"School’s starting, and I didn't get anything done this summer.”
I’ve heard this every August, and I’ve said this 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.
We had just paid for two overpriced $10.50 IPAs at the Drake Hotel bar when I asked this question. I regret I never implemented his answer as well I was expecting to on that day.
This was eight years ago, and I had an opportunity to meet with an academic hero who had been cross-cuttingly successful across a half-dozen of behavioral fields, but most notably in law. His discoveries had changed the way cross-examinations and evidence weighting is done in certain felony cases. One of my former Teaching Assistants had gone on to work with him, and this had eventually led to us meeting whenever I was in town.
Since he only had an hour, we met for a quick drink. After enthusiastically telling me about a new project, I asked, “Of all that you’ve done in your life, what makes you most proud?” I was half expecting that he’d probably say one of his legal discoveries, or maybe he’d talk about his two grown children. Neither. He paused for maybe 20 seconds and then said this:
“What I’m most proud of is how I was I was really present for both my father and mother in the last years of their lives.”
He explained that he had “being really there for them” and had made it a central priority. No regrets about what other projects he might not have started or finished because he was focused on making them feel comfortable, loved, special, and that they had led meaningful, appreciated lives.
At the time both of my parents were healthy and 85, and I vowed I’d make sure I did the same.
My dear Dad passed away on June 2, 2020. He was one of the greatest generation -- selfless, modest, team-focused, honest, hard-working, and tireless.
He had 91 years of great health and good humor, followed by a couple stinker years due to him breaking his hip the day after my Mom died. Still had his sense of humor to the end.
I keep thinking that his last 18 months would have been easier had we moved him in to live with us. My wife wanted to, but I thought there were too many uncertainties. Instead, we moved him into assisted living about a mile from my brother, who could then see him most days, and where we would travel the 10 hours down to see him every couple months. Thinking back, if he had moved in with us, he might not have lived longer, but I think he would have been happier.
When a heroic, single-surviving parent can no longer live by themselves, the decision about where they should go deserves a lot of heartfelt thought. There's a difference between "being there for them" and "being really present in the last years of their lives." Being present was what he was most proud of having accomplished. I now wish I would have given to that level.
I hope that if you are still blessed with one of more living parents, you'll give think about this in a way you won't regret in eight years.
* * *
John Charles Wansink, 93, of Sioux City, Iowa, died on June 2, 2020.
John was born October 28, 1926, in Sanborn, Iowa, to Henry and Clara Wansink. After graduating from Sioux City East High School, he studied business at Morningside College, where he also lettered in football and basketball. He had a number of unusual experiences in his life, including working as a cowboy in Montana and playing basketball against the Harlem Globetrotters. After running his own business in his 20s, he went on the production line at Metz Baking Company for over 30 years.
John married Naomi Fullerton on March 21, 1948. With their two sons, Brian, of Ithaca, New York, and Craig, of Virginia Beach, Virginia, for years they enjoyed trips to Montana, summer family camps, and Friday night Jeopardy games, complete with popcorn and M&Ms. John had an active mind and loved crossword puzzles, reading, and movies. He was a lifelong athlete, playing golf into his late 80s. Along with Naomi, he enjoyed both square dancing and volunteering at nonprofit agencies for over 20 years after he retired. For over 50 years, he was an active member of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Sioux City. For the last two years of his life, he was a proud member of Second Presbyterian Church in Norfolk, Virginia.
Those left to honor his memory include his sons, Craig (Nancy) and Brian (Jennifer), and five grandchildren, Katrina, Teddy, Audrey, Valerie, and Lieve.
John will be remembered as a good, decent, fair, thoughtful, and hard-working man. He was deeply loved. He will be deeply missed. Memories of him will be deeply treasured.
On a late afternoon about 20 years ago, I stepped into a slow elevator with my college’s most productive, famous, and taciturn senior professor. After 10 seconds of silence, I asked, “Did you publish anything yet today?” He stared at me for about 4 seconds and said, “The day’s not over.” Cool . . . very Clint Eastwood-like.
