be a perfectionist!
I still see a lot of room for improvement in my courses. I started teaching without fancy PowerPoint presentations. Slowly but surely my class preparation notes are turning into course presentations. I sometimes wish I could write my own course book or at least a bundle with examples that the students can use as material to prepare for their exams.
The reality is that I only have a given number of hours in the day and that I will make these improvements and changes over the next few years.
If you want everything perfectly prepared, you’ll be spending way too much time preparing for one single lecture hour, and you’ll be sick with exhaustion by the end of the semester.
HOW TO START UP A NEW LABORATORY
Here’s a list of what to keep in mind when you develop your lab space:
1. Get to know the local lab equipment providers
If you need to import test equipment from abroad, it can be helpful to get to know the brands that have a local representative. This representative can help you with equipment installation, regular maintenance and calibration, and troubleshooting of any issues you may have with the equipment. A good technical representative can help you with all that.
2. It’s OK to start small…
Unless you have managed to secure a large budget for your laboratory development, chances are that you’ll have to start small and take time to develop the entire space. I’m currently housed in a space that only represents 10% of the floor space I need, but it is something, and we use the space and equipment we have to its fullest.
3.…but make sure you get results with a small lab to notify the authorities of its importance
As long as I don’t have a big lab floor, I can’t continue the experimental research I want to do. But that doesn’t mean I’m just going to sit in a corner and wait until I finally have the space I need.
Space our department currently has is what I’ve been using for teaching, for giving space to the students who competed in the national and international concrete competition, and for thesis projects.
We’ve had excellent results with our small space: our students won the national competition and ended up second in the international competition. And these results have not gone unnoticed by the university’s authorities.
4. Get help
Hire a lab assistant and/or a technician. If you’re on the tenure track and need to publish, teach, carry out research and more, then you simply don’t have the time to run to the store whenever you need to.
5. Plan stages
You could walk into the university and ask for a million dollars, but what are the chances of that working? I was asked to subdivide the laboratory’s development into stages, and to focus on the most urgent needs first. We’re way behind on the original plan, but at least we are producing results, and I keep pushing to realize the next stages.
6. Involve your students
The more people you involve, the more enthusiasm there will be for your laboratory. By now, our small space is almost always full of people and bubbling with activity.
7. Get professional affiliations
See if your lab can become tied to a professional organization, set up a student chapter of a professional organization, or organize certification exams in your new lab. You’ll be able to leave your ivory tower, involve more local practitioners in your lab, and build a stronger reputation.
8. Ask for donations
Ask producers for material or even used laboratory equipment donations. Whatever you are given for free help, of course, and you’d be surprised how often companies are willing to give a small donation to universities for educational purposes.
9. Dream big
Last but not least: pour your heart and soul into your laboratory’s development and dream big.
The civil engineering laboratory of USFQ officially opened in November, and we’ve organized the national concrete competition, won it, reached second place in the international competition, are doing some interesting undergraduate research projects, have started a student chapter of the American Concrete Institute – and all from an abandoned greenhouse on campus.
This success not only makes us proud but also motivates us to keep working towards a better and larger laboratory.
HOW TO OUTLINE A SEMESTER PLAN
1. Outline your major goals for the semester
Before you go into all the details about your semester, take a break and ask yourself: What are the five most important things to do this semester? Once you have outlined these five tasks, try to identify when during the semester you will work on each project/task.
Will you work a few hours a week on each project, to make sure all projects move forward at the same pace?
Will you tackle one project at a time?
2. Create a weekly plan
Now that you have the big tasks of your semester identified, try to fit them into a weekly schedule. The elements that you need to fit in are (among others):
reading papers/keeping up with the output in your field
faculty responsibilities (such as directing a lab)
service on committees and other regular meetings
time to reply to emails
Once you have identified your building bricks, you can start to construct your semester’s framework. First, think of how many hours a week you are willing to work. 30? 40? 50?
I don’t recommend that you plan to work more than 60 hours a week, because your brain needs to refresh and refocus from time to time. Then, distribute the hours that you have over the different categories.
Typically, your time can be divided among the following categories:
teaching: the number of hours you are actually in class
class preparation: two hours for one hour of class if it’s a course you’ve taught before; four if it is a new course
research: a few chunks of two hours throughout the week
writing papers: at least one hour a day
reading papers / keeping up with the output in your field: at least twice a week for one hour
faculty responsibilities (such as directing a lab): at least three times a week for one hour
service on committees and other regular meetings: as scheduled
office hours: depends on your university guidelines
time to reply emails: about one hour per day
admin time: half an hour a day
3. Create a semester plan Here are a few things to identify:
When will assignments be due, and when will you take midterms?
