April 15th is the No GPS Anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. It's a pretty easy date for Americans to remember because April 15th is also the day U.S. income taxes are due.
My niece is a teacher who had always wanted to visit a Titanic museum, so for Spring Break we picked her up for a Titanic-themed vacation. It was filled with frisky penguins, a ghost ship captain, indoor snow tubing, a killer iceberg, swimming, and 2000 miles of driving.
There’s a number of Titanic exhibits I've seen, like in Liverpool and Vegas, but this one (Pigeon Forge, TN) was set up so you could more closely identify with the people on board. For instance, you were given a biography card of someone on the Titanic, and you kind of followed that person around – where they slept, ate, and chilled out. Super-engaging.
At the end there’s a huge biography board where you find out if your character survives (about 1/3 do), what they looked like, and what happened to them afterward.
There’s probably 20-30 rooms with exhibits and actors, and interactive things like trying to walk on a 30-degree tilting deck. Yet the two things I’ve thought about many times in the past week both happened in the very last room. The one just before the gift shop.
There’s a climatic scene in the World War II movie Saving Private Ryan when the only surviving person in the battle, Private Ryan (ill-timed **spoiler alert**) is told by his dying Captain “to make his life worth it.” The movie then flashes to present day when he asks his wife to hopefully confirm to him that he lived a worthy life.
Did any of the survivors on Titanic's biography board do anything different after they were rescued to “make their life worth it?” To be sure, some people had some pretty tragic years that followed (suicide, prison, bankruptcy, multiple divorces and addictions), and some charmed-life rich people seemed to continue to have charmed lives. There was little indication of which people might have done something different to have make their life “worth it.” Sometimes it might be only the person themself who knows it.
If we were dramatically given a lucky lifeboat seat -- like the some of the Titanic survivors -- I wonder whether we’d try to make life “worth it?” Even if we didn’t know how, there’s a good chance that simply repeatedly asking ourselves that question might guide us in a good direction.
The second Titanic thought was also brought to light in that same dark room. While I was reading that bio board, a 90-year-old 6’4” ghost of the Titanic’s Captain Smith silently came into that somber room, walked over to a spot-lighted Captains chair, gathered the 20 of us together, and told two riveting eerie stories. Actually, he wasn't a ghost. He’s Lowell Lytle, the person who has portrayed the Captain for 30 years around the world, as his 4th amazing career.
The story he told the small collected group was what happened with the “Women and children first” directive that was given as they lowered the lifeboats. Men would get their wives and children loaded in the lifeboats, and they would then all wave goodbye for the last time as the lifeboats were lowered into the ocean. Three hours earlier they were having together and Dad was telling them to turn their iPhones off, three hours later they were gone.
We often think we’ll have plenty of time to thank people we’re grateful to, or to say “I love you” to people we love. Lytle's point was that we don’t need to wait until the lifeboat’s being lowered away before we say it.
My family spent a 10-hour drive home listening to the amazing ups and downs in Lytle’s real person life (Diving Into the Deep at Encourage Books). We’ve all had lucky breaks in life that merit us asking ourselves if we’ve tried to make our life “worth it.” We’ve also have people we’re grateful for who we need to thank, and we have people we love who are worth telling daily that we love them.
Two Titanic thoughts. I'm happy we can think about them and act on them a long ways from the nearest iceberg.
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 mentors we can start drifting toward taking a more laissez-faire role toward advising younger people 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 short time ago, 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. These two mentors decided to Be the One who pointed them toward an island instead of noncommittally saying, "Well, what do you want to do?"
With earnest young people, 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. For instance, a person 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 officer might have mentioned or the career one of their parents might have followed.
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.
(This is one version of the blog I wrote as the Executive Director of Research for VitalSmarts).
“Woo-hoo! I get to work from home!”
Before the coronavirus, a lot of companies were hesitant to let people work from home. “Working from home” rhymes too closely with “Shirking from home.” It includes surfing, posting, grazing, running errands, crushing Candy Crush, calling your brother “just because,” rereading online stories about the coronavirus, updating your LinkedIn resume, spacing out on conference calls, and telling your boss, “I’m still waiting for Bob to get it to me so I can work on it.”
