‘How to write a PhD’ with Roanne van Voorst

Today I talk to Roanne van Voorst about how to build an academic career on your own terms. Roanne is an anthropologist specialized in humanitarian aid, and postdoctoral researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies at Erasmus University Rotterdam. I met Roanne a few years ago, when she took my HappyPhD course with coaching (I am currently in the midst of editing and re-designing the course, it will re-launch in the new year!). One of the topics that came up when we talked was how to use the freedom we have in our academic lives instead of conforming to set norms. Often these discussions stay confined to how to design your workday or workweek, and how to deal with competitive pressures without turning into a professional workaholic.

Roanne takes the concept to the next level. After obtaining her PhD with honours, she decided she would try to create an academic life…differently. Instead of focussing solely on her academic career, she now works part-time as an academic, while running an online business on how to live a courageous and productive life on the side. She has written books about her time living in the slums of Jakarta, multiculturalism, conquering your fears, and her latest, about soldiers returning to civilian life. She gets a few things right, if you ask me!

Today we catch up. I thought it would be interesting to hear Roanne’s perspective on freedom in academia and the choices we have and make, on productivity, on fear, and living a full life.

Roanne’s top tips:

  1. Don’t settle for what is ‘normal’. You can create your own academic career path and create your own rules. You don’t have to conform to what everybody else is doing
  2. You don’t have to work an 80-hour workweek to be successful. It will drain your energy and inspiration
  3. Balance output, input, and rest, for creativity and productivity
  4. Take time to think and reflect, and write from the heart
  5. In the academic world receiving harsh criticism doesn’t mean you aren’t doing well. It means you are exactly where you should be. It’s the job of your supervisor and colleagues to criticize you. It’s your job to practice self-care and reflection, so you can deal with the criticism.
  6. Take your PhD one step at a time. Keep your eye on the next step – don’t look to the end goal, this will cause overwhelm.

I’ve always admired your independence, the choices you make. Can you tell me a little about the process over the past couple of years? When did you know you didn’t want the classic academic career, and how did you carve out a way that combines the best of all worlds? Did you have many doubts?

Thanks for your kind words – likewise, you’ve been an inspiration to me!

I was initially trained as a journalist and worked as a foreign correspondent for several years. I loved the excitement of that job, but missed depth in the news items I made. For this reason I decided to go back to uni and obtain a PhD in anthropology. During and after my PhD I’ve done in-depth fieldwork in Inuit communities, slums; among refugees and humanitarian aid workers and soldiers – and each and every time, I was fascinated with what I learned and enjoyed emerging myself into a complete new world.

However, there were also things about my new academic job that I didn’t like. One of them was the culture of overwork in which working endless hours was regarded not only normal, but as something positive and necessary. For several years, I went along with it. I worked very hard and felt exhausted, but it was never enough. When I’d leave the office at eight in the evening, most of the lights in other offices were still lit. I felt like a faker, a fraud, as if I wasn’t a proper or ‘real’ academic, as the others seemed to be. After some years of trying to make this culture my own, I noticed two things: not only was I so tired of work that I lacked energy for other aspects of my life, I also felt that I was becoming less creative and inspired. My life felt too narrow, as if I could only develop part of my identity.

For a long time, I was in doubt whether I should get back into journalism, but at some point I decided to give it one more chance: I’d experiment to see whether I could be an academic – on my own terms. And although it’s an extremely unconventional way of working, it works well for me.

What does that look like, specifically?

I decided to take a part-time position, I don’t work from 9-5, and I refuse to work 80 hours a week. I also make sure I take the time to talk with my PhD supervisees at length and often, it’s important to me to be an inspiring supervisor and colleague. And I skip unnecessary meetings, the ones mostly spent scrolling on your phone – don’t tell anybody! But seriously: I prioritize other tasks, like thinking, studying and writing.

That must have taken some courage. How were your choices to opt out of the academic rat race received in the academic world?

With scepticism, in the beginning. But honestly, my way of working works well for me, and my colleagues notice. As long as my work is of high quality and I publish it is not a problem. And I know I am energized, happy and inspired, exactly because I stick to my own rules. We tend to forget that no pre-determined rules exist. Who determines what an academic job should look like, or how an academic should behave?

Many academics are addicted to their work and have little to no time for a social life, or other interests. Well, I don’t want that life. I love my academic work, but I also love time off to explore my other interests. Yes, I’m an academic, but I am also a writer, a woman, a rock climber, a wife, a daughter, a public speaker, and a friend. Those identities are important too.

You are also a writer. That’s another way your work deviates from the academic norm. Do you experience a conflict between pursuing academic impact and general impact?

I’ve always seen my writing skills as a strength. After my fieldwork on poverty and slum life, it felt extremely important to me to share what I had learned with as many people as I possibly could. I felt it was my job, in a way, to tell the stories of the people I’d met in the field – people who would remain voiceless, otherwise. So I wrote an academic monograph in which I developed a social theory on poverty and risk behaviour, but I also wrote a popular non-fiction book, and several articles on why it is often so difficult for people to escape poverty.

When I’d spent years of research studying people who lived or worked in risky circumstances, including extreme athletes, humanitarian aid workers and soldiers, I did something similar: I wrote academic articles for colleagues in my field, but I also wrote a non-fiction book in which I shared the main lessons on fear management I’d learned from my interviewees. As a spin-off I developed on-and offline training programmes to help people overcome common fears like stage fright, a fear of failure, fear of driving a car or flying.

This may be an unconventional path in academia, and I’m sure some of my colleagues will think my approach is too popular, or not complex enough to deserve the academic label. But I firmly disagree. Why do social research, if hardly anyone can learn about the findings? Aren’t we supposed to do stuff that is relevant and not only to an elite group of highly-educated, jargon speaking colleagues? If I, as an academic, am capable of communicating my research in a way that people are eventually helped by the research– then it is my responsibility (and joy) to do so.

Let’s get down to the nuts and bolt of how you do all this. How do you get your writing done?

I use a number of strategies that help me be productive. I have a rule of thumb of four hours of output a day – that’s the actual, complex work that I do, like writing an academic article -, and four hours of input – that’s finding inspiration, learning new things and refuelling my creativity, and four hours of rest, recharging and relaxation. I never start my day checking my Email – that only distracts me from my long-term goals. Instead, I start my day with journaling to set clear intentions for the day, and reading non-fiction books that I find inspiring. Then I move on to my ‘productive’ phase of four hours. I start with my most important task. The afternoons are for reading, listening to podcasts, learning new things that interest me or following webinars or online trainings. Currently, I’m inspired by themes such as minimalism, the warrior mind and high productivity, and empathic activism. I also like to go climbing in the afternoon, or walk with my dog. Exercise, to me, is not a luxury. It’s part of my job: I need to be able to think clearly in order to be a good academic, and physical exercise is a great way to do so.

When it comes to writing I always start with a pen and paper, a good cup of coffee and a quiet mind, to think about what my main message is. One useful tactic I use is to ask: if a ghost writer would do this job for me, then what would I tell her to write? How would I explain to her what my puzzle is, what I found, or what fascinates me? How would I explain it to a student? The trick is to write down the answers; then stop for the day – continue the next.

It’s most effective to do this kind of creative work in short bursts rather than forcing yourself to think for an hour or longer. Our brains prefer short peaks of maximum activity, followed by a break of several hours. During this break I try to find distraction. I do easy, practical work, or read something that inspires me. I’ve planted the seed of the question, now I give it time to ripen – the answer will come after several hours or days.

