One summer on the way out to the parking lot, a senior professor once told me that if he didn't have a summer project finished by the Fourth of July, he knew it wouldn't get finished. Since it was about June 28th on the day he said that, I flashed on all of my unfinished projects and was horrified.
I also pledged to not let that happen and to double-down after the Fourth to "get er done." Over the past 20 summers since then, I've worked with something I call a 3-3-3 weekly recap to keep the summer moving forward while still having lots of fun.
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 this summer. I hope you find this helps.
Some people love graduate school, but most of us want to finish it up and get started with our real lives.
About a couple years ago I met a nice guy from Utah who was finishing his thesis at a university about 5 hours away. He had just moved here to take a job. After only two weeks, he was totally immersed in his new job, and I asked him if he was concerned about being able to finish up his thesis. He said, "Oh, no, not at all. My university's only 5 hours away, and I've only got a couple months of work left on it."
The idea of starting a new life or a new job a few months early – say, before we’ve completed our dissertation – sounds pretty good. After all, lots of people Zoom and Skype from home, so it should be a snap to web-commute back to the university and finish up our dissertation away from the anxieties of campus. For instance, you could now start your new gig (maybe as a professor) in June instead of August. Your plan would be to move, get settled, wrap up the dissertation, and get two months of a tempting new salary.
When I was a PhD student, someone told me that if you want to know how long it will take to finish your dissertation if you move away, you use a simple formula. You take your best guess of how long you think it will take to finish, then you triple it and add three months. So if you think you have 2 months left on your dissertation, and you move away in June, you won’t be finished until following March – in 9 months instead of 2 months (2 months x 3 + 3 months = 9 months). This is a rough rule-of-thumb, that varies across schools, departments, and people. Still, when I heard this, I wasn’t going to take any chances. My apartment lease with my two roommates was up, so I spent the last two months crashing at the apartments of different friends so I could wrap it my dissertation and graduate before I move away to start my Asst Prof gig.
What happens when you move is not only that it takes time to get resettled and you no longer have the support structure of your PhD program (and the “in sight & in mind” attention of your committee), but you also don’t feel the urgency to finish. You’re settling into a new role, and everybody's happy to have you around. You start to put off the uncomfortable pressure of you incomplete dissertation because it feels so much better to be treated as an an adult over here than as a sniffling child over there. But in a few months when your new department chair asks whether you’re through with your dissertation, it’s going to be awkward to answer.
You might not have the option of completing a dissertation on campus, but if you can, it’s worth sleeping on couches until it’s done.
The Rest of the Story: Four months after meeting the guy from Utah, I ran in to him again at the same boardgame cafe where we had originally met. He was very excited about having moved, and he was very excited about his new job. What's notable was that he never mentioned anything about his dissertation, how it was going, or whether it was finished. His dissertation had been an enthusiastic 80% of our conversation during the first time we met. Sine he never mentioned it, I wonder if he hadn't made the progress he had expected to make.
Last week a former student told me he had just gotten married, had a daughter, finished his PhD, and got a tenure-track job at a university. Busy day. He also wanted to set up a time to chat about how to be a successful new assistant professor.
After thinking about this for a couple days, here was the most important piece of advice I was planning to tell him.
If you’re starting a new professor, the most important thing you need to do is to look at your next 40 years and decide who your main audience is going to be. I think there are four types of audiences that you can have as a professor: 1) Your school, 2) your field, 3) your mission 4) yourself. You might be thinking you can serve multiple masters and split your attention to all four, but this is very, very difficult. People who try to satisfy two masters often end up to two unhappy masters.
1. Your School. As a new professor, you can focus on your school. If you do this, your audience is the administrators, students, and other professors at your school. You can aim at being a charismatic teacher, a go-to committee member, a friendly-to-all colleague, and a tenurable researcher. The upside is you can be very successful at your school and grow a strong and appreciated community around yourself. However, most of your investment will have been in “institutional capital.” The downside is you may not be especially movable to other schools.
2. Your Field. Some professors can focus on their field. Their audience is other professors in their same field. As graduate students, we grow to admire the famous people in our field or the ones who wrote the key papers we based our dissertation on. Some new professors want to mainly focus on their field and to contribute to it in our own way. This involves doing the right types of research and publishing it in the right types of journals. If all goes well, you will have opportunities to more attractive schools. But sometimes this doesn’t have an end. That’s the downside of a field-focus. Some people can really grind themselves down trying to publish more and more, but it might frustratingly never be enough to satisfy whatever's driving them.
