practical phd

a transparent source for all things PhD

Teaching new courses requires a significant time investment.  Many of you already know!  I did a new course preparation for spring semester this school year, so I thought I would share some of the ways that I recycled and reused to save some time in the process in the hopes that it sparks some ideas for you.

First, I copied another course’s format.  I teach a course on segregation that is organized roughly as follows:

  • Background history 
  • Relevant contemporary factors
  • Implications for individuals’ life outcomes
  • Potential solutions to the problem

I used that as a template for my course on how city neighborhoods change with the exception of ending with opinions about gentrification.  Having a generic set up helped me organize my thoughts, which initially were quite scattered.

Second, I recycled my assignments.  In my segregation course, I use a series of methods assignments that students have to incorporate into a final paper.  I like the assignments because they give students practice with some practical skills like working with Excel, but are also interesting to read, which makes grading easier.  Lucky for me, the assignments also fit for my how city neighborhoods change course with a slight tweak in the instructions and focus of the prompts.

Third, I reused any and all readings that I could from other syllabi.  I was actually able to pull from my segregation course and my race/ethnicity course for this.  This let me integrate readings that I already knew worked for my undergraduate students and met the needs I had for a topic area.  To be fair, reused readings only appear in about 6 weeks of my class, but that meant I had little to no readings to find for those 6 out of 14 weeks.

Finally, because I reused readings from other courses, I was able to reuse slides that I had already developed and refined.  That helped tremendously in week-to-week lecture preparation.  Again, I didn’t have reused readings every week, but on the weeks that I did, it saved a lot of time.

The point is you don’t have to recreate the wheel for every new course prep.  You can reuse and recycle elements from classes you’ve taught before.  If you’re new to teaching or have a course prep that is a stretch from your prior course topics, you can also borrow elements from other instructors’ syllabi.  Starting from something makes the hard lift of new course preparations a little bit more manageable.

I just finished the first week of the semester and I’m already falling into patterns of trying to do things that I know don’t work for me in time management practices.  It’s been easy for this to happen because what works for me is not aligned with the common advice that is dispensed about how to manage your time and balance the demands of research, teaching, and service.  What I hear most often is to break up tasks and assign them to time slots on your calendar.  It sounds great in principle, but I need more flexibility in my work since I prefer to focus on something until it’s at a stopping point or finished instead of just because it’s been an hour.  I’m the kind of person that will fixate on what I left behind instead of moving onto the next task.

So what did I do wrong last week?  I put tasks on my to do list for each day that assumed I would have time to go back and forth between a bunch of tasks each day. A little bit of time for X then some for Y then some for Z between meetings and other commitments.  It worked on Monday when I had no meetings and my other commitments went smoothly.  But Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday just became days where I pushed several to do items to the next day and the next day and the next day, never actually getting to them.  So the literature review I was supposed to get back to, the comp I was supposed to grade, and the HR trainings I would rather not do (but have to) just never got done. 

Part of that was because I had deadline sensitive work to complete.  The teaching prep for next week for a new course had to happen and took all the time I had on my teaching days (Tuesday and Thursday).  The grant application that has a hard deadline took all my non-meeting time on Friday.  The problem was not how I used my time, but how I allocated tasks to my to do list assuming I would switch between tasks to get to them all.  I did not stop to take an hour everyday to complete another module on the HR trainings.  I did not go through one book from the stack on my desk for the literature review on my research days (Monday, Wednesday, Friday).  But I still checked things off my to do list. That I was still getting things done reminded me that it was my expectations in the process that were off.  

So next week, I’m going to give myself the big blocks of time I need to first finish this grant application and then grade that comp exam before I turn to that literature review.  I will remember that I don’t do well juggling between multi-day (or week) tasks in a day. I work best when I focus on one thing at a time and knock it out.  If you were also feeling like your time management had been off, assess your time management strategies based on how you work best, not what someone says is a best practice! 