But what if working from home looked different? What if working from home made you 13% more productive, made you feel more satisfied with your job, and made you half as likely to quit?
This is exactly what was found in a 2015 Stanford study of a large Chinese travel firm called CTrip. Researchers randomly split 249 call center employees from Shanghai into two groups. For nine months, half of them kept working at their desks as usual, and the other half were told to work from home four days a week (one day a week they came into the office). Then the researchers measured everything from the number of calls they made, to job satisfaction, to breaks taken, to sick days… everything but Facebook Likes and Candy Crush scores.
One conclusion: Working from home can make people more productive.
But wait. Before you try to sell the conference table on eBay, there’s a huge caveat from this study (aside from country and culture): These workers had very specific measures of productivity—phone calls per minute and the amount of time spent on the phone.
Whereas those in customer service, copywriting, or design might have very specific measures of productivity (dollars, calls, pages, or projects), other workers might have to deal with more collaboration and face-to-face meetings. For them, working at home can be challenging. It requires accountability, better work habits, and a general ability to get things done when there are roaring distractions all around.
Since working at home requires a discipline muscle that many of us need to strengthen, it’s easy to let our first days or weeks at home be structured by meetings and not our mission. That is, we might view the phone or web meetings on our calendar as the “Big rocks” of our day instead of seeing our biggest projects as our biggest rocks. After you conduct a weekly review of the projects that are most pressing, these suggestions might help.
• Identify the three biggest project tasks you need to complete each day
(not including meetings).
• Make a promise to complete these tasks and deliver results to another person
(boss or coworker).
• Check in for a follow-up after making the delivery.
This is the productivity side of working at home. But there’s another side to working at home that has been widely ignored. It’s the human side.
There’s a story of three people who find themselves stranded on an uncharted desert island. Sort of like Gilligan’s Island, but without commercials. After years of learning how to smoothly work together to survive, the trio one day finds a bottle with a genie in it. The genie grants each person a wish. The first wishes to be back home in California, and—poof—she’s gone. The second wishes to be reunited with his family in Texas, and—poof—he’s gone. The third person looks around the empty island and says to the genie, “You know, I miss my two friends. I wish they were back.”
Here’s the rest of the story about the Chinese workers.
After nine months of working at home, the study was over. The workers were told they could continue working from home four days a week or they could come back and grind it out in-office for the full five. Slightly more than half of these workers wanted to come back and work in the office. They reported they were too “lonely.”
There’s a human side to working at home. We can use VitalSmarts tools to strengthen our communication muscle and our productivity muscle, but we might still feel like something is missing.
Leaning in (versus spacing out) during meetings might help, and checking in or following up after finishing a project piece might help. But this human solution will need some personal thought and personal tailoring for each of us. If we’re feeling restless after 4 days at home, the human side is where we might want to look.
And maybe call your brother “just because.”
In many of my 30 years in academia, I loved helping graduate students, post-docs, and new faculty get started (or to get back on their feet after a fall) and moving in a confident direction. Even though I didn't know very much, I still had some perspective or experience that was useful. In the Land of the Blind, the one-eyed man is King.
One of purposes of one the website AcademicsOnly.org that I started is to pool together a lot of wisdom from a bunch of us one-eyed Kings and Queens so that that our graduate students and new faculty don't have to learn it by falling off of cliffs. This website tries to pull together helpful "tools and tips on how to graduate, get tenure, teach better, publish more, and have a super rewarding career."
The first step was to begin curating some of the more credible insights and experiences from all sorts of people in academia. This way, a person could get substantive advice instead of the top ten things that popped up on a Google search. Collecting these insights ongoing process and I love it when people share things (see the footer below for all of the types of examples of things you could share if you have them).
One comment I was given was that it would be even better if I turn some of the insight pages into infographics. There are a few infographics that have been made that highlight some of the insights on a page and at least give a road map of where to click for more. One example is the infographic at the top of this post, which outlines the content on the >New Professors >Start Strong page.
Someone also suggested, "You should turn some of the infographics and blog posts into Youtube videos," so people don't have to read them. "I don't like to read," is probably something a person shouldn't put on their PhD application. Still, this is an important point to consider.
