practical phd

a transparent source for all things PhD

Some of you might not know this, but I’m an avid knitter.  I do everything from cabled hats and fingerless gloves, to lace shawls and sweaters, and I have what some might call a lot of yarn.  One thing that I find helpful for understanding my research process and personality (if you will) from knitting is the common discussion about “process” and “product” knitters.  

Process knitters are people who enjoy knitting for knitting sake.  They choose patterns and yarns they like to work with, but aren’t wedded to finishing anything.  In contrast, product knitters are those who knit for the sake of finishing the knit item.  They often focus on one project at a time and knit it to completion.

Personally, I’m a process knitter.  I have WAY too many projects all sitting around at various stages of completion.  I also have a whole large bin of things I finished knitting and then never seamed up or added buttons to because…I’m a process knitter.  I also have no problem just ripping out a whole sweater and starting over because I enjoy the process of knitting that much.  Not that you asked, but I have literally reknit a sweater by unraveling a prior version of the sweater I knit when my first take at a sweater turned out too short.

So how does this relate to my research?  You can see the exact same patterns in my research process.  I love data and analysis, so I have too many projects in early stages where I got excited about a new data source or a new analysis tool I figured out and dove in, but still haven’t finished a full paper.  I collect data and research ideas in the same way that I collect yarn and new patterns for future projects.  I have no problem doing a brand new analysis or going back to the data analysis phase of work in any form at any point in the process (and I mean even when I thought I was done and Reviewer 2 asks for one more change in a model).  

This research “personality” certainly comes with its challenges.  I have to force myself to focus on what’s at hand and not be distracted.  My system for that is to let myself go down the rabbit hole only long enough to record a new research idea in Evernote, bookmark a new data source, or memo about a new paper idea.  That gets it out of my head and helps me move onto what I really need to be focused on.  

But there are also perks.  I always have more than one project going on and PLENTY of research projects to turn to when it’s time to come up with the next idea.  Whether it’s my Evernote with hundreds of tagged research ideas, the data sources I may (or may not) have downloaded when I got excited about their existence, or the halfway complete data analysis that I’ve never gotten back to completing, I have works-in-progress to turn to when it’s time to pick up the next project.  As Jo VanEvery notes, “Multiple projects can lead to more finished projects.

So what kind of researcher are you?

There are some questions you never want to get when you’re presenting your research.  I got my least favorite question during the Q&A of a job talk.  Things had gone relatively smoothly (phew!) and then I was asked: “Aren’t these findings…….expected??”  I could see during the pause that the person was looking for a nicer way to say “obvious,” but the effect was the same.  It took a topic that was important to me because it exposed racial inequality and assessed it on whether my results were predictable or not.  To be fair, it’s common to ask job candidates questions that push them to see their thought process, but this question is the result of a broader issue with the demand for novel research in social science.  We are into the second century of empirical social science research.  There are no original ideas!  There are only new ways of thinking about previously researched topics.  

Expecting scholars to produce novel findings is pretty unreasonable in this day and age.  And yet it is a common message to graduate students that the only way to publish and get an academic job is to have novel findings.  As someone with “expected” findings, let me tell you, you can have expected findings and still publish and even get an academic job.  Why?  Because even if something is obvious and predictable based on prior theories, if it hasn’t been tested yet, it is a contribution to study and document it.  This means testing old theories on different populations, phenomena, and contexts ARE contributions.  

Telling graduate students they need to have novel findings only discourages students from pursuing topics they’re interested in because the field is “too saturated,” increases students’ stress levels, and activates their imposter syndrome.  When they see a new paper that approaches their topic, they panic, terrified someone “beat them to the punch.”  Instead, we need to teach them the value of replication findings, theory testing in new settings, and innovative methods, affirming their interests and the potential contributions they will have.  

So if someone questions whether your findings are expected or obvious or predictable, remind them of the value of studies that replicate, test theories, and use innovative methods.  More importantly, remind yourself of the most important thing: why YOU value the research you’re doing.   

How do faculty look at job applications?  I recently asked this on Academic Twitter and got 311 responses and some additional replies.  The vast majority of faculty first look at the CV (66 percent), but a good 31 percent start with the cover letter.  In today’s post, I’m going to talk about the CV and the cover letter and highlight what this means for those of you on the academic job market and how the pros and cons to these approaches for faculty figuring out how to approach the process.