Taking time to reflect and think also helps avoid a common trap: writing (low-quality) articles solely for the sake of getting published. Yes, such articles count towards your publication record, but they do not develop your thinking or add to your body of work in a substantive way. They won’t make you sigh with pride after you’ve written them; at most, you’ll sigh because you’re relieved they’re done and over with! That’s not the way I like to work, and I know for many early career academics, it’s not the way they would prefer to work either – only they may know no other way. Above all I propose we write with a sense of urgency and longing. Personally, I want to feel joy in the creative process that writing essentially is – even academic writing!

Are there any specific PhD writing tips you’d like to share?

What is specific about a PhD, is that it is a long process – a marathon, rather than a sprint. This means PhD students need to look after themselves. They have to keep their energy and creativity high for months and years in a row, despite the on-going criticism they will inevitably receive, the uncertainty of not knowing whether they are doing a ‘real’ job, the stress that sometimes comes with supervision, etcetera. Taking your own needs seriously is crucial for such a marathon job. For most, it means making sure to take plenty of breaks from work, live healthy, work out, and find support in peers or others who can make you feel less lonely.

It is also important to factor in what I call ‘buffer time’. Everything always takes longer than you’d like – especially getting published – and even when you think you’re done, you are most likely not yet done. You need to anticipate that you will have to edit and amend more than you’d hoped for – it’s a normal part of the process. It takes a while to get used to these very long timelines, and to make sure you have the resources for the long haul.

You have studied fear, and how to overcome it. I am sure this is relevant in academia. The mountains PhDs climb are not the physical kind, like the ones you climb in your free time, but that doesn’t mean fear doesn’t strike! What to do when fear of writing gets the better of you?

Generally, PhD students have high standards and grand ambitions. They are also insecure. That’s only natural – essentially, it’s the job of their supervisors and their committee to constantly criticize the work they hand in, and so a PhD student is faced with a lot of harsh words. It’s the job of the PhD student to remind herself that this criticism does not mean she is not doing well. It simply means she is exactly where she needs to be. She needs to keep herself mentally fit, practice self-care, make sure she has a supportive circle around her, rest, and continue her work.

I work with people who struggle with a fear of failure a lot, and I myself have struggled with it throughout my career. One good piece of advice, which suits the mountain metaphor you came up with may be useful here. I learned it when I was studying mountaineers and other extreme athletes, to learn about their risk-taking behaviour and their fear management strategies. When mountaineers climb, they don’t look at the top. It would seem too far away, they would be overwhelmed with a fear of not being able to ever get there. Instead, they only look at their feet – and the first metre ahead. As long as they keep their heads down, literally, hour after hour, they will get closer to the top, and they will be reminded of their progress and hence stay confident. I think this is an amazingly apt metaphor for the writing life.

You are soon starting with a year-long programme that helps people be more productive and successful. I will be participating in the programme myself, and I am so looking forward to it. Can you tell us a little about the programme and how it came about?

I’d been given lectures and workshops about what I call ‘stress-free productivity’ for some years now, and recently decided to turn it into an online training programme to make it accessible and affordable for more people. The programme will run from 1 January 2018 onwards – but before that participants will already receive planners and other tools to help them set their goals. People who join me will not only learn the most effective time management skills, but we will also implement them as we work together on our personal projects. We’re in this together. Me from my computer; you, from yours. Each week, 12 months, for 52 weeks, myself and the other participants are there to advise you when you get stuck, help you overcome self-doubt, and get you in touch with exactly the right people, networks and tools to get you where you want to be. It is be the most complete training programme I have ever developed, and I can’t wait to get started!

Alright, let’s all sign up. If you are interested in joining Roanne’s ‘One Year of Focus and Success’ programme, you can get all the details here. Choose the affiliate option at check out, and you will get a €100 discount. Be quick! Offer expires Tuesday December 12th. (Small print: I don’t receive any money from Roanne when you sign up through me. Academics need more support and I believe her programme contributes to that cause.) As always, if you found this article useful, could you share it? I appreciate it!

The Paradox of Climbing the PhD Hill: Lowering Your Expectations

There is always a fear when doing academic work that you are not up to the job. That your work isn’t ‘good enough’, that you’re not clever enough, perhaps, to deliver what it takes.

But what if you don’t need to be ‘brilliant’? What if it is more about stamina, persevering, sitting with the difficult questions, and keeping at it, pushing your work forward, keeping going one step at a time? What if it is more akin to climbing a hill (let’s not call it a mountain, it’s only a hill and it is absolutely doable, though sometimes it may feel like a mountain) one step at a time, rather than chastising yourself for not being able to magically teleport yourself to the top.

Spoiler alert: there’s no magic involved. It is all about plodding along, and you will get there. That is, providing you keep going, putting one foot in front of the other.

Keeping it small, but keeping going, is the very untheatrical, very practical, and the absolute best way of proceeding. What is the next step? Do it. Then ask yourself again: what is the next step? And the next one. Do not let yourself be derailed by more existential questions of capability. You are capable. If you feel you may not be (hello imposter syndrome!) know it is part of the trail. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong.

High standards are good and needed in an academic context, but only for the end result. Give yourself permission to have a learning curve in the meantime. Give yourself permission to make mistakes, give yourself permission to not get it right. Give yourself permission to fail, to say or write something that turns out to be dead wrong. (So hard!!)

Give permission for your work to be heavily criticised. It’s okay. It is not personal. It will give you input, ideas to work on. Ideas that will take shape over time. Allow yourself the time to make decisions on what to keep and what to discard. Be okay with the uncertainty of it. It is awfully hard, but it becomes easier once you see how entertaining uncertainty and imperfection helps your work unfold.

Allow your PhD to be a process. That’s a really good idea: because it is a process, whether you like it or not. (And we don’t like it. Because maybe it means we’re not ‘up to it’ if we are not ‘there’ yet. Nooo! Not true. You’re not supposed to be at there yet. But you will get there. You will.)

Very often we don’t even realise our day-to-day standards are excessively high. This is especially true for people who have been always been high-achievers. They are used to achievements coming relatively easily. Writing a PhD is not like that. You rarely get it right the first, second or third draft of a chapter or paper. The process is always slower than you would like. There are always more questions than answers. And there are always flaws, apparent to you or to your supervisor or other readers, who will not hesitate to point them out. It’s never perfect, and your work is never finished.

Expecting perfection is trying to do the impossible. Expecting struggle and failure (however depressing this may sound), and being ok with that is a better strategy. Every ‘failure’ allows you to learn and to move your work ahead. If you get comfortable with failure, you will be in a better place to keep moving forward.

The wrong way of being a perfectionist is to have excessively high standards for yourself and your writing every step of the way. If you do this, you are going to be disappointed in yourself every single day of writing your PhD. Let’s not, OK? It’s difficult enough…

The right way of being a perfectionist is to have excessively high standards for the finished piece of work only. It means you keep going, re-thinking and revising, until you have reached a high standard of work one small step at a time. You have climbed the hill.

To not be fazed by failure, struggle, and mistakes it helps to recognise that they are normal and to be expected. It has nothing to do with your capabilities. Nothing. If you really get this, and start to see it as part of the process rather than weakness to be overcome, thinking and writing will become easier.

