I’ve officially survived my first semester as an Assistant Professor! Coming into the job was entering a black box. I had balanced research and teaching before, but only with one course. I had also done service, but as a graduate student when I had control over what I did and how much. So navigating research, teaching, and service in a new institution and with a new workload, while adjusting to living in a new place, was an unknown. Thankfully some of my prior experiences prepared me for the job and for managing my expectations when life inevitably happened.
What Prepared Me
The first and most important experience I had before my tenure track job was experience teaching. I had previously developed and taught two courses so I have no new course preps in my first year. I highly recommend that graduate students do more than TA if possible. Teaching someone else’s curriculum is very different than developing and teaching your own. Yes, you develop pedagogical skills while TAing, but you don’t have to think about your pedagogical goals (beyond reinforcing the professor’s teachings) and how to implement them through readings, lectures, activities, and assignments in the same way as when you teach your own course.
Coming into this year with two tested syllabi has also been a major time saver. Curriculum development is an intensive process. Not only do you have to decide on learning objectives, sections, readings, and assignments, but you also have to prepare each and every course meeting from scratch. Even with changes I made to my syllabus, I only had 3 learning units that required more intensive preparations this semester. I spent an hour max each week on lecture and activity prep for all other sections, which freed up my time for grading and course administration. It also meant I had much more time to do research than I would have with a new course prep.
The second experience I had before this year that helped me navigate my new job was having a baby as a graduate student. Now, I’m not saying all graduate students should have a baby! This is obviously not something that all of you will want to do or be able to do, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have a life interruption that provides similar lessons. Babies are unpredictable. You think you’ve got a routine down and two weeks later everything changes. I had to learn to be less of a planning freak and adjust my goals and expectations for work based on what was possible to accomplish in the time I had to work. I learned to forgive myself, reward myself for what I accomplished, and be okay with not every day and every week being equally productive. Having a major health problem or being involved with carework for a sick family member or friend would lead to similar experiences.
This semester the experience helped me through a move, an abrupt change in child care, an illness, and some other interruptions that affected my work schedule, my concentration, and my energy. When things got rough, I prioritized work with deadlines, which were mainly my teaching responsibilities, a couple of grant applications, and a revise and resubmit deadline, and forgave myself for falling behind on other things. Life happens! You can’t be 100 percent with your work all of the time.
What I Learned
While I was prepared for part of what my first semester entailed, there was a fair amount that was new. I was teaching two courses for the first time, teaching large courses (110 students in each section), and doing faculty service work for the first time. The biggest lessons I learned were on the teaching front as my service responsibilities were much lighter than I expected.
First I should point out that I ended up teaching 220 students my first semester because of an attempt to reduce my teaching load in the first semester. As background, the year I was hired there was a policy change in when hires could use course releases. Instead of being able to use them to ease into the full teaching load, new hires couldn’t use their course releases until their third year when they would have feedback on their progress from a review at the end of the second year and be able to use release time to “right their course” towards tenure. To offset going straight into a 2-2 load, I negotiated my teaching for the first year, which led to me teaching two sections of the same course in the fall and a grad course and senior seminar on the same content in the spring. What I didn’t realize is the size of the classes I was to teach in the fall, which meant having 220 students across both sections. Having two sections of the same course reduced prep for class, but increased course administration and grading substantially, which was a lot even with two wonderful Graduate Assistants helping me. In contrast, my spring semester is likely to be 30 undergrads and maybe 10 grad students. What I learned: For the future, I plan to balance a large lecture course with a smaller course even though that will mean prepping for two different courses. To achieve this, I’ve begun a plan for new course development over the next 5 years so that I have adequate smaller and larger courses to alternate and not get bored.
I’ve also been using my first semester experience to reflect on how to roll out new courses. Inevitably, the first time I teach a course I have too much reading and sometimes too many assignments. So I’m going to try to teach new courses first as graduate seminars. This will allow me to review the readings in closer detail to decide what is appropriate for an undergraduate course without having to do that before teaching the class. (I do a lot of work on reading selection and course design before teaching, but do not prepare readings and lecture until I need to since I honestly won’t remember them.) Using this approach will also give me time to figure out how to best organize the course to integrate my core goals for undergraduate teaching: to help students understand (1) their own experiences and (2) the world around them.
Finally, teaching a course that large inevitably meant teaching a lot of non-Sociology majors and a lot of first and second year students, in contrast to my prior experience of teaching junior and senior Sociology majors. While I always teach my courses assuming no prior knowledge, the mix of majors AND years meant that students had more of a range of levels of comfort with the type of reading they were assigned and the writing assignments that I use instead of multiple choice exams. I’m still wrapping my head around how to address this without reverting to in class exams and multiple choice, but the issue is flagged for the next time I teach the course.
All in all, the first semester has been productive and challenging. I’ve learned a lot, particularly about the kind of instructor I want to be, while pushing forward my research agenda thanks to the experiences that prepared me for this moment. Since my service load was light, I expect to face new challenges in the semesters to come as I’m called on more to serve the department and the university.
Yesterday I took a walk with my son in the snow. It was the Sunday of the Thanksgiving long weekend. The day when my work to do list started tapping me on the shoulder to remind me how little time is left in the semester. There are reading responses to grade and work to do on an article before reflection papers and final exams from 220 students start rolling in. But it started snowing, something my little guy has had no experience with and something I strongly associate with my childhood as an east coaster. So we bundled up, left my work to do list on its own, and went for a walk.
Whether you’re in graduate school or in your career beyond, surviving is all about healthy habits. There is no way to sustain being a brilliant student, researcher, mentor, and/or teacher without being a complete and balanced person. That means maintaining your mental and physical health, building and maintaining relationships and community, and using other parts of your brain. It is what we often refer to as work-life balance.
For me, that means not working when I get home or on weekends. It means going to the doctor to follow up on the ailments of getting older. It means making an effort to move regularly even if I can’t get to the gym as often as I’d like (or at all). It means knitting, cooking, and watching Netflix to decompress. It means getting a full 8 hours of sleep. It means catching up with my besties via text, email, or phone whether that’s weekly or a random “thinking of you” message. It also means paying attention to how I’m doing, noting when I’m feeling overwhelmed and anxious, and knowing when I need to change my routine to add more self care like stopping work to take a walk and breathe, or get some chocolate.
Not only do we need this regular (e.g., daily or weekly) maintenance, it helps to take longer breaks to step away from work and get some real rest and relaxation (the other R&R). That’s why employees are given a certain number of vacation days in their benefits packages: because we’re supposed to take breaks. Unfortunately, for graduate students and academics, there are no vacation days to signal this. In fact, our “breaks” are really just breaks from teaching and service, which many use to focus on their research.
Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t work during these breaks. But I am saying it’s not healthy to work every day of every break. I don’t even think you should work every day of the week. It doesn’t matter when you take your breaks. Choose a schedule that works for you, your lifestyle, and your schedule, but take them. That might look like working on the Monday off of a long weekend, but taking time off during a longer break like winter break. Even if the break you take is during time you are visiting family for the holidays or over the summer, it counts.