The CV

The academic CV is a peculiar form.  It’s a LOT of information with very little detail.  The CV is just a series of lists with very little prose, which is why it’s a great thing that applicants have the cover letter and statements to provide more information about what they’ve accomplished thus far in their careers.  

The most important thing in a CV is organization in my opinion.  My biggest pet peeve is when applicants lump together a bunch of things that aren’t really alike.  In my experience, it’s most problematic for publications, but it also applies to talks for example. The problem of listing all of your publications all together is that I as the reviewer have to sort through and figure out what is a book chapter, an encyclopedia entry, an editorial, or a peer reviewed journal article.  I have also seen this with works-in-progress that are not submitted to a journal mixed with pieces under review and published manuscripts, but this organization bothers me much less.  Whether you mean it to be or not, doing this can come off as attempting to inflate your CV to look like more publications than you actually have, so make clear sections that include different kinds of work, such as sections for different kinds of written products and written products at different stages.  You might also add sections that separate things like public speaking or workshops for the community from guest lectures in university courses.  This separation not only clarifies your experiences, but also signals the kind of public engagement you’ve been doing, which is particularly important for universities like land grant institutions that have a commitment to the community around them.

Based on comments on my poll and my own experience on a search committee, it seems that faculty generally use the CV to get an overview of someone’s “fit” for the position.  Fit can be the subfields that the search is focused on, but it can also be looking to ensure that applicants have published in a peer review journal or that they have experience teaching the expected courses.  The problem that can arise with starting with the CV is when folks look for markers of prestige such as where the individual got their degree or when it becomes a counting game of how many publications each person has.  The former is problematic because it means screening out people without giving them an opportunity to sell themselves through the cover letter or research statement, but also because more elite institutions tend to have students who come from more privileged backgrounds and also attended elite schools for undergrad.  Prestige begets prestige.  

Counting publications can get problematic because there are many reasons why there are variations in applicants’ number of publications.  Maybe they didn’t have opportunities to publish with any faculty.  Maybe they wrote a book style dissertation and so don’t have as many side papers to publish.  Maybe their program doesn’t require a MA paper or other papers that they could have attempted to publish.  Lastly, maybe their funding was tied to teaching and they couldn’t focus 100 percent of their time on research.  Besides this last item, none of these are easy to figure out from an application whether the CV or the cover letter or the research statement, so while it is important to see peer reviewed publications of some sort, it shouldn’t be just selecting candidates with the most pubs.  

One thing I like to see in an applicant’s CV is evidence that they won’t drown in their first year.  This is signaled with a balance of publications, teaching experience, and sometimes also some departmental service work.  To me, this signals a well rounded candidate who will be able to handle the transition to a full teaching load and service without completely dropping their research.  

The Cover Letter

Unlike the CV, the cover letter is home to narrative.  It tells us what the candidate is prepared to do, but mostly what they’ve already accomplished.  For job candidates, this will feel like a repetitive document to draft seeing as you will also have a more detailed research statement, teaching statement, and diversity statement.  However, not all applications ask for all statements so the cover letter will do more work in many applications.  It is your chance to tell the overarching narrative about your research, teaching, mentorship, and service work and sell your fit for the position and the department.  

While starting with the cover letter is less popular, it is my preferred starting point to the process because I want to hear what the applicant has to say and how they pitch themselves.  If they seem like a good fit for the position, then I look at the CV for other prerequisites such as peer reviewed publications and prior teaching experience in the area of hire.  The downside to starting with the cover letter though is that how someone sells themselves in a cover letter is a product of professionalization.  That is, it is more of a reflection of the person’s training than anything else.  To combat that, I don’t discount when someone describes their research as contributions only to specific subfields or subareas of subfields for example instead of multiple subfields or broader subfields.  I look for interesting and innovative research above all else.  

I’m sure, however, that not all reviewers are this generous in their reading, so a couple of tips for job applicants.  What seems to be most compelling from my experience is an overarching research agenda that captures your various projects.  This is not an easy thing to write and it will take a while to nail down.  It’s easiest to start this in your research statement where you have more space to develop the idea, get feedback, revise, then boil it down to a sound bite for the cover letter.  You want to be consistent across all of your materials.  