Most of us have some super-productive days and we have some bad days, but most lie in-between. If we could figure out what leads to great days, we might be able to trigger more of them in our life. For instance, if you want to write a whole lot, there might be a way to set up your day so that this happens with a surprising amount of ease.
Think of the most recent “great day” you had. What made it great, and how did it start?
For about 20 years, every time somebody told me they had a great day, I’d ask “What made it great? How did it start out? About 50% of the time its greatness had to do with an external “good news” event like something great happening at work, great news from their kids or spouse, a nice surprise, or nice call or email from a grateful person or an old friend. The other 50% of the time, the reason for “greatness” was more “internal.” They had a super productive day, they finished a project or a bunch of errands, or they had a breakthrough solution to a problem or something they should do.
External successes are easy to celebrate with our friends. Internal successes are more unpredictable. What made today a great day and what sabotaged yesterday?
When people had great days, one reoccurring feature was that they started off great. There was no delay between when they got out of bed and when they Unleashed the Greatness. People said things like, “I just got started and seemed to get everything done,” or “I finished up this one thing and then just kept going.”
One of the most productive authors I've known said that got up six days a week at 6:30 and wrote from 7:00 to 9:00 without interruption. Then he kissed his wife good-bye and drove into school and worked there. When I asked how long he had done that he said, “Forever.”
About a year ago, I started toying with the idea that "Your first two hours set the tone for the whole day."
Think of your last mediocre day. Did it start out mediocre? That would also be consistent with this notion.
We can’t trigger every day to be great, but maybe we have more control than we think. If we focus on making our first two hours great, it might set the tone for the rest of the day.
What we need to decide is what we can we do in those first two hours after waking that would trigger an amazing day and what would sabotage it and make it mediocre. For me, it seems writing, exercise, prayer, or meditation are the good triggers, and it seems answering emails, reading the news, or surfing are the saboteurs.
Here’s to you having lots of amazing days. One’s where you can channel your best Clint Eastwood impression and say, “The day’s not over.”
In 2018, six of my research articles in JAMA-related journals were retracted. These retractions offer some useful lessons to scholars, and they also offer some useful next steps to those who want to publish eating behavior research in medical journals or in the social sciences.
These six different papers offer some topic-related roadmaps that could be useful. First, they were originally of interest to journals in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) network, and they would probably be of interest to other journals in medicine, behavioral economics, marketing, nutrition, psychology, health, and consumer behavior. Second, they each show what a finished paper might look like. They show the positioning, relevant background research, methodological approach, and relevance to clinical practice or to everyday life.
I think all of these topics are interesting and have every-day importance. This document provides a two-page template for each one that shows 1) An overview why it was done, 2) the abstract (or a summary if there was no abstract), 3) the reason it was retracted, 4) how it could be done differently, and 5) promising new research opportunities on the topic. Making specific hypotheses and testing them followed by open science principles will be the best next way forward on these topics.
Academia can be a tremendously rewarding career both you and for the people who benefit from you research. Best wishes in moving topics like these forward, and best wishes on a great career.
 A useful description of these principles can be found at Klein, O., Hardwicke, T. E., Aust, F., Breuer, J., Danielsson, H., Hofelich Mohr, Al, …. Frank, M. C. (2018). A Practical guide for transparency in psychological science. Collabra: Psychology, 4 (1), 20.
(This is an edited version of the "Shirking or Working from Home" blog
I wrote as the Executive Director of Research for VitalSmarts).
Working from home is one of the 5,000 great benefits of being an academic. But it can also turn into too much of a good thing.
Before the coronavirus, a lot of schools were hesitant to let staff 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 vita, and spacing out on conference calls.
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 send your vita off to another school?
This is in line with 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 move all of your books back home, there’s a huge caveat from this study (aside from country, culture, and industry): These workers had very specific measures of productivity—phone calls per minute and the amount of time spent on the phone.
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 our 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.”
If you’re a PhD student, you are in great company. But "being in great company" has a very special meaning that's important not to overlook -- it means you are not alone. Your bumpy PhD experience is surprisingly universal across different schools and different programs. If you’re a PhD student in microbiology, you have more in common with a PhD student in history than someone in medical school. If you’re a PhD student in economics, you have more in common with a PhD student in physics than with an MBA student.
