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Academic life

Either/or thinking and the beliefs that hold us down

Academia is full of either/or beliefs.

You can either be a strong researcher or a stellar teacher. You can either have work-life balance or a successful career. You can either take care of your mental health or excel in your job. You can either get a tenure track job and be happy or be stuck in non-TT, non-ac jobs and be miserable. You can either be an administrator or a faculty member. And so on.

Most of us have more than a few of these rattling around in our skulls. Even though we know, intellectually, that they are not strictly facts or rules, they’re conjured when we’re feeling challenged, stressed, anxious, imposter-ish, or just grumpy. In other words, either/or beliefs tend to appear when the emotional brain is temporarily running the show. It’s not quite in reptilian fight-or-flight mode, but it falls into a pattern of black and white thinking that ultimately isn’t all that helpful.

Why is it unhelpful? It’s operating on a logic of scarcity. This plays out in politics all the time: governments proclaim that we can either have freshly paved roads or a better health care system. We can either have jobs or a carbon tax. These either/or myths thrive on fear and stoke the belief that there isn’t enough to go around. They present false choices that push fear-based decisions because they seem to preclude the possibility of other options. I don’t know about you, but I can pretty easily call bullshit on either/or thinking when it comes at me from politicians. But it can be harder to challenge the ingrained belief systems that feed black and white thinking in our own lives.

Breaking down the either/or binary: Strategies

Let me be clear that I’m not an advocate of wishful thinking, unbridled positivity, or fanciful notions of endless abundance as “solutions” to the very real challenges that shape academic careers and personal lives, health and wellness, or the systems and structures that shape choices and opportunities. But scarcity and fear are not the places from which productive change is made. I do believe that changing the question, reframing the problem, and imagining alternatives are helpful and necessary. Here are some ways to start.

Time

I have a mantra: feelings aren’t facts. I even made it into a cross-stitch. I say this to myself when I’m caught up in an emotional reaction, including when faced with a decision. It’s a reminder to slow down until my emotional brain cools off before making any decisions. Time is a gift when facing what seems like an either/or moment. Here’s an example: when I was offered my first position at Mount Allison – a 9-month sessional contract – I knew little more than that Mount A was a small school with a good reputation in the Maritimes. I suddenly had to do my homework and what I found scared me: Mount A is in a tiny town (5000 or so people) half an hour from the nearest city. I had never lived in a small town. I loved Toronto. I assumed that taking the job meant giving up my city life. Either I took the job, or I kept the life I loved. I decided to turn it down.

By the next morning things looked different. “The life I loved” meant being underemployed in adjunct positions, if I was lucky. My partner and daughter could stay in Toronto and we would visit back and forth. There were lots of ways to make it work. It was never either/or.

There are very few decisions in academia that can’t wait until after a night’s rest. Take as much time as you reasonably can: your emotional brain can calm down and your neocortex – the part that can imagine and plan for the future – can show up and do its thing.

Both/and

Try switching the either/or equation into a both/and relationship. Even if it seems impossible, rewrite the script so that you can at least ASK whether it is, in fact, possible to have both. How can I be an excellent researcher and teacher? How can I have a successful career and the family I want? This is not an “ask the universe for what you want and it will manifest” move. It’s just a simple trick to break out of a scarcity mindset by asking an open-ended question that just might generate some possible answers. No, you probably cannot have EVERYTHING you want, at least not immediately. But it’s much more productive to start from a place of abundance and work back to what might really be possible, than to start from a place of lack and scarcity.

