There are 100 things on your mental To-Do list. There are daily duties (like email and office time) and pre-scheduled stuff (like classes and committee meetings). But what still remains at the end of the day are the things that are easy to put off because they don’t have hard or immediate deadlines – things like writing an intro to a paper, submitting an IRB proposal, drafting a grant, completing some analysis tables, and so on. At the end of the year, having finished all of these might be what makes the difference between an exceptional year and another “OK” one.
But these projects are also the easiest things to put off or to only push ahead 1 inch each week. If you push 100 projects ahead 1 inch each week, you’ve made 100 inches of progress at the end of the week, but your desk is still full and you’re feeling frustratingly resigned to always be behind. This is an incremental approach.
A different approach would be to push a 50-inch project ahead until it is finished and falls off the desk; then you could push a 40-inch project ahead until it falls off; and then you can spend the last of your time and energy pushing a small 10-inch project off your desk. This is the “push-it-off-the-desk” approach.
Both approaches take 100-inches of work. However, the “push-it-off-the-desk” approach changes how you think and feel. You still have 97 things left to do, but you can see you made tangible progress. For about 12 years, I tried a number of different systems to do this – to finish up what was most important for the week. Each of them eventually ended up being too complicated or too constraining for me to stick with.
Eventually I stopped looking for a magic system. Instead, at the end of every week, I simply listed the projects or project pieces I was most grateful to have totally finished. Super simple. It kept me focused on finishing things, and it gave me a specific direction for next week (the next things to finish). It’s since evolved into something I call a “3-3-3 Weekly Recap.”
Here’s how a 3-3-3 Weekly Recap works. Every Friday I write down the 3 biggest things I finished that week (“Done”), the 3 things I want to finish next week (“Doing”), and 3 things I’m waiting for (“Waiting for”). This ends up being a record of what I did that week, a plan for what to focus on next week, and a reminder of what I need to follow up on. It helps keep me accountable to myself, and it keeps me focused on finishing 3 big things instead of 100 little things. Here’s an example of one that’s been scribbled in a notebook at the end of last week:
Even though you’d be writing this just for yourself, it might improve your game. It focuses you for the week, it gives you a plan for next week, and it prompts you to follow-up on things you kind of forgot you were waiting for.
Sometimes I do it in a notebook and sometimes I type it and send it to myself as an email. It doesn’t matter the form it’s in or if you ever look back at it (I don’t), it still works. I’ve shared this with people in academia, business, and government. Although it works for most people who try it, it works best for academics who manage their own time and for managers who are supervising others. They say it helps to keep the focus on moving forward instead of either simply drifting through the details of the day or being thrown off course by a new gust of wind.
If you work with PhD students or Postdocs, it could help them develop a “Finish it up” mentality, instead of a “Polish this for 3 years until it's perfect” mentality. It’s also useful as a starting point for 1-on-1 weekly meetings. If they get in the habit of emailing their 3-3-3 Recap to you each Friday, you can share any feedback and perhaps help speed up whatever it is they are waiting for. Especially if it’s something on your desk. Ouch.
Good luck in pushing 3 To-Dos off your desk and getting things done. I hope you find this helps.
5 Ways to Finish your Ph.D.
Most "How to finish your thesis" advice is pretty obvious -- even if we don't follow it. Sometimes we don't follow it because it seems too difficult. Other times we don't follow it because it's so general, we don't know how to start.
Here's five pieces of dissertation advice I heard that were 1) nonobvious, 2) doable, and 3) specific.
1. “Choose your best friend as your advisor.” I heard this from a Med School professor friend who then said “And choose your older brother to be your second committee member, and choose your favorite uncle to be your third.” We tend to choose our dissertation committee based on who’s most famous. Consider which professors most want you to graduate. [Read more]
2. "Write the first two hours of every day." The guy who told me this, pretty much said it like a command: no email, no breakfast, no class stuff. Before breakfast and before the kids wake up. It sets a productivity vibe for the whole day. [Read more]
3. “You can either read a lot or you can write a lot, but you can't do both.” We can sometimes use reading as avoidance behavior for writing. There's diminishing returns to trying to read everything in a subject area.
4. Write down the 3 specific things you'll finish each day. Better to have three things completed than 20 things pushed ahead an inch. [Read more]
5. Remember: “The ‘P’ in PhD stands for Perseverance.” – The smartest and most talented people in PhD programs aren’t always the ones who graduate.
This season starts the beginning of job market Speed Dating in lots of academic fields. It’s when all of the schools who have jobs and all the PhD students who want jobs get together at their annual job market conference and speed date.
If a speed date goes well, a school will call you in about two weeks and ask you out on a campus date. If that 2-day campus date goes well, you get the engagement ring and get the job. If the 7-year engagement goes well, you get married with tenure.
But this all starts with the 45-minute speed date at the conference where there’s about a 1 in 3 chance that you’ll get called back. Two common questions: 1) How do I ace a conference interview, and 2) how do I know if I aced it?
Your advisor and friends have given you a big list of “dos and don’ts” for your interviews. Things like do act interested and do know lots about their school, and things like don’t act smarmy or arrogant and don’t dress like Spiderman or your favorite D&D character.