To give an example, I do research on culture and the racial wealth gap, race and gentrification, and media representations of gentrification.  These don’t logically fit together without me providing a narrative to connect them for someone.  I picked describing my research agenda as investigating how culture and development contribute to racial inequality.  Most people use substantive connections, but I’ve also seen applicants effectively use their methodological approach to center their research agenda.  

Beyond the research component of the cover letter, make sure to include sound bites about your philosophy of teaching and diversity statement even if both are required, but especially if they’re not.  This is also the space to highlight things like a personal reason you would absolutely uproot your life and move to College Town USA.  Don’t disclose anything you don’t feel comfortable sharing with strangers, but there is nothing wrong with saying you’re eager to return home to X state to be closer to family or to remind the search committee that you lived in the area during undergrad and would love to return.  

Other Approaches

There are people who start with the research statement, the teaching statement, the writing samples, or the letters of recommendation, so job applicants need to put forward their best foot across all of their materials.  Like I mentioned before, consistency across statements, while avoiding repetition outside of the cover letter, is important so take the time to edit across statements in addition to editing each individually.  Start with the longer, specific statements (research, teaching, and diversity) then use those solid drafts to craft your cover letter.  

For search committee members, regardless of the approach you choose, you are prone to some type of bias whether implicit or explicit in ways that gives preferential treatment to those with higher status credentials.  Addressing these biases might look like reminding yourself that not everyone is trained to publish in the very top tier of journals or bust and that not everyone receives training on how to publish or feedback on their work, focusing on ideas rather than framing, and looking for well rounded applicants with teaching, mentoring, and service experience in addition to a strong research agenda.  While departments should still hire junior scholars they believe can get tenure, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that any smart person coming out of any PhD program can learn more and be successful with the right mentorship and support.  

Grant and fellowship season is coming up again.  Seeing the deadlines creep closer on my calendar made me sigh and groan a little.  These applications are always a fair amount of work (read as “time I could be doing something else”) and the rewards are few and far between.  I’ve been dragging my feet, so I’m taking the time to remind myself of why I have subjected myself to over 40 grant and fellowship applications over the last 8 years.  

1. Each application is a chance to articulate your agenda and ideas. 

You’re not going to win every grant or fellowship you apply to.  Rejection is inevitable along the way, but there is something to gain by going through the process.  It forces you to think through your research projects, connect them into an overarching research agenda, and articulate them to others who are often not experts in your area.  Doing this work is helpful for other parts of academic life as well such as writing job market materials, a book proposal, or a tenure portfolio statement.  It could also help you nail down your elevator pitch for networking.  

2. Creating a detailed plan and budget can help you plan.

There’s nothing like being forced to articulate what you will be doing on a project during a period of time and with a pot of money to help you more generally plan for finishing a project.  Doing these detailed plans and budgeting help you see what’s left before getting to the finish line of what might feel like a neverending research project.  

3. One submission is the start to the next application. 

Once you’ve applied to a grant or fellowship once, you now have draft materials to the next year’s application.  Some of what you write will be specific for the year you apply, but a lot of the content can be edited and revised rather than needing to be rewritten.  In fact, some materials can be used for more than one grant/fellowship application.  Even better, some grants/fellowships provide reviewer feedback, which can be helpful in identifying what you need to clarify, provide more detail about, or just scratch in future applications.  

4. Each application is a little bit easier.

The more grant and fellowship applications you write, the easier that style of writing gets.  The easier it gets to write about your research projects.  The easier it gets to declaratively state what you will finish in some absurdly short period of time.  And the easier it gets to write those awkward personal essays about yourself and how you came to pursue a PhD and academia.  

5. Even the rejections count.

My department and university care that I’m applying for grants and fellowships.  Of course they would love if I won one, BUT they also ask what I’ve applied for regardless of whether I’ve been successful or not.  So making an effort counts for something!

6. Every once in a while, you win!

Yes, there’s a lot of rejection in applying for grants and fellowships, but every once in a while the stars align and you get some approval.  And in this case, approval comes with $$$, yay!!!!  

As faculty have adjusted to teaching during a stressful time, many have opted to make changes in the amount of work they assign and how they grade.  The changes reflected compassion and empathy for our students during a stressful time, but some of these changes should be permanent even after face-to-face courses resume.  Changes in how faculty grade could ease disparities in the classroom, particularly around differences in preparation for college.  For instance, not grading for writing style and grammar could be a practice to continue post-covid.  