What are your important self-imposed deadlines for your research?
What are good times throughout the semester to follow up with (international) collaborators?
Have these elements sorted, and add them to your plan.
You will see that, as the semester progresses, your weekly schedule will serve as a guide, but it shouldn’t be a terribly rigid plan. You are able and allowed to move things around if necessary.
Similarly, you can identify weeks where your schedule might be disrupted because of conferences or other special events. Make sure you already build these elements into your semester schedule.
4.Plan personal activities
Don’t forget to plan activities that you find important into your weekly and semester schedule.
On a weekly basis, you might think of planning time for workouts, social activities, date nights and other “regular” activities that you will want to do repeatedly during the semester.
Make time for them, and put them in your plan. You will feel much better if you arrange a quality time for yourself, rather repeatedly just lying around the house after work.
Then, on a semester basis, plan out a few enjoyable things you want to do. It’s OK to spend an entire weekend working, if necessary, but don’t do so the entire semester – you might want to have something to look forward to on a shorter notice.
Decide what you want to do with your semester breaks: working on a paper, and driving out to the mountains for a hike are good options. Sleeping in, “trying to write, replying emails and watching TV less so.
Now that you have your schedule figured it, it’s time to get to work. Or at least, ideally. In reality, social media platforms, news, food, games, your phone, puppy, and mother-in-law all want your attention. So remember your Big Rocks of the semester, and focus on them.
You will feel more successful working on a difficult task with a few breaks for coffee and walks than if you try to work for a short while and procrastinate on social media.
Focus, focus, focus – try to think of what you will remember of this semester in two or five years from now.
Working hard also means patting yourself on the back. No one will do it for you. Finished a paper on time? Go get a message.
Submitted your research proposal? Head to the beach for a weekend. Graded all those exams? Time for a movie.
Got a paper accepted? Go out to dinner and celebrate.
Life is to be enjoyed – and as academics, we’re often too hard on ourselves. So take good care of yourself, and welcome a bit of sparkle into your semester. This bit of magic will make your semester so much more balanced and enjoyable.
Regardless of where you are in your academic career, finding time and space for deep work is essential to move your research forward.
So how can we make sure that, within the jungle of responsibilities we have, we can do our deep work – the deep thinking that actually moves our research forward, the very core of advancing our field?
1. Block periods of time for deep work
If you don’t schedule it, it is not going to happen. Since I have quite a number of different tasks, combined with a heavy teaching load, I make a weekly template for my semester and make sure I block at least ten hours a week for research.
Those hours are then subdivided into time for writing papers, reading papers, and doing the actual research. While these hours are limited, I block them off in my calendar and protect them for dear life.
2. Make sure everything you need is on your desk
If you have made time for your hour of deep thinking (or more time, if you can), then make sure you have everything on your desk you need.
Get all the research papers you need, take a pencil and paper, take your data, and then toss out everything you don’t need. Mute your phone and stash it in a drawer, move your laptop to the side, and focus on the essentials.
Having everything ready on your desk is an excellent way to avoid having to leave your desk to search for a book. Similarly, clearing away all distractions sets the tone for a block of time of uninterrupted, deep work.
3.Take it step by step
Don’t sit down with pen and paper thinking you will once and for all solve the mystery of the meaning of life and the universe. Break your research question down into smaller steps.
See where you can push the boundaries of what you know, and start exploring from there. Question the boundary conditions of what you read and the assumptions of standing theories, and explore bit by bit.
4.Hang into the discomfort
Deep work can be deeply satisfying and rewarding, but it is not a means for instant gratification. You only reap the rewards after a time of friction and discomfort. Don’t give up when you feel that discomfort starts to arise.
Don’t listen to those inner voices that tell you that you will never be able to solve the problem. Take it slowly, one step at a time, and suddenly you will feel that the gears in your head spinning again.
5. Start small, and reward yourself
If you are not used to remaining uncomfortable and doing deep work, you might want to start small and build up your focus muscle. You won’t be able to sit in monklike concentration for eight hours straight if you are used to multitasking and rushing around campus. However, challenge yourself to start small – say, 25 minutes at first.
If you manage to concentrate on the problem for 25 minutes, then pat yourself on the back, eat your favorite food for lunch or promise yourself a glass of wine and a good read that evening. Learn to hang into that discomfort, and reward yourself later on.
YOUR ACADEMIC SCHEDULE
This is my schedule. As you can see, I code my tasks by color.