I was recently interviewed by Dr. Betty Lai who has a forthcoming book and website providing guidance on the grant writing process. The tips below that I shared with her during our conversation were published in her newsletter (which you can sign up for here: and I am sharing with readers of Practical PhD with her permission.

Here are Dr. Rucks-Ahidiana’s top three tips for people who are learning to navigate grant writing (plus one bonus tip).

1. Don’t give up just because you get rejected one time. It doesn’t mean you’ll be rejected for life. There are some grants that have restrictions on how many times you can apply, but that’s rare. Most grants are more open. You can apply multiple times. You can apply and get rejected. And then revise and apply again. Don’t give up on your projects.

2. Ask for feedback if it’s not provided. There are applications where funders have feedback, but they don’t necessarily automatically give you the feedback. Request that information. If you get a rejection, follow up. Say thank you and ask if there’s any feedback. They may tell you they cannot provide individual feedback, but they may send it to you. Feedback helps you figure out what’s working and what’s not.

3. Look for samples. Look at who’s been funded before. For most grants, the websites will list projects and scholars. For example, you could look up the sociologists who’ve been funded. That can give you an idea of what kinds of projects they’re funding, but also look to see who you know on that list. Ask those people if you can see their application. You can also reach out to people you don’t know who are from a similar field. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by folks’ generosity, particularly folks I only know from Twitter, who have been willing to share grant applications with me. Sometimes the samples are not similar projects to what you’re doing at all. Don’t dwell on the particulars. Look at: what’s the level of detail they provide for their methods? What do they say about what they’re going to do with data analysis? How in depth do they go? Do they have a timeline chart? Break down the elements in the sample. Don’t feel like you need to replicate the kind of study that they’ve done.

Bonus Tip: Don’t be scared to ask questions. You may not feel comfortable asking a program officer for a meeting, but that’s part of what they’re there for. It’s beneficial for them to screen out applications that aren’t relevant. It’s OK to ask questions.

I was recently interviewed by Dr. Betty Lai who has a forthcoming book and website providing guidance on the grant writing process. The transcript of our conversation below was published in her newsletter (which you can sign up for here: and I am sharing with readers of Practical PhD with her permission.

BL: How did you get started with grant writing?

ZRA: Fellowships are helpful for understanding my trajectory with grants. I applied to fellowships before I even got into a PhD program. I had no idea what I was doing. I learned a lot in my first few years in grad school, because there was a lot of support and community around applying for NSF fellowships, Ford Foundation funding, Soros, and other predoctoral fellowship options. I didn’t secure any pre-doctoral fellowships from outside the university, but having that experience and getting feedback on those applications helped with my applications for dissertation funding. Before I graduated, I secured an AAUW fellowship and was an alternate for the Ford Foundation Dissertation Completion fellowship. Since then, I have received the Emerging Poverty Scholars Fellowship from the Institute for Poverty Research, a Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship, and the Mellon Emerging Faculty Leaders Award from the Institute for Citizens and Scholars.

BL: What was your biggest challenge as you learned how to write grants?

ZRA: Every application is a little different. You can build off of the same application, but a funder will ask for a diversity statement, or a personal essay, or want certain headers. The peculiarities of each application make it a challenge. Especially if you are applying for more than one. I definitely recommend applying to as many funding sources as you’re eligible for. From my experience, you have to throw a lot at the wall to get something to stick. I recently secured a Mellon Emerging Faculty Leader award. That was one of four applications I submitted to try to get funding for this summer. That one came through, but there are also three that didn’t. You don’t know what’s going to stick.

BL: How did you feel as you were learning grant writing?

ZRA: It was overwhelming to figure out where to find funding. After graduate school, I knew there was National Science Foundation funding. I knew it was highly competitive. I went to a grant writing workshop before I started my tenure track position. My big takeaway was I needed to get smaller grants under my belt to show I’m getting funding and being acknowledged for my work. But it’s a hunting game. You have to do some investigative work. I often look at the CVs of scholars who are doing similar research to me. I go to the grants section. Where have they gotten money from? The only problem is sometimes pots of money disappear, but it’s a good place to start. Twitter is great as well, because folks announce when they’ve won funding. I often click on the link to see more information about the funding program. Is this something I could save for the future? Or is it outside of my areas of research? Some funding comes under different names. Sometimes it’s an “award” with a pot of money, sometimes a “fellowship,” sometimes a “grant.” I have a bookmark folder for funding including grants, scholar in residence programs, and things like that.