Change the definitions

Part of the problem with either/or is that we get so focused on the supposed choice that we have to make that we forget to question and pull apart the terms of that choice. What I mean is that we might be locked into a particular, external idea of what a “successful career” looks like. What are you picturing? Is it actually something that you want? If not, then re-write the definition of “successful career,” “strong research,” or “work-life balance” into something that is meaningful, possible, and right for you. I know you can’t replace strict tenure guidelines or magically change the outcomes of the vicious job market. But there are lots of ways to define “success” or “balance” when you look at the big picture. Who do you admire? Who actually smiles at work? Who made different choices and seems happier for it? Even within a traditional, hierarchical institution such as academia, people chart their own paths and re-write the scripts of what they’re supposed to do. Re-writing the terms of the either/or equation is one way to get unstuck.

Work backwards from values and priorities

Either/or thinking is essentially about what we can’t have. It’s not a fun place to be stuck. Here’s a different path: step away from the either/or question and consider a different set of questions: What are my core values, the principles and qualities that really define who I am and what matters most to me? And what are my greatest priorities in terms of those values? Spend some time with these – write them down or make a values “wheel” (draw a “pizza” with your values in each “slice”). Think about how they connect to each other. How satisfied with each of those areas are you in your current situation? Which areas would have the greatest overall impact if you could increase your satisfaction? What are some steps you could take to make that happen? Once the conversation in your mind is focused on these bigger picture questions, the either/or dilemma might shrink or become irrelevant.

 

 

Writing

Writing by the numbers

When it comes to writing, word count and page count are abstract goals: targets that we have to reach or boundaries that we struggle to remain within. Their relationship to the writing itself is often a source of conflict. We’re fighting to reach our word count or painfully cutting our precious word babies. Rarely do we see these numbers as tools that can help us, not only to meet our writing goals but to improve our writing through the whole process, from planning to drafting to revising. In this post, I’m going to share a few of the number-centred strategies that I use in my academic writing.

Getting ‘er done: for when you just want to get the words on the page or are working to a deadline

We all know that every big task needs to be broken down into smaller, achievable chunks. If your goal is a journal article (7000-10,000 words) or a book (50,0000-70,000 words) or a dissertation (50,000-100,000(!) words) you’ve probably broken that down into article sections or chapters, and you may have a sense of how long each section will be. What we tend to be pretty bad at is estimating how long it will take to write that many words and setting realistic goals for daily or weekly word counts. We also get easily daunted by these big numbers; even the length of a chapter (5000-8000 words) is too big to manage.

When I got it into my head last year that I wanted to write a book, I needed a tool to help me figure out how long it was going to take and how much I needed to write per session. After searching online, I came across Pacemaker: A Word Count Planner. It allowed me to:

  • Enter my word count goal.
  • Enter my desired completion date.
  • Build in time for revision at the end.
  • Set a “trajectory” (e.g. write same amount every day; write small amounts to start and increase gradually; start big and decrease, etc).
  • Set parameters for each day of the week (e.g. no writing on weekends, more writing on Tuesdays).
  • Block off times I was going to be away.
  • Visualize my progress as a list, calendar, or graph.

Once I entered my parameters (and these can be continually adjusted), Pacemaker spit out a schedule with specific word count goals for each day (some were zero, e.g. on weekends). As you write, you enter your progress. It recalculates based on whether you wrote more or less. It was so helpful that I finished my book draft on the EXACT DAY I had planned to, just seven months after I started. In other words, I highly recommend this powerful, simple, customizable, online, and FREE tool. Go there now!

Planning and outlining

Pacemaker was great for breaking down the book project into daily, bite-sized word count goals. I would certainly use it for writing a journal article or book chapter, but not before I used some numbers to help with more detailed planning and outlining.

A 9000-word article somehow has to fit your introduction, literature review, theoretical framework, methods, data, analysis, discussion, conclusion, references, and acknowledgements. I recommend that as you outline your article, you attach a word count to each of these sections. As you get further in, you can even attach a word count to each paragraph (e.g., if your lit review will be 1200 words with four paragraphs, mark 300 words beside each).

Attaching these goals is not only helpful for allowing you to mark your progress and reach those small, achievable objectives; it also helps you to visualize the “shape” of the paper and get a sense of proportion and balance. This way, you won’t accidentally write 4000 words of lit review and panic when you realize you haven’t even started to talk about your own work!