There's no perfect way to predict whether you’ll get a campus visit, but you hear lots of rules of thumb:
• The best day to interview is the second morning.
The next best is the first afternoon.
• The two best interview times are either 10:00 AM or 1:00 PM
• The more interviewers in your room (vs. skipping),the better your chances
• The more “fun” the interview seems, the better your chances
• The more questions they ask about your dissertation, the better
When I was on the rookie job market, I thought it would be useful to know which of these was the best predictor of a call-back. If a person knew that, they’d know when to schedule interviews with their favorite schools, whether to be serious or funny, and whether to encourage lots of dissertation questions. A few of my friends got together, and we came up with a list of about ten things we thought would predict how well an interview went. We all then rated each one of our interviews on these 10 things.
We then pooled everything together and ran a logit regression on whether we ended up getting a campus interview date at each school. Only 1 thing was significant. It wasn’t the timing of the interview or our subjective rating of how “fun” it was. Instead the only predictor of whether we got a campus visit was how many questions they asked about our dissertationduring the conference interview.
Makes sense – except this was negatively related. The schools that asked us lots of questions about our dissertations DIDN’T fly us out for a date.
At the time, we thought maybe they realized we were doing a lot of handwaving in our theory section. Or maybe the deeper they dug, the more holes they found that we hadn’t yet plugged.
I now think there is another explanation. If we spent 35 minutes of a 45-minute interview talking about only 1 thing, the school only has 1 thing to judge us on (other than our advisor’s letter). It’s like a speed date where the person spends 90% of it talking about their vacation to Hawaii or their doily collection. We end up learning a lot about Hawaii or doilies, but not enough about them to want to call them back for a date.
A few years later, I was unexpectedly on the job market again as an assistant professor, and I did things a bit differently. Instead of spending 35 minutes droning on about a single project or two, I wanted to make sure we talked about a lot more than just Hawaii. That way, a broader set of connections could be made, and the people who hated Hawaii might find other things they could be interested in.
For all of the adrenaline-pumped PhD students at their job-market conference, it’s probably not the best strategy to spend the whole time talking about only your dissertation or only about Hawaii. The more other “good fit” connections you can make in the interview, the more likely you might be called back for a first date.
At this point, no last-minute finishing touches on your dissertation rap will help you ace your interview tomorrow morning. Instead, tonight's better spent learning more about your potential date – especially any unique overlaps you might have in common.
Good luck on the job market!
How to Advise a Really Good Student
It's been said that the most frequent last words of adventurous, partying males are probably:
1) “Hey, watch this,” or
2) “Here, hold my beer.”
If we heard either of these, our grizzled wise advice would probably be, “STOP, Don’t Do That!” But giving well-intended advice in less obvious situations is trickier, so we've grown more hesitant to do so. We’ve all been burned by giving advice and having someone either trigger their Eye of Death, or break a saloon chair and an unlabeled whiskey bottle over our head.
As a result, even as professors we can start drifting toward taking a more laissez-faire role toward advising students about their future. We might say “I will give them advice if they ask.” Yet even if they ask "What do I do?" we can be too carefully non-committal in giving them any advice (“Well, what do YOU want to do?”).
A while back, I had an interesting conversation with a person who said his son had been adrift in high school. It all turned in the right direction for him one day when a teacher who he casually played chess with said, “If you work hard, you could be a high-school chess champion.” He focused, and it happened. The Dad then said something similar had happened to him 50 years ago. He had been adrift in high school – good grades but adrift – when a teacher told him “If you work hard, you could be on the debate team.” He focused, and it happened.
These two teachers had given each of them a specific vision of what they could be: A chess champion and a debate champion. These mentors didn’t just compliment their talents by saying “You’re sharp,” or “You talks good.” They gave a specific direction that an adrift student could paddle toward. The decided to Be the One who pointed them toward an island.
With earnest students, it can be easy to say “Good job,” or “You’re creative,” or “You’re good at this class.” Those are compliments. Other types of compliments can give useful paddling directions. A student might be earnestly good at school but not see where to take their life other than in the general direction their parents, friends, or placement office talk about.
Suppose we took the risk that those two teachers took, and we told a student “You’d make a great ________,” or “Have you ever considered ____; I think you’d be really good at it.” They might feel a bit flattered, and a bit motivated to paddle in a direction they hadn’t thought of. Even if go in a totally different direction, if we motivated an earnest student in any hopeful direction, we accomplished more than if we would have given an easier default answer like, "Well, what do YOU want to do?"
Let’s circle back to last week’s conversation about the two teachers who stuck their necks out and make laid out specific visions to the guy and his son. Things worked out for both of them. Ten years later, the son had graduated from college, started his own business, and was coaching chess champion hopefuls on the side. Forty years later, the dad had retired as a Fortune 500 CEO to produce a movie. Partly because two mentors decided to Be the One who gave them direction.
I’m guessing that neither of their two teachers is still picking saloon chair splinters out of their head.
There's a reemerging teaching movement around this Be the One notion. Although it's sort of aimed at teachers of younger students, a surprising amount of it still applies to college students, and also applies to taking an extra effort to say the right words to graduate students at the right time. If you're teaching or TAing this semester, you can check out Ryan Sheehy's Twitter for a booster shot.
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