BL: What changed for you after submitting your first grant?

ZRA: Grants let me focus on the job market my final year of graduate school. I would have stayed in graduate school another year or two otherwise. Once I landed a job, I was able to focus on the dissertation and getting that wrapped up. It was also a change in my CV. None of the departments I interviewed in required a grant to get tenure. But it certainly did come up in my job interviews. People said, “Oh, you’ve gotten funding.” To them it was a sign that I could get more funding and bring grants to their departments. There is prestige for the university that comes with getting funding. So it’s something folks like to see at all levels of administration. They like to see folks that are landing pots of money in some form, so I think it did open up some opportunities.

Look out for Part 2 with my advice for new grant applicants!

Graduate school is full of hidden curriculum. From how to get an office to where to find sample comp exams to why to use independent study credits, there are a lot of things you won’t know about when you start and some things you won’t know to ask about. There are books you can read to get some insight on the hidden curriculum, but I want to share something I found helpful in grad school, asking questions.

I spent a lot of the first year of my PhD asking questions. In proseminar, in office hours, in staff’s offices, and with advanced grad students. (Ask my cohort mates…I got a reputation for this.) I asked questions to understand the program requirements, funding opportunities, and to feel out who I wanted to work with.

You could call what I did a form of informational interviewing. Normally informational interviews are used to gain insight into a career path. In some ways, my questions were just that: asking about how to successfully complete a PhD. But my questions were also a way to learn about the culture in the department, which faculty communicated in ways that worked for me (and which didn’t), and to get a better sense of the challenges that students often faced in the program and department that I might also face.

While I think asking questions is particularly important in the beginning of your time in grad school to make sure you understand what you’re signed up for, informational interviewing can be also be helpful to get broader information along the way. So for instance, faculty feedback on draft proposals and articles is often in response to what you have written. But behind that specific feedback is an opinion about how a proposal or article should be written. (Trust me, we all have opinions about these things!) Most faculty don’t phrase feedback like “A literature review should…” Instead they say, “Make a clearer argument in your literature review,” responding to the words you have on the page.  

You can make conversations about your specific work broader by asking questions: What does a strong literature review do in your opinion? How do you prefer to organize your data and methods section? What are the common mistakes you see in the articles you peer review? While faculty may be inclined to give specific feedback in response to your draft, you can push the conversation with these sorts of questions to figure out their broader view of what makes for a good journal article. You can apply the same technique to book writing and grant applications as you advance in your career.

Now obviously asking questions only works if you know to ask so keep an ear out for things that don’t make sense to you to follow up on.  It is more than okay to ask for clarification and more information.  Actually, it is sometimes helpful for folks to realize they’re not talking about something that is widely known.  That could be dropping an acronym, a name of a program or an office on campus, or even referencing something you haven’t read.  Having these kinds of interactions can actually inform future interactions with other students in my experience.  

One thing I found helpful in illuminating some of the things I didn’t know to ask about was talking to advanced grad students and asking faculty very open questions.  With advanced grad students, I asked what they wish they had known.  With faculty, I asked what do I need to know about the next step in this process (e.g., qualifying exams).  These kind of questions always brought up really helpful insight I wouldn’t have known to ask about directly.  

Lastly, let me end by reassuring you that part of the faculty job in programs with grad students is to advise and mentor them.  Answering questions is part of the job.  Asking questions is not being disrespectful of someone’s time in any way.  