In sum: The paradox of climbing the PhD hill is that high quality of work can only be achieved by lowering your expectations and standards (in the short run!). By accepting the messiness of the process, and by not allowing it to trick you into thinking there is something wrong with you, or your work.

How are you feeling about climbing the PhD hill? Are you progressing steadily? Feeling stuck? Have you considered lowering your expectations to cope? Maybe you can manage an hour of work if a whole day of work feels overwhelming. And if that is too much, maybe you can manage 15 minutes? Perhaps you can write a messy paragraph, instead of a ‘perfect’ one. All progress is progress. As always, if you liked this post, share it? I appreciate it!

HappyPhD Course: Changes Ahead (and 50% off)

I got a message from someone on LinkedIn congratulating me on my 5 year work anniversary: it is apparently five years since I sat down and typed those first words that would develop into the HappyPhD course! Now, five years on, it is time for an update: I will soon be taking the course offline to make space for a new version.

When I wrote the course I did it straight from the heart: I had only recently finished my own PhD and all my experiences were fresh. I put every story that might be of help into the course. It is what you might call ‘authentic’. I assure you it will stay that way, but I have learnt a lot working with PhDs over the past couple of years, and it is time to incorporate these lessons into the course materials, as well as give the course a new, updated look.

Before the old morphs into new I’d like to give you the chance to get the original HappyPhD Course with a really good discount. I know that for some of you money is tight, so I hope this helps. The offer will expire this Friday the 13th of October. After that it won’t be possible to join until the new course is online. (If you sign up now, you will automatically be upgraded to the new version when it is launched…)

What course participants say about the HappyPhD Course:

The course really helped me get unstuck this summer and it was amazing how by removing the fear and self-destructive thoughts that were ruling me, I was able to write a paper (that I had been dreading for 2 years) in less than 2 weeks. The course really helped me quickly build a ‘can do’ attitude that made all the difference. The paper still needs a lot of work, but putting words on paper already felt like such a great achievement.

The course offered a good balance of explanations of why we behave in certain ways, scientific literature on why stress is detrimental and how meditation is helpful AND practical tips that can incrementally help the student build new habits.

I am very happy I took the course. It provided the regiment, the material, the motivation and I felt supported and understood every morning when I read the daily lessons. I found the course effective.

Great course Amber!

3rd year PhD Candidate, University of Oxford, England

The course has definitely helped me. I am more at peace, and I am kinder to myself, because I now realize that many of the fears and frustrations I was struggling with are inherent to the job. I allow myself to have shorter workdays, and I don’t feel as guilty about it. I am more productive in a workday that ends at 3 or 4 in the afternoon, than I was in the long days I used to work before.

4th year PhD Candidate, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Thank you so much for the course. It has been such a great experience and I really learned a lot. I had already read a lot of books like “How to write your PhD in 15-minutes a day”, but your course has so much additional thoughts and advice which is missing in other books. It changed the approach to my PhD and I am much more relaxed and positive. I would never have thought I would start to meditate, but you made me do it and it really works and makes me feel so much better. I also like your authentic approach as your course comes from your own experience. Thank you so much for this great experience. I am already missing getting an e-mail from you almost every day :-)

Part-time PhD Candidate, Justus-Liebig University, Giessen, Germany

Check it out for yourself, and get stuck in today…purchase the course for 50 euro here

(This offer has expired. Do sign up for my newsletter and I’ll let you know when the new course is online)

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Less is More: Why Working Shorter Hours Is a Better Idea

I have just finished ‘The Slow Professor’ by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber. It reflects on time pressure and stress in academia, and on how academic life has sped up to such a degree that quality of research, teaching and life suffers. (It was a present from prof. Hein de Haas – do check out our ‘How to Write a PhD’ interview with his tips on productivity and self-care). At one point in the book my jaw dropped: it is the chapter on time management, where a number of books and approaches to the academic schedule are discussed. This part would be funny, if it weren’t so serious.

They note that most academic time management literature will not leave you reassured and comforted, but rather leave you ‘feel like you’re not working hard enough’. Ten-hour days are considered ‘more than adequate’, 55-hour work weeks the norm to strive for, working for 12 hours on Sundays ‘realistic’, multitasking smart, and getting up at 4 in the morning to write before the rest of the world wakes up a strategic way to avoid stress and increase your productivity. ‘With some trepidation,’ Berg and Seeber write, ‘we confess that these models of time management and productivity strike us as unrealistic and simply not sustainable over the long haul for most people.’ Alright, so that made me laugh.

I have issues with the counting hours approach in academia. A much better way to approach productivity is to work with your mental energy, and align your day according to how it waxes and wanes. It is depth and quality we are seeking. And if you use your best hours well (doing research/ writing) all the rest becomes doable and less overwhelming. It will take less time, too… Time isn’t linear, because energy and attention aren’t linear. Instead of focusing on how we might expand the number of hours we work so we can fit everything that needs to be done in, might we not be better of asking how we might increase focus and attention, so we can reduce that number of hours? What if we can let go of the counting altogether?

I went for a coffee with a HappyPhD course participant of several years back who finished her PhD cum laude (she has become a friend – she is doing really interesting work on how to live fearlessly), and she mentioned that ‘less is more’ was the insight that had helped her most during the time she was finishing her PhD. It is unfortunate that academic culture leans the other way!

Circumstances, work loads, energy levels, habits, preferences, and personalities differ, but I believe that the ‘less is more’ approach is useful regardless. It is practical and it is realistic. And it is a more intelligent way of working with your resources than maximising hours and ‘managing’ every minute of your day. (Which kind of feels like the walls closing in on you!)

A few points on how and why strategically working fewer hours leads to increased productivity:

Mental Energy – Not All Hours Are Equal

Your brain cannot do challenging mental work in a focused way for more than so many hours a day. One of the books quoted by Berg and Seeber state that an ‘approximately 10-hour day is more than adequate especially since we really can work for most of this time.’ (As opposed to the general workforce which according to this author ‘waste a tremendous amount of time chit-chatting at the water cooler and lunching for a full hour.’)… Errr, no. You cannot focus for ten hours a day. And you cannot conceive of your day as a monolithic ten-hour block. It isn’t efficient, and it sets you up for mental exhaustion. It’s much better to distinguish between the hours you realistically can and want to focus intensely (say 2-3 hours, in approximately 45 minute segments), and reserve them exclusively for your intellectually most challenging work. The rest of your workday (3-4 hours in similar or longer segments) can be spent on less demanding tasks. In really busy times you may add extra work sessions, but you will realise that they are only suitable for certain types of low-intensity work (answering email etc.). Focus matters, not time. Match your mental energy and focus to the demands of the task at hand. An occasional ten-hour day may be warranted, but as a model of productivity it is ridiculous. (Strong feelings!)

Mental Energy – Recovery Matters in the Short Run

Mental energy is your currency. How to keep it high? How to keep your mind sharp and present? In this context you have to think about intensity and recovery. Working in shorter, more intense segments, with recovery breaks, allows you to focus as well as recover from that intense work every hour, or more often, thereby keeping your mental energy high. You will be less likely to find yourself staring at the blank screen for hours, feeling bad because you ‘should be more productive’, while actually you are just tired. Shorter work sessions, regular short breaks, and not working past your natural limits will take care of that. Self-care isn’t at odds with productivity; they are mutually reinforcing. It is finding that right balance, which means being honest about the intensity of mental energy you can muster. Taking more breaks and stopping when we are tired (before is even better) may be uncomfortable, but it is more efficient than plodding along, putting the hours in past the point of diminishing returns. For me, when I started applying this model, it meant cutting my work days back from 8-ish hours to 4-5 hours a day. Much better idea.