3. Your Mission. Some new professors focus on a specific mission that involves changing something. Some might be driven to change the criminal justice system, social justice, how companies operate, what people eat, how children are raised, and so on. This offers a very satisfying mission because you can focus your research, teaching, and outreach at activities you think can change a corner or your specific world, and you can become a go-to expert in that area. Also, the impact you can have is more unique and more permanent in many ways. The downside is that a mission-focus takes a while before it starts getting traction and having impact. As a result, you’ll probably have to move around and change schools to eventually find the right school that most appreciates what you’re doing.
4. Yourself. Still other professors focus on themselves. This “March to my own drummer” approach sounds like the perfect ideal of academic freedom – doing what you want, when you want, wherever your muse leads you. The downside of this approach is that focusing on yourself doesn’t always lead to tenure, the next promotion, job offers other schools, or to being appreciated and valued by your colleagues.
Choosing one of these four audiences usually isn’t a conscious decision by most new professors, but it will probably be the track you’re on until you retire. It’s like choosing a North, South, East, or West road out of town from your PhD School. Once you’ve driven on that road for few years, you can’t go back, and it’s super hard to change roads.
To summarize these thoughts I had, when my former student friend got on the call, I was planning on emphasizing just three points:
1. Choose your audience carefully because you’ll probably have it for 40 years
2. Here’s the pluses and minuses of each audience
3. Realize it’s really difficult – either practically or psychologically – to change your audience down the road
That was the plan . . . but of course that wasn’t what happened during the call. When I said the biggest piece of advice for a new professor is to carefully choose who your audience is going to be, he said, “Oh, yeah, yeah, that’s really important.” Then we started talking and laughing about other stuff.
To then return and say “This is going to be a 40-year decision you make,” seemed like a heavy thing to say when we’re high-fiving each other about his new degree, new family, and new job -- and all in one day!
He doesn’t start his new job for another four months. We’ll have time to talk again before he before he‘s shifting into fifth gear.
"School’s starting, and I didn't get anything done this summer.”
I’ve heard this every August, and I’ve said this almost every August.
Whenever I’ve asked professors and PhD students what percent of their planned work they got accomplished over the summer, no one has ever said “All of it.” Almost everyone says something between 25 to 35%. Everyone from the biggest, most productive super stars with the biggest lab to the most motivated, fire-in-their-belly PhD student with the biggest anxiety.
We are horrible estimators of how productive we’ll be over the summer. I was in academia for 35 years (including MA and PhD years), yet every single summer I never finished more than 30% of what I planned. How can we be so poorly calibrated? We never learn. We never readjust our estimate for the next summer. Next summer we’ll still only finish 25-35% of what we planned to do.
There are only two weeks in the year when I’m predictably down or blue. It’s the last two weeks of August. It’s not the heat (I mostly stay indoors). It’s not the impending classes (I love teaching). It’s not all the beginning of semester meetings (I loved my colleagues and loved passing notes to them under the table). Ten years ago, I realized that I felt down the end of every August because I had to admit “school’s starting and I haven’t gotten jack done all summer.” The beginning of school is the psychological end of the Academic Fiscal Year.
One solution to our August blues lies in understanding what times of the year we do like most, and to see if we can rechannel those warm-glowy feelings to August.
If you had to guess the #1 favorite time of the year for most academics, you’d probably guess “The end of school.” The #2 favorite time of the year you might guess would be the “Winter or Christmas break.” What would you guess the third favorite time of the year is?
Surprisingly, I’ve heard people say it’s when they turn in their Annual Activity Report (AAR). That’s the summary document they turn into their hard-to-please Department Chair that summarizes what they’ve accomplished in the prior 12 months: What they published, who they advised, what new things they’ve started, what new teaching materials they’ve created, and so forth.
Snore. How could writing an Annual Activity Report be a highlight?
Because it shows in black-and-white that we didn’t sleep-walk through the year. It reminds us that the publication that we now take for granted was one that we were still biting our nails about last year at this time. It reminds us of our advises who were stressing over their undergraduate thesis a year ago and who have now happily graduated. It reminds us of the cool ideas we've into hopeful projects -- ideas we hadn't even thought of a year ago.. Going back in a 12-month-ago time machine shows us what we did accomplish. It turns our focus toward what we did – and away from what we didn’t.
Once we cross things off of our academic To-do list, we tend to forget we accomplished them. August might be a good time to do a mid-year AAR. It might not turn our August blues into a happy face yellow, but might at least turn it to green. A green light for a great new school year.
Have a tremendous school year.
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