Drafting an article for peer-review means writing, revising, and editing, but also making the decision about when it is “done” and ready for submission to peer review. So when do you know when it’s ready to submit?  When should you stop wordsmithing and click that button?  I recently saw these questions asked on Twitter, in response to which there were a number of different takes on it.  As with anything in research, there are a number of different strategies for figuring this out.  

Quick disclaimer first though: I’m going to share what I do and how I got there, but remember that there’s no one way to make this decision.  This is what I do and why, but as I discuss below, there are reasons why this may not work for you.  Keep an eye out for other conversations on the topic and figure out what works for you!

Part of the reason I came to how I approach this decision is because I tried a different way at first.  My first peer review submission was a paper that I started through my job before graduate school.  My co-author and I had written a number of drafts of a paper and gotten feedback from our team several times.  Based on advice from our colleagues, we submitted to a journal to get additional feedback and figure out how to move forward.  

This advice followed me to my PhD program where I submitted an article with two similar analyses that I couldn’t decide between with the hopes that the reviewers would help me decide.  Instead, they were confused.  Weren’t Table 3 and 4 quite similar?  Why did the authors include both?  What should the reader take from Table 3 that is distinct from Table 4?   There were no answers in the reviews, only questions.  

Using the peer-review process to get feedback to strengthen your articles is one approach to the process.  In the case of my article before grad school, it was helpful as we used a sociological framework, but only had one trained sociologist on the team.  The one thing to remember with this approach is that a journal that rejects your paper is one you cannot submit that article to again.  So the best time to use this strategy is when you have the wiggle room to sacrifice a journal from your list of potential places to submit.  If you want your article to stick at the first journal where you submit it or you need the submission to be a serious consideration, this isn’t a good strategy.  

After my second experience with submitting for feedback, I had an amazing co-authorship experience where I learned a LOT about writing a journal article and the peer-review publication process.  These two experiences pushed me to take a different approach.  For feedback, I use writing groups, friends, mentors, and conference presentations.  It means losing potential reviewers for a paper, but it helps me develop a more polished and complete paper to submit for peer-review.  To determine whether the paper is “polished” and “complete,” I look to whether I get feedback that suggests the paper is half baked in two ways: (1) my analysis and (2) the framing of the paper.  Now reviewers ALWAYS have something they want changed or added to an article, but what I’ve noticed between publishing and reviewing articles is that a critique of your methods, analysis, or interpretation of findings can be damning, leading to rejection.  But suggested changes for the framing of a paper are often seen as doable revisions and are more likely to lead to a revise and resubmit.  I assume that this is particularly true when you’ve demonstrated to the reviewers that you can implement a framing, so I focus on executing whatever framing I choose well and completely.  

Making sure my findings sections are tight and the framing well executed seems to have increased the number of papers I’ve had accepted at the first journal I’ve submitted them to, rather than the third, fifth, or seventh.  (Yes, I have papers that took that many submissions to place.)  It helps of course that I have more experience with writing journal articles and better understand their format, but my approach seems to help too.  

Now I will say there’s one kind of peer-review journal my strategy is still hit or miss for: high rejection rate journals.  Really no matter what your strategy, the likelihood of rejection is high for these journals period.  But I do think my strategy has helped me land in journals with more moderate rejection rates.  

The main critique of this approach from what I’ve seen is that reviewers are going to make you redo something, so you shouldn’t submit something that perfected.  However, this critique seems to be more about your reaction to feedback.  The only problem with submitting something polished and complete is IF you are unwilling to change the article. If you are willing to make the revisions the reviewers ask for, it doesn’t matter if what you submit is closer to “perfect.”  

Another critique is that this approach encourages authors to hold onto their work and not submit it.  This is a really valid potential drawback of the approach.  What I’ll say to that is, for me, the approach has encouraged me to slow down and not rush.  It has calmed my impatience to get articles out the door and off my plate.  Now if you naturally tend to sit on your work and not click submit, then this critique is something to be careful about.  What may help is setting boundaries on how perfect an article needs to be before you submit it.  

Or maybe there’s a third option that I haven’t thought of that you should check out?  What other approaches have you been advised on or implemented?

