So I spent another weekend at Thèsez-vous, my favourite (and only) thesis-writing retreat! The first one I went to was held at a child’s summer camp, this one was in an old convent, but the experience was similar. There is a very rigid schedule: we have blocks of writing time, interspersed with outdoor play time, meals and breaks and snacks, a somewhat condescending workshop with an experience academic, and some yoga and meditation. We set goals for each writing period at the beginning, write them on post-its, and then move the post-its from the ‘to do’ section to the ‘in progress’ section, to ‘done.’ I found it super motivational, and though I thought I knew all there is to know about myself as a writer/academic, I found it pretty neat to realise that micro-structuring my time seems to be helpful. I didn’t achieve all my goals, but I did leave with a road map (or detailed outline) for the rest of the results/discussion, and a view of the end in sight, very very far in the distance, but in sight! So I’m hyper motivated and happy.
Of course, when I returned home it was to a whole other set of deadlines, none of which involve the thesis. This week I could write a blog post titled ‘How not to write a journal in 7 days,’ and then there’s another article to edit, some data for a third project to analyse, a conference submission or two to prepare, some preservice teachers to supervise, the MA student I am co-supervising needs me to read her document (I think it’s somewhere around 50 pages long), and besides organizing a conference, meeting with the teachers for a fourth project (where at least I am not the lead researcher), and meeting with some colleagues to discuss the possibility of starting a bilingual academic journal focused on early childhood education and care, oh and that book proposal I am supposed to write with some other colleagues…well, I should get a chance to work on the thesis again sometime soon.
Oh and did I mention I’m doing the Crossfit Open, going to start training for a 30k running race when the snow melts, and preparing to move with my partner and 2 kids to the city where my job is actually located? But thèsez-vous was an amazing experience, I highly recommend it to any grad students in Quebec or eastern Ontario. They have a Facebook page now where you can meet up at cafés and work. You just announce where you will be, put a clothespin on your laptop, and wait for the other students to show up and motivate you. I met a woman at the retreat who works full time so she either attends a formal retreat or organises an informal one with friends once a month, and she says she’s making excellent progress. My next plan is to try the informal rent a chalet with friends and attempt to reproduce the vortex of writing joy and vacation feel. I’ll keep you posted if it happens!
The Slow Academic, who is one of my academic superheroes primarily due to the name of her blog, recently posted about a conference she attended where the presenter inserted “thinking time” into her weekly timetable. Another article, this one on the Chronicle of Higher Education, discusses scheduling blocks of time for “deep work.”
I am not interested in chaining myself (any more than I already am) to my agenda. I wish I could unschedule my time. Now I appreciate living a life (and having a job) where I am (mostly) the one in charge of deciding what I do when. I often take an hour out of my work day to exercice, I work in cafés or at home, in the train or my office, I volunteer at my son’s school once every couple of weeks. My work time is split into teaching and the work that surrounds teaching (preparing, evaluating, meeting with students, and thinking); service and admin tasks (mostly meeting others in person or virtually, and doing follow-up work and communication between meetings and thinking); and research, which at the moment involves reading and writing (deep work), but also can include meeting with people, travelling to international conferences, and yes, thinking. This is one of the things I love about my job, and hopefully this variety and the constant evolution of courses and research and service commitments will make me want to stick with this job for the long haul.
Personally, my strategy is not to schedule more (to include thinking and other “slow” or “unproductive” tasks into my agenda), but to schedule less. To be loose with my time, to include more time than I think tasks will take in the schedule, and to be kind to myself when I just can’t concentrate on the task I had planned. To understand that some days what I had planned to take 6 hours will get done in 1, on other days it takes all day just to do something I thought would take 15 minutes, and on some days, my brain refuses to go into the deep thought place it needs to be, so I do less taxing work tasks like responding to emails, reviewing other people’s work, and doing the laundry. I only work evening and weekends when deadlines are dire, and I try my best to prevent this from happening. I manage to “produce” enough, but I judge my “productivity” on what I contribute. Did I make a new colleague feel welcome today? Did the article I published or the paper I presented make others think and question what they thought they knew? Did it inspire them? Did what I said at the meeting make a positive contribution, to the task at hand or more generally to some aspect of the field of Education?