Mental Energy – Recovery Matters in the Long Run

Feeling stressed? Academia is a high-risk environment when it comes to stress-related physical and mental health problems. In my opinion the culture of overwork contributes to these problems. And guess what stress-related health problems do: they diminish your ability to focus. They diminish your capacity for doing demanding intellectual work. They diminish your capacity to think. Cue even longer days, more guilt, and so the self-destructive cycle continues. A focus on recovery is essential to sustain a positive self-reinforcing cycle, in which focus, productivity and wellbeing coexist. From this perspective, advocating for ten-hour days is simply harmful. A few lucky individuals may have the energy to work endless days with no negative repercussions, but for most of us it is unrealistic… In fact, I witness even ‘limitless energy’ academics hit a wall at some point, though this is not much openly discussed. Instead, a focus on working more intensely some of the time; while appreciating the necessity of recovery and renewal, is a better way of approaching your workday and week. Being exhausted/ frazzled is a sign this balance is off.

Mental Creativity – Better Ideas

A relaxed mental space is essential for creativity. It is how new ideas form and pop up, unlike the process of analysis which is strictly logical. You need both: the focused attention of analytical thought, and the mind-wandering that is conducive to creativity and aha-moments. To foster innovative ideas time away from the intellectual problem you’re working on is essential. In other words: down-time is an essential part of your workday. It is the non-active, non-doing part of work. It is when you allow ideas to come to you. Cultivating this space is an investment in your quality of thought. (Feels good too.)

Think about this: what if intensity and depth can only be achieved with high mental energy, which makes taking care of yourself a priority? What if focus is only realised within limits and boundaries? What if relaxation is a requirement to make intellectual achievement (and emotional balance) sustainable over time? And what if mental relaxation is intrinsically valuable? What if you are not a machine??

We need to flip the script and start saying no to the story that tells us we should be ‘working always, everywhere’.

The HappyPhD course will show you exactly how to create an optimal (for you) and sustainable work schedule, combining intense work with recovery. I am currently updating the course: the updated course will be out some time this autumn. The price will go up, so now is a good time to sign up! You will get access to the old school course (ah, I am already feeling nostalgic!), and you will automatically be upgraded to the new course when it is launched! Best of both worlds, and a good way to start the academic year.

How Many Top Publications Do You Have? or The Curse of Performance Metrics

“I don’t really believe in citations myself. I don’t really count citations. I don’t value anybody’s work by the number of citations they have. I think it’s a mistake.”

A quote by Nobel Prize winner James Heckman, uttered at an unusual panel at the 2017 American Economic Association meeting. It was titled ‘Publishing and promotion in Economics: The curse of the top five’, a reference to the top five journals dominating the Economics field. One of the anecdotes told was about graduate students endlessly deferring their ‘entry to the job market’ until they were sure of a top five publication. Waiting, waiting, waiting, then shooting for the stars, for better or worse. It is up or out. Jump though the elusive hoop to have a shot at a life in the academy.

The rigid (sometimes crazy) ways academics’ performances are assessed has negative consequences for science itself, that was the main message of the panel. It negatively affects the quality of knowledge generated and published, it causes rivalries between camps and tunnel vision within disciplines, and it leads to a culture of counting, over content. Oh, and it is really bad for young researchers, who are increasingly ‘writing to the test’, aiming at achieving within the system, no matter the costs.

Heckman showed a graph of how much more difficult it has become to land a publication in a top journal. The field has grown, submissions have increased, and acceptance rates have plunged. The golden tip of the academic pyramid is increasingly out of reach. Yet entering it, even only once, is increasingly seen as as necessary for building a reputation and a career.

Screenshot 2017-04-05 12.26.33

All of this made me scratch my head. Why is it no surprise that life in academia feels like a rat race? (Because it is!!) Why is it no surprise that so many researchers are stressed to the limit? In Economics it is the top five, but it seems every field has its own version. Always running to meet that next measure of performance. We’re never there. There’s always a new metric looming around the corner.

There are no immediate solutions for this conundrum, if there were I am sure the Nobel prize winner and co would have come up with something! Seems academia is stuck with systems that are not necessarily good for science, or academics, for now. At a personal level I feel it asks for a certain resolve to live and work (and ‘perform’) well no matter the rules set by the system. Rules that are often unfair, arbitrary, and rigged against you. Lots of fun!

Some thoughts:

Know the ‘rules’

It’s important to understand the pressures you are subject to. Study them, so you know where they start and end, and to avoid becoming trapped by them. Whatever the performance metrics are in your field and situation, whether it is the deadline for the first draft of your thesis, or getting that top publication to get tenure, get to know how the system works. Look at the structure of it. How exactly is ‘performance’ measured? What counts and what doesn’t? What is expected of people? How realistic are these expectations? Be aware of the rules of the game, seeing it for what it is: a system, a set of concepts, nothing that can ultimately validate or invalidate you. It will allow you to play the academic game with your eyes wide open. (Personally, I wish I’d been more savvy about this in my PhD years. I wish I’d asked my supervisor for more help in figuring out what the written and unwritten rules of the game were.)

Don’t internalise the rules

This is the difficult part. It is all right for professor Heckman to say he doesn’t believe in citations, but what if your evaluations, and whether you have a job at all, depend on it? I really believe that a rebel mindset is the only thing that can save us! (The alternative: internalising the system, but in that case if you lose, what are you going to do? Consider yourself a failure until the end of days? Hm.) Playing along with the rules to the degree you feel you have to is important, but so is remaining fiercely aware it is an impersonal, often arbitrary system. It’s vital to not let it near the way you value yourself. Don’t let anyone tell you lies about how competition or metrics create the best science or researchers. (Maybe refer them to Heckman’s talk!) Resist the oversimplifications. Resist the tendency to measure yourself by your institution’s yardstick. (This often happens without you noticing. All of a sudden you care too much about that dreaded deadline!!!)

Your own terms of success

I read a Camus quote the other day: “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” I liked it. You don’t want your mind loops to start mirroring those of your institution. Nope. Not allowing that to happen. What would be the alternative? What are your own terms of success? What is your own value and reward system? Make sure it is kinder than that of your university. How would you live if you didn’t care about citations or deadlines? (So free!!! This is the part I like.)

Intrinsic motivation

Remind yourself of why you do the work you do. What makes you light up? What is the story you need to tell? What are the data you need to present? Why do you care? What paper is yours to write? What’s your argument? Where does the excitement live? Nurture it. Keep it alive. One of the participants in the EASA panel noted: ‘We don’t want to shrink our world. This I think is shrinking our world.’ Once you get lost in the meta-world of races and achievement, you lose what is so powerful: content, intrinsic value, and intrinsic motivation. Don’t let the system shrink your world. (Here you get to live your ‘romance’ with your work. This is it.)