Take the time to step away from your computer and your books. The work will still be there when you get back. Give your body and mind a break from all the hard work they’ve been doing.
Feedback is a central part of the work of someone with a PhD. Colleagues and friends ask for feedback on papers. Conference organizers ask us to give feedback on presentations as discussants. Journal editors ask for our feedback on manuscripts submitted for publication. Regardless of whether you’re a professor, a research professional, or a graduate student, there are ample opportunities to practice and cultivate a style of feedback that is supportive and encouraging, while being critical and direct across these forums of feedback.
Be Clear About What You Like
After reading or receiving verbal feedback, it should be just as clear what you like about someone’s paper or research project as what you think they need to work on. You should lead any written or verbal feedback with what you like before getting into what could be improved. Hearing about your “impressive data collection” or the “exciting contribution the paper will make” makes it a heck of a lot easier to hear about the “fundamental flaw” in your argument. In fact, many folks recommend that more critical feedback should be sandwiched with supportive and encouraging comments, so as to both start and end with the positive.
Whether you choose to lead with the positive or sandwich the critical with it, it should be clear to the author what you liked about their work. Not doing that focuses all the attention on what isn’t working, which can lead the author to think their work is not worth pursuing. I once sat through 45 minutes of critical feedback on what was wrong with my paper before someone said “I think this is a really interesting paper.” By that point in the conversation, I felt like the paper was unsalvageable based on the issues they had identified. Had the conversation began with “I think this paper is really interesting,” I wouldn’t have felt like I needed to ditch the paper at all during the conversation.
Be Direct and Specific
The absolute worst feedback to receive is vague and unclear critique. Oftentimes these are comments like “needs more polish,” “hard to follow,” and “could use expansion” without any additional direction. Adding an example or specificity about what you mean will help the author fix the problem with their manuscript because they will know exactly what you’re critiquing. Point out a specific paragraph that was “rough” and suggest a rephrasing. Repeat the author’s argument back to them in your own words and identify where it was confusing or made a leap that went too far. Mention a specific literature or articles that would help them expand. After all the work you’ve put into reviewing, the author should know exactly what they need to do to improve their paper.
If you’re giving feedback to graduate students, remember that they may not yet know what elements they need for a good journal article or how to execute them. Including general advice like “the literature review should be an argument about the prior literature and how your manuscript contributes” can be incredibly helpful no matter what their stage in graduate school. Learning to write a strong journal article benefits from feedback on a specific paper, in addition to general advice about writing journal articles that can be translated to the next paper.
Be Encouraging and Supportive
People often assume that being direct is the opposite of being encouraging, but it doesn’t have to be. For example, take the “hard to follow” argument above. You could tell the author “your argument was convoluted and hard to follow” or you could tell the author “your main argument could be a strong contribution to our understanding of X, but it was hard to follow as written” (and then provide more specifics). While much of the encouragement and support will be in your summary of what you liked about the work, part of it will also be in the phrasing of your more critical points. Telling someone “the findings section was boring” or “what was the point of section 4?” is going to be a lot less encouraging than “your argument disappeared in the findings section because you were trying to present too much data” or “section 4 isn’t clearly linked to the rest of the paper.” Furthermore, the less encouraging feedback is also often indirect and unclear.
Give Both Written and Verbal Feedback
Whenever possible, it’s helpful to give the author both written and verbal feedback. Obviously this is not possible when you review an article, but it is possible to provide both in most other settings. This allows space for a discussion about the feedback you’re providing, but also gives them a record of what you suggested in addition to their notes on the feedback.
In fact, when I’m giving someone feedback for the first time, I like to provide feedback verbally before sharing written feedback so that they can hear my tone when discussing what I like about their paper and what needs improvement. I use track changes comments throughout the manuscript to provide my blow-by-blow response, but also include a page where I summarize my main feedback, which allows me to tie together the specific comments into broader critiques.
Vary Feedback by Paper Progress
Not all papers you review need the same level of feedback. Tailor your feedback to the stage the paper is in the pipeline to be most useful to the author and allocate your efforts appropriately. You might suggest line edits for a paper that is near ready for submission to a peer review journal, but that detailed feedback isn’t necessary for an early draft that will undergo significant revisions in future drafts. With this approach, you would provide broad feedback on organization and argumentation to any manuscript, but detailed feedback about language and phrasing only for closer to finished drafts.
I apply this rule to everything I review, including when I do peer review. Once it becomes clear to me the paper is not close enough for me to recommend a revise and resubmit, I focus on the broader problems of the manuscript. However, for papers that I will recommend for a revise and resubmit, I keep track of very specific feedback including sentences or paragraphs that were hard to follow, terminology that needed definition, etc.
Address the Author’s Concerns
With the exception of a blind peer review, the author often has specific concerns about the paper they’ve shared for feedback. “Is this the right literature to engage with?” “Does the argument at the front end match the findings?” “How can I strengthen the discussion section?” Make sure you address the author’s questions and concerns in your feedback in addition to any other feedback you have. If the author hasn’t asked about anything specific, ask them if there’s anything they would like you to pay particular attention to or any concerns they have about the manuscript.
The most helpful feedback is always the feedback which helps me get through a problem I’m stuck in. Two weeks ago, I was spinning my wheels on the framing in an introduction section that my writing group helped me solve last week. Telling them that I was stuck on the introduction gave them a reason to pay closer attention to that part of the paper and think through what was working and what wasn’t.
While some of the tips I suggest above might sound time consuming, remember that the more you do them, the more they will be second nature. It’s an investment, but one that is worth making to provide better feedback to others AND role model what feedback should look like.
As I worked on my Master’s paper during my second year of graduate school, I felt increasingly isolated. Sitting in my office in front of my laptop got the data cleaning, analysis, and writing done, but wasn’t a completely satisfactory experience. From my work in evaluation research prior to graduate school, I knew research didn’t have to be a solo endeavor and in fact is often not that, so I sought out ways to make the dissertation a collaborative experience. Due to the nature of my research and the presence of the Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program, I was able to employ a team of Research Assistants to help me with data collection and coding. Not only did it help move my dissertation forward, it let me give a group of undergraduates a look into the less visible side of graduate school and faculty work, provide them with mentorship, and be a role model to a group of predominately women and people of color. We often think of working as a Research Assistant as an opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students to be exposed to the research process, get new skills in data collection and analysis, and expand their resume/cv. But it is also an opportunity for faculty to push forward their research with more hands and minds on deck. Working with Research Assistants helped me finish data collection and gave me others to talk to about my research who had direct experience with the data. These interactions led to early changes in the data collection protocol and coding scheme, which informed the larger direction of the project. The key to making it a beneficial endeavor for everyone involved comes from choosing good matches and providing training, structure, and feedback.
Choosing your RAs
When I first started looking for RAs as a graduate student, I was advised to look for students with high GPAs as a sign of their ability to perform. I was surprised to hear that advice given my own experience hiring, supervising, and training recent graduates in evaluation research. GPA is a measure of a student’s ability to study, memorize, regurgitate, apply concepts, evaluate examples, and write. The only part of this that is relevant for most RA positions is the ability to follow and master a set of instructions. Frankly, GPA is a pretty poor measure on which to gauge someone’s ability to do that given the number of irrelevant aspects of their academic performance that it measures.