To be clear, I’m a Professor of Sociology.  I teach courses like “Race and Ethnicity” and “Segregation in the City,” not “Writing Composition” or “the Art of the Essay.”  However, I do assign written assignments.  In fact, that’s the majority of assessments in my courses.  My students write short responses and short papers that demonstrate their understanding of the core concepts of class and apply that understanding to new examples.  Even with all of that writing, I do not grade for grammar or writing style.  Why?  Because they are not things I teach in my classes.  

This has always been my practice, but many of my peers do grade for these things.  In my view, grading for writing style and grammar perpetuates pre-existing inequalities in education.  Students who went to college preparatory schools with smaller classes and more hands-on student-teacher engagement are more likely to already have stronger writing skills.  Additionally, students for whom English is a first language are more likely to have a wider vocabulary and better grammar than their international peers.  Grading for grammar and writing style, only perpetuates the existing disparities through grades and GPA, which keeps more privileged students doing better than their peers.

So if I’m not grading for grammar and writing style, you might be wondering what I do grade for.  My courses are substantive and empirical.  They provide students with vocabulary to understand their own experiences and the world around them.  Through their written assignments, I ask students to demonstrate their understanding of the core concepts we have learned about in class, apply the concepts they learn to explain other cases, and connect the concepts they have learned to their own experiences.  My grading rubrics capture the extent to which the student followed these instructions.  Did the student answer the prompt?  Did they answer all parts of the prompt? Did they cite the number of class readings required?  Did they paraphrase from these readings rather than use direct quotations?  Did they include parenthetical citations to give credit to their sources?  Even without perfect grammar or a flowery writing style, a student can get an A on my assignments by engaging with the questions I asked them and following the other requirements for the assignment.  In fact, students who write well, but never fully address the posed question(s) do less well than their peers who fully answer the question with some awkward writing.

For me, this policy is a small contribution to equalizing the playing field in an inherently unequal system.  Students who write well cannot BS their way around a question and still do well on my assignments (something some of them are used to doing).  But more importantly, the student who struggles with writing can do well in my course.  It is an approach to compassionate teaching that I believe should extend beyond this temporary moment in higher education.  

I recently did a virtual panel discussion with first year graduate students in my program.  It was a moment of realization that the constraints on research, particularly qualitative research, that we are currently experiencing due to coronavirus are even more extreme for first years.  Faculty and advanced graduate students have data and works-in-progress that they can work on over the summer, but many first year graduate students don’t have data and now don’t have the opportunity to collect data this summer.  Students who were planning on doing archival, ethnography, and interview research over the summer now have to decide whether they can pursue research this summer and, if so, how to go about it.  I want to share a few things to think about, but first, let me just say that it is okay if work doesn’t happen this summer.  Your mental and physical health needs to come first and foremost above all else.  Self-care is so much more important than any school work or research!  If you do have the space and time to think about and execute research, here are a few things to think about and discuss with your advisor.  

How committed are you to your original research plan?  

There are many ways to answer a research question.  It would be great to answer your question through the words of the people you interviewed, evidence from documents you retrieved from the depths of a dusty archive, or the connections and experiences you had living and observing the phenomenon you study.  But just because those activities aren’t possible doesn’t mean you can’t pursue a similar or related research question.  Just remember that you can always execute your original plan later.  Putting it on the back burner does not mean you’ll never get to do it.

Option 1 is to slightly modify your research plan by conducting it while socially isolating.  You can recruit interviewees through your networks on social media and conduct interviews on phone or online (Skype/Zoom/WebEx/etc.), or use digitized archival materials.  Going this route may mean a slightly different sample than you would have recruited otherwise, but every interview sample is unique to the recruitment strategy used in some way.  If you go this route, don’t forget to update your IRB application to reflect the new recruitment, collection, and recording options that you’re using.  