Focus on habits, not goals

If goals are increasingly arbitrary, increasingly elusive, but meeting these goals increasingly important, how to handle the pressure? One way is to shift from focusing on goals, to focusing on the habits you have in place to achieve those goals. You have no control over whether your paper will be published or where, but you do have control over how you write that paper (more control, at least). Focusing on your small achievements every day really helps. (I have written lots about working in waves, and other ways to enhance your productivity before, see the productivity tag)

The good life

What, in or outside of work, gives you joy, pleasure, fulfilment? It is impossible to not get dragged down by the pressure, the measuring and the rejections, from time to time. You need copious antidotes in your life. A shield of them! Small pleasures, and bigger ones. What makes you come alive? What are you grateful for? What makes you forget about the stresses of work for a bit? Who are your friends outside of academic life? Do those things. Notice those things. Be with these people. Wellbeing is a skill (to a degree). If you are attuned to the good in your life, the negative holds less power. (Very true. Small shift in perception makes for a very different life.)

What are your experiences with performance metrics? Do you have a way of working with the system without losing yourself? For more support: The HappyPhD Course will help you create a productivity system in which you set the rules, not your university. It will help you bounce back faster, and stay on track, also when you’re faced with deadlines, pressure, and inevitable rejection along the way. If you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

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How Are You Unwilling to Support Yourself? (And a story about Trump)

How are you unwilling to support yourself?

Answering this question (and changing my habits accordingly) was fundamental in getting my PhD process (and much else) to a better place. The question popped up in one of my feeds: it was a timely reminder. Sometimes I feel academics wear their unwillingness to support themselves as a badge of honour: how much we endure, the long hours we work, how stressed we are, seems to somehow reinforce the idea of how ‘tough’ academia is, and how ‘tough’ we are if we can ‘handle it’. It is a little like the starving artist myth. Suffering (though the vulnerable part of it must stay strictly private) gives us an edge, an indication we are doing it ‘right’. It is supposed to be hard. And we are supposed to do it all by ourselves.

I could skip straight to some ways you might be able to better support yourself, but I thought I’d tell a tale first. Stay with me. It is related. It is about Trump voters. (If you are sick of Trump, I am sorry!!)

I read a book, and since I read it I understand Trump voters.
True.
You should read it.

It is: ‘Strangers in Their Own Land, Anger and Mourning on the American Right’ by Arlie Hochschild. She spent five years (!) living in Louisiana, making friends with Tea Party enthusiasts, and trying her very best to get past the empathy wall, as she calls it. It is such a good read. (A concerning read also.) Hochschild’s fascination are the paradoxes, the way people applaud policies that may harm them directly or indirectly. The specific paradox she had in mind when she came to Louisiana was why people in poor, severely polluted industrial areas approve of a repeal of even a minimum of environmental and protective regulations.

Many of the folks she got to know much appreciated outdoor life: they fish, they hunt, they spend time in nature. How to understand why people actively support the poisoning of their waters, their fish, their land? How to understand why people actively support policies that allow themselves, their neighbours, their children, to get sick and even die from toxin-induced illnesses directly related to the industry on their doorstep? The stories in the book are shocking, yet people stand by their convictions. Regulation is bad. Protection is bad. We want less of it not more.

Why so reckless?
How to square this circle?

According to Hochschild, a sociologist, emotional self-interest, as opposed to rational or economic self-interest, is an important part of the answer. People care about how life feels to them, and how it makes them feel about themselves, above all else. She tells us we all have a subjective, internalised narrative that fuels how we see the world. She calls this our ‘deep story’. It is a narrative to make sense of it all. And we tend to reject facts incompatible with these narratives. (Well, that explains 2016.)

Hochschild tells one story of a safety inspector at one of the industrial plants in charge of installing air quality monitors. “To set up the monitors” he recalls, “I wore a respirator. Some of the guys started to taunt me, the corporate sissy who couldn’t tough it out like they did. But when they laughed at me, I could see their teeth were visibly eroded by exposure to sulfuric acid mist.”

Not shying away from danger is a source of honour for these guys, it is considered bravery. Not wearing protective gear says: “I’m strong, I can take it.” It doesn’t really matter whether or not their health is severely affected, whether it makes them sick. Copping to that would make them appear weak.

In her book Hochschild names this archetype The Cowboy. It relates to stoicism.

When I read the passage I felt myself retreating further and further to the liberal side of the empathy wall. How can people be so stupid?! Sure, let all your teeth fall out and in time die an entirely preventable premature death in the name of honour, why don’t you?

Yet ten minutes later I realised there are so many ways we do this in our own lives. It may be less extreme and less blatantly obvious, also because we are blind to our own emotion-based narratives.

In the big picture one way academics do this, I realised, is though the culture of overwork and over-identification with work. Rationally it makes very little sense, but don’t tell anybody! It is important to us!

On a smaller, personal, scale we may be toughing things out in true Cowboy-style, when help and (self-)protection are available.

When I was at the EUI I never used the (free) counselling service, as I thought that was for when you had ‘real’ problems. I also didn’t take the mindfulness course on offer as I didn’t really see how that related to my PhD. The academic culture was one where help was there, but only on the periphery. And you didn’t (want to) identify as being out there, I suppose. The university certainly didn’t help. Looking after yourself and performing well at work certainly weren’t overtly linked in a positive way.

What a difference compared to some of the corporate workplaces I know of where getting help and lifestyle are at the heart of what they call: high performance. Think Google. A friend of mine who works at one of the large consulting firms lent me a book from a two-day workshop they collectively attended: Sink, Float or Swim: Sustainable High Performance Doesn’t Happen by Chance — It Happens by Choice. It was all about looking after yourself, eating right, rest, mindset etc. Self-care! How un-Cowboy. (Though the narrative that it is the individual who ‘chooses’ success, is pretty Cowboy in its own right).

What is the real indicator of strength and bravery: being able to tough it out, not needing any protective gear or strategies, not needing anyone else’s advice or guidance, doing it all relying on your own strength and stamina? Or taking precautions, protecting yourself from unnecessary risk, going against the norm, being ‘smart’ about it? Which stories do we tell ourselves?

I thought it an interesting question.

How might you better support yourself, and be a little less Cowboy? Any programmes or help your university offers you might benefit from? The HappyPhD course may be exactly what you’re looking for. As always, if you liked this post could you share it? I appreciate it.

‘How to write a PhD’ with Hein De Haas

photo-2Hein de Haas is Professor of Sociology at the University of Amsterdam, and the former director of the International Migration Institute at the University of Oxford. He is also a friend of mine. Almost two years ago, when I was staying in California for two months and he flew in for a conference, we sat down at Saul’s deli in Berkeley for lunch. Over chicken soup with matzo balls and latkes with apple sauce (so good!), we talked about academic writing. ‘We should do an interview!’ I said. ‘Would you?’ He would. Fast forward to present: last week we finally managed. Read Hein’s take on academic writing, success and self-care in today’s ‘How to write a PhD’.

Hein’s top tips:
1. Writing is important: invest in your academic writing skills. Approach your writing as a craft, not high art. High art is paralysing.
2. Write a little every day. I get my writing done in 90 minutes a day.
3. Stay off the Internet until lunchtime.
4. Doing research and writing are inseparable. Writing clarifies thought.
5. Be practical about writing. Develop a daily routine and ruthlessly discipline yourself.

6. Write your abstract first. Keep rewriting and revising it: use it as an anchor for your thinking.
7. Develop your original argument. Trust what you have to say. Don’t become obsessed with the literature. It is not the Holy Script!
8. Don’t forget answering the ‘So what?’ question. Why is your research relevant?
9. To stay in academia: be your own academic. Focus on getting one or two excellent single-authored publications. That is what matters.
10. Take care of yourself: yoga, meditation, music and dedicated times off help.

