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.”
I’m working on a workshop on this subject with a couple of colleagues, and wanted to use the blog as a place to fiddle around with ideas. As I have no time at the moment, here are a couple of blog posts/articles on other sites that are helping me adjust to my new double life:
Survival Guide (don’t read the French version, it’s abridged)
I’ll add more in the next few weeks…
Is it a coincidence that I received a complimentary review copy of The Professor is In’s new book, The Essential Guide to Turning Your PhD into a Job (by Karen Kelsky) on the same day as I received my first tenure-track job offer? No, you didn’t miss anything, my PhD is not complete, not really all that close – I still have 4 more interviews to transcribe, lots of analysis, and some chapters to write, and re-write. But I did manage to get a job as “Assistant Professor of Preschool Education” as an ABD at a pretty much unknown (outside of Quebec) public university (a very small university) in a city that is 2 and a half hours away from where I live with my partner and our two kids, one of whom just started high school this Fall (none of my family members were interested in moving cities 2 weeks before the start of the school year, so I’m a train-in, train-out academic this year – more on that in a later post).
So this post is a review of the book, as well as a plea to The Professor (or anyone really) to write the How to Survive Your First Year on the Tenure-Track, and How to Complete Your Dissertation While Working As a Prof books. First things first, the book:
I discovered the Professor Is In’s blog and website almost a year ago, when I noticed the end of my scholarship looming and realized I needed to start applying for jobs. Due to my inability to correctly read the postdoc application (I thought I had to have submitted a final draft before applying), I started applying to adjunct positions and tenure-track jobs that mentioned ABDs (and a few that didn’t). Of course, one of my primary concerns was what to wear to a job interview, should I ever be offered one, and I stumbled upon the Professor Is In site when I googled “what to wear to an academic job interview.” I was immediately hooked, as her blog/site is all about how to play the academic game, and why you shouldn’t want to. Now I follow her on Facebook, and you can too!
When her book came out, I was super excited, and I put it on my wishlist, because even though it only retails for less than 9$, said scholarship was long gone and my credit card maxed out. So imagine my joy and amazement when the publisher offered me a free copy in exchange for a book review on the blog!
The book is basically the blog in book form, so while I had already read the section on what to wear to an interview or what the search committee really wants to know when they ask those interview questions, it is great to have all that content organized logically and in book format. I really like being able to flip through the table of contents or open the book randomly and begin reading, depending on my mood. The information is useful and straight-to-the-point, and while it is somewhat disheartening to read about the decline of higher education funding in the U.S., it’s really credible and helpful. Kelsky takes her readers step-by-step through the job search process, with practical advice on how to prepare application materials, rock the job talk, and negotiate an offer, as well as everything in between.
Writing from Canada, and from a position where I can work at either French- or English-language universities, it mostly served to terrify me and make me feel really lucky to have a job at all. For example, in describing the job search, The Professor explains that a university may get 900 applications for a single job. She writes mostly from her experience in the humanities and social sciences (she was an anthropologist focused on Japan) working in the U.S. (the blog tends to be a bit broader with guest posts about applying for jobs in the U.K., as well as how to tailor your application for different types of institutions). This is not so much a criticism as it is a celebration of the detail of the book, and a call to other academics or former academics to publish similar books about job searches in other places. I applied to jobs in the U.K. and Australia and had a hard time figuring out the different titles (what is a Reader anyway?) and whether it’s a bad sign to be invited to an interview on the afternoon of December 24th (in Canada that would not happen, and if it did, you wouldn’t want to work at that university, but in England it appears to be within normal parameters).
The Professor also seems to assume that her readers are young and have gone straight from bachelors to masters to PhD without any professional experience. This is problematic for two reasons. First, chapter six, The Attributes of a Competitive Tenure-Track Candidate is basically a list of attributes for an emotionally mature candidate, things that those of us with professional experience and life experience should already have. Other sections of the book (Myths Grad Students Believe; How to Stop Acting Like a Grad Student, etc.) are similar. However, the author doesn’t discuss age discrimination (against the young or old) in academic hiring, how old is too old for a tenure-track position, which disciplines tend to value youth and which tend to value professional experience, and other concerns that might apply to those of us in our 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s when we complete the PhD.
Second, working in an applied field, I was disappointed that she didn’t mention the importance of professional experience. I’m in Education, where teaching experience in early childhood, elementary or secondary education is often mentioned in the job ad. I remember being a teacher candidate and being unimpressed when we were taught by researchers who seemed to have no understanding of what it’s like to teach children in a classroom. I understand that there are probably very few jobs in anthropology, philosophy, sociology etc. outside the university setting, so this may not be something she’s familiar with, but it would be nice to have a better understanding of the emphasis to place on professional experience vs. university teaching vs. research experience in the job search process.
While most grad students would probably be tempted to read the book as they begin to feel out the job market, in order to set yourself up to be number 1 out of 900, Kelsky’s advice begins with choosing the highest ranking school that offers you funding, choosing the right supervisor, and setting out a 5-year-plan as soon as you begin grad school. I’m not sure how to suggest she market it to those considering entry into doctoral programs, but I think the title sends the message that the book is addressed to those who are finished or close to finishing their studies, and often by that time, it’s too late to build the academic and publishing record and network she suggests. However, she doesn’t address being strategic about what field (and subfield) you enter, which seems to me could really influence your chances of landing a tenure-track. Early Childhood Education is a growing field, and there are fewer of us in it than in the more established K-12 field (and even fewer who can work in French). I know someone in Design who can’t even find a PhD program but who knows that she’ll easily find a tenure-track job as soon as she does because it’s a growing field and there are so few designers with PhDs. Of course trends change and may be different in different places, but if you’re thinking about what to study and you have a few different interests, and you already know you want a tenure-track job (I did not know this at all when I went back to school), it’s something you might want to consider.
In any case, I highly recommend the book, and even though not everything translates outside of the United States, it’s really a great resource!