I have found that the best RAs were the ones that were (a) deeply interested in and often personally connected to the topic and (b) had strong skills in organization, time management, and attention to detail. During interviews I asked applicants why they were interested in the project, whether they would describe themselves as a more detail oriented or a big picture thinker, for an example of their organizational skills, what other activities they were involved in outside of classes, and how they were managing their school, work, and student activities. This got me a group of RAs who cared about my research topic, could juggle their assignments with their other responsibilities, kept good track of their work, and took the time to implement their task according to their training and instructions.
After selection, I always lead with training to prepare my RAs as a group for their work. Now this is something I’m sure everyone working with others on their research does in both formal and informal ways. Here’s what I’ve found to work best.
First, I start with a broader orientation to the research project so that RAs can see where their specific research tasks fit into the broader scope of the project. I share the inspiration for the project, the question(s) I’m answering, and a broad review of the research design. Second, I provide a task specific training on their day-to-day responsibilities. That includes a review of a living document that serves as a repository for all instructions detailing their responsibilities that they can refer back to at any time. If possible, we visit the site of their work, which could be a physical location like the library or a virtual location like a shared cloud folder. Finally, we walk through an example of what they will do together, so they see an example of the task carried out with verbal annotations about why I am making the decisions I’m making along the way.
Structuring their Work
The written instructions detailing the steps in their tasks is core to the structure I provide for their work, but I’ve also found that RAs need systems, processes, and regular check-in meetings to help structure their work and provide deadlines. Thus, I provided my RAs who were doing coding work with a document outlining instructions for coding, a codebook, a shared folder with their assigned articles, and a spreadsheet to enter their coding and questions all in one location. At weekly meetings, we would review any questions they had from the prior week, as well as discussing changes to the protocol and broad feedback that applied to all team members. These weekly check-ins also provided indirect tracking of their progress on assignments and informal deadlines for moving their work forward. As they became more comfortable with the protocol and had fewer questions, we reduced meetings to biweekly or monthly to give them more time to work on their assignments, but continued exchanging questions and updates via email.
The structure you provide your RAs will vary depending on the kind of work they do. For example, if an RA was doing a literature review for me, I would provide a list of information I want them to compile and questions that I want them to answer about each article they review. I would format this list of information and questions into either a spreadsheet or a survey instrument like Google Forms to compile the relevant information into an easily accessible format for me to use later.
Other faculty and graduate students I’ve spoken with also ask for weekly reports of time spent on the project and amount of work completed. This gives both the supervisor and the RAs data on how long a task is taking and how long it will take to be completed. If you do choose this approach, give your RAs space to document other demands that interrupted their work time such as midterms or final exams, holidays, and illness.
Giving them Feedback
Finally, all of us do our best work when we have some sort of feedback loop to assess and evaluate our work and give us some advice on how to improve it. Using quality checks where you or an experienced RA thoroughly reviews a subset of the work done and provide feedback to the RA ensures that your RAs are getting just that. I like to give my RAs about a month to get familiar with the protocol and process before doing any quality checks. This is usually enough time that they’ve done more than start their assignment, but are also at a point where they have some questions about whether what they’re doing is what I’m looking for.
At that time, I randomly pick a few of their completed assignments to check, complete the research task myself, and compare my results with what they have. I give them individual feedback and ask them to revise all of their completed assignments as needed, but also provide the group with information about common errors from the quality checks. This is work that I often did with a more experienced RA to spread out the work and also give a subset of strong RAs a chance to get some supervisory experience on the project.
The opportunity to work on a research project is an opportunity that can help an undergraduate student decide what kind of graduate program they want to pursue, give them a resume line that demonstrates their attention to detail and organizational skills, and give them a future reference for jobs. But it is also an important opportunity for the researcher to advance a research project with the help of others. While I was on the job market, most of the work that was done on my dissertation was completed by my RAs due to the other demands on my time. There is also the possibility of finding co-authors and longer-term relationships through the process as promising RAs emerge. The benefits of working with RAs go in both directions, particularly if the researcher provides the structure and direction to guide RAs through the work.
The process of completing a PhD can make research seem like an independent endeavor, but while some of your research may be sole-authored, the dissertation is not representative of what research should and can be. Being a PhD shouldn’t be isolating or lonely. We all need camaraderie, support, feedback, and encouragement along the way. So one of the most important things to do during graduate school is to find your people. Not only will this be beneficial while you’re in graduate school, but it is incredibly valuable beyond as you leave the bubble of your home institution and venture somewhere new. I’ve found it particularly helpful to establish accountability buddies, writing groups, and collaborators throughout both graduate school and beyond.
As you’re pushing forward with your work, it’s incredibly helpful to talk to others about what’s working and what isn’t. Discussing problems and bouncing ideas off of others inevitably leads to a solution or maybe several solutions to try in any issue from an unresponsive advisor to a snag in access to data to challenges in balancing research and teaching. What an accountability buddy system looks like varies, but often involves sharing your goals and checking in on your successes and slowdowns towards achieving them. My longstanding accountability buddy and I talk once a week to check in on what we’re working on and how it’s going. But other groups exchange written goals and updates instead. During graduate school, your goals might include plans for programmatic requirements such as qualifying exams, in addition to your research. After graduate school, your goals will continue to include research, but also other tasks associated with your job whether that be teaching, service, mentoring, training, or organizing.
It’s important to pick people for this who you are willing to be vulnerable around and whom you trust, which means it might take a little time to identify these people in your PhD network. You also want to choose people who are supportive and encouraging. That frenemy from your cohort who is judgmental is probably not the best pick here. When the shit hits the fan and you’re feeling down and disappointed, you should feel comfortable disclosing to your accountability buddies and they should be supportive and encouraging as you deal with that challenge.
Where accountability groups can be helpful across research, teaching, service, and life, writing groups are specifically for pushing your research forward. There are two common formats for writing groups. The first is a co-working model, which is about coming together in a physical or virtual space to work. There’s usually a time within each meeting for socializing, but the bulk of the time co-working is spent working, which can give you accountability for focusing on your work and not being distracted by email, Twitter, etc. The second model is a space to get feedback on your writing in just about any form including your prospectus, fellowship applications, job market materials, and draft articles and chapters. To me, the former is optional and the latter is necessary. Feedback is the way our writing gets stronger whether in summary statements about how our research contributes or in manuscripts documenting our findings. Having others read your work can help resolve problems you’re struggling through and alert you to problems you didn’t even know you had like using too much jargon.
Similar to the accountability buddies, you want to include people you trust to share your works-in-progress with including everything from a very rough first draft to a polished almost done manuscript. You also want people who will give honest, direct, and helpful feedback. This is a space where you might be willing to deal with your judgmental cohortmate who could provide useful feedback and critique (if you can stand their tone). A good way to suss out a good writing group member is to watch interactions in spaces like courses and conference presentations. You want someone who is kind and helpful, but clear and direct. You could also ask someone to read something you wrote and see what their feedback style is like. It’s a lot easier to vet someone before you’ve asked them to join a group then to deal with someone who is harsh, passive, or just uninvested in your group. Finally, it’s helpful to set parameters about what feedback looks like when you’re starting a group to make sure the group is providing supportive, constructive criticism and not shredding members’ work. From my observations, groups that include the latter are not likely to last.