Despite this universal experience, many, many PhD students feel very alone. They feel anxious about their uncertain future, anxious about their abilities, and anxious about a personal life that seems to be passing them by.
Having been an informal confident to many PhD students in different majors or with different advisors, I’ve found that many of their real concerns are difficult for them to talk about. This further magnifies their feeling of isolation because they don’t realize how many other people have faced and often conquered a similar problem. There’s power in knowing someone else found a path out of the same woods you feel you’re in.
For about 20 years I taught an interdisciplinary PhD course at the University of Illinois and then at Cornell. Aside from the academic objectives, one of my personal objectives of this course was to help students begin to conquer these anxieties. One way we tried to tackle this was by asking students if they wanted to volunteer to write a short description about a “friend” who was facing a troubling problem. Many weeks we would discuss one of these anonymously written “case studies” for 10-15 minutes during class.
Two good things happened almost every week. First, the 8-16 students in the class all realized that they weren’t alone in some of the problems they faced. Second, they heard a wide range of rational (non-emotional) solutions and perspectives to each problem they probably wouldn’t have heard from an officemate or a partner.
There are three examples of PhD Student Case Studies in the downloadable pdf, and they can be used in a number of different ways.
There’s power in knowing there are a lot of different ways a PhD student can get out of the woods.
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.
In 2017-19, about 18 of my research articles were retracted. These retractions offer some useful lessons to scholars, and they also offer some useful next steps to those who want to publish in the social sciences. Two of these steps include 1) Choose a publishable topic, and 2) have a rough mental roadmap of what the finished paper might look. That is, what’s the positioning, the study, and the possible contribution.
The topics I’ve described here offer one set of roadmaps that could be useful. First, they were of interest to journals in medicine, behavioral economics, marketing, nutrition, psychology, health, and consumer behavior. Second, they each show what a finished paper might look like. They show the positioning, relevant background research, methodological tips, and key implications.
Table 1 and Appendix A lay out an estimate of how much effort it might take to do studies on these topics, and I’ve also estimated what I think the practical impact each research project might have. These are my own subjective estimates, but you might find them a useful starting point if you’re looking for a tie-breaker between two different topics.
I would strongly encourage anyone who’s interested in publishing in these areas to closely follow principles of open science, from preregistration of hypotheses and analytic strategies to open materials and open data. Making specific hypotheses and testing them by following open science principles will be the best next way forward. A good introduction to these principles, along with hands-on advice, is this: Klein, O., Hardwicke, T. E., Aust, F., Breuer, J., Danielsson, H., Hofelich Mohr, A., … Frank, M. C. (2018). A practical guide for transparency in psychological science. Collabra: Psychology, 4(1), 20. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1525/collabra.158
Academia can be a tremendously rewarding career both you and for the people who benefit from you research. Best wishes in moving topics like these forward, and best wishes on a great career.
Some scholars are truly amazing and heroic. They’re self-made, and their career’s been flawlessly filled with perfect decisions and perfect timing.
Then there’s the rest of us. The rest of us have succeeded because we were all raised, socialized, and helped by other people.
Outside of academia, some of these people are obvious: parents, close relatives, coaches, and some teachers. But inside academia, not all of these people are as obvious. They might be that undergraduate professor who recommended we go to one grad school versus another, or the one who helped get us our first tenure-track job, helped lend a hand during a difficult time, or saved us from a desert island that one time by paddling through shark infested waters using only their right arm.
With Thanksgiving coming up, it can be a nice chance to hit pause and think of 2-3 nonobvious people who might have done a small thing that made a big difference in your life. Doing something as simple as this can do your soul good. On one extreme, it reminds us that we aren’t the self-centered Master of our Universe as we might think when things are going great. On the other extreme, it reminds us that there are a lot of people silently cheering for us when we might think things aren’t going so great.
What do you suppose would happen if you tracked these people down and game them a call? It’s four steps:
1. Find their phone number and dial.
2. “Hey, I’m ___; remember me? How are you?”
3. “It’s Thanksgiving. I was thinking of you” or "It's not Thanksgiving, but I've been thinking of you."