Do you have any other ways to measure contribution on a daily or yearly basis? How do you handle scheduling your time?
I had just sat down to go over my ppt for the class I’m teaching on Tuesday, nervous because I hadn’t finished it during the week. But he was right, so I closed the computer and spent the day playing Pokémon cards with him. I am so thankful he’s there to remind me of what’s really important. My teenager went out with her friends, and soon the little one will no longer want to spend his weekends playing with me, but I will try to remember that weekends are only to be used for work in extreme emergencies. Thank you Noah!
I just read another great blog post on Thesis Whisperer about all the shiny balls that distract us from focusing on the PhD. I love this analogy. I have the shiny prize at the end (the tenure-track job), but still have not finished the PhD, and the crazy shiny balls keep coming at me: publishing opportunities, conference organizing, service opportunities, exciting new courses to teach – and that fear that if we don’t take them all we’ll be harming our career. I keep telling myself this is a long-term commitment and that my goal is to maintain health and sanity and joy in the long-term – I’m very inspired by the Slow Professor movement – but some days I am just too tempted by those shiny balls! My solution is to find something outside of work to obsess over positively, a hobby – marathon training, knitting, whatever brings you joy and a feeling of accomplishment, so you don’t spend all your free time feeling bad about stagnant PhD progress.
One of my colleagues who was hired a few months before me is about to submit her final draft, a few of my good friends and colleagues who started around the same time I did are also reaching the end. If I am honest with myself I know I have at least 6 more months of work to do (and I am not advancing at all at the moment because I am teaching 4 courses (so I can not teach during the Winter term and finish the thesis). I kind of feel like I am running in place and watching everyone else whiz by, but they motivate me, these determined colleagues who keep their heads down and ignore the balls flying past. I am trying to follow Belinda Lawton’s advice and say no to new opportunities, or at least not seek them out, but I’m only partly successful.
It’s a crazy busy time of year, and I have the added pleasures and pressures of preparing my one-year evaluation and spending next week at a conference, but here is an interesting post about the whole trigger warning controversy (which I have never ever encountered in Quebec, though I read about it often on Facebook) from a blog with such a great title that I couldn’t resist sharing it!
I downloaded the thesis map document from the Thesis Whisperer website a year ago. Since then I’ve pushed back my deadlines 4 or 5 times. My thesis is moving forward, just at a much slower pace than I anticipated. This is mostly because transcription and analysis took way longer than I could have imagined at the outset, and I am fully living my work slowly ethic (which apparently is a thing). This post is not a complaint, it is an explanation of why I am OK with the fact that after 5 years, I am still not finished, and cannot easily predict when I will submit.
The main reason is because I see this as a long-term commitment to academia. I have a tenure-track job. I need to complete the PhD if I want to keep it, but I am trying to put into place good habits from the onset. Once the PhD is done, there will be other research projects, there will always be more to do, and more to write. That’s why I don’t work evenings or weekends. That’s why I take time to exercise, to be there for my kids, to go see circus shows and music performances and attempt to have a social life. I need this lifestyle to be more than sustainable, I need it to be enjoyable. I love what I do, and I want it to stay that way for many years.
The other reason is that I am involved in many side projects, some related to publishing, others related to service or teaching. Maybe because I work at a small, not so highly ranked university, maybe because we have a great union, but I am not in danger of not meeting the minimum job requirements, I am not worried about not getting tenure (unless of course I don’t finish the PhD). So I do these additional projects – collaborating on other people’s research projects, accepting an offer to write a chapter on a topic that is indirectly related to my research, volunteering to be president of our national early childhood research association, etc, etc – because I want to, because they allow me to work with some really amazing people, because they push me to learn and stretch, and because they increase the chances that my work can make a real impact. I know the traditional advice is to wait, to concentrate all my energies on finishing the thesis, but I am impatient and impulsive, yet thoughtful and reflective. This makes for an interesting combination as I say yes to activities that help me craft my job the way I want it to be, for the long haul.