I highly recommend this for junior scholars and the more wordy among us. You want to make sure that while you build a solid foundation with your knowledge of the existing theory and literature, your own results and contributions are central. Don’t squish them in for the sake of an overly exhaustive lit review.

Revising and getting unstuck

If you’re struggling with a project or feeling stuck, using a “reverse word count” to analyze what’s going on in your paper can help you figure out where some problems lie.

Simply use your word processor’s select function to highlight each section (e.g. intro, methods etc.) and see what the word count is for each. Then write them all down and ask yourself if there are any obvious imbalances. Which sections are too heavy and which are too light? How long (word-wise) does it take you to get to your thesis? Your data? Your main argument?

Looking at your paper “numerically” can be a quick but effective way to visualize some of the blockages. Rather than writing and rewriting the same sentences or getting bogged down by trying to revise the whole thing, look at the numbers. They might help you figure out where you need to make some cuts; where you can spend a little more time explaining something; or how you could re-order some sentences or paragraphs to make your argument clearer or more compelling.

Final thought: Don’t fight your word count! Make it work for you to help you make progress and even improve your writing.

 

 

 

 

Job market

Academic job talk tips

Recently I had the opportunity to consult on a job talk and boy, did it bring back some memories. As someone who graduated in 2008 into a rapidly thinning job market, I gave a LOT of job talks (including two at my current institution) before I got that elusive tenure track offer (not until 2014, fyi).

On my first campus visit I was so nervous and clueless and convinced I was unqualified that I couldn’t even practice – as soon as I would start to read my talk I was gripped by anxiety and words would not come out of my mouth. I somehow survived the day, although I obviously didn’t get the job. Looking back, I see I was too nervous to even reach out for help although I needed it desperately.

A few years later there was the talk I gave in the deep South about the fetishization of women’s bodies in condominium advertising, to which the search committee chair responded, “I think everything you just said is a lie.” My final job talk was clearly successful as I landed the position; the fact that my depictions of gentrification and social exclusion made two members of the audience cry was luckily not held against me.

The job talk is one of the most important parts of the academic job interview yet it’s riddled with contradictions. It has to be comprehensible to a range of non-experts and perhaps even undergraduate students AND show off your theoretical sophistication. It has to be engaging AND serious and formal. It has to make you look very smart BUT maybe not smarter than everyone else in the room. In other words, it’s a fine balance.

Here are a few of the general pieces of advice that I’ve found helpful and I believe are sound, with the caveat that you know your disciplinary norms best and no advice fits every situation.