I’m in the first of two weeks I’m spending focused on my book project, so it seemed like an appropriate time to share something I’ve learned in working on my first book project: Writing a book is NOT like writing articles!  

This academic year, I’ve been alternating my research time between revising and rewriting my dissertation into a book manuscript and working on articles and book chapters.  During my book weeks, there’s a lot of work that is generally familiar to the research process.  I’ve been cleaning and analyzing new data sources, reading new secondary sources, reviewing new literature, and writing.  But unlike the other tasks, writing for the book has been a whole new learning process.  I know good deal about writing journal articles at this point in my career.  I even teach graduate students about it.  But writing a journal article is so different from writing a book that most of those lessons and experiences just don’t translate.  

The first, obvious difference is the tone of the writing.  Journal articles are written to engage with other experts in your field, other PhDs.  But, these days, academic books are predominately written for an undergraduate readership.  This has major implications for the style of writing: Short and simple sentences.  No complicated clauses.  Clear language.  No jargon.  No passive voice.  Define all concepts.

Writing for an undergraduate readership also means writing for a different kind of expert.  Unlike a journal article where you need to prove the rigor of your methodological approach to your reader, many of your book readers will know very little about data and analysis.  Scratch the “data and methods” chapter and sections.  In fact, put it all the way at the end in a methodological appendix for those research trained readers who want the deets.  

But the part that has really thrown me through a loop is where to engage with the literature.  Just as your main audience doesn’t need an extensive review of your methodological approach, they also don’t need an extensive review of the literature.  So what in my mind is a several page section that I prepare to write by reading a lot and taking extensive notes no longer has a specific place in the book.  There’s no literature chapter.  No multiple page section in the introduction.  Instead, literature is used strategically throughout the manuscript.  I’m still wrapping my head around this and what that means for when I do my “reading a lot and taking extensive notes,” but I’m taking a stab at it as I push forward.

What has been helpful in getting a grasp on how to tackle this new writing challenge has been doing more reading.  I’ve read as much as I can about book writing.  (Yes, you could call it a literature review.)  My current favorites are Revising Your Dissertation, an edited volume with essays written by academic press editors, and the Clockwork Muse, which covers long form writing including dissertations and books. The former does a great job of highlighting the major differences between a dissertation and a book, including what academic press editors are looking for in the books that they publish.  The latter includes guidance and examples (this part is crucial!) of the process of book writing.  

I’ve also been reading relatively recently published academic books to look for things I like (and don’t like) in the writing, format, organization, etc.  Recently, for example, I was reading a book that had vague, unclear chapter titles AND no description of the chapters in the introduction.  As someone who didn’t need to read the whole book, I was frustrated that I was forced to skim each chapter to figure out what was most relevant for my needs.  Needless to say, clear chapter titles and a description of each forthcoming chapter are on my list of “dos” for my own book manuscript.

When I find a book that does something well, it goes in my stack of exemplary books.  This includes works that match the tone and style I’m aiming for in my own book.  They’re accessibly written, but still engage with theoretical concepts and debates.  These are books like Eve Ewing’s Ghosts in the Schoolyard, Tony Jack’s The Privileged Poor, and Tressie McMillian Cottom’s Lower Ed.  

I’ve been learning a lot this year working on #ProjectFirstBook.  But there’s much more to go.

One way my career before graduate school helped me was preparing me to “manage up.”  When we think of the word manage, the process that most often comes to mind is a supervisor monitoring, training, and evaluating a subordinate.  But management really happens in both directions in the workplace.  Supervisors give assignments, but their employees have to advocate for themselves (e.g., we agreed to rotate this type of assignment and I did the last one) and ask for clarity on priorities (e.g., I now have 3 reports with the same deadline, which one should be my top priority?).  The advisor-grad student relationship is very similar to supervisor-employee in many ways, so managing up is an essential skill that all grad students need to protect themselves in that relationship.  