Finally, some of your relationships will evolve into collaborators on research, teaching, service, or mentoring projects. Despite what your experience might have been (or be) in graduate school, life post-graduate school is full of team work both inside and outside the academy. You’ll work with others on research projects, co-teaching courses, committees for service, co-leading teams, and co-mentoring students and supervisees.
These will be people you trust to not take credit for your work and carry their weight on the project. For research collaborators, they’re also likely to be people who share similar research interests and have complementary methodological skills.
Where to Find Your Community
There are so few people who (a) pursue PhDs (b) in your discipline and (c) have research and personal interests in common that building this network can sometimes feel hard to do. It’s challenging, but also necessary.
Graduate school is the obvious place to start your search for supportive work colleagues, co-authors, and friends. Remember that while you’re randomly thrown into a cohort, you have access to the graduate students who come before and after you, including alumni. Go to receptions in the department and for your department at conferences, ask for introductions to the alumni that faculty reference, and email people you’ve heard about to ask to meet.
Meeting people beyond your program is often incredibly important for creating community, particularly for people who are underrepresented or working in subfields with less community in their departments. Look for conference activities such as receptions for underrepresented minorities or events sponsored by your subfield interests. You might also find annual or one off events that bring together like minded scholars or scholars from similar backgrounds.
Wherever you find one of your people, don’t hesitate to tell them “I’d love to stay in touch.” Nine times out of ten, they’re going to say sure. We’re all searching for community, even those of us who’ve been around a little bit longer.
Imposter syndrome can manifest as a feeling of panic and fear: “Was it a mistake I got into grad school?” Or as a sense of doubt: “Do I really belong here?” Or a surge of anxiety: “When will someone figure out I don’t belong here?” It might surface as you read alone in your office: “Am I smart enough to be doing this?” Or around the seminar table: “They all seem so much smarter than I am…” Or in a conversation in the hallway: “That person just brushed off my idea…Something must be wrong with it.” It’s something that we all experience as applicants to graduate school, as graduate students, as job market candidates, as postdoctoral fellows, and even as tenure-track professors. Achieving any level of success, such as getting into graduate school or advancing to candidacy or getting a job, doesn’t eliminate the feelings of inadequacy, fraudulence, uncertainty, and lack of belonging. Some of this comes with the nature of academia. We’re surrounded every day by incredibly smart people and, as the old saying goes, the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. So of course you experience doubts about your research, your teaching, and your expertise. The problem arises when imposter syndrome becomes debilitating. It can completely halt work on a project, discourage you from reaching out to a potential collaborator or mentor, or lead you to skip a deadline for a fellowship, a special issue of a journal, or a conference. Gill and I have both been there. She is on the job market, and I just started a tenure-track position. So we’ve combined forces to think through how to counter imposter syndrome and prevent good scholars—grad students, junior colleagues, even senior colleagues—from restricting their opportunities because of the voices in their heads.
There are of course, some predictable times in which imposter syndrome might creep up in your life—moments when you are entering new phases of your career and moments when you are entering new and unfamiliar spaces, such as giving a talk at a new conference or experimenting with a new literature or methodology. Gill, for example, recently experienced imposter syndrome when a senior scholar questioned her research question. “Given all of the potential opportunities and research questions you could ask, why would you focus on just race and gender?” While Gill responded in a way that made her proud and represented her work well, she spent the next two weeks with the question rattling around in her head, and she found herself looking at the ground, avoiding eye contact, especially with senior scholars, and over-apologizing and over-thanking senior scholars for simple things, such as forwarding a relevant news article to her or inviting her to a public talk. Zawadi experienced severe imposter syndrome at the start of graduate school. As a student new to Sociology, she was unclear whether and where she fit in the discipline and felt lost in classes like Classic Theory where the instructor assumed students were already familiar with the readings. She felt inept and behind.
Imposter syndrome flares up at different times and looks different as we move through our professional lives, but the feeling is similar regardless of when it occurs. Gill and Zawadi both experienced imposter syndrome throughout the graduate school years and now after, even with the PhD in hand and the title of Dr., both still experience imposter syndrome. While it may no longer be about citations or knowledge of the literature (although Gill did recently experience a moment of imposter syndrome around her knowledge of a specific literature after a question at a conference), Gill and Zawadi both have moments of feeling like outsiders and questioning their place in the academy as a postdoc and assistant professor.
So, what can we do about it? We brainstormed a reflective activity to help ourselves in those moments of feeling like a fraud. It won’t eradicate imposter syndrome, but it can help reorient our thinking from a negative to a positive perspective. Here’s the exercise: (1) Make a list of traits that answer the following questions:
What does being a “good” scholar mean to me? We focus on the ideal self here as the tendency to compare to others can actually trigger imposter syndrome instead of address it. Had grad student Zawadi focused on how well Gill appeared to understand Durkheim in theory without the context that Gill majored in Sociology and read Durkheim before graduate school, it would have made Zawadi feel worse about her progress and performance. Instead, focus on what your best you looks like.
In an ideal world, where I am the best version of academic I can be, how would I spend my day?
How do I act in the classroom?
How would I approach my research?
How will I enter a faculty meeting?
What are the characteristics that I want to embody as the best version of the academic I aspire to be?
Focus here on traits (e.g., read broadly), not specific tasks (e.g., complete qualifying exams).
(2) Then, look back on what you did in month or semester. Make a complete list of everything we have done related to your research, teaching, and service work, as well as your personal and professional growth in that time period. We found it helpful to consult our calendars and to do lists so we wouldn’t overlook the little things that are easy to forget.
(3) Finally, much like a word match from the kids’ menus, compare your list of characteristics of a good scholar to your list of accomplishments. Match your accomplishments with the trait that they demonstrate.
The activity provides three opportunities. First to visualize your belonging in the academic space of your choosing. By drawing connections between your activities and behaviors you hope to embody, you can see the progress you are making to be that “good”, nay “great” scholar. Second, the activity allows you to identify where your actions don’t match your ideal goals. Unfortunately, these shortcomings are often on the personal side of the equation for many of us. Think through how you can make space in your daily or weekly lives to actively become the well rounded person you aim to be. Finally, we encourage you to not just do this for your professional and work-related activities because life often interrupts work. Documenting the major move you just completed, the health challenges you just underwent, and other interruptions can also be a kind reminder of the challenges you have faced and that you still accomplished something despite those challenges. Below, we model this with our own lives, baring our vulnerabilities to the internet, hopefully for the common good.