AD: I know you’re passionate about writing. You’re always stressing how important it is to take writing seriously, and to develop your writing skills. What are your best tips for academic writing?
HdH: Writing is about more than simply reporting your research results. Invest in learning how to write clearly, how to write lucidly. It is best to approach academic writing as a craft, not high art. Anyone can learn how to do it. Approaching writing as high art is paralysing: it assumes you need to be exceptionally talented and you need to get it right in the first go. That’s very far removed from the actual process of academic writing which involves writing, and revising, and then revising and revising once again. As an academic you need to get comfortable with ‘killing your darlings’. When I was younger I used to think I was a good writer. And it’s true that writing comes easily to me, I am a fast writer and I enjoy writing. But the actual craft of learning to write well took dedication and often humbling interactions with mentors and reviewers I was lucky to have met several mentors who told me the truth and had no qualms about showing me how mediocre my writing still was, and how much I still had to learn. I had a great tutor as a freshman anthropology student. He was ultra-critical of my essays. I first hated him for it, but now I am forever grateful, as it was an essential wake-up call. After graduating in geography I worked for a private research and consultancy firm. This was another formative experience, as my mentors there forced me to ‘cut all the crap’ in my prose and to write as clearly as possible. Unfortunately, many academics make their texts impenetrable and vague because of their eagerness to sound scientific. It was in my non-academic jobs that I really learnt to write clearly. Perhaps the most important is the following: never take critique personally, always as an opportunity to improve. But also teach yourself to read your own text with an outsiders’ eye.

photo-1AD: Do you have a writing routine?
HdH: It’s so important to write a little every day. I try to write from 9-11 a.m. every morning. In reality I don’t usually manage the full two hours, more often it is a 90-minute session. I always feel I’d like to do more, but at the same time, I get a lot done in those 90 minutes. People tend to not believe me when they see my publication record, but it is true: this is when I get my writing done. It can be challenging to fit these writing sessions in, especially when you’re travelling, but I insist on four writing sessions a week mimimum. If I don’t manage during the week for whatever reason I will fit a session in on Saturday morning. This goes against my ‘weekends off’ policy, but keeping the writing flowing is as important for my peace of mind. I try to write first thing in the morning. What is very important is to stay off email and Internet. I used to start my day, as so many people, checking email. But I figured out that this is the entire wrong way around. I now stay off the Internet until lunch time, and check my email only once or twice a day, after my most productive writing hours. It’s all about discipline. I learnt this very early on, already during my PhD, when my first daughter was born. Having children has made me much more conscious of time and much more productive during the limited working hours I have. Right now I’m trying something new: waking up very early, at 6 in the morning to do my writing. It is still an experiment…

AD: What have you learned over the course of your academic career about writing?
HdH: Doing research and writing are inseparable. Thoughts are fuzzy and forgiving, the page is not. So when you write things down it helps you solve your conceptual puzzles. To think of doing research with the ‘writing up’ phase the last phase, is an outdated idea. Much better to start writing straight away. I highly recommend reading the book: Writing for social scientists by Howard. S. Becker on how to approach this. Reading that book as a 1st year student in anthropology back in 1989 liberated me in many ways, and encouraged me to approach writing as a craft, a continuous work-in-progress.

AD: What does your writing process look like? Is there a beginning, a middle and an end-phase that differ in how you approach it?
HdH: The end phase involves a lot of editing and trying to delete passages that may be superfluous or where I’m repeating myself. I’m wordy, so I am always trying to keep the word count under control. It is also a more intense phase. I always begin a new piece of work by writing the abstract. Conceptually it is the most important step. By the time the piece is finished the abstract will have been through revision after revision. It what anchors the piece. The phase in the middle is where I grapple with the data.

AD: What would you advise PhDs who are feeling stuck, and unable to write? Do you have tips to overcome writer’s block?
HdH: Be practical about writing. Develop a daily routine and ruthlessly discipline yourself. Don’t wait for inspiration. Inspiration comes often during writing. And start with the abstract. Write your abstract before moving on to anything else. It puts you on the spot; it forces you to come down to the essence of your paper. If you write a book, it can be helpful to write abstracts for each chapter. It has to be a substantive abstract, not one of those teaser abstracts that leaves you guessing, and which requires you to read the rest of the article to understand what it is about. Your abstract should state, in one or two sentences, what the ‘punch-line’, the argument and main finding of your research is. Start with this conceptual puzzle. Make clear what your aim is, which question you are going to answer, and don’t forget answering the ’So what?’ question. It is often overlooked, but it is what ensures your research has appeal beyond the narrow scope of the argument, and is relevant. I have found that paring it down like this, focusing on the research question and developing your own unique argument helps. Of course, while writing the actual paper or book, you will develop new insights, change your opinion or argument – you will adopt your abstract accordingly. Consider it as a continuous work in progress. Looking at it this way instead of seeing writing as an art can be very liberating.

AD: What would you tell PhDs who are looking for their niche, but haven’t quite found it yet?
HdH: It would be to trust what you have to say. Read, but don’t become obsessed by the literature. Instead, switch to ‘active’ thinking. There’s a big difference between trying to find a ‘gap’ in the literature and ‘filling that gap’; and developing an original argument. Filling the gap doesn’t work. There’s always the danger that once you’ve identified a gap, and ‘filled’ it, someone else will have done the same. You’ll find this out the week before finishing your own project most likely! Don’t define gaps in terms of ‘this group or topic has never been studied’, but instead in terms of how you approach that subject. Because you bring your unique perspective, through your own life experiences, your personal background, what you have read, you will always bring an original perspective. Trust your own story. Trust what you have to say – and have the audacity to present your very own take on your topic. Don’t be a slave to what previous authors have said. ‘The literature’ is not the Holy Script! There is a tendency to inflate the big names in the literature, and of course they have done important work. But they too are regular people, who had the courage to write up what they thought in as clear as possible prose. In other words: you can do this.

heinAD: Academia is becoming an increasingly competitive environment, and it isn’t at all the case that you’ll manage to secure an academic position, even when you are an excellent researcher. What would you advise PhDs with ambitions in academia?
HdH: Focus on getting one or two excellent single-authored publications, that is what counts in most disciplines. Sometimes this takes time. In my own case it took 7 years after I had finished my PhD as a monograph for my best theoretical article using the same material to be published. This is now my best cited article. In the meantime, work on articles that are easier to write and get published. Working papers are great: consider them as a first pit stop on the way to a journal publication. It allows you to ‘claim’ your idea, to gain visibility and to generate feedback early on, and they often get cited. Working papers are much better than chapters in edited volumes that often hardly get cited at all. Also: make sure to be your own academic. Don’t become someone’s sidekick, even if that person has the credentials to facilitate your career. Of course, benefit from it if you can, but don’t become too dependent on your mentor. I would also advise PhD students to challenge supervisors who assume their name should automatically be included as authors in each of their students’ papers, without contributing substantially to data analysis or writing the actual paper. It’s fine and even recommended to collaborate, but it’s very important to protect intellectual property and to be self-confident and assertive about that. It will gain you respect – and in many academic circles it is important to also have single-authored papers published. Let your star shine! Don’t be intimidated.