So there you go, I am doing my best not to stress about the time it is taking, to focus on making the thesis good, not just good enough, and I am enjoying the journey most days.
But they’re done! Even the one case that won’t be included in the actual thesis, in case I want to use it for another publication eventually. I still have 4 more to do, two of which need to be transcribed and analyzed for a book chapter due in June (2 months from now!), but I am officially done transcribing the interviews for my doctoral thesis – this is a huge milestone, given how tortuous actually transcribing them was. First I played them back at 60% speed using ExpressScribe software and my trusty transcription pedal, and then I listened again and checked the transcription at 90% speed. I didn’t calculate how long this took me, because the main problem was that even though I find the participants’ narratives fascinating, I found the actual transcription incredibly boring – it goes against my nature to be so painstakingly thorough, listening again and again to the same sentence to make sure I got every single word right. Everyone asked why I did it myself, and I insisted that it was because the transcription is my first stage of analysis, I am now very very familiar with my data. But, I transcribed 54 (10 to 45 minute long) interviews over the course of 2 years. I am glad I did it myself, but, as I plan on continuing to do qualitative research that requires transcription (and I don’t believe every interview needs to be transcribed, they did for this project because of the methodology), next time I will pay someone else to do the actual transcription, and then I will check each one myself to correct or clarify minor errors. That way I can still listen to my data myself, but not quite so much.
I almost didn’t work on the transcriptions today because my to-do list is filled with small tasks I need to do for other people: read over student papers, correct a colleague’s English, read over a book proposal, committee work…but I know I will do those things at the last minute and I decided to prioritize my thesis. I am so pleased!
I wanted to write this post before the Christmas break, but I realized I hadn’t yet survived the semester, because I had an assignment and an exam to correct (70 of each, actually) over the holidays. By the time I was done, the next semester had started…so here we are in mid-February. The course I taught during this intensive session just ended, but I have oral presentation marks to compile (I had them evaluate each other, which seemed like a great idea at the time, but turned out to be an organizational nightmare), and final papers to mark (60 of them). Still, if I stop accepting side projects, I should be able to make serious progress on my thesis very soon.
So what have I learned? What will I do differently next time round? What would I do differently if I had to do it all again?
First of all, I learned that you can’t be perfect the first time round. I taught 2 new courses this year, to a different clientele (young future kindergarten teachers, instead of adult childcare educators), at a new university. They went well, but now I know what to adjust next time, both in terms of content and because I am getting a sense of who the students are, so I have some ideas about how to adjust the emotional support/encouragement/community building I need to do with them. Next year won’t be perfect either, but it should be better.
I also learned to never schedule a final paper the week before or after a final exam – especially if I don’t have any teaching assistantship help. I don’t ever want to spend all of the Christmas break correcting again.
I learned that professors from other universities, who ignored you as a graduate student, call up and ask you to collaborate with them once you become a professor, even if you don’t have your PhD yet. I learned that without a PhD you’re not entitled to university or research council funding, so it’s OK to pay the student rate on conference registrations. It’s not OK to apply for scholarships because you would be taking a significant amount of money away from a grad student without a real salary, even if all your salary is being used to pay back the debts you acquired as a student.
I could have taken my 2 course reductions for the purpose of integration in the Fall, and spent the whole semester finishing my thesis. I was too excited about the job, and logistically it made more sense to take 1 reduction this Winter, and one next Winter (because I am still commuting each week). I have mixed feelings about this. It was a lot easier to teach the second course because I had taught the first one, and being present on campus helped me get to know my colleagues. Let’s face it, finishing the thesis might have been the smarter option, but sometimes you have other priorities.
I am not surprised that the balance between research and teaching is hard to maintain, that teaching takes up a LOT of my time. I am hoping that teaching the same classes next year will help a bit, but I think this is just part of the job.
I also wish I could teach smaller classes, because I find 60, or even 40 and 30, too big to really get to know the students and provide the best possible education – although I shouldn’t complain, I know there are people who teach classes of 100, 200, 500!
