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Grad school time management: If you *must* work weekends, work on Sunday

When I was in graduate school, right about after my comprehensives, people told me that they were working 100 hours a week. Heck, I was told I needed to work 100 hours a week! There is no way in hell I can put in that much work, to be perfectly honest. While I know many people will shun the idea that academics can work only 40 hours a week and not overwork (which is an idea championed by Dr. Meghan Duffy, Dr. Sherri Rose and Dr. Tanya Golash Boza), I understand that there are times when we need to work beyond the normal workload. Finishing my doctoral dissertation required me to work well beyond 60 hours a week, and closer to 100. To do this, I also had to work on Sundays.

To-Do list handwritten

And YES, I know. I’m the one who champions NOT working on weekends and NOT overworking. I’m the one who advocates against glorifying busy. But I am also well aware that in graduate school, *sometimes* you need to put in a different kind of effort and you may need to work 6 days a week. When I was finishing up, my PhD advisor told me “DO NOT WORK AT LEAST 24 HOURS PER WEEK“. What he meant was, “take at least ONE day fully off“. I usually took Sundays off, so I played volleyball, had brunch with my brother, then spent time with my partner for the rest of the day.

UNTIL… I realized this practice left me really discombobulated because I had no plan for the week ahead. I was arriving to my office on campus and had to start the day off by creating a list of To-Do items. Which of course, took at least a solid hour of my morning and left me even more discombobulated.

So about two years before defending my PhD I changed my habits, and when I need to work 6 days a week I try to do this as well: If I must work on a weekend, I’ll work on the Sunday. The rationale for this is quite simple: I will be tired from the week on Friday, so I’ll need Friday night and Saturday to recover. I can spend Saturday with my parents, and have dinner with my friends on Saturday night. Then, Sunday I can easily have breakfast with my Mom and then drive up to Aguascalientes, land at my office on campus, and work for a few hours, get a few items off of my To-Do list, and head home at a relatively early time (usually I’m home by 5pm, when I arrive to campus at 1pm).

Everything Notebook and travel kit

If I work on a Sunday, I use the last few hours of the day (early night) to write my list of To-Do items in my Everything Notebook, my priorities, check my weekly and monthly calendars, and evaluate where I am. I also catch up on reading on a Sunday. If I try to do work on a Saturday, I know I will be exhausted from the week and my productivity will be very low. That’s why I recommend to my students and colleagues that, IF and only IF they must work on a weekend, they should do so on the Sunday.

Posted in academia, graduate school.

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How to prepare for doctoral comprehensive (preliminary, qualifying) exams

I often get asked about how did I prepare for my comprehensive exams. This is the process I used, but of course, your mileage may vary. The usual disclaimers apply.

As always, your mileage may vary. This is what worked for me. There are strategies that work for other people. Self-care, resting, and socializing can’t be overstated. You NEED to make sure to take care of yourself, always.

For me, doing my comprehensives along my cohort colleagues was really empowering. It helped me feel that I wasn’t alone.

Posted in academia, research methods.

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“The art of letting go of things”: Toilets as places of refusal

The art of letting goEarlier today, I went to the small store around the corner from my Mom’s house. Their magazine exhibit is usually filled with trashy gossip magazines. but as someone who studies sanitation and wastewater governance, the cover of this magazine caught my eye immediately: it’s a photograph of a toilet being flushed (lucky for the readers, it only contained clean water!). The words in Spanish inscribed in the cover say something to the effect of: “The art of letting go of the things that are no longer useful to you: the past, your job, your work and everything that breaks you down“. Toilets have been used as dumpsters for a very, very long time. As Dr. Jamie Benidickson (University of Ottawa) aptly said in the title of his book, “The Culture of Flushing” (published by UBC Press), there is a culture of flushing in developed countries like the US, Canada and the UK.

Once you flush the toilet you absolutely forget about what you just dumped in it. This is not an uncommon sentiment and approach. On the contrary, it’s pervasive everywhere in the world. Toilets are the places where you go to let go of things, specifically human waste. Access to toilets, as I’ve written elsewhere, is highly political and politicized. It’s also gendered (as Cooper et al show in their 2010 article on New Zealand) and has disability dimensions to it (as Kitchin and Law show in their 2001 Urban Studies article). I’m particularly sensitive to issues of access to toilets because that’s what much of my scholarship has been about, so Kitchin and Law’s work resonates because disabled people face enormous challenges regarding public toilet provision, as they show with their study in an Irish town, Newbridge, County Kildare.