Even though an advisor or dissertation chair is not a boss, they have power over graduate students.  Advisors can decide you’re not ready to take a qualifying or comprehensive exam.  They can require a change in your research design before they will sign off on your prospectus.  They can even contribute to your reputation in the department by what they tell other faculty.  Abusive advisors aside, most faculty think they are being helpful and contributing to a student’s training by the advice they give and the actions they take on the student’s behalf.  But being well meaning doesn’t always mean that an advisor is doing what works best for you.  This is why managing up is an important skill to bring to the graduate school process.  There are times when you will need to advocate for yourself instead of blindly following the prescriptions of your advisor.  I’ve seen this happen commonly around unreasonable expectations from advisors, unforeseen delays in research, life happenings that interrupt work, and advising needs mismatch.  

Unreasonable Expectations 

Student A meets with their advisor to discuss progress on their dissertation.  Advisor says “Great!  Let’s meet in a month to discuss that chapter.  Send it to me two weeks before the meeting.”  So Student A has two weeks to crank out a draft, which could still require significant data analysis.  Even if the draft is further along, the advisor didn’t inquire about the timeline, so Student A may have a conflicting deadline, event, or commitment.  

Unreasonable expectations for deadlines usually come up for a couple of reasons.  (1) Advisors sometimes only think about their availability and don’t ask students when they can get something done.  (2) Advisors think students are only working on their dissertation/exams when students are in fact also juggling other commitments and responsibilities.  (3) Advisors are not accounting for how long it takes less experienced researchers and writers to complete research and writing tasks.  From an advisor’s perspective, the fix is easy: Ask students about timeline.  Say “I can read your draft in two weeks.  Is that enough time to implement the changes we discussed?”  Ask “What else do you have on your plate in the coming weeks?”  Take a minute to sync calendars to come up with a reasonable deadline for both parties. 

If your advisor doesn’t ask these things, you can and should speak up for yourself and ask for a different timeline.  One way to approach this is to punt the conversation by saying something like “I need to figure out how long the remaining work on the chapter will take.”  You can then follow up via email to propose a more realistic timeframe.  Alternatively, you can tackle it in the moment with something like “I have another deadline in the week leading up to that so I’ll need more time” or “The data analysis still needs quite a bit of work.  Let’s meet in two months so I’ll have enough time to sort that out.”  By pushing back on timelines to ensure you’re not agreeing to unreasonable expectations or overworking yourself to meet unreasonable deadlines, you might find that your advisor starts to expect a discussion about deadlines instead of prescribing them. 

Unforeseen Delays

Student B had plans to collect never used before records from an archive for their dissertation.  They can’t tell a lot about the records from the documentation provided because the records haven’t yet been processed by the archivists.  However, the student has been assured they will have access to the boxes.  After traveling to visit the archives, they realize the exciting records are not exactly what they expected.  Before they can move forward with the project, they now need to reassess whether these archives are an appropriate source for the questions they would like to answer or whether they can answer a different set of research questions with these particular records.  This may mean a change in schedule.

This scenario is one in which Student B will have more insight into the problem than their advisor, having actually reviewed the contents at the archive.  Their advisor will have suggestions and advice, but Student B will need to be assertive about their preferences to maintain a project that they are excited about.  They will need to decide whether they are committed to the original research questions and would prefer to visit other archives for better suited materials, or if they are excited about the new research questions they can potentially address at this archive.  They also need to consider whether they have funding, time, and energy for a trip to another archive and how changing their research questions will affect their timeline to finish.  All of these factors are fair to consider in deciding how to move forward, which means the student is the best person to finalize the decision.  

You can certainly discuss the options with your advisor.  In fact, it is often helpful to do so, but don’t be scared to manage up to let them know you will be considering the options and making the final decision.  Simply telling your advisor you need to consider how much the decisions will affect your timeline or that you need to review your budget to determine if you can afford another trip is an easy way to remind them that you need to make the final call.  