Green = sports
Light blue = research
Yellow = personal time
Dark Blue = Class preparation
Indigo = Class
Pink = Blog scheduling
Orange = Office Hours
Red = email and appointments
This weekly template is the basis for my weekly planning. I keep track of my tasks in ToDoist, and every Friday evening (as you can see in my template), I sit down to review what work I accomplished during the week, and what needs to be done, per category, on a weekly basis. I fill in the boxes with the specific tasks that await me (using up only 75% of my allotted time, so I have enough buffer to catch up).
WHAT I WISH I’D KNOWN
After a few semesters of teaching behind me, there are a number of things I wish I knew when I started out as a professor.
1Slowly move your papers forward
Even with a heavy teaching load, the most important aspect of your academic life is still your publications.
If you did not get to write the papers from your dissertation during your postdoc, you need to do it while getting settled into a new job, new university and maybe even a new country. Try to carve out at least two blocks of two hours every week to work on your papers.
Important: writing papers, research projects, preparing for classes, lab setup, technical committee work. Not important: email, meetings, review requests. Learn how to set up an urgent/important matrix, and prioritize. Learn to accept that, as long as things move forward, you are making progress.
3. Make self-care a priority
If you have a lot on your plate, you risk getting sick if you don’t take proper care of yourself. Having more work to do does not mean inflating your working hours: this will not make you more productive. Cut down on the decadent tasks and focus on what really matters – and yes, you are what matters.
4. Tell others when you need time to arrange paperwork
If you are one of the few foreigners in a given university, your colleagues might not be aware of how difficult immigrating was. Tell your colleagues when you need to go and sit in a government institution for yet another entire afternoon.
Explain how complicated simple things can be for foreigners. Ask them to give you a little break when you’re in the middle of sorting things out.
5. Go into hiding
Set up a home office, and work from home. I use two early morning blocks of time for writing my papers or doing research related work. When I need to concentrate, I make sure I can’t be found.
Yes, this attitude might sound selfish, but you have work to do and need to learn to be ruthless: if you want things to move forward, then take that time off from being available to colleagues and students and work from home.
6. Minimum preparation
Having class notes is enough. There’s no need to develop notes and slides and a handbook and examples and everything in one single semester. I developed the basic notes in my first semester, and from then on have been focusing on a single course each semester that I am improving.
These improvements might include the development of additional examples or make slides instead of writing everything on the whiteboard.
7.Take matters into your own hands
Need a lab? Start making a proposal, and once you have permission, start bugging every single person to make things happen. You can’t just send a document to somebody and expect them to get back to you.
You have to continuously remind people to look at your proposal, to ask for money even though you might have received the approval, and follow up with the budget flow as much as you can.
If possible, hire a lab assistant right when the first equipment starts to arrive – you simply won’t have enough time to do everything so you need to learn to delegate.
8. Keep reading papers
Whatever happens, reading papers is very important to keep up with your field’s recent developments. I’m currently trying to schedule two blocks of one hour every week to read papers, and I plan in advance what I need to read.
The time spent supervising exams is also a great window. Remember that reading sparks creativity – learn to read papers, hunting for possible thesis ideas that might help your research.
9 Set up a grading system
Don’t fret too much over how you will grade exams. I simply subdivide every answer into steps, each with an assigned number of points. If a student reaches a certain step in the answer, he/she might get the points up to that step of the answer.
Just sum the points, and move on. Grade per question, not per exam – this technique helps you to keep in mind what the previous student wrote and how many points you are taking off for standard mistakes (such as: missing units, calculation errors).
SELFCARE IN ACADEMIA
Here’s a list of activities for which I make and take time to prevent me from turning into a bookworm:
1. Exercise Lack of exercise can make you more tired, less focused and less likely to sleep well.
2. Music Whether you listen to or play music, it can help your creativity.
3. Creativity Finding time to engage in creative exercises is important for researchers: you need the ability to think outside the box when coming up with novel solutions in your research.
4. Learning new skills and broadening your understanding of this world is not only important for your personal development but helps you make links between disciplines and teaches you to study research problems from a different angle.
5. Writing Maintaining a blog forces you to show up and write, even if you don’t feel like it. Sometimes, that’s where the magic happens.
6. Gaming It might not benefit your research, but if you need to switch off your brain, it’s good to get engrossed in a faraway quest.
7. Cooking Preparing your food in advance and always keeping it on you makes sure you have the right fuel for the day.
8. Meditation is as important for your mind as exercise is for your body. Make sure you sleep enough as well in order to recharge your batteries.
9. Reading This also helps your mind, fuels your creativity, and improves your writing.