To be perfectly honest, I found the visual imagery and publicity strategy of using a toilet as a metaphor for flushing unwanted things quite offensive. In a world where more than 1 billion people still lack access to the dignity of a toilet, and where the global targets for sanitation improvement are far from being within reach, to flippantly use toilets as metaphors for places of refusal is really uncouth. Also, lack of access to toilets leads to violence against women in countries where open defecation is a regular practice. So, the idea of using a toilet as an amenity where you can simply discard “everything that makes you feel upset” showcases people’s unrecognized and differentiated privilege.

There are many problematic sides to this visualization of toilets but one of the key ones is the assumption that there is infrastructure in place. This is an important, and non-credible assumption. As I have argued before, the act of supplying (or denying) access to toilets is highly political and politicized.

This is where the spatial and geographical elements of sanitation governance come into to play. Toilets become places of refusal. Not only do we generate urban solid waste through our daily activities (anthropogenic garbage is also often called refuse), but we also refuse to keep unwanted stuff within our bodies. Though I hasten to add, the visual I show in the first photograph refers to EMOTIONAL things that you need to let go of and refuse to keep inside yourself. So, in a way, the metaphor becomes embedded within everyday practices: having a toilet allows people with the privilege of access to use it to dispose of things that they are refusing, without even realizing that that’s what they are doing. It’s simple, it’s automatic, and it’s easy to do because it’s there. Just ask people in India where more people have access to cell phones than to toilets.

The most upsetting part of using a toilet as places for refusal is that it implies access (which isn’t a given), agency and ownership. As Dr. Malini Ranganthan (American University) has shown in her research, paying for piped water access in Bangalore was in and of itself a political act that middle-class dwellers engaged in, instead of protesting. In fact, I think that is the part that really annoyed me about the magazine cover I show above: the falsehood of implicitly assuming that everyone has the agency and ability to own and/or access a toilet. This assumption is entirely false.

The latest counts released by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) as of July of 2017 indicate that 892 million people defecate in the open.

That’s a wildly high number of people who lack the dignity and agency of accessing a toilet, in many cases, because of lack of ownership. Think about this the next time you feel compelled to use toilets as places of refusal, even as a metaphor.

Posted in academia.

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The multiple faces of water insecurity

Wherever I go, I’m always “on”. That is, my researcher mind keeps looking for things that are associated with my research, or that seem to defy explanation. As I went into one of our favourite restaurants with my brother (who is visiting) and my Mom, I realized they didn’t have running water. A common hygiene practice before eating food is washing your hands. But I couldn’t do it with water from the tap. The restaurant provided a bucket and a small bowl so we could wash our hands. As someone who has lived in regions and cities where running water hasn’t ever been much of a problem, but also someone who studies water insecurity, I felt the immediate physical impact of water insecurity, within the comfort of a restaurant where I’ve eaten hundreds of times.

Mexico’s urban water infrastructure has been deficient for decades. In my research I have found that water insecurity in Mexico isn’t only the result of poor maintenance and unclean pipes. Water insecurity in Mexico is also an expected outcome of a problematic institutional architecture that puts the onus on municipal governments to provide safe drinking water but where the federal government offers little of the financial, infrastructure and human capital support to ensure that drinking water is safe at the household level.

Much is asked of local water utilities, but little is offered in intergovernmental cash transfers or strengthening water utility operators’ skill level. Even the financial support that is offered through intergovernmental transfers is not enough to improve water supply coverage in many Mexican municipalities. I have found in one of my studies that one of the reasons why why bottled water consumption in Mexico has risen to make the country the global leader in per capita consumption. Capitalizing on the fear of tap water, bottling water companies have fostered quasi-universal consumption of their product within the Mexican population.

As my friend and UConn colleague Dr. Veronica Herrera has also found (and describes in her recent book), the political landscape also hinders safe drinking water provision in Mexico. As her book and research shows, “politics can interfere with reliable water access, but when infrastructure is part of a good-governance platform, politics can also be part of the solution.” (Herrera, 2017).

There are many ways to measure and analyze water insecurity. A recent paper by Drs. Amber Wutich, Wendy Jepson, Shalean Collins, Godfred Boateng and Sera L. Young offers an overview of recent studies of measurement of water insecurity. But what I found interesting is how powerfully did the bucket with a small bowl portray in a very visual and tangible form the challenge of water insecurity in Mexico. Rationing water is a well-known and commonly used strategy that municipalities use to increase reported coverage and offer some degree of access to what should be a human right. But when household infrastructure fails and it is no longer the government’s fault for failing to provide water access, individuals must also engage in other forms of water fetching and rationing.

I often see this during my fieldwork, but seeing this up close during a leisurely outing with my family really hit home hard. There are definitely multiple faces and manifestations of the phenomenon of water insecurity.