For about the past 30 years, I’ve tried to do this each Thanksgiving. It used to be the same 3-4 people (advisors and a post-college mentor), then a couple more, and this year I’m adding a new one. For some reason, I always look for an excuse why I shouldn’t make these calls. I always find myself pacing around before I make the first call. Part of me thinks I might be bore them, or they already know it, or it’s interrupting them, or that it’s too corny.
Yet even if I have to leave voice messages, I’m always end up smiling when I get off the phone. I feel more thankful and centered. I feel happier. Maybe they feel differently too.
Still, there’s some years I never made any calls, because I had good excuses. Maybe it was too late in the day, or they were probably with their family, or I called them last year, or I didn’t really have enough time to talk. I’m sure they had some good excuses – way back when – as to why they didn’t have time for me. I’m thankful they didn’t use them.
If you can think of 2-3 people you’re thankful for who might not know it, you don’t have to wait until Thanksgiving next year to tell them. They won’t care that you’re a little bit late or a whole lot early. It’s only 4 steps.
Some people love graduate school, but most of us want to finish it up and get started with our real lives.
A couple nights 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 wrapped up our dissertation – sounds pretty good. After all, some people telecommute from home, so it should be a snap to telecommute 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 lease was up, but I spent the last two months crashing at the apartments of different friends so I could wrap it up 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. But in a few months when your department chair asks whether you’re through, 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.
Post Note: Four months after meeting the guy Utah, I ran in to him again at the same game cafe where we had originally met. He was excited having moved, and he was 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. Since his dissertation had been an enthusiastic 80% of our conversation during the first time we met, I'm guessing he hadn't made the progress he had expected to make.
A former Summer Intern was over Saturday night with her PhD-student husband and the issue of choosing the best advisor came up between dinner and a game of Pandemic. The topic of choosing an advisor most famous person in the department or the one who likes you most was the issue. I'd written an earlier column on this (August 2018), but this seems to be a timeless question about this time of year.
Typically, the gravitational pull for choosing an advisor is strongest for those with big reputations. 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.
• Non-native English speakers and shy students have a hard time participating in large classes. Class Previews help them. An hour before each class, I hold a Class Preview that tells people the discussion questions I’ll be asking that day, and then we discuss them ahead of time. Anyone’s welcome to show up.
• For large classes, try to have TA office hours every day (or M-Th)
• Try to be super specific about what you expect for an A assignment, and what your policy is on late assignments and missed classes.
• Rather than having both the final exam and their project due at the end of the semester, I frontload the course with the most work and move their project up to the half-way point.
• Letting students drop their lowest scoring assignment reduces their anxiety and the pressure they feel.
• By having students turn in two copies of their project (one to grade and one to file), it helps ensure the same projects don’t show up year after year.
• I have a screen-down, no-laptop policy. If people say they are taking notes, I ask them to send me the notes after class to see if what I’m teaching is coming across like I hope.
• Class insight cards can give class contribution points to well-prepared, but shy students.
• Extra credit opportunities are great. They help reduce student anxiety.
• If your course is cross-listed with both undergrads and grads, the graduate students will need to do something more (usually about 20-25% more). I also have four specialized class sessions (and a dinner) only for them.
• I try to organize the course into very discrete sections. This way I can frequently review each section in class before I start a new one. This way it very discretely shows how the parts of the course build on each other.
• The Final Project was renamed “Integrative Assignment” and moved to the middle of the semester. They have to work a lot harder early on in the course, but the quality goes up, and their Finals Week stress level goes down.
• You can get the most from a guest speaker’s visit if – before class -- you require students to read something written and published about the guest speaker. (It also makes the guest speaker more of a celebrity). On the day they speak, I will usually show a short Youtube clip of them before introducing them.
• I want the last class session of the semester to be valuable. After they turn in their exam and their course evaluations, I give them the option to leave. For those who stay, I tell them stories of two big lessons I learned in life (the hard way), and how they can deal with challenges in the future. It’s an unusual way to end the class, but it always ends it on a high and memorable note.
Good luck writing a great syllabus, having a great course, and having a triple-great semester.