I'd love to know how this website and it's related content could be most useful to you. You can either email your insights at AcademicsOnly@yahoo.com or to my personal email. We can then schedule a call if that would work best for you.
On New Years Day I asked everyone in the family to come up about 10 accomplishments or contributions they were committed to make in 2021. Last night we discussed them after dinner. The idea is a) if you don't specifically articulate something you'd like to accomplish, it probably won't ever be a clear enough destination for you to reach, and b) if you tell and remind other people of your intentions, they might be able to help.
There's a lot of things that derail our good intentions. About 5 years ago we did a cool study showing the average person (or at least in the US, Germany, and Japan) starts gaining weight in October, and it takes them from January to April to lose it. Some people saw this as discouraging (like the news headline below) because it meant that it would take them 4 months to lose the weight they gained in the last two.
There's a couple other ways to view this. First, your life can be so much bigger and more meaningful than what you weigh. You can contribute things and accomplish things that could overwhelm the importance of losing the 8 pounds you gained since October. If you list out the contributions and accomplishments you'd like to make, it might help put that in better perspective.
Second, the other good news here is that most people eventually did lose most of that weight. It happened slower than they wanted, but most good things -- like the other 9 things on your list -- it wouldn't be worth much to you or to others if any of these magically happened overnight.
There’s a story about a 66-year old guy who always wanted to go to college. After he retired, he was accepted to a local school, and showed up on the opening day of enrollment to sign up for classes. He’s waiting in line and the kid behind him says, “Can I ask how old you are?” The man answers him, and the kid says, “Wow, when you graduate in four years, you’ll be 70.” The man chuckled and said, “In four years, I’ll be 70 anyway.”
Imagine a year from now you're having lunch with a good friend and catching up on what happened in the past 12 months. What would you have had to contribute or accomplish that would lead you to say, "That was an amazing year"? What would the other nine accomplishments be?
Should I apply to a PhD program or wait? Since grad school application deadlines are due around January 1, here's some super-short answers to some questions you might have [many more tips can be found here]:
• “How can I afford it?” Most really competitive PhD programs have assistantships that pay your tuition and living expenses.
• “Should I retake my GRE or TOEFL test?” Probably not enough time. If you think you have a good score, but you think it could be better, go ahead and apply. You can always retake the test next year and really focus on prepping for it.
• “What do I write in my Statement of Purpose?” Four things: 1) Why you want a PhD so bad that you are singing about it in the hallway, 2) what you will do with a PhD, 3) what specific topics or questions you’re interested in, and 4) why that school’s a great fit.
• “Who should write my recommendation letters?” Ask the best-known researchers you know in the field that you are applying. Next, ask anyone you’ve done research with. Third, ask whoever knows you best and will write these before the deadline.
• “How many schools should I apply to?” Since you’re doing this at the 11th hour, I’d limit yourself to three schools: Your dream school, your “best-fit” school, and a safety school. Otherwise, if you had lots of time, you might apply to as many as 10. (The third time I applied, I applied to 14). There are lots of tips on which schools to apply to here.
• “If I don’t get in to my dream school will it hurt my chance for next year?” Nope. They either won’t remember you applied (they might have 100+ applications), or they’ll think you’re persistent. And as someone once told me, "The P in Phd stands for 'Persistence.'"
With three weeks to go before the deadline, the most important part of your application is your Statement of Purpose. At this point, you can’t change your GPA, you can’t retake the GRE, and you can’t hang out at the mall hoping to make best friends with a Nobel Prize-winning recommendation letter writer.
What you can do is to write and rewrite your Statement of Purpose. Then have your recommenders give you comments on it. Many students are too shy to ask for this feedback, but it’s the most important thing you can do right now. I didn’t ask for feedback on my Statement the first time I applied, and I got into exactly -- hmmm -- zero PhD programs.
If after reading all of this, you’re still humming “Yo ho, yo ho, a PhD life for me,” take the plunge. Being an academic is a tremendously rich and rewarding calling. Pick three schools, apply, and when you hear back from them, we can talk about course corrections.
Good luck with a great career.
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.
A former summer intern was over with her PhD-student husband a while back and the issue of choosing the best advisor came up between dinner and a game of Pandemic. He asked whether a person should choose an advisor who's the most famous person in the department or whether you should instead choose the one who likes you the most, even if they aren't well known.