Leslie’s job talk tips

  1. One of the most helpful bits of presentation advice comes from this music metaphor: “What is the tune you want your audience to be humming as they leave the room?” Translation: what is the central message that the search committee and others will take away from your research? Have you made this crystal clear from beginning to end? Is the main refrain recognizable, or lost in a jumble of other ideas? Know your tune, and make sure they hear it.
  2. A job talk is a performance. That doesn’t mean you’re going to tap dance and jazz hands your way through it, but the audience does want to be entertained, intellectually speaking. While I don’t recommend starting with a lengthy vignette, joke, or personal anecdote, you might want to think about the “hook:” what’s going to make their ears perk up? What will make them want to know more? So, present a problem or a paradox. Draw them in with an intriguing image or surprising quotation. Keep it short, but make your audience curious.
  3. Get to the point quickly. This should be obvious, but it isn’t. In fact I had to rearrange this paragraph to move the first line to the top. Before you hit the end of your first page, you need to be on topic. This means that you give a quick “thanks for inviting me,” present your “hook,” and then tell them exactly what your presentation will cover and what the argument will be. Do not be tempted (as I have been) to start by situating your work in your longer research agenda, your personal history, or with broad definitions or descriptions of the field. It can sometimes feel like you need to cram all of this information into the job talk and that it’s important context for your work. But if you put it all at the beginning, you’ll lose them.
  4. Be strategic and think about how you will share everything you want to share at different points during the interview. One solution to the problem in #3 is to remember that most academic interviews are long. At least a day. You’ll likely have a chance to share your research trajectory (past and future) and even your personal investment in the topic at some other point, either during the formal interview or in informal discussions throughout the day.
  5. The other solution for #3 is to use a little time at the end for a discussion of how this particular bit of research fits into your long term agenda. They definitely want to know that you have a research plan, but don’t use precious minutes at the beginning laying out your timeline or funding plans.
  6. “Why does this matter?” This is a question I ask often when I do peer reviews of manuscripts. Authors may assume that the significance of their work is self-evident, but I say, tell me why I should care! Similar to making sure you know the “tune,” make sure you can clearly state the importance of the work. How does it connect to or help one start to answer bigger questions? What social or economic need is it responding to? Is the survival of the planet at stake? Okay, don’t overstate it’s importance, but know – and explain – why it matters.
  7. Focus, focus, focus. If you’re in the midst of or just finished a dissertation, it can be very daunting to create a 30-40 minute talk out of hundreds of pages of work. You have to accept from the start that you are not presenting your dissertation. You can, and must, only present on ONE aspect of the work – one key question, one key finding. You can explain how it fits into the whole dissertation, but if you start trying to present the whole project, you’ll be out of time before you ever get to the results.
  8. One of the hardest things for newer academics to do is slash and burn most of the literature review for the job talk. This is where we feel comfortable, nestled among our foremothers and telling everyone what wonderful things they said and wrote. But in the job talk you need to limit this to a very brief (half a page or so?) note about how you situate yourself in relation to other work, without delving deeply into that work. Just tell them what they need to know to make sense of your question and project. And then it’s all about you.
  9. Practicing the talk is essential not just for polishing the presentation, but for clarifying your thinking. When you read the talk out loud, you will be pushed to make your language more precise, concise, and clear. It should go without saying that you need to practice in order to stick to time as well. And finally, it’s important to be able to look up, move around, and relax a little. Even if it’s the norm to “read” a full paper in your discipline, practice means that you can sound more comfortable and that you won’t panic if you lose your place.
  10. Practical tip: if you’re using Powerpoint slides, consider pasting your talk chunk by chunk into the notes section on Powerpoint – i.e., paste the chunk of text you expect to say while that slide is on the screen. Then, print those off by selecting “Print” and then “Notes.” That way, you’ll have a little picture of the slide along with the text you’ll be reading in your physical hands. I have found this much better than typing [next slide] into my notes for remembering which exact slide should be on screen at any moment.

I hope these suggestions help! Feel free to post your own tips in the comments, too. If you are smarter than I was back at the beginning of my job search and want to seek some advice on your materials, including the job talk, please check out my job market services and get in touch!

 

Job market

Job market season

For those on the academic job market, fall is a hectic time. Not only are you prepping classes, writing grant applications, and working on your ongoing research projects, you are busy writing cover letters, tweaking your CV, crafting those research and teaching statements, concocting the perfect job talk, and brushing up on your interview skills.

Help is out there! Some folks have amazing advisors and mentors to guide them through every aspect of the academic job market; others, not so much. But there are several professional services (including mine!) that can help take some of the mystery and anxiety out of this time-consuming and stressful process.

Academic job market services

If you’re just starting to realize that you might need some help with your prep, it’s not too late, even as some of the well-established academic coaching services start to get fully booked. Lucky for you, I’m still growing my client list! Here’s what I can help with:

Reviewing your application materials, including:

  • CV
  • Cover letter
  • Research statement
  • Teaching statement

Reviewing your interview materials, including:

  • Job/research talk
  • Teaching presentation
  • Interview notes

Preparing you for the campus interview or phone interview, including:

  • Interview tips
  • Presentation skills

Big picture stuff, such as:

  • Which jobs should I apply for?
  • What will I do if this doesn’t work out?
  • What will I do if this DOES work out?
  • Post-ac and alt-ac plans
  • Self-care and mental well-bring during job season
  • Long term career strategies

Please note that I don’t provide copyediting or formatting services. I will offer both specific and general advice but the typos are up to you to catch!