Gill’s Ideal Traits (On my best day as an academic, I…)
Gill’s Actual Accomplishments (In the last three months, I…)
Keep to a regular writing schedule
Real talk: I do not write every day. That being said, I got a lot of writing done: -Revised and resubmitted an article—accepted! -Started a new project with a new co-author—three skype meetings, data analysis, theoretical reading -Wrote a presentation for a conference -Wrote application materials for 25 jobs -Revised and submitted a second article -Drafted third article
Cultivate a sense of work/life balance
I never feel like I’m doing this part right, but it does seem like I made some time to be a whole person lately: -Visited my family -Made a major life decision about a romantic relationship -Joined a book club and actually read the book for two of the three months -Saw four movies and one play -Attended two birthday parties -Read 5 novels and watched all of Downton Abbey
Maintain a commitment to community
As a postdoc, I have to make an active effort to stay connected to a broader community: -Developed mentoring program with provost’s office—had six meetings with relevant campus actors and planned first session -Attended six talks/workshops on campus and at neighbor schools -Attended new student cocktail reception -Attended postdoc orientation -Attended department and all-school faculty meetings
Keep up with publications in the field; read regularly
I did not do a great job with this one, so this is something I’m going to flag for myself. However, I’m probably behind on this because of my work keeping up with job applications: -Theoretical reading for new project with a new co-author -Attended six talks/workshops on campus and at nearby schools (hey, if you don’t have time to read the book, at least go to the book talk?)
Maintains a network of both trusted friends and new connections
This is some of the most important work I do each week, and I rarely recognize it is as work. It’s important to realize that, just because you’re not in front of a computer, you are still *working.* Sometimes, work is fun, like when I’m connecting with trusted academic friends, but that doesn’t make it not work! -Had five meetings with other scholars/search committee chairs at ASA -Checked in with my accountability partner -Met with two new colleagues to share and workshop work -Met with six senior scholars to get feedback on job materials; revised job materials approximately 800 times (just kidding—about 6 drafts) -Had ten meetings with colleagues/friends on campus since academic year began
Present work regularly
This goal is often limited by opportunities depending on when I attend conferences and receive invitations to share my work, so my expectations for this goal are low, but I try to find a way to present my work in a public venue–at a conference, at a workshop, in a writing group, or at a colloquium series, at least once per academic term: -Presented work at ASA -Met with colleagues three times to move forward on a conference we are planning for the spring
Develop new skills
I did nothing in this area in the last three months unless I count feedback on job materials…maybe I am developing skills around writing about and explaining my research to different audiences? But I’d like to incorporate some more methodological thinking into my future planning.
Cultivate style–both in terms of fashion and charisma
I really value cultivating a personal sense of style. I am bored by the greys, beiges, and other neutrals that define professional spaces. I hate the assumption that because you care about how you look, you aren’t as serious about your work. When I am dressed and feeling good as hell (thank you, Lizzo!), I do better work because I’m more confident. But, academics do not make enough money to support my endless hunger for fashion, so I try to be really purposeful about how I spend my style budget. Don’t ask me how many Sephora points I have, though. -Got a major haircut
Make time to encourage and support others—peers, students, colleagues
This can sometimes be the thing that’s easiest to cut because the “returns” are not immediately visible, but I really try to preserve some time for this every week. I am where I am because folks made time for me, and I want to carry on my mentors’ legacy in my own actions. -Met with three former students for dinner -Met with current graduate student -Met with two new colleagues to share and workshop work -Attended a friend’s practice job talk; provided feedback
Gill’s Reflections: I spent most of these three months thinking I was “getting nothing done” or “being lazy.” The list says otherwise. When I listed it out, it was both overwhelming and reassuring. I realized that I had done A LOT, and I was happy with how I spent my time, but I definitely did not embody all of my “ideal traits.” Reflecting on the list allowed me to acknowledge that I *am* living the life of a scholar–meeting people, writing, engaging with scholarship–and that I still have places to improve. By listing all of this out in this systematic way, I’m now able to set clear goals and intentions for the rest of the semester.
Zawadi’s Ideal Traits (On my best day as an academic, I…)
Zawadi’s Actual Accomplishments (In the last three months, I…)
Spend time with my family
My husband and I have opposite schedules, so this one is a constant struggle. -Was primary child care for LO over the summer -Took LO to the playground every weekend after day care began -Did family outings when all of us were home -Didn’t work on weekends and evenings to focus on home and family
Maintain balance between research and teaching
I feel good about the schedule I’ve set up and been able to maintain so far. -Mostly kept teaching, office hours, grading, and lecture preparation to Tuesdays and Thursdays -Mostly worked on research on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays
Keep up with grading and lecture preparation without letting it overwhelm me
So far so good on this one. However, I expect this to be challenging once it’s midterm time… -Returned grades on reading responses before the next one was due -Finished lecture preparation for the week by the Thursday before in most weeks -Only had to prepare for class once on the weekend so far this semester
Keep up with my research deadlines
I did miss one grant opportunity I wanted to apply for, but that was for a collaboration and we weren’t able to schedule a time to talk until after the deadline. But other than that, I’ve been keeping up. -Started and finished data analysis for presentation at conference -Prepared 2 conference presentations -Completed a revise and resubmit -Completed a draft of a new paper for a conference submission -Began revising a data analysis
Advance research that doesn’t have a deadline
Between the research deadlines I had over the summer, our move for my job, and some life interruptions (car breaking down, phone breaking, getting a cold and losing my voice), I’ve only been able to start working on research that doesn’t have a deadline in the last month. -Began reviewing new literature for revising several papers (and a new course syllabus) -Read and did some preliminary writing for an op-ed/beginning of a research project with a friend/colleague -Submitted an IRB request and full application to access confidential survey data -Met biweekly with undergraduate co-authors to advice them on data collection -Finished edits on two papers and submitted them for review -Connected with a new collaborator to discuss how to merge our interests for a new project
Connect with people at my new job
As a new AP, I need people to know I’m there, but also need to find community to sustain me. -Had lunch with several faculty members in my department -Attended all new orientation activities to meet and connect with other new hires -Met with several graduate students -Attended events for faculty of color and women in STEM (and made new friends!)
Connect with people in my new neighborhood
I’m gearing up for what I know will be the longest winter I’ve lived through and know that I won’t be able to just connect with random people on the playground once the snow starts. So I’m trying to make connections before I feel isolated. -Exchanged numbers with several parents of kids my LO had a good time with -Reached out to friends who have also recently relocated to the area
Put my health first
Since having my LO, I’ve had little time to exercise and get back in shape, and it’s lead to more ramifications than bigger pants. It’s time to put my health first! The diet part is going better than the exercise. -Reduced carbs to one meal a day -Ate more veggies and fruits -Took vitamin C regularly -Ran a couple of times (Okay literally twice and then got a cold and took a break to recover) -Set an appointment with a new doctor to follow up on some minor health issues
Feel settled and not overwhelmed in my home
Did I mention we just moved…this one is tough! Between keeping up on the regular cleaning and cat hair removal and the actual unpacking, I’m not fully there yet, but am also trying to unpack in a way that makes it easy for me to maintain order and cleanliness in our home. We have a storage unit of boxes coming soon so…this will be an issue all over again. Realistically, it might take me a year to really feel I’ve accomplished this trait. -Fully unpacked LO’s room (the only room that is completely unpacked) -Made significant progress on unpacking every room in the house, but particularly the bathroom, bedroom, and kitchen -Got much needed furniture, so it’s starting to look like someone lives here -Slowly organizing so that everything has a place including getting boxes and bins to keep things that way -Kept up on weekly cleaning needs
Generally feel calm, rested, and balanced
Overall, I would say I accomplished this, but that’s not to say there weren’t days that I felt anxious and overwhelmed. -Prioritized sleep over work when needed and possible -Used planning to reduce anxiety -Reminded myself of what’s most important to me (family) when I was feeling overwhelmed -See also all the items above about trying to create order in the chaos of our move
Zawadi’s Reflections: What stood out to me the most in writing down what I’ve accomplished over the last 3 months is how much I’m actually juggling. As a mom, a wife, a professor, a researcher, and a person, there are a lot of moving parts, so when one overwhelms my schedule, of course other aspects suffer. The move overwhelmed my summer and made me feel unaccomplished, but I actually kept up with deadlines for completing data analysis, preparing 2 presentations, and finishing a revise and resubmit, all things that took time and energy and I finished on time. It meant leaving research that wasn’t on deadlines on the back burner, which made me feel less accomplished, but was necessary due to what was happening in life. Acknowledging this makes me feel less like a fraud and more like I’m doing my best towards my goals in academia and in life.