Picking the hottest, most famous person in a field is one way to pick an adviser. After all what could go wrong?
Case Study #1. A number of years ago at a different university, I had a good friend who was starting her PhD in environmental engineering over a second time. Her first go-around had been after she chose the “most famous” person in her field at the most famous school in her field as her adviser. She hated it, hated the school, and ended up leaving with what she called “a consolation Master’s degree.” She said her famous adviser had never around, never cared about her, never thought she was smart enough or working hard enough, never liked her ideas, and that he played favorites with the more advanced students.
Case Study #2. I too had originally chosen the “most famous” person in my field, and things didn’t work out. As a 3rd year PhD student I thought I was going on the job market. Instead I was told my funding was being eliminated, and that I had 4 months to find a new dissertation adviser, a new dissertation topic, and to defend that topic, or I would be asked to leave the program (probably without the consolation Masters).
One conversation rescued me from having to start a PhD a second time a different school. Three shell-shocked days after being blind-sided, I was talking to a friend who was a professor in the medical school. I told him what had happened and about my confusion. He said, “If I knew you were going through this, I would have told you what I tell my graduate students. ‘When it comes to picking a thesis committee, you pick your best friend to be your thesis adviser, your favorite uncle to be one committee member, and your favorite cousin to be your other.’”
This is a radically different approach than what I had used, what the environmental engineer had used, and what Jack was using. The advice was to “Pick your best friend to be your advisor.” Not “the most famous” person in the department. Not even the person whose research interests are most like yours. Pick the person who likes and believes in you and your best interests. You might not be as “hot” when you graduate, but you might be a lot more likely to graduate in the first place.
I’ve been thinking about this because this past weekend I looked up “Jack” to see if he wanted to take a dissertation break come over and meet some of my grad students. On his department’s website, I noticed that he was about the only 3rd year student who wasn’t a formal part of any of the research groups in the Lab of his “famous advisor.” That was like me. Fortunately, I was given a second chance.
Picking a star-spangled dissertation or thesis committee that you think will make you “hot” on the job market is a great strategy for Super-Duperstars. For the other 90% of us, we should pick one that will help us graduate.
No professional guitar player has ever called me to do an interview. Until now. It’s a sign of how desperate COVID has made people for entertainment.
Mike Godette is a NYC guitar player who also has a cool video podcast where he interviews people who have “day gigs” but who play music on the side. After seeing my cameo in the movie “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead,” he learned I played saxophone in some rock cover bands. His video podcasts dish out a diet of great guitar player interviews, and he must have thought a sucky sax player would give it some spice.
He’s an interesting interviewer, and he posted this podcast of me. After listening to it, I realized he pulled a lot of crazy stories out of me I wouldn’t have otherwise told. Like . . .
You might have zero interest in eighth-notes, Led Zeppelin, or playing funk music on an Amsterdam canal boat bar, but you probably do have an interest in re-creation – in feeling happier.
Webster's definition of the word “recreation” says “The things you do to screw around when you’re not working.” Instead, it should be hyphenated it as “re-creation:” Things you do to re-create yourself so you have bounce in your step the next day.
Endless types of hobbies can re-create: Gardening, DIY, crafts, photography, even sucking on the saxophone. COVID gives us that chance to recapture these – or find new ones: time travel, taxidermy, witchcraft . . . whatever.
Unfortunately, most of what people do doesn’t re-create them. Look at most kids. They spend endless free time texting, tic-tocking, surfing, or watching TV. Granted, these things are amusing and effortless ways to kill time until they can fall asleep again, but they don’t re-create. They’re no bouncier the next day when they wake up.
We have surprising amounts of time to re-create hobbies that re-create us. What did you once like to do that you could dust off and try again? It’s easy to think we don’t have the time and energy to do it again or to pick up something new. What’s funny is that once you start messing with a hobby, all of this energy magically reappears.
After doing this interview a couple weeks ago, I committed to myself to play my sax at least 20 minutes every night. Now my family has to drag me to bed. It's the only way they can prevent hearing loss and get some sleep.
What’s a new hobby you’d like to try or an old one you’d like to dust off for re-creation?