Option 2 is to redesign the project to answer the same or a similar question with a different kind of data.  Instead of conducting interviews, maybe you look at the same question with survey data or a digitized archive.  Start by looking to see what kinds of data are available online in repositories like ICPSR, Roper Data Center, Social Explorer, or your library’s databases and archives.  Many of these data sources and analyses will be useful in the longer run if you continue with the same topic for your dissertation.  For instance, qualitative researchers often use quantitative data to justify the study of their specific case whether that be a particular group or a specific geographic location.  If you’re nervous about doing quantitative research, remember that you can get useful information from simple analyses like descriptive statistics, correlations, and ordinary least squares regression analyses.  You don’t have to jump into multinomial regressions with fixed effects.  Start with what you’re comfortable with and understand.  As you get feedback on what you’ve done and where you should take the analysis, you can learn about new techniques.  

What other topics are you interested in?  

The change in access may mean lead you to decide to focus on a different research topic for now that would allow you to use electronically available data.  It never hurts to have more than one line of research going.  So go ahead and design a new project for that other topic you’re excited about that you can pursue virtually.  You can still pursue your original project as your main area of research at a later point.

Are there other program requirements you could work on this summer?  

Every Ph.D. program has multiple requirements, so what requirements could you work on during the summer instead of doing research?  This suggestion definitely involves talking to your advisor and the graduate director of your program to see if the program would let you pursue some requirements earlier than “normal.”  For instance, you might be able to negotiate starting a comprehensive or qualifying exam early, or doing an independent study for course credit.  These activities would free up some of your time later for being able to pursue field work or archival research.

These times call for creative measures, particularly for qualitative researchers.  If that means putting school on hold, that’s okay!  If you have the time and energy to push your school work and research forward, you have options.

When you first start graduate school, you’re assigned an advisor usually based on the faculty you mentioned in your application statements and/or the research interests you described.  For those of you in the social sciences and in programs to which your funding is not attached to an individual faculty member, it is perfectly normal for this assignment to be temporary.  You may find that your assigned advisor isn’t a good fit because your research interests change, your methodological focus shifts, or you just don’t work well together.  So as you shop around (yes, you should do that), here are some things to consider.

First and foremost, you want someone who is supportive of you and your endeavors in graduate school and beyond.  This should be true of all of your eventual committee members and mentors in graduate school.  Your advisor needs to be behind you 100% as you develop as a scholar, but also when it’s time to discuss whether the department should give you additional funding or nominate you for a fellowship, and when you’re applying to fellowships and jobs.  They should be ready and willing to speak or write about you with the highest accolades at all times.  

Next, it’s extremely important to pick someone whose working style fits with yours.  While it may not matter to you whether the faculty member is organized or prefers in person interactions to email, it is extremely important that your communication styles and expectations align.  For instance, I have a very hard time understanding passive communicators, so I looked for faculty who shot from the hip, giving me direct feedback and advice.  You also want to consider what your expectations are for contact and make sure that your expectations will mesh with what the faculty member expects.  If they expect weekly progress reports via email and biweekly in person meetings of 1-2 hours, but you want to be able to do your thing and check in as needed, it’s not going to work.  

Lastly, most people end up with an advisor who has some overlap in their substantive or methodological interests.  However, this does not necessarily mean that your advisor studies what you want to study, the way that you want to study it.  More often, a good fit advisor has some overlap in the broader subfield in which your research is situated or uses similar methods.  My advisor had expertise in urban sociology, but had never studied gentrification.  It’s okay if you pick someone with one and not the other because there are only so many faculty to choose from in any given program.  I have found that some students hold onto advisors who are a good fit in being supportive and in work style, but who aren’t methodologically or substantively experts related to their work and thus aren’t on their dissertation committee.  This approach works if it fits with the requirements of your program.  For my MA paper, for example, my advisor had to be one of the two readers I selected, so taking this approach would not have worked for my program.

While these three factors might seem straight forward, remember that both your understanding of your needs and your needs themself may change over time.  In the comprehensive or qualifying exam stage, you may feel comfortable organizing your readings and managing your time to complete the task at hand without much input or guidance from your advisor, but as you begin to dissertate, you may realize you need more interaction, feedback, and guidance.  Just because the relationship has been one way doesn’t mean that it can’t change, so the first thing to do if/when this happens is to speak to your advisor about whether the relationship can adjust to meet your new needs.  If they’re not comfortable with the change, then you should consider your other options.  However, that switch could be moving your advisor out of the chair role and into a committee member, rather than moving on without them.  