In the end, I probably wouldn’t do anything differently if I could go back and start again – I would still feel really lucky to have this job and I would still be highly critical of myself, particularly in terms of teaching. I would still procrastinate when it come to the boring parts of the job – like marking, and transcribing, and I would still agree to start or be part of too many projects, because they are so exciting…even if the advice I would give to others would be different!
Some company released a top 50 list of research universities in Canada this week and my university (the one I work at, not the one I study at) was ranked number 48. I was proud to share this with friends, family and colleagues. It’s kind of like saying, I feel like I won the lottery, but please don’t envy me, you wouldn’t want this position anyway. I am also happy about this because the university doesn’t have insane expectations for productivity, so you can be a professor and have a really great work-life balance. I have already mentioned the teaching load that feels very reasonable to me, but there are also minimum yearly requirements for research, service, and administrative tasks. For example, I need to be working on two research projects at all times and have 2 “communications” a year (that’s a paper or a conference presentation!). Like I said, I feel like I won the lottery. But, this week I submitted an article, and am working on another 2 articles and a chapter. I’m part of 2 grant submissions (as collaborator or co-researcher), I was officially invited to be a keynote at an international conference (OMG! In 2017, but more on that some other time), I’m preparing for 2 conference presentations in Europe during the next month, I’m guest editing a special issue of a journal, I’m organizing a couple of conference events, I’m preparing another conference submission, I’m being interviewed on the radio…that’s three years of minimum requirements right there (not all of it is research, some is service, but still). Now I understand that October is a busy time for researchers in Canada (maybe elsewhere too), but I stopped and asked myself what I’m doing all this for? Yes, yes, I like doing these things, most of them were my idea, but am I doing it all because I am contributing to something larger than myself, or am I hooked on recognition? One of my professor friends is super critical of the whole academic rat-race, ad particularly of the self-congratulatory posts on department websites – so and so published a book, so and so was interviewed in the newspaper, so and so’s grant proposal was ranked number 1…He asked me if I craved recognition like that and quickly answered for himself that of course I didn’t, but I’m not so sure. What I am sure of is that I don’t want to do things for the wrong reasons. I don’t want to publish or present just for recognition. I want to share my work because I have something important to say, but then, is it the work I want recognized, or myself as a scholar? And what about all those academic social media sites, academia, research gate, even this blog – do we do them to network and keep up with what colleagues are working on, or to check how many views and downloads we get? I am off to spend my Saturday revising my book chapter – more existential reflections later!
Maybe it’s the years I spent coordinating a research group, or as a student rep sitting in on faculty meetings, but the reality of life as a professor has not come as a shock. I’m lucky, I only teach 4 courses a year (and have 2 course reductions over the first 2 years) – this semester I’m teaching the same course to two groups, so it’s only 1 planning, that I’m sharing with a colleague teaching the same course on a different campus. This is actually less work than I did as an instructor. One of my colleagues taught 6 courses during one semester last year, as an instructor, at two different institutions, so this is definitely an improvement. The other thing is, I get paid for all the volunteer time I used to put in – service and admin are part of my yearly task, so I actually get paid to organize conferences, review papers, and attend meetings. But still, I have a tendency to be too hard on myself, to want to do everything perfectly, especially teaching. I wish I cared less about whether or not my students enjoy my class and find it useful, but it’s my biggest source of stress (well, that and the looming deadlines…). This blog post is the one that has stuck with me, the mantra I repeat in my head when the guest speaker I invited did not live up to my expectations, or when I rush through things that I wish I had more time to do properly. Some highlights:
“Your job is not to advance the academy. It is not to change the academy. It is not to improve the academy.
Your job is not to win a teaching award.
Your job is to make friends with other junior faculty in your department and in other departments, and go out to coffee or lunch with them on a regular basis.
Your job is to find a trusted senior colleague as mentor, and to meet with that colleague at least twice a semester.
Your job is to maintain some semblance of a home life and a relationship with the important people in your life.
Your job is to maintain a hobby or outside interest that feeds your soul.”