Posted in academia, water insecurity.

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Four strategies to help build an academic writing routine

While I have a couple of blog posts pending (both by request, on how to prepare for comprehensive exams and how to build a research trajectory and a project pipeline for early career scholars), I wanted to write a post on something that I get asked about quite frequently. I arrived to the daily writing routine quite naturally, because I love stationery and more generally, I adore writing. But I always get asked “how do I build a good writing routine?”

As someone who studies institutional theory, I am well aware of the role of habits and routines in creating structures that govern agents’ actions. Repetition creates routines, routines create norms, norms lead to building rules and rules create institutions. So, the basis of governing individual actions resides in repeating a specific routine. I read somewhere that it only takes 21 days to build a habit (though read here, here and here to bust that myth). Whenever I fall out of a routine, it does take me about 3 weeks to regain regularity. Your mileage may vary, of course.

I figured I would offer four strategies to help you build an academic routine. Three come from scholars I respect a lot and who write about academic writing. The fourth (forgive the self-citation) comes from me :)

1. Follow a deadline-based calendar (Wendy Belcher)

The first strategy I would recommend anyone who is trying to build an academic routine is to follow the 12 weeks model that Dr. Wendy Belcher suggests in her book. Having a calendar and a set of firm deadlines for when you’re going to get stuff done may help motivate you to write. Deadlines have a very strong power over me!

Workflow: Finishing a paper

2. Use a repertoire of daily writing techniques (Tanya Golash-Boza)

In this post, Dr. Tanya Golash-Boza offers a number of strategies you can use to write every day, from line-editing text you already have produced to drafting new text on a blank page. As Tanya suggests, you can build a daily writing routine by following at least two different kinds of writing strategies a day.

Grunt work: references into Mendeley. Then memorandum. #AcWri

3. Follow a daily prompt, 5 days a week (Raul Pacheco-Vega)

In this post, I suggested five different prompts you could use to “trigger” writing. To build your own academic writing practice, you could test each one of the prompts, one every day. So, for example, on Mondays (when I’m usually very alert), I don’t need a prompt, but I can use one (an unfinished piece of writing from the previous week). On Thursdays I’m usually tired, so I’ll use a table or a dataset to prompt me to write.

Cleaning up Mendeley citations

4. Use a time-based incentive approach: the 15 minute challenge (Jo Van Every)

One of the things that I’ve heard from a lot of people is “I don’t have the time to write!” Well, I would definitely believe you if I didn’t have the same problem as everyone does: I, too, have to commute, travel by bus, sit at my doctor’s office waiting until he/she comes out and look for me. So, Dr. Jo Van Every has encouraged people to try writing 15 minutes a day, at least. Trust me (and her!) – 15 minutes IS A LOT MORE than zero minutes. So, Jo suggests that you should try the 15 Minute #AcWri Challenge. I can assure you, building up to 2 hours every day (as I do) is much easier if you start in increments of 15 minutes. So I would encourage you to take Jo’s challenge and see how many sets of 15 minutes you can do a day. This should be done incrementally, in my view.

Home office in Aguascalientes at night

In the end, I believe the only way to build an academic writing routine is to create a set of habits that will enable you to derive a reward from writing. For me, the best reward is seeing paragraphs filled, pages completed, etc.

Posted in academia, writing.

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A full-engagement-based approach to research

Earlier today I was asked about whether my memorandums play a role in how I approach my research, and what my overall strategy is.

I woke up a little bit earlier than usual and figured I could answer this question in a quick blog post. While getting a shower, I reflected on what exactly would I call (if it were to call it in any way) my approach to research. I guess the best description of my research strategy is that I use a full-engagement-based approach.

Personal July 2017 017

For me, conducting research implicitly means generating new data, analyzing old data in new ways, theorizing and producing new knowledge. I would assume this is the way in which other researchers work. HOWEVER, for me, the generative component of research is always there. Without engaging in actor-network theory, I enjoy the physicality of research output generation. I scribble notes on the margins of papers. I highlight with different colours. I learn better when there’s a physical component to how I do research, how I study. I write synthetic notes and full-fledged memorandums, I fill rows in my Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump. Every time I do something research-related, there’s a very physical component to it. I need to PRODUCE something as I interact with a piece of scholarship. That’s why the process I use to write papers has so many “productive” components.