Now, we’re not saying that we don’t have imposter syndrome after doing this exercise, but it feels good to acknowledge the progress we have made. We are both doing the things that matter to each of us for being a good scholar and person to some degree. There is certainly room for improvement, but we’re not “doing nothing” as our brains trick us into thinking. We are putting in the work. And we most certainly BELONG.
What’s on your traits list? What other ways do you grapple with imposter syndrome? We want to know!
As the fall semester was getting going, #AcademicTwitter was full of people sharing about organizing and planning for the semester. It was really helpful for me to see the different ways that folks organize their planning from lists on a white board to to dos on a calendar to detailed spreadsheets. I got new ideas for tracking and visualizing my to dos from seeing these examples (one of which I’ll share once the materials I need to implement it arrive). Seeing how others planned out their semesters made me realize that while I generally enjoy planning, I have a strong aversion to planning out each week of the semester in advance. So when I eagerly read Dr. Whitney Pirtle’s description of her semester planning process, I found myself breaking out in a cold sweat at the idea of following a similar approach. Dr. Pirtle generously shares her template in the post linked above, which she uses to organize her work and get shit done. (And she is getting shit done!) But I still felt a sort of dread looking at her template as I thought about all the replanning that comes when inevitably a task takes longer than originally planned. Mind you, many incredibly productive academics, like Dr. Pirtle, swear by this approach. It’s just an approach that doesn’t work for me. There’s more than one way to be successful in this PhD life, so below I share an overview of these two effective approaches to planning and managing your time during the semester.
Planning by Week
The strategy of planning each week out in advance starts with a list of broader goals, which is the foundation for both planning approaches discussed here. What do you want to accomplish this semester? What do you have to do? I’m going to focus on research, teaching, and service here, but I highly recommend integrating this list with your personal life as well, since you can’t put life on pause for work.
Based on what I do and what I’ve seen others compile, folks generally include the following in their goals:
Data work (collection, cleaning, analysis) they want or need to complete,
Papers/chapters they want or need to work on,
R&Rs they have deadlines for,
Peer reviews they promised to complete,
Conferences they plan to submit to,
Talks they are scheduled to give,
Courses they are teaching,
Departmental committees they are on,
Workshops or writing groups they organize,
Students they are supporting as committee members, and
Friends they are supporting through writing groups and giving feedback on papers.
This gives you a list of things like: Submit to the American Sociological Association conference, complete data analysis for the deracialization of gentrification paper, and teach two sections of race and ethnicity. The next step is to identify every step you need to complete to get to the final goal. For example, if my goal is to submit a paper to the American Sociological Association in January (yes, they ask for a full paper), then I would list out steps such as review the list of sessions, identify a paper topic and appropriate session, conduct data cleaning, analyze data, create any figures/tables, outline paper, read relevant literature, draft paper sections, and finally submit the paper.
While these goal setting procedures are the basis for any planning approach you choose, the planning by week approach takes this list of specific tasks and assigns each to a week (or several weeks) in the upcoming semester. This means estimating how long each task will take to complete and taking into account hard deadlines, such as conference submission deadlines and grading, to come up with a week-by-week plan for the semester.
This approach is particularly effective for gauging what you actually have time to complete in the semester. Seeing how much you have to cram in to get done the ambitious list of goals you set before you get started is incredibly helpful and can lead to either updating your goals or going into the semester knowing you’ll probably come up short. (Quick side note: One thing I do to deal with that my to do list is always way longer than what I have time to complete is to have a list of goals I will prioritize and do first and the list of secondary and tertiary goals that I will get to in the long shot that I finish my list of top priorities.) This approach also means that you’ve done your planning for the semester in advance, instead of doing it each week. Yes, you will have to adjust your timeline as you realize there are really 3 more steps to get from data collection to data analysis or the step you thought would take 1 days really takes 4 weeks. But your weekly to do list essentially comes directly from the plan.
What I use is what I’ll call here the weekly planning approach. I start with the same process as the planning by week including writing out a list of goals for the semester and breaking out a list of specific steps. The only real difference between the planning by week and the weekly planning approaches are what happens next. Instead of assigning each task to a week in the upcoming semester, I leave the tasks as a list in my goals, which I refer to when I’m making a plan for the upcoming week.
Every Monday, I plan for the week and allocate tasks for each day in the coming week. In my planning document, I start by pushing forward the tasks that didn’t get finished in the prior week and adjust when I work on them depending on deadlines I have that particular week, such as grading a reading response for my classes. As I realize there are more steps to getting a task done, I add them to the weekly to do list and move them around until they get crossed off. Probably about once a month, I refer back to my list of goals to add something new to my to do list from those semester goals.
Why do I do it this way? Well first because the idea of planning out every week for a 14 week period is too much for me. I have done it before because it was a required assignment, but it was stressful enough that I would do it and then never look at what I had put on paper again. (And yes, I will be requiring that my graduate students do the same exercise as a feasibility exercise to ensure that the empirical paper they hope to write for the final in my class can actually be finished in 14 weeks.) I’ve done enough research to know everything takes longer than it should and part of the reason that I don’t put my to do list as appointments on my calendar or plan out the whole semester in advance is because of that. Weekly planning lets me move things around as they don’t get done without having to readjust my plan for the whole semester, which I personally find a little demoralizing. So while I still have a specific list of everything I’d like to accomplish in a semester, I don’t have a constant reminder of what sometimes feels like oversights and failures when I’m inevitably “behind.”
What’s the downside? I don’t get to see how realistic my goals are for the semester. At this point in my career, I have a pretty good sense of what I can realistically accomplish in a semester (especially thanks to doing some teaching during my postdoc), so my goals are usually fairly reasonable. However, if I had less experience balancing research and teaching under my belt, I would want to go through the motions of the exercise of planning by week to see how much work I would need to accomplish to keep up with what I hoped to complete even if I never returned to that detailed plan again.