Today’s the 30th anniversary of the day when the University Registrar weighed five copies of my signed dissertation, stamped it with a red smiley face, and said, “Congratulations, Dr. Wansink.” Within 20 minutes I was shifting my Mercury Lynx into 5th gear on the 3000 mile, unairconditioned, cross-country drive to start teaching the next Tuesday. All I needed was a t-shirt that said “Yesterday I couldn’t even spell ‘Perfessor,’ and today I are one.”
I annually celebrate this signature day with good steak, good wine, and having good friends over for a dinner party. I also celebrate it by writing down the best lessons I learned over the past year. Usually, they're the lessons I learned the hard way.
Over 30 years, I’ve written down a ton of annual lessons in 30 different notebooks. Some is advice people gave me, and some is based on my own experience – things that are useful to me and might be useful to students and friends. Maybe it will give them a boost or save them some pain.
In the spirit of counting to 30 today, here’s a sample of some of these that might be a boost or save a stumble
Advice to Graduate Students
1. “The ‘P’ in PhD stands for Perseverance.” – The smartest and most talented people in PhD programs aren’t always the ones who graduate.
2. “It’s an N-period game.” When I had to find a new advisor and defend a new dissertation proposal with four months notice, the game theory economist who gave me this advice was implying that there are a lot of second and third chances in academia as long as you keep swinging. Related to this . . .
3. “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]
4. Be a Visiting Professor. Suppose don’t get a good offer when you graduate from your PhD program (or you get turned down for tenure). If you “settle” for a tenure-track at a school you’re not crazy about, you’ll be perceptually anchored to that type of school by both you and by others. Being a 1- or 2-year visiting professor keeps you from getting anchored, gives you more time to strengthen your vita, and lets you swing again.
5. Do solution-focused research. Developing theory is prestigious, but coming up with a solution to an everyday problem is super gratifying. (Again, this is totally my personal preference and advice to myself.) [Read more]
6. Go to a different conference outside your field every year. Even if it’s an on-campus mini-conference in anthropology, you’ll learn a lot and it will keep you humble.
7. Leave town for your sabbatical. Moving is a hassle and there are 100 great reasons why you should spend your sabbatical at home (your spouse’s job, your kids, your doggy, your home, and so on). But I’ve never know anyone who went away who didn’t claim it was a career highlight. I’ve also never known anyone who spent their sabbatical at home and remembered anything about it two years later.
8. Writing a book is useful. Almost all academic authors are disappointed their books aren't cited more or sell more. Still, writing a book is worth it because it motivates you to organize, distill, and share what you understand about your topic, and they clarify the gaps you might want to fill in next.
9. A Leave-of-Absence is Transforming. Again, this is about moving away and clearing your head. Leaving town to take a 1- or 2-year paid leave of absence is incredibly revitalizing to every single person I've known. It either gives you amazing confidence that you can hugely succeed at something else, or it gives you amazing appreciation for academia. Maybe both.
10. Being fired is a temporary setback. Whether you don’t get tenure or whether something else in your career goes haywire, they say life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you respond. If things are looking too dark, contact me and I’ll help you, or find you some help.
11. Never retire. One of the great beauties of academia is you can always keep doing the parts of it you love most -- even if you don't go into work. (Here are some ideas on doing it without having later regrets.)
12. 90% of reviewers are great coaches. Reviewers have either made my papers better or they‘ve made me a better researcher. If it wasn’t for reviewers, some of my papers would have never been read by anyone other than me.
13. Create a Best Practices Guide for writing journal articles. – Find 30-40 favorite papers written by other researchers and list out the different strategies, tactics, and words you see them use (perhaps unconsciously) in their abstract, their opening-line, their first paragraph, their introduction, their background, theory section, tables, and so forth. When you’re finished distilling this, you’ll have a Best Practices guide that’s personalized to what you like in a paper and will be your writing guide. When I did this, my acceptance rate almost tripled. Also, papers became a lot easier and more fun for me to write.
14. Use a 2-2-2 strategy to unclog your pipeline. If a manuscript gets desk-rejected, I try to send it to the next journal within 2 days. If it gets conditionally accepted, I revise it and send it back within 2 weeks. If it gets a revise-and-resubmit that doesn’t require any additional studies, I send it back within 2 months.