To figure out who would make a good fit for your advisor, it’s important to shop around.  Go to office hours to introduce yourself and get advice on some aspect of the program that is coming up or feedback on a project idea to feel out how different faculty members approach advising and mentoring.  Taking classes with a faculty member can also shed light on how they give feedback and to what extent.  Finally, ask around!  Find the students working with the faculty member you’re considering and find out what their experiences have been.  

As you are considering your options, remember that graduate school is a time to do what’s best for you.  It is kind and considerate to worry about hurting a faculty member’s feelings about switching advisors, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make a change that will be better for you in the long run.  It’s okay to be a little self-entitled some of the time.

There’s a common refrain that academics should write every day, which you all already know I don’t do.  But many folks, myself included, reframe this to that we should be touching our research every day.  Yet, even touching your research every day isn’t always possible. During the semester, the demands of teaching can make it hard to find the time.  The system that has worked for me so far has been to keep a balance between research and teaching by allocating certain days for each.  

It’s really easy for teaching to take over more and more of your time.  There’s lecture prep, designing assignments, responding to students’ emails, coordinating with TAs, maintaining participation records, and grading.  Furthermore, most of this happens on a weekly basis. I usually teach both of my classes on the same days, so I schedule my office hours between classes and work on anything class-related before and after class and during office hours when I’m free.  

The days I don’t have class are my research days.  I still keep up with urgent student emails, but on research days, I try not to productively procrastinate with teaching work unless it is required.  Research days are reserved for meeting with RAs and working on grant applications, data collection, coding, data analysis, and writing.  

There are weeks when grading priorities take over and I don’t get to part or all of my research time, but for the most part the dividing my calendar between the two activities makes it easy to maintain.  Since my schedule is teaching twice a week, this usually looks like Monday and Wednesday are teaching days and Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday are for research. I used a similar approach in graduate school when I worked as an RA.  It would have been easy to prioritize work with a deadline over my own research, so I separated my week out into 20 hour chunks with 2.5 days for my RA work and 2.5 days for my work. Separating my time this way builds in a more immediate deadline to do what I need to do for deadlines like those associated with teaching or RA work because not finishing means cutting into my research time.  

This system works well for me now, but I can definitely foresee the need to change things in the future.  First, I’m a first year AP, so my service load is relatively light. With more service work, I’ll need to build in specified time to do that as well, which is likely to cut into my research time since all of the work associated with teaching will still need to happen.  Second, I have a 2-2 load, but have been teaching two sections of the same class each semester this year. With shifting to 2 different course preps, I’ll need to adjust my schedule to perhaps focus on one class on one teaching day and the other class on the other, but will also do some work in preparing the classes to ensure I’m not grading assignments for two classes in the same week, for example.  Finally, most of my active projects are in the end of data analysis or writing stages, which I find easier to engage with while balancing teaching. As I move into data collection and early data analysis with new projects, I’ll need to see if my system still works.

My approach does mean that I’m not touching my research every day, but it also means that my research is not untouched most weeks.  Even without working on it every day, I am moving forward. When summer comes around, I’ll switch to working on my research every day, but until then, a step forward is still a step in the right direction!

I’ve been struggling to identify something to write about this month given the circumstances of a global pandemic.  It doesn’t feel like I have anything useful to offer given the circumstances and yet posting on “normal” academic topics seems trivial.  So what I decide to do is share how my transition to working from home is going.  

In my work life, perhaps the most jarring change has been suddenly working from home with no notice or time to prepare.  Under normal circumstances, working from home is the exception, not the rule for me. I go to campus and work in my office where I enjoy my chocolate drawer, all of my books, a large monitor to spread out my work, and a quiet space where I can close the door and be left alone.  At home, I do home stuff: I cook, clean, play with my toddler, talk to my partner, knit, watch bad tv shows, and generally decompress. The only time I normally work from home is when I’m not prepared for a deadline, which usually entails working for a few hours over the weekend when it happens.  I like the separation of spaces and the time it gives me to connect with my family and for my brain to process things and recover from a day or a week of work.  

When my university decided that courses would be going online post-spring break, I fully intended to continue to go to my office.  But as we learned more about the outbreak, that seemed like an unwise decision, so I opted to work from home and limit any travel outside of the home to the essential.  The first week of this was really challenging. I was overwhelmed by the news of what was happening in the world around me, feeling anxious about being “stuck” inside, was worried about friends and family in other states and cities, and totally uncertain of how to get anything done around a toddler who was so ecstatic that mom wasn’t leaving for work that they wanted to be by my side at all times.  I was not sleeping well and increasingly stressed and anxious.  