Life Happenings

Student C experiences a death of a close family member.  They took time off of their research for the funeral.  Since then though, they haven’t been able to work and have been overwhelmed with grief.  They know that attempting to just push forward will not be productive and that they need to process their grief first.

Life tends to pop up during grad school in ways we have no control over.  This is another situation where the grad student knows best.  So while it might seem unprofessional to share what’s going on with your personal life with your advisor, not doing so means they have no information and may misinterpret changes in communication and completion of deadlines.  That said, what you communicate is up to you.  Advisors don’t need all the details.  They need enough information to know that you aren’t able to meet work deadlines right now, but don’t need to know the intimate details of what you’re dealing with if you’re not comfortable sharing them.  At the bare minimum, Student C could email their advisor to let them know they had a death in the family.  But if Student C is comfortable enough to share more, they might also explain that they’re having a hard time and need to take a break from their research deadlines to recover.  Either approach signals something is going on that is interrupting work, which is what the advisor needs to know.  

Advising Needs Mismatch

Student D connected with their advisor early in their time in grad school.  Their advisor communicates well, provides good feedback, and supports them.  But Student D is finding they need more structure now that they’re working on their dissertation.  While their advisor expects a progress update once a semester, there aren’t deadlines in between.

This situation is an easy fix with managing up.  Student D can reach out to their advisor and ask for a meeting to set a month-by-month plan for their dissertation research with deadlines and deliverables to send to the advisor to help them stay on track.  In the conversation, they can also discuss what feedback the advisor can provide during the semester on the deliverables and in what form.  This is also a situation where the grad student and advisor should sync schedules to meet both of their needs.  

While Student D had a situation in which they needed more structure, some grad students may need less structure or more or less feedback.  Taking on a conversation with your advisor to explain what you need is the first step to getting your needs met.

No matter what your situation, know that your advisor is likely to both know some of what you’re experiencing from their own firsthand experience even if they don’t get all of the details.  Even the faculty member who completed their PhD before you were born may have had to revamp their whole dissertation due to a data source problem or experienced a life happening that set back when they finished their dissertation.  If they aren’t able to adjust their expectations or push you to work through an emotionally challenging time after you’ve communicated your needs, that might be the sign that they’re not the right advisor for you.  In that way, your advisor’s response to you managing up is important intel as well.  

Working in a job where the most important component (at least according to most research institutions’ tenure standards) is also the least regulated by deadlines presents a challenge for creating balance.  Teaching responsibilities come with a clear schedule for preparing lectures, grading assignments, and submitting final grades.  Service assignments can also have hard deadlines even if that’s just the next committee meeting.  While research comes with deadlines for revise and resubmits, conference submissions, special calls for papers, and grant applications, a lot of research work has no hard deadline.  Without a deadline, this is the work that can get pushed to the back burner when work with deadlines gets busy.  The only way to manage this and maintain a balance is with setting boundaries.

The major challenge to setting boundaries is that you need to know what to set boundaries around.  For me, that’s been a moving target since starting my job as an Assistant Professor as I see what demands there are for my time.  Each year I seem to get different requests whether it’s adding guest lectures, external service for a professional association, or a new responsibility within my department.  

One suggestion that has helped me identify where I need to set new boundaries is reflecting on all that I’ve done at the end of each semester.  I use a set of questions I got from Mirya Holman’s MHAWS newsletter that includes reflecting on what you would change about how an accomplishment came about.  When my reflection is that something was too demanding on my time or I did too much of some task, that’s a sign that I need to set a boundary.

There are many ways to set boundaries.  The first and most obvious boundary is saying no.  This boundary is particularly helpful when you’re asked to do something “earlier” than usual in your career.  I’ve usually been able to flag when I’m being asked “too early” by talking to more senior colleagues who will help me determine whether to say yes now, say not now (but later), or just say no.