I went to a small college in a small town, and I clearly remember my advisor having me and my college sweetheart over to his home for ice cream on the day I finished my senior project. That re-re-reconfirmed to me that I wanted to be a professor. Next, when I was in my master’s program, three of my professors each had us over to their homes for dinner on the last day of the classes. It was so cool, I still remember where I sat and what we talked about.
Over the past 30 years I’ve had well over 500 dinners, parties, game nights, or jam sessions at my home with graduate students, visiting scholars, summer interns, teaching assistants (TAs), advisees, colleagues, lab teammates, and so on. For instance, the last class session of every graduate class is a dinner, we have welcoming parties for every single new person in the Lab (and going away parties when they leave), we celebrate every time we get a major grant or major paper accepted by having a potluck, and when I have a speaker or colleague in from out of town we’ll usually also invite a student or two to join us for dinner.
These dinners and parties were always lots of fun. They created loads of team commitment and a lot of great lab enthusiasm. They made new people felt very quickly accepted and valued, and they reinforced how much veteran lab members were appreciated. They also seemed to be a highlight for visitors, since it was a break from the restaurant routine, and it allowed them to talk and laugh with a lot more people.
I also think a lot of things could have gone wrong that fortunately didn’t. There was often lots of wine (especially before I married a sensible wife), these parties often lasted really late (especially before we had kids), and they were often pretty loud (even still). Sometimes people brought musical instruments and we jammed, sometimes we turned the stereo up to 11, and sometimes friendly police visited. Most of my colleagues tend to not have students over to their homes, partly because of what they imagine what could go wrong. They're partly right, but that's largely a shame. Because there's a solution.
Over the years as I started seeing how different things could spin off the tracks, I gradually came up with little rules of thumb I’d use to keep things in check. About 10 years ago, I honed in on six guidelines that have luckily worked well for us. For new summer interns or graduate students, I’ll stick to all of six guidelines. For long-term lab employees, visiting colleagues, or post-docs, we're a lot more liberal. Here's the guidelines that have worked for our parties so far:
Now, I used to have none of these rules or guidelines, and I was lucky. For example, when I was a single 30-year-old MBA professor at Dartmouth, I was having MBA students over to my apartment for end-of-semester dinner parties, and there’s a number of things that could have gone wrong. Fortunately they didn't, but these guidelines would have been a really, really good idea.
Some of my best memories as a student were when professors had me over to their homes. I admired them, and I wanted to be like them. Being invited over, made me feel accepted and like I was part of an inner academic circle. It might not mean anything to some students, but it might also be remembered by others 40 years later.
Tomorrow I retire from Cornell; it will be two days after I turned 59. My Mom and Dad both retired from their union jobs within days of their birthdays, and I never remember them saying much about their jobs after that day. Someone else took my Dad’s place on the production line, and someone else took my Mom’s place filing papers.
But academia is different. It’s one profession you never really have to retire from. A lot of us have a lot to say, and we’re passionate about saying it even when we’re officially through with our job. Many academics imagine themselves retiring in their early 70s, and even then maybe only transitioning to half-time until they befuddle us by changing the lock on our office.
Even retirement parties are somewhat pro forma. If you feel you have a calling for academia, you don’t feel any different the day after you retire. I just had my retirement party last month and it seemed like a birthday party, except that people gave speeches and gave me a cherry wood captain’s chair with the Cornell logo on the front and a touching engraving on it.
In 30 years of academia, I only once went to a retirement party that didn’t just seem like was another birthday party for the person who was retiring but who was going to be at work again tomorrow at they exact same time they always are. But seeing this one retirement party had a striking effect on me. It happened about 15 years ago, and I was asked to be one of two faculty speakers at the annual Spring meeting of the university’s Business Advisory Committee; it was also doubling as a retirement party for an amazing man.
He was one of the most notable economists at the University. He occupied a rare niche at the intersection of economics, real estate, finance, and law. He was widely published, widely influential, and even his economist colleagues spoke of him in awe. This year was his retirement year, and his speech would perhaps be his Last Waltz in front of a group like this. We got to know each other throughout the day and up through the closing reception.