Rates and booking

$95/hour for reviewing materials and offering specific interview advice.

For “big picture” stuff, see Rates and Packages for my coaching services.

You’re welcome book a FREE strategy session to discuss whether my job market services are right for you, or email me at kernleslie@gmail.com for more information.

GOOD LUCK!

 

Time management

Reclaiming your time: laying the groundwork now

As August nears and September looms, many academics feel a rising sense of panic: there’s only a month left to WRITE ALL THE THINGS! At least, this is what we tell ourselves. There’s a common belief that it’s all but impossible to find quality time for writing, reading, or research once the fall semester hits. Teaching, meetings, grant deadlines, job applications, grading, and more pile into our schedules and claw back that precious writing and thinking time.

I’m not going to pretend that those things don’t exist. And not everyone wants to or needs to carve out writing time in the middle of the semester. But if you DO want to prioritize some time – even a tiny bit of time – for writing and research, there is one thing I know, and that is you need to schedule it now. Not on Labour Day. Not at the beginning of each week. Now.

Here’s why (we’ll get to the how in a second).

If you don’t schedule it, it won’t happen. And if you don’t put it in your schedule now, it will be forever squeezed out.

People resist putting their writing time in the calendar for lots of reasons. They might tell themselves that they’ll find 15 minutes each day. (Great, schedule it!). They might assume that all their writing will happen on evenings, weekends, and holidays. They might believe that they can’t put it in until they know every possible other time commitment for the week. And so on.

None of these are good reasons to postpone or simply not schedule your writing. Especially the last one. This is what I’ve learned after a few years of making the effort to pre-schedule writing:

  • Sometimes other commitments WILL conflict with your scheduled time.
  • When that happens, you get to make the choice: keep the writing appointment, or do the other thing.
  • Making the choice – whatever outcome you pick! – is a powerful statement. It’s active. It’s not passively letting your writing time slide away having never even made it onto the calendar.
  • When you pick the other thing, that’s ok! Instead of deleting your writing time, move it somewhere else.
  • If you absolutely can’t move it and you have to just delete it on that day, that’s ok too. At least you know exactly where that time went, and what choices you made.
Here’s how I do it:

I use iCal (synched across my work and home computers and my smartphone), which synchs with my university’s Outlook calendar. I also use a paper bullet journal. Around this time in the summer, I pull up my iCal and start putting in the following:

  • class times
  • pre-scheduled committee meetings
  • pre-scheduled meetings with research collaborators
  • volunteer committments
  • office hours
  • class prep time (usually overlapping with office hours)
  • travel (conferences, weekends away, etc)
  • any personal appointments I know about (dentist eek!)

These are pretty much the “non-negotiable” items, many of which we already know the dates for. New appointments will arise, but I don’t that let stop me from adding in the following:

  • gym
  • writing (which can include any and all research-related activities)

When I get a request for a meeting or something else that conflicts with the gym or my writing time, I have to make a choice. No, I GET to make the choice. Even if it’s not really a “choice” (i.e. the other thing is highly urgent or important), I get to consciously re-arrange my writing and gym times. And even if one of those times gets dropped in an exceptionally busy week, I can look ahead to the next week and see them already blocked into my schedule.

It can be a little scary to see your fall and even winter semester calendars start to fill up already. Maybe you have a wickedly busy semester ahead and writing has to go on the back burner. Cool. That’s your choice to make. If you do want your writing and research to find a place during the semester, I highly recommend giving it the respect it deserves with a place in the schedule.