Most of the time though, I need boundaries for the kind of work I need to do some of, but can’t do all that I’m asked to do.  For these kinds of requests, one approach is to set a cap or a maximum of how much you can do.  For instance, it’s not possible to say no to all peer review requests, but I do set a cap on how much peer review I can accommodate without it taking over my research time.  One way to set this boundary is a total number per semester and saying no after you reach that limit.  Many folks set this number based on how many articles they have under review and multiplying by two or three to set a goal number of reviews to give back to the peer review process.

Another way to set boundaries though is to set limits on a set of tasks that fit together.  This semester, for example, I’ve implemented a system where I treat peer review as part of the category of work I call “reading other people’s work.”  This includes reading draft work for friends, graduate students, workshops, and peer review.  My cap right now is to only read one person’s paper a week.  So to decide whether I can accept peer review, I look at what other work I have in “reading other people’s work” to do in the time frame in which the peer review would be due and make a decision on my availability based on that.  If I accept, I assign the peer review to a specific week based on when I don’t have to read the other manuscripts.

Setting boundaries is an important part of managing to balance research, teaching, and service.  You have a variety of ways to set boundaries, so find what works for you for each of the areas in which you need to set limits and adjust your process as you need to.

I’ve been learning as much as I can about academic book publishing since I graduated in 2018.  While most of the committee members had published books, I didn’t get much information about the process as a graduate student.  So when I decided that I wanted to transform my dissertation into a book, I sought out more information about the process from a variety of venues including panels of authors, panels of editors, and one-on-one conversations with published authors.  I still have much more to learn, but a number of points have repeated across sources in areas where I had lots of questions, so I’m going to share some of what I’ve learned.  

When should I start?

Coming off the job market, I was acutely aware that some folks already had book contracts as graduate students.  I went into my postdoc year feeling behind on the book until I got more information about the process.  From start to finish, the book publishing process takes several years.  It doesn’t usually take 6 years though, so you don’t need to walk into a tenure-track job with a contract in hand to have a book that counts towards tenure.  That said, it does take more than one year, so you’ll need to get some information and figure out a rough timeline.

First thing to find out is what you need in hand for the book to count for your tenure file.  Some universities want a hard copy of the book in the file.  Others want reviews published on the book.  Others are fine with proofs submitted with the file.  Each of these scenarios have different rough timelines.  That said, most editors and authors I heard from agree that getting a contract in your third year on a tenure-track position is (usually) sufficient for having book in hand for your tenure file. 

Advance contracts are (mostly) no more. 

It used to be that it was common to land a book contract with a proposal alone, but that is less and less common.  Many presses will ask for a proposal and two sample chapters, but some ask for a proposal and the full manuscript upfront.  If the proposal is the only thing requested, an editor may show interest, but still ask for the full manuscript before being willing to move forward.  

Every editor I’ve heard speak to this point has mentioned that they are not expecting a full manuscript in their mailbox in a week after a request like this.  In fact, some of them specified that this sometimes takes up to a year.  So you will have time to work on your manuscript if you’ve only prepared two chapters, but are asked to submit the full manuscript.  You may decide though to prepare the full manuscript before you submit the proposal.  I know of at least one successful book writer who prefers to write their books fully before submitting a proposal so that they’ve had a chance to fully think through the whole project and all of its pieces before writing the proposal.

Articles based on book data should come first. 

Once you’ve published a book, there are copyright issues with republishing content with articles, but the opposite is not a problem.  If you plan to publish an article using exact content from any chapter in your book, you should publish it before the book is published.  

Editors tend to not like when “too much” has been published that overlaps with the book data.  However, what “too much” means will vary by publisher, so ask the editor for a rule of thumb before you get too far into articles based on the book.  Most of the editors I’ve heard speak agree that two articles is acceptable, but there may be other presses that have a more stringent or more relaxed rule on this.

Everything is easier for your second book.

The last thing I’ve learned is that publishing your first book is a lot harder than any subsequent books.  Once you’ve proven yourself as capable of completing a book, you have a track record that makes the process easier for any future book projects.  This is true even if you switch publishers for your second book as you’ve already completed a book from start to finish.  Whether a second book is easier to write than the first is a whole other story…