On the rainy long ride home, we sat next to each other in the back of the dark and quiet chartered bus. I asked him which of his many accomplishments he most proud of, and which had the most impact. At one point, however, I asked a question that was not met with the same warmth and candor. I asked, "In light of all of the remarkable things you’ve accomplished so far in your career, what’s your biggest professional regret?"
Then he eventually said, "I don’t have any regrets. If I had to do it again, I would do everything pretty much the same way." After another long pause he then recanted a bit and said something like this:
I said, “Would it be easier for people to see your big picture if you were to write a book that pulled all of this together? That way, everything would be in one place and you could connect all the dots.” He chuckled and immediately dismissed this, “I don’t know about marketing, but in economics they don’t reward books.”
After 45 years of research, here was a great man who was retiring with one needless regret. Yet, what he let get in his way was how he would be rewarded or whether a colleague might think he was simplifying his research for the amateurs. It seemed to me that writing a book would have been a potentially transforming project.
The metaphor that is relevant for us is not the metaphor of writing a book. The appropriate metaphor is for any project that might ratchet up our level of impact. It is any project that may not be rewarded with the respect of the “professor next door,” but it is that which we think is critically important. In fact, it might be even be actively derided. That’s what happened to a number of metaphorical books. It happened to Carl Sagan’s award-winning Cosmos series on PBS, to Gary Becker’s famous Business Week columns, to Steven Levitt’s “Freakonomics” to Paul Krugman’s New York Times columns, to Richard Posner’s Federal Judge appointment, and to Stephen Ambrose’s National World War II Museum.
The notion of an "unwritten book" can be a powerful and useful metaphor for us. For many of us, there is at least one metaphorical book that would take our ideas to a new level of influence. It might be starting a website and blog, presenting research in front of a House subcommittee in order to propose a law, making class modules for science teachers, writing a review article in a related field, starting a company, or starting a new class and turning the notes into an engaging distance-learning course. What’s interesting is that most of these “unwritten books” probably wouldn’t have to wait. They were something that could have been started much earlier if we would have removed our self-limiting barriers.
I remember another topic that I discussed with that eminent economics professor on the long ride back home. It was how quickly he said that his research years had passed.
He said that after he graduated with his PhD, he blinked and had tenure; he blinked again and he had an endowed chair; he blinked again and he was riding with me on what he called “his retirement bus.” The idea of starting a career of activism research when “the time is right” could disappear in a blink of an eye.
Time to start the next chapter.
There once was a legendary, larger-than-life professor. If Marvel’s 137th movie of this year is named UltraProf, it would be based on John Shank. He taught a dry subject (think Accounting), but his charisma and his orchestration of his class made each class session seem like 60-person David Mamet plays. Every class had passion, drama, and some surprising reveal at the end that people still talked about ten years later. Here’s a quote:
As a teacher John was at home at any level, and always brilliant. I could offer the testimonials of others, however, what brought his classroom performance home to me— and it was a performance in the truest sense of the word—was watching him at an Accounting Round Table at Pitt’s business school. He held 50 top financial officers in the palm of his hand while he presented his material. They were busy individuals with many things on their minds and schedules, but not a one left until John had answered their last question. I can assure you that their staying until the end was not out of courtesy (Bernberg 2008).
Although the opposite is true, some believed he was only about style. This is because he wore Brooks Brothers braces, walked with a MVP swagger, drove a Dartmouth green sports car, and he had a runway model wife who was like some VP of Finance somewhere. His office was professionally-decorated with French draperies, super-thick Dartmouth green carpeting, and a massive 18th century French desk which sat in the middle of the room so his desk chair could face the doorway. Even his two huge perfectly groomed dogs were effortlessly well-mannered. On Saturdays he’d come to work, and they’d sit on either side of his desk and face the door. They were like lions on either side of a throne, and he was like Odin . . . or John Wick. His dogs keep eternal vigilance. My dog wets on me and then licks my face.
This was 1992. Because he had about the highest MBA teacher ratings at Dartmouth's Tuck School and I had about the lowest ratings, he let me sit in on his classes so I could suck less . . . so I could learn better teaching strategies and classroom management skills. One Saturday during a Tuck alumni reunion, I stopped by his office and told him I had overheard some alumni who were still talking about what they had learned in a class they had taken with him 10 years earlier.