15. Field studies are worth the hassle. They’re messy, hard to coordinate, inefficient, error-riddled, and harder to publish than lab studies. Still, they are usually much more memorable and impactful.
16. “Ideas are cheap; but execution is what pays.” Even a mediocre brainstorming session will generate 3-4 publishable ideas, and almost none will be followed up on. Edison said something like “Publishing in the Journal of [insert favorite journal here] is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” Executing is what matters.
17. “You can either read a lot or you can write a lot, but you can't do both.”
18. "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]
19. 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]
20. "Imagine your brother, daughter, or younger self in the front row of your class." This will lead you to give your class sessions more context and more “So what?” It’s also help you cut loose a bit and give the class more punch, fun, and humor.
21. "Teach for where a student will be in 10 years." The guy who told me this is a legend. The idea is to try to get students to visualize their most successful self in 10 years. If we can teach to that ten-years-from-now person, we’ll be teaching them something they couldn’t just learn from an online class.
22. Education is a buffet; be something unique. Some courses are meaty and some are refreshing; some professors are fiery and others are more chill. You don't need to be like everyone else. By being your best genuine, earnest self, and you’ll be adding variety to their educational buffet.
23. Hold class previews for participation classes. Non-native English speakers and shy students have a hard time participating in class, but class previews help them. An hour before each class, I hold a class preview and we briefly discuss the day's discussion questions ahead of time. Anyone’s welcome to show up. [Read more]
24. Ask good students who the “must-take” teachers are. See if you can sit in on a couple of their class sessions (most are flattered and only 2 ever turned me down). Take notes about the good teaching ideas you can use.
25. “Don’t become a parody of yourself.” Good teachers slowly start to exaggerate the things they’re good at, and they eventually take it over the top and become a parody of themselves. Dramatic teachers will overfocus on drama. Entertaining teachers will overfocus on entertainment. Cool professors teachers will overfocus on coolness, and so on. [Read more]
Fun, People, and Things
26. “Fun people accidently say stupid things. Don’t beat yourself up.” Some academics over-edit everything they say before they speak. If you're more spontaneous, you won’t be happy if you try too hard to change.
27. Dress-up and show-up early for Meetings. This is one way to show respect for the profession and for my colleagues. (Again, this is totally my advice to myself.) Like a US Marine Colonel once told me, "Early is on time. On time is late."
28. Don’t apologize for who I am or hide from it. I’ve had senior colleagues give me well-meaning advice that I should never mention to anyone that I shop at Walmart, play sax in a rock band, go to church, host board game nights, do stand-up comedy, or go thrifting. What you love doing isn’t worth being self-conscious over. If those things are that big of a deal at your school, you’d probably be happier at a different school anyway. [Read more]
29. The more 1-on-1 fun stuff I do with different colleagues outside of work, the more I love my job. The crazier the stuff we do, the more we both seem to love it and remember it.
30. “Max out your TIAA-CREF retirement contribution. Then add more.” The guy who told me this was a retired English professor -- who had two very nice homes. It’s not flashy or cool to save money instead of spending it, but no one over 50 regrets having done so.
Having an academic mind is a Blurse. It's both a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing because we are almost always looking for better ways to learn or to improve. It's a curse because we're not always very open to what others have found. We feel we have to do it ourselves, or discover it ourselves. If we hear something from someone else, we might think it doesn't apply or that we're the exception.
Ten of the lessons I mentioned are advice someone gave to me. The main reason these stuck with me was because I had just finished really screwed up doing it My Way:
• #3 only registered when I was told I was being kicked out of the PhD program
• #18 was a great idea only after I had just been fired for not publishing enough
• #20-21 were brilliant the day I got the second lowest teaching evaluations in the school
• #26 resonated only after I'd been hissed at in class after making an unfunny comment
Hopefully these might give you a boost or save a stumble. Maybe you might even come up with your own list to share with your students and friends.
Being a scholar and an academic is an unbelievably great calling. Good luck having many, many great years, each more amazing than the one before. Let me know how I can help.
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I'm Brian Wansink, and I'm an author and researcher who discovers ways to help people be healthier, happier, and more meaningfully connected. See what works for you, and share it with others.
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