AD: Writing a PhD is stressful, as is working in academia. Do you have self-care routines?
HdH: Yes, absolutely. I started doing hatha yoga some six years ago, during a stressful time, which was fantastic in helping me calm my mind. More recently I have been practicing ashtanga yoga and yin yoga, at least three times a week, mostly in the early evenings. I try to make sure I don’t need to work or do anything that might burst the yoga bliss bubble afterwards! I also play the piano: no better way to wind down than playing some jazz and blues. But I’m not saying people should do yoga or play music. It does not matter what you do. Sports, dancing, acting, painting, it can be anything that makes you connect to your body and has nothing to do with your thesis. The point is to tune out from your research and find a healthy balance. Other things that help me manage the workload, and minimise stress are taking the weekends off. Two days preferably, but one and a half day at the very minimum. I also make a point of stopping on time. I generally don’t work after dinnertime, and I generally try to get all my important work done around 2pm. For me it does work much better to focus on getting my tasks done in the morning. I often don’t manage, but I do notice I feel better when I practice a short meditation in the morning and at the end of the afternoon or day. I also try not to watch television late at night and stay off-screen after working hours as much as possible.

You can find Hein’s excellent blog on migration here, and you can sign up for his free Migration 101 course in which he tackles some of the most common migration myths here. See the preview below. Did you like this post? Please share it! I appreciate it.

 

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How to Plan Your Work

How do you plan your work? I’m always intrigued by people who schedule every project, cutting their projects into bite-size chunks, then organising them into their week. I’ve never been able to do that, and sometimes I wonder whether anybody can really tame academic work into cooperating like that?? With academic work everything always seems to take endlessly longer than you think it would. It seems frustrating to always come up short.

What’s the alternative?

In my experience simplifying and prioritising are what is called for, followed by implementation. It means you come up with a clear idea of what matters to you, and what matters less, and adapt as you go. It creates time to implement your ideas also, it makes work doable and manageable. That sounds lovely, but it also means you will have to say no to other things, to other people’s priorities’ for you and to some of the ’things that come up’ along the way that steal your attention. That is too much to try to achieve using self-discipline. No matter how much you ‘want to’ or ‘intend to’ stick to your plans, the only way you will is by using as little of your energy as possible on constantly having to persuade yourself.

Some practical tips:

1. Be Clear on What You Want to Achieve

This is about considering your short-, medium- and longterm goals. Better start with the longterm goals and deadlines, then define the shorter term ones. Even simply writing these goals down will alert part of your mind into working towards them. (Try it.) Being specific here helps. Make it tangible. Write down exactly which papers or chapters you’d like to complete, and which other project deadlines you have. Then make a rudimentary plan, but don’t stress about it. It’s only a general outline, nothing set in stone. Spend ten minutes on it not ten hours. The most important part of this process is the prioritising of projects. Ask yourself: ‘what if I could only achieve one thing in the next x number of months? What would it be?’ Feel it. That is how you know what should be at the top of your list. Then go on to what is second most important. Etc.

2. Reserve Your Best Time Slots for Doing Your Important Work

Prioritise the work that will help you meet your goals. Have a look at your workday. Which part of the day are your best work hours? Use these ‘best’ hours for your most important work. Create a perfect bubble to work in. Whatever you need to do to make sure the best hours of your day are spent on your most important projects, do it. It doesn’t have to be all day, but 2 or so hours a day will make all the difference.

3. Keep up the Momentum

One way to keep momentum high is to stop work slightly earlier than you are used to, and use the last few minutes, or even moments to mentally record what you are doing, what you have done, and where you want to take it next. This helps tremendously when getting back to work the next day. It creates a work flow all you need to do about it step back into. There is something habitual about procrastination. Once we get into the habit of getting straight to work it loses its hold.

4. Prioritise as You Go Along

Are you working on the right thing? My problem with static schedules is that they are always outdated. Much better to keep checking in with your priorities. In the HappyPhD Course I teach a technique on doing so. One part of it consists of asking: ‘What is the most important thing I could work on right now to move my project closer to completion?’ This is slightly different from the more general question of priorities above. Your answer in the moment depends on what you just got done, how much time you have, and also how much mental energy you have at that time. Sometimes you need to go for it, try to untangle the most pressing intellectual knot (hahaha I just corrected a typo: I had typed – entangle the intellectual knot. Freudian slip there, we’re all masters at entangling intellectual knots). Other times it is wiser to do something else. I have found this way of working (if we act on our intuitive answer) to far surpass any linear way of approaching our work.

5. Keep It Doable

When you’re paralysed it tends to mean work is scaring you so much you’d rather not go there. It has become too big. Too difficult. Don’t forget: you can do this. You are going to figure it out. It just takes time. And it takes a lot of small incremental steps to get there. But you’ll get there. So instead of worrying about abstract things like deadlines or whether you will manage, assume you will. Because you will. Don’t lose your energy on rumination. Instead, focus on the next thing you can do. Ask: what next? Keep it small. Be pragmatic. Keep going. It is so powerful to defy those doubting internal voices, and proving them wrong while doing so makes life even better.

6. Keep Your Finger on the Pulse

Most important in planning isn’t the scheduling. It is the emotional pull for you to ‘want to do’ what you ‘need to do’. If you can’t get yourself to work on your project pay attention to why that is the case. Sometimes a simple pragmatic change such as changing your work schedule helps. If you promise yourself you ‘only’ have to work on your project for 90 minutes, say, every day, it may make it less intimidating. It will get you going. Or perhaps it is about permission to prioritise your research over your other to-do’s and obligations, especially if you’re busy and have other many other demands on your time. If the feeling persists you may have to go deeper. Maybe your project needs to change: it may need more interaction or supervision. Maybe you need to approach it differently. Or maybe you should be doing something else entirely…the internal drive isn’t always there, but if it is almost never there your future may lie outside the world of research. But that’s an entirely different post… (I wrote about quitting your PhD previously here)

Do you have tips on planning your projects? Do you work with a static schedule, or prefer something more fluid? Let me know. Also, download ‘Finding Your Academic Voice’ if you haven’t done so already, for more on this. As always if you liked this post could you share it? I appreciate it!

The Nudge: Coming to You Next Week

In academia workdays never seem to end. Firstly because there’s a culture of long hours (which isn’t necessarily the best way to go about it), and secondly because it just never ends…even when you’re not working, the project is still on your mind. The two combined can make for exhaustion and discouragement. I thought it would be a good idea to spend some time reflecting on how that happens, and what we might do instead. How we might create a schedule that isn’t quite as 24/7. How to work less, but get more done, and feel better too. If this appeals: sign up to receive a week of daily guidance here. I’ll be sending out an email every morning next week, so keep an eye on your inbox!

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‘Not everyone should get a PhD’ and other academic productivity fallacies

A few weeks ago I taught a workshop on academic productivity, and how self-care and perhaps counter-intuitive strategies such as shortening your workday may help. The audience were economists: PhD students, as well as a few faculty. Let’s just say it was an interesting experience! The dynamics were completely different compared to the other workshops I have taught, where the atmosphere tends to be relatively open, laid-back and sort of intimate. This time, however, that didn’t happen. Instead, there was a more challenging atmosphere, with more critical questions asked. By the supervisors, not the PhDs, I must add.

The resistance to some of what I was saying made me think: they may have gotten the impression that I was falsely portraying and underestimating what it takes to be a prolific academic in a competitive field. Maybe even worse, that I was pointing people in the wrong direction: that I would be encouraging them to be ‘too soft’ which just doesn’t cut it. The supervisors probably truly believe in the linear model of performance: that working longer hours is better, that pushing yourself is the answer to most productivity questions, that if you’re not tough enough to survive in the competitive world of academia (economics is a tough field indeed) it is too bad and simply means you are not cut out to be an academic, and that ‘self-care’ is too soft to be taken remotely seriously.