He looked up over the top of his half-glasses, and said, “That’s what they’re supposed to do. It means I’ve done my job.”
He said his goal isn’t to teach students to get a great first job (or to, analogously, get a high score on the GRE or MCAT), his goal is to teach them to succeed for wherever they will be in 10 or 20 years. Although he got outstanding teaching ratings, he brushed them off by saying that teacher ratings mainly measured the moment – they mainly measured the warm feelings a student had at the time. Ratings might capture style (which he was very good at), but they may not always measure long-term substance.
Last week, the school year ended. A lot of amazing teachers will take their course evaluation ratings and use them to improve their classes for next year. John’s view was that we need to also focus on the long-term impact of our courses.
I regret that I never had the presence of mind to ask him how he did it -- how he knew what long-term impact to aim at. Since he was on boards and did a lot of consulting with upper management, I suspect he taught his courses like he was teaching board members and upper management. That is, when he was teaching, he treated them like they were high level managers. That’s one way to do it.
A second way to try and teach for long-term impact might be to ask. After they graduate, it will be more apparent to them whether your course helped them live a better life (more useful, meaningful, successful, or whatever), and how your course might be improved. It’s easier to get this feedback than you might think. You’ve probably saved your class lists (somewhere) from 5 years ago. You might have their emails, or the alumni office will have both their emails and their snail mail addresses. You can simply ask them.
Ten or fifteen years after I left Dartmouth I was in Boston, and I rented a car to drive up to visit John. I wanted to thank him for being so generous, and I wanted to prove to myself that his office, desk, and dogs were as amazing as I remembered them. There was a different name on his door. I was too late.
I love the idea of trying to teach for a long-term impact. It’s like trying to create long-term memories. I sometimes think I can remember everything John said to me because he was always so intentional with every conversation. Just like he was with his classes.
At the next reunion, if his former student’s aren’t talking about what they learned 30 years ago, they’ll be talking about how hard he tried. That itself was a great lesson.
A close friend of mine believes successful PhD students have three things in common: They're smart, they work hard, and they have good judgment. The secret sauce here is "good judgment." Although smarts and hard work are important, most PhD students would have never been admitted if they weren't already smart, hard workers.
But having good judgment is more elusive. It includes things like knowing what's "interesting" and what isn't, knowing what's worth worrying about (and what isn't), knowing what's important to prioritize, knowing how to solve a people problem, knowing whether to persist on a project or to move on, and so on.
But advising a PhD student to "Have great judgment" is like advising a football team to "Score the most points." It doesn't tell them how. You can't say "Have great judgment" and then say "Next question," "QED," or drop the mic and walk out.
Maybe there's two types of judgment -- technical judgments and nontechnical judgments.
For graduate students, building technical judgment is about learning the whys of research. One way to build better technical judgment is to boldly ask lots of "Why?" questions of your mentor, advisor, or of an older student: "Why did you send it that journal? Why didn't you use a different method? Why did you ask the research question that way?" Most of us shied away from asking technical judgment questions because we didn't want to be irritating or look like we didn't belong. Most professors I know actually like to answer these questions, and they love to see an engaged student step out of a silent huddle.
Developing good nontechnical judgment is trickier. Yet this is the critical judgment you need to troubleshoot how you can be a better teacher, or whether to choose the risky dissertation you want to do versus the safe dissertation your advisor wants. It involves figuring out how to deal with your off-the-chart stress level or whether you should take a job at a teaching college or go into industry. Our tendency as a graduate student is to get feedback from peers in our same year. A more effective one may be to get it from recent graduates or from professors who have seen cases like these and know how they worked out. You can even get nontechnical advice from professors you know in other departments. The best nontechnical dissertation advice I got was from a Medical School professor from my church. It was straightforward, unbiased, kind, and based on lots of students he had known.
As professors, we can help to build better technical judgment by encouraging questions about our research judgment calls, or we can give it as color commentary or as context when we discuss a research project. But again, helping students with nontechnical judgments is trickier. One way to do this is in the third person. This can be by discussing a problem that "their friend" is having or by discussing a relatable case study.