So Which Approach Should You Use?
As always, I highly recommend trying different approaches to figure out what works best for you. In fact, I’m sure there are even more approaches than the two I outline here, so you should try whatever you think will work for you. Given that both approaches I’ve outlined above are based on setting goals and identifying specific tasks, you should have a list of goals for each semester and a to do list of specific tasks for each goal. What you do with them after that depends on what you’re trying or what works best for you!
Finally, as you try new approaches to time management, remember two things. First, time management experts say it takes about 30 days to form a habit, so try out an approach for at least 30 days before you decide it’s not working. Second, take time to step back and assess. The only way I came up with my weekly to do list was by trying one thing, analyzing how it was going to figure out what wasn’t working for me, and then making tweaks to come up with an approach that worked. There’s more than one way to be successful in this PhD life, so take the time to find the approach that works for you.
As a graduate student, I wasn’t initially sure that a postdoc would be the right decision for me. I had entered my program 10 years after completing my undergraduate degree and was pursuing a second career, moving from evaluation research to academia. It seemed more appropriate to dive right into the road to tenure at my age given that the Assistant Professors in my department were younger than I was. When I told my mentor this, she nipped that thought in the bud with something to the effect of “why wouldn’t you take time off the clock to push forward your research?” (For the record, she was right.) So during my year on the job market, I applied to 12 postdocs and got lucky enough to land one, a diversity postdoc at New York University, along with a tenure-track position. I negotiated a delayed start with my job (yes, this is possible) and in August of 2018, I filed my dissertation at UC Berkeley, moved my family across the country, and started as a postdoctoral fellow for the year. But what I experienced as a postdoc was not at all like my past as a grad student nor my future as an Assistant Professor. Being a postdoc was isolating, as the position itself is liminal by definition. As I describe below, it took effort on my part to feel a sense of integration and belonging.
Stepping foot on campus on my first day as a postdoc, I was excited about the opportunity to spend time on my research, develop a new syllabus, and connect with a new department and new people. But I quickly realized that it was going to be challenging to find a space for myself in my new and very temporary department. Postdocs are the people who are at a university the least amount of time. Undergraduates spend 4-5 years on campus, MA students 2-3 years, PhD candidates 5-10 years, and faculty and staff anywhere from 2-3 years to a lifetime. I was there for a year, which is barely enough time to learn the names of the faculty members in the department let alone to establish relationships and make connections for the future. This was especially the case because of the selection process for my postdoc program, which happens outside of the academic departments in which the postdocs are housed. I applied with a mentor in the department who committed to supporting me during my time there, but the department hadn’t selected me for the position, which meant that only the department chair and my mentor knew that I was coming prior to my arrival. This was in sharp contrast to admissions to grad school where a group of faculty members decided to offer me a spot and court me through my decision. It was also distinct from the hiring process for my tenure-track position where the department faculty decided I should be on the short list and knew that I had accepted the invitation to interview, been offered a position, and accepted said position. In fact, I got emails from practically every faculty member in the department both when I got an offer and when I accepted the position.
Because of this difference, I felt isolated and unseen in my first month on my postdoc. I was the only postdoc in the department, so there was no departmental orientation. The other postdocs in my program were scattered throughout the university and I saw them roughly every 4-6 weeks. Since some of them were teaching in their first semester and many were located in offices 15-20 minutes away from mine, they weren’t easy to connect with for community building. Within the department, my office was back among the graduate students where faculty rarely visit.
It became clear that I needed to do something when a graduate student in an office near me looked up from getting his coffee to ask me what I was doing in the department since he had seen me often enough to know I wasn’t just passing through for an appointment. Not only did I feel alone despite the faculty, graduate students, and staff just around the corner, but those same faculty, graduate students, and staff either didn’t know that I was there or didn’t know what I was doing there.
So I figured out a course of action. As an introvert, I knew I wasn’t going to walk around knocking on doors to introduce myself, so I asked others to lay the groundwork. I asked my mentor if the department could distribute an announcement that I was there for the year. She immediately sent an email to her colleagues and the graduate students, which led to a few folks knocking on my door to introduce themselves and some more stopping in the hallway and kitchen to welcome me to the department. I also asked my mentor and the department chair if I could attend a faculty meeting for the purpose of introducing myself, which was granted.
Finally, I realized that part of my feeling of isolation was because of my level of involvement during grad school. I was an organizer for a graduate student group, a participant in a workshop and three writing groups, and an attendee at talks across campus. I had community on several levels through these activities in addition to the friendships I had developed over the course of six years of graduate school. Just being visible wasn’t quite enough. I decided that a writing group would give me a sense of belonging in the department as an intellectual home, so I reached out to a few graduate students I knew were doing research in one of my areas, urban sociology, and invited them to join me. While the department didn’t have a culture of writing groups, they were open to it so we met every 2-3 weeks to discuss a draft paper, proposal, or fellowship application and provide feedback. The space gave me a chance to connect with the graduate students while learning about interesting research happening in the department. Engaging with this group really gave me a sense of connection with the broader department that I had been lacking. This paired with teaching an undergraduate course in the spring gave me a sense of purpose beyond advancing my own research and a sense of belonging in the space outside my office door.
Even though the faculty and students in my current department all knew I was coming, these same strategies will be helpful in my transition to a tenure-track position this year. Asking other faculty for introductions, providing graduate students with an opportunity to connect, and making myself accessible to undergraduates through my teaching and office hours will all help me establish roots and a sense of belonging in my new home department. As someone who pursued a career in academia because, beyond loving research, I have a passion for teaching, mentoring, and role modeling, feeling like I have an intellectual home is an important part to feeling integrated. Establishing connections with faculty and graduate students plays a central role in that. So, you might even find my door open to encourage the faculty, staff, and students passing by to stop and say hello.
Putting your research out into the world is an emotional act. Pretend all you like that science is devoid of feeling, but the only way this is true is if your research is just a job. Most of us care about our work to the point that a manuscript submission can feel like sending your baby to college full of your hopes and dreams. The problem is that publishing isn’t easy, which makes for an emotional rollercoaster along the way.
The publishing process is full of highs and lows. They will vary in when and why they occur, but you’ll experience them. They might start as early as during research design, but certainly by the time you’ve committed words to a page, you’ll have enough emotional attachment to the work to experience the rollercoaster.
One early flood of emotions in the writing process may come in that moment of realizing you’re onto something exciting and interesting. It’s a real high with a burst of energy. You can’t wait to write this down and get it out there in the world. You have findings!! You have a contribution!!! But sometimes this euphoria is followed by the realization that your manuscript isn’t as exciting as you first thought it was for some reason. Maybe you got an alert of a recently published article that has similar findings. Maybe someone who knows more than you wasn’t as excited as you are about the paper. Maybe you’ve struggled to get the words on the page in the brilliant way you envisioned them in your head. Maybe you get a rejection from the journal you thought would be the best place to publish it. Whatever the reason, your stomach drops and you feel disappointment and sadness. But the highs return. Maybe as you revise and edit, getting reinvigorated by the work and the contributions. Maybe when you are ultimately successful in getting that prized revise and resubmit. Maybe reading kind words from Reviewer #1. While you hope to end on that high note, they can be followed by the lows of rejection (after rejection, after rejection, after rejection) and struggling to please Reviewer #2 to maybe get a positive decision.