The point I was trying to make was the opposite: the ’soft stuff’ is what makes you better able to handle the pressures of academic life. It is what gives you the cutting edge. It is what allows you to perform better. It is in economist’s terms output-maximising. And wellbeing-maximising too. There is no trade-off, which is the beauty of it.

The issue: how to convince hard-nosed ‘more-is-better-you-should-be-tougher-and-push-yourself-harder-relaxation-is-for-weaklings’ economists of the value of such an approach. I don’t know whether I did or can, but I am willing to try as I really feel the paradigm needs to change for academia to become an environment that is less destructive, both in terms of the wellbeing, and in terms of academic productivity lost because people aren’t doing as well as they might, with a little different approach.

So, in a nut-shell what I propose is that the relationship between stress/ pressure/ competition and academic performance isn’t linear. If anything, it follows a concave curve, and at present academics are often situated well beyond the maximum (too much stress, sub-optimal perfromance). Empirical studies support the view that academia is a high-stress (potentially burnout-prone, low-performance) environment (See for example this study where academia is ranked the 6th most stressful profession). From a brain perspective a worsening of academic performance in these circumstances makes sense: chronic stress is just about the brain’s worst enemy, it has a real impact. And sadly the statistics support this analysis: academics suffer disproportionately with mental health problems, an indicator of a highly stressed and sub-optimal performing brain. In this scenario lowering stress levels so your brain has some space to think and actually perform is the best thing you could do for your academic career.

Unfortunately though there is still a survival-of-the-fittest mentality in universities, which considers anything to do with stress relief, especially admitting that it may be beneficial or ‘needed’ a sign of weakness. Push harder is the device, and if you can’t ‘handle it’: tough, academia is not for you. This is Neanderthal reasoning, sorry! It is true that at present the hardier ‘marathon-type’ academics are often the last ones standing, but that’s a result of the current set-up, not how it could be. And it isn’t in any way an optimal situation, either individually or collectively.

These were the main questions/ remarks/ arguments put to me by the supervisors during my talk. I’d thought I’d walk you through them:

1. “Competition is good for academic performance!” (Challenging the idea I put forward that high competition/ high stress results in a worsening of academic performance).

It depends. I’m not really worried about the intellectual challenge of pursuing a PhD contributing to chronic stress and underperformance, it is more about what I tend to refer to as ‘the rest of it’. It is important to understand: (chronic) stress which negatively impacts performance arises primarily not due to high demands or workload, but because those high demands lack matching reward structures. And academia is terrible in this regard. It doesn’t think in terms of process or support or reward, only in terms of output, often defined in a strictly linear way. And this is getting worse. There are many fears and insecurities inherent to the academic process and capability and effort do not necessarily neatly translate into ‘output’ (if only). Getting published sometimes takes years not months. The process can be messy and unpredictable and rife with uncertainty. Nothing new, but this uncertainty, specifically, is a major stressor. A culture in which destructive criticism may be the norm, instead of constructive criticism and support and mentoring and collaboration, as is often the case in more competitive departments, exacerbates the problem.

The point: You don’t want chronic stress to start interfering with people’s ability to work! This is often framed as an individual weakness, and private problem, but I disagree. It’s a collective problem, caused by structural features of academia, and should not be contributed to individual ‘failure’ or ‘weakness’. I’d argue that in the present situation where surveys show that around 37% of PhD students might be considered clinically depressed (44% for economics PhDs!), the vast majority of PhDs are suffering from the detrimental effects of chronic stress. From an academic performance perspective this is a worst case scenario! From a departmental perspective striving for ‘excellence’ it is too! The remedy of pushing people harder in this situation is counterproductive.

2. “Competition in this field will only get more intense, not less intense.” (So you’d better get used to it!)

True. The question is how to adapt and thrive in a competitive environment, and that isn’t necessarily by pushing harder longer. The best analogy I have found here is with the world of professional sports, and the role recovery plays in improving your performance. At some point you cannot train more hours a day, or you will overtrain, and your performance will be worse. Interestingly though, when you focus on improving the rate at which you recover, you can also increase the intensity of the training sessions, and your performance improves. Efficient recovery means performance gains. The exact same applies to research: in a competitive environment you have to couple intense work with intense relaxation. This means having recovery practices in place. Working in intervals, similar to athletes doing interval training, is one way of doing that and will absolutely allow you to shorten your workday with productivity gains. Sounds a bit scary, doing ‘less’, but it works. If you are performing well, it will allow you to find your competitive edge. If you are feeling ‘overtrained’, it will allow you to gradually increase your effective working hours, and allow your brain to recover and perform better.

3. “I don’t believe in this. You should just handle stress when it comes up. Making exercise, meditation, self-care part of your work day just creates more stress.”

May I roll my eyes at this one? If this is your private opinion, fine, but supervisors should hold their tongue. Stress isn’t something that ‘suddenly happens’ (academia is a chronic stress environment, not an acute stress environment) and discouraging people from looking after themselves is simply wrong. I can see why time pressure may make taking time for self-care difficult, especially when you’re stuck in a panicked mind-spin about work, or if you have an overloaded schedule already. But doing so will make a difference. Don’t take my word for it, try it. Work isn’t just about work. It is about creating the right circumstances to perform well, and that deserves some of your time and attention.

And finally my favourite:

4. “Not everyone should get a PhD” (Repeatedly.)

I have no words… I feel I should have spoken up more when a supervisor said this to the researchers during the workshop. Academia is a pressure cooker, and the supervisor says if you can’t stand the heat get out of the pot! How about we acknowledge the fact we are collectively being boiled and find strategies to deal with it, other than letting people figure it out for themselves and struggle in private. People are underperforming, not because they are not capable, but because they are not taught and mentored on how to perform well in a hyper-competitive environment. They are supposed to figure it out on their own, or else. If they feel vulnerable, they should just shut up and go away and push harder and do better. In my opinion this is a foolish stance. It doesn’t create better academics. It creates academics who are afraid they ‘aren’t good enough’ no matter how brilliant and talented they are. It creates a culture of fear and depression. It creates and sustains underperformance. Stress is a constant feature of academia, yet many of the stresses and struggles of academia remain hidden. People keep it to themselves because they are afraid of being seen as weak. Case in point: I heard after the workshop that some PhDs refrained from asking questions because of the supervisors’ presence and critical stance. That is the problem, people. It is to do with not being allowed to be seen as ‘weak’. Nothing to do with intelligence, talent or capability. Or output…

Reminds me of some of the dialogue in PhD the Movie

PhD: Sir, I’ve been meaning to tell you: I’ve been having some problems…
Supervisor: Problems? In academia we don’t use the word ‘problems’. It’s considered a sign of weakness. Call them challenges, issues if you must.
PhD: I have…issues.
Supervisor: Not my problem!

Note: If you’re someone dealing with a supervisor like this, the HappyPhD course does have a module on how to handle difficult supervisors. May come in handy…

I am creating a week of email ‘nudges’ to help shorten your workday and be more productive. Let’s try and implement some of these productivity ideas. (Not quite sure yet when: I said late July before, but I’ve had some delays… New date to be announced.) Do join us! It is free and you can sign up for it here.

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