Here's one approach to building nontechnical judgment. I used to teach a PhD course where we'd meet in my home for a casual last class session. The first half of the session would be a discussion about graduate student success and the last half would be dinner. Each student had been asked to anonymously write down a dilemma that "one of their friends" was facing that was being a roadblock to their success. We'd mix these 9-10 dilemmas up, and we'd relax in the living room with a glass of wine and discuss them one at a time. For each one, we'd talk about similar experiences, options, solutions, and so forth. By dinner time, we had a more balanced perspective and some suggested next steps for many of the dilemmas.
Over the years, it seemed that about 70% of these dilemmas were about the same 7-8 issues. These were like the issues mentioned above -- "risky vs. safe dissertation," "stress level," "leave academia," and so on.
Here's a second approach to building nontechnical judgment. Given how similar these dilemmas were from year to year, I wrote up 1-page PhD student case studies that involved slightly fictionalized people who were facing these common problems. These case studies were in the syllabus for the course, and we'd take the first or last part of each class to talk about that week's case study. The common dilemmas faced in your field may be different, but the enthusiasm your students would have in discussing them would probably be the same.
Some people might be born with great judgment, but for the rest of us, it's a lot of trial and error and a lot of asking bold questions. If you're a graduate student, you've got a lot more license than you might think to learn from trial, error, and bold questions. If you're a professor, there's a lot we can do to help them.
On a late afternoon about 20 years ago, I stepped into a slow elevator with my college’s most prolific, famous, and taciturn senior professor. After 10 seconds of silence, I asked, “Did you publish anything yet today?” He stared at me for about 4 seconds and said, “The day’s not over.” Cool . . . very Clint Eastwood-like.
As academics, we have great, productive days and we have bad days, but most lie in-between. If we could figure out what – other than an “Accept Without Revision” letter – leads to great days, we might be able to trigger more of them in our life.
Think of the most recent “great day” you had. What made it great, and how did it start?
For about 20 years, every time a colleague told me they had a great day, I’d ask “What made it great? How did it start out? About 50% of the time its greatness had to do with an external “good news” event like a paper getting accepted, a grant getting submitted, a great class, or a gracious letter from a former student. The other 50% of the time, the reason for “greatness” was more “internal.” They had a super productive writing day, they finished a paper, or they had a breakthrough idea.
External successes are easy to celebrate with these colleagues. Internal successes are more ephemeral, so it’s interesting to explore what was the trigger that made today a great day and what was it that sabotaged yesterday.
When people had great days, one reoccurring feature was that they started off great. There was no delay between when they got out of bed and when they Unleashed the Greatness. People said things like, “I had this idea last night, and I just got up and started writing,” or “I started on this revision right when I got up and had it half done by breakfast time.”
One of the most productive Grand Ole Dads in my field told me that he got up six days a week at 6:30 and wrote from 7:00 to 9:00 without interruption. Then he kissed his wife good-bye and drove into school. When I asked how long he had done that he said, “Forever.”
About a year ago, I started toying with this hypothesis: "Your first two hours set the tone for the whole day."
Think of your last mediocre day. Did it start out mediocre? That would also be consistent with this hypothesis.
We can’t trigger every day to be great, but maybe we have more control than we think. If we focus on making our first two hours great, it might set the tone for the rest of the day.
What we need to decide is what we can we do in those first two hours after waking that would trigger an amazing day and what would sabotage it and make it mediocre. For me, it seems paper writing, editing, exercise, or meditation are the good triggers, and it seems answering emails, reading the news, or surfing are the saboteurs.
Here’s to you having lots of amazing days. One’s where you can channel your best Clint Eastwood impression and say, “The day’s not over.”
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?”).
Last week, 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.
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 dissertation during 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!
It was time to move this website over to this new account. Good news
It means having to rebuild every page from scratch. Bad news.
The last three or four months of blogs are being transferred over and posted. Ones that are older than are available here (for now).
Thanks for moving with me.
How to graduate, get a job, get tenure, solve problems, and make fewer mistakes.
Some Blog Shortcuts