Now, we’re in week 3.  Emotionally, things have calmed down as I’ve been in communication with my family and friends, and I’ve gotten used to the new “normal” of being home all day every day.  I’ve also figured out ways to make some work happen. I won’t lie and say I have a routine. I definitely do not. But I have a number of strategies to overcome the inconvenience of not having a quiet office space where I can close the door and not be disturbed.  When I can drag myself out of bed, I get up before the toddler to at least have a moment of alone time before anyone else is up and demanding my time and energy. To be completely honest, this only works a couple times a week for me because of my body demanding more rest.  I use screentime liberally since if I’m on my “screen” (laptop) then the kiddo wants to have a screen too. Finally, I expect to take breaks frequently to play with the kiddo and take cues from them about when that should happen. Thankfully, my partner is also at home and joins me in these efforts, taking on entertaining the toddler whenever I need some quiet to get some reading or writing done or I have a meeting.  We play it all by ear, but it’s made it possible for me to get a little bit of work done every day, even if it’s mostly work for my teaching.  

It’s not perfect.  It’s not equivalent to my normal work life by any stretch.  But it’s how I’m making do right now. I’m doing what I can by putting one foot in front of the other.  

I frequently find myself recommending the National Center for Faculty Diversity Development (NCFDD) in reference to their advice on how to say no.  If you haven’t seen it, they have a helpful list of steps for what do when you get a request for your time and energy to make sure you’re not overwhelmed with the kind of service that doesn’t “count” for tenure.  After a few years of reading this advice from NCFDD, I have a few things to add to this conversation. First, while saying no can be hard, figuring out what to say no to is just as difficult. Second, in addition to saying no, some of us (I’m speaking to myself here) need to learn to shut up and not volunteer for things.  Both of these are particularly challenging for those of us who are underrepresented in the academy and, thus, more likely to get requests for work that is not deemed important in the tenure and promotion process, but who also might want to do some of this work.  

For me, the biggest challenge to saying no is requests from students.  My commitment to providing transparency and support in all things PhD means requests that come from graduate students in particular whether that is a request to be on a comprehensive exam committee or sit on a panel about work-life-balance during graduate school are very hard to decline.  To avoid being overwhelmed, I consider how much is on my plate and see if the exam or event works with my schedule. But if it does, I’m inclined to say yes.  

My other personal tendency that I have had to suppress is volunteering both in my department and outside.  I’m organized and process oriented, so I often see different ways to do things. Furthermore, I have opinions about things like professionalization, graduate training and mentorship, and diversity and inclusion, which makes it hard to bite my tongue in certain conversations.  Outside my department, I have also been known to offer my knowledge of non-academic research to folks and support folks on the academic job market. Given my experience watching a good friend frequently say “how can I help?,” I have a hunch that many of you are offering up your time, energy, and resources when you should be biting your tongues and being stingy.  As a first year Assistant Professor, I try my best to keep my mouth shut, but there are certainly instances when I volunteer ideas and offer to do things because the opportunity is important to me.  

While I haven’t yet implemented this, the best advice I’ve seen on this is to limit the total number of these requests you take on or volunteer for.  If you want to provide support for professionalization of graduate students in your department, great! Do it! But set a cap on the number of events you can take on and stick with it.  The other thing I would add to this is ask for what you need to do the work. It’s okay to say “I’m interested, but would need administrative support for setting the date and booking a room” so that you can do something you care about without taking on all of the labor to make sure it happens.

Part of implementing this kind of quota system is identifying what’s important to you.  Is it student professionalization? Community engagement? Supporting student groups? What kind of work matters to you?  Whatever that is, document the work you do and include it in your records for tenure and promotion even if your institution doesn’t currently reward those activities.  I suggest this because institutions and departments change what they are looking for sometimes, which could mean that this work “matters” more than it would have previously.  But, even if this doesn’t happen, you can make a case in your statements for how this work (1) promotes the university, department, or your work and (2) supports your research, teaching, and/or mentoring.

So what’s important to you?  What do you want to prioritize in your professional work beyond the demands of the job?