My Lowest Low
Some of the lows will be lower than others. Early in my career, the lowest feeling came from rejection. They’re still disappointing, but I’ve now had so many I can quickly pick myself up and continue on the ride. The hardest part for me now comes at the point when I think I’m done and have that feeling of completion, but get asked for additional revisions.
I’ve had this happen at two points in the process. First, submitting a revise and resubmit only to then get another revise and resubmit instead of a decision. (Picture me banging my head on my desk.) Second, getting a conditional acceptance in response to a revise and resubmit. The conditional is basically a “the paper is accepted, but we want you to do a few more things before we publish.” There will always be reviewing the proofs and responding to queries, but these responses often mean things like engaging in the new literature that (new) Reviewer #3 thinks would be a better framing for the paper, adding 5 more footnotes about the constraints of your data source, and expanding the future research paragraph of the conclusion. Aspects of the paper that you might have already addressed during revise and resubmit number 1.
For me, this is the point at which my emotions reach their lowest. “What more do they want from me?! I did everything they asked me for already!!” This feeling makes it challenging to get the actual work done so I can move on with my research. I get stuck in patterns of productive procrastination and literally do anything else on my to do list instead of the revisions I need to make. It’s the least productive period even though it can also be the home stretch. (Although for that paper that went through two R&Rs, it wasn’t.) Thank goodness for promises to co-authors to at least keep those papers moving forward!
Riding the Emotions
Your research is your baby so you’re always going to feel a way about it whether it is pride and elation, or disappointment and despondence. The key is to preserve some of the highs to try to evoke them during the low times. I keep a “feel good” folder in my email for such a moment, so I can look back at positive feedback I’ve gotten. It can also help to look at how far the project as come. Remind yourself why you’re doing the work you’re doing. Read an earlier draft to see how far your ideas have come. Revisit positive and encouraging feedback you’ve received about it. Talk to that friend or mentor who has been a constant cheerleader for the project.
Whatever you do, come back to the manuscript! It might take you two days to recover or it make take you a year, but come back with fresh eyes and renewed spirit to help your baby grow. Someone out there is waiting to read your work.
One of the biggest black holes to fall into during the research process is the literature review. This is particularly true early in your career when it’s easy to feel like you’re not yet an expert in a substantive area. No matter how much you read, there is always more to read. So when should you read? When should you stop reading? Below is my answer to these questions for those of you who find yourself drowning in the prior literature.
When Should You Read?
I firmly believe that project specific reading is most useful at the beginning and the end of an empirical project. Project specific reading is not the same as reading to keep up with the literature, which is a different type of reading with a different purpose that requires different strategies.
At the beginning of a research project, you should read to justify your project. This means reading the prior literature to ensure there is “space” for your intervention. By space, I mean that your study will contribute to the field in some way. This may be a theoretical intervention such as bridging two literatures that aren’t in conversation. But it could be an empirical contribution such as studying a new case or comparing two or more types of cases that few have studied or compared. During this process, you may find that someone has already done something you thought was a novel contribution. Don’t be discouraged! There is no original thought left that no one had ever studied. BUT there is almost always a new angle on an old topic. So even if you find that someone has done something similar already, you can still demonstrate space for your study by demonstrating that there isn’t overcrowding in that areas. The goal of reading at this point in the process is to make sure you have enough information about the prior literature to position yourself in the debates already underway. For grad students, this type of reading is the foundation for your prospectus or proposal. However, this does not mean you have to read each and every potentially relevant article and book ever published. It means you need to read enough (more on this below) before moving onto implementing the study.
Once you’ve conducted your study and analyzed the data, you’ll want to come back to the literature to connect the main argument of the paper, chapter, dissertation, or book that you’re writing with some broader literature(s). At this point in the process, don’t be surprised if the literature you read to justify the study no longer fits the project. Oftentimes the literature about the case you are studying still applies, but you might need a new literature to explain how a specific finding that you present in an article or chapter is a contribution to the literature. Don’t force a literature to fit if it’s not working in what you’re writing!
Let me give you a brief example from my own work. As I wrote my dissertation prospectus, I read to be certain there was space for a study of media representations of gentrification that focused on connections with Americans’ racial stereotypes of neighborhoods. So I read studies of and summaries of the literature on gentrification, as well as studies at the intersection of media or cultural sociology and urban sociology. This reading let me identify that even though there is a theory about how the media contributes to urban development (the urban growth machine from Logan and Molotch), most empirical studies investigating that theory have focused on the role of politicians and corporations rather than the media. There is a small literature about media and gentrification, but race is not a central focus in the analysis in most of those studies. “Enough” for my prospectus was being able to write about 9 pages double spaced about the prior literature and referencing about 50 books and articles. That was also “enough” to convince my committee that the study was worth pursuing.
Once I had identified the key findings for each of my empirical chapters, I returned to the literature to identify new readings. The reading I had done for my prospectus about the literature on gentrification and studies of media/culture in urban sociology was still relevant, but I realized I needed to move beyond the urban literature to justify the study by bringing in literature on culture and media sociology. I also found that each chapter needed some new literature. For instance, I added the (e)valuation literature from cultural and economic sociology to a chapter about the news media’s descriptions of the benefits and drawbacks of gentrification, which I hadn’t engaged with previously. Once I knew what the main findings were for each chapter, I was able to see which additional literatures I needed to situate my study and findings.
When Should You Stop Reading?
So when do you know that you’ve read “enough”? Unfortunately, there’s no set number of references or pages of reading. BUT you will know when to stop by assessing whether you can write a well cited argument. The easiest way to do this is to start formulating and writing your argument about the prior literature, which is often called the literature review section of a paper or chapter. Try it on in a memo or an outline or a free write, but add in citations so that you can see where your have holes that indicate that you might need to read more. Keep in mind however that holes don’t necessarily mean that you missed something. Holes can mean that there’s a gap in the literature, so be ready to prove to yourself that you have looked thoroughly for information that would fit there and that you didn’t find it.
If you decide you need to read more, that doesn’t mean doing another deep dive into anything and everything. Reading more means doing a targeted search to find additional citations and to fact check your assumptions. In fact, I often start with the references from a source I’ve cited and the works that cite that source. On Google Scholar, you can get a list of sources that cite a work and then search within that list. So, for example, when I thought there was not a lot of literature using the growth machine theory that focused on the media, I used this function of Google Scholar to search for other works that investigated the media side of the theory within those that cited Logan and Molotch’s book.
Reading is a really easy source of productive procrastination. You can almost always find more to read and it’s easy to use the excuse of “needing” to read more to prevent you from moving forward with data collection, analysis, and writing. If you find that this is true for how you have engaged in the reading tasks of research, set limits to how much you will read or deadlines for when you will stop to push yourself past the black hole of reading. Unless someone (like a committee member) is telling you that you have to read more to get their approval on your prospectus, move forward. There’s always an opportunity to do more informed reading later.