Personal July 2017 033That’s why I read deeply and fully engaged. While I also skim articles, books and book chapters, and I’ve suggested that students and academics should use the AIC Content Extraction method to undertake quick overviews of a body of literature, my reading is usually fully engaged, and as a result, I do it in a way that is methodical and generates something that makes me learn (that’s why my marginalia usually include comments on other bodies of literature and linkages across scholarly fields). That’s precisely why the vast majority of my reading is deeply engaged. I usually write on the margins, highlight and THEN dump my notes into either a row of my Conceptual Synthesis Excel dump, or in my Everything Notebook, or even more importantly, I write a synthetic note or a full-fledged memorandum.

In the case I show in the photo above, it’s clear that if I generated so many notes about the text, it’s an important (key) piece of scholarship and I should engage with it by writing a memorandum. Obviously, I know that the text from this memorandum may end up in one of my papers.

That’s also why, despite my interest in using productivity software and online tools to make my work better, and despite the fact that I store PDFs on Dropbox and upload them on to Mendeley for easy access and quick paper writing, I still read paper-based journals. I still subscribe and pay for the actual physical copy. There’s a feeling I can’t quite describe associated with reading paper-based materials.

Printed journals

But as I was pondering how the memorandums fit within my own strategy, I figured I didn’t want to call this “a physicality-based approach to research”. Because much as I like the physical aspect of creating research materials, like a memo, writing the memorandum is part of fully engaging with the research. Writing synthetic notes and memorandums out of a synthetic note, rhetorical precis, creating annotated bibliographies, analyzing data and typing the analysis into a memorandum, all are part of this full engagement with the research process.

Posted in academia, research.

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Narrowing the research thesis topic

As I was leaving my office to head to the airport to fly to Mexico City for a workshop on conflicts in extractive industries, I saw the completed printout of Rafael’s dissertation sitting on my desk. Rafael is my soon-to-graduate PhD student. I felt an extreme amount of pride, while also realizing what an enormous amount of work this doctoral dissertation has entailed. Rafa did ethnographic fieldwork for two years analyzing three cases of water conflict, plus a quantitative analysis of a global dataset. I think it’s a testament to his effort that his thesis is already being referenced as a key source for the topic. But reaching the point where we could narrow his topic wasn’t easy. Most of my students have extremely ambitious goals for their undergraduate honors and graduate (Masters and PhD) thesis. Often, I worry if this is because I’m a demanding supervisor and they feel they need to do grandiose, ambitious, all-encompassing projects or because we all face a challenge trying to narrow a topic. I think it’s more the latter than the former. We all tend to want to do research that is broad in scope.

My office at CIDE Region Centro during and after writing a paper

This morning, I mused on Twitter that I found my students to be over-eager and really excited about their research topics, and that they often want to “solve the world’s problems” with their theses/final papers/dissertations. You can read my Twitter thread here and the excellent responses to it.

Obviously, there are a few things that I want to highlight about doing a supervised research project that I think are worth remembering, in particular because my students often ask me “so, how narrow is narrow?”. This is a question that necessitates an in-depth discussion between each individual student and their advisors.

Many students come to me wanting to do broad-ranging, ambitious topics. I always tell them to be focused on a narrowly defined project. I find that it’s easier to expand the scope of a project than to narrow it. I also worry when the project is vaguely defined and unclear. There are clear differences between types of research and writing projects.

1. A doctoral dissertation

In my view, a doctoral dissertation is a long-term piece of research that demonstrates competency in conducting independent, in-depth scholarly investigations where the domain knowledge is broad, and where the research contribution is original and quite clear. This is challenging for a lot of students because the “what is a contribution” question pops up. I believe you can make theoretical and empirical contributions, and PhD dissertations often have both, but they need at least one of these. One reason why the 3 papers model for a PhD thesis is so popular is because it allows the student to demonstrate competency, depth and originality in a broad range of topics. Depth and breadth of insight are usually tested through doctoral qualifying/comprehensive exams (though I’m well aware of the British model that doesn’t involve comprehensives).

In my view, two elements are fundamental to the development of a doctoral dissertation: independence and degree of dominion of the knowledge domain. As a doctoral researcher, you should be able to conduct your research independently, even if the advisor is there to guide you. You should also have covered the literature broadly and deeply enough. At the doctoral thesis’ defence, it should be obvious that the student has now become the master at the topic.

The SOCK test (specific, original contribution to knowledge) is a good one that should be applied to doctoral theses all around.

2. A Masters’ thesis

In my view, a Masters’ thesis (as its name indicates) is supposed to demonstrate mastery. We may define mastery in different ways, but I do believe you need to show that you’re competent at investigating a particular research topic and at undertaking theoretical or empirical work that moves our understanding of a phenomenon forward. For example, for me, a Masters-level thesis is an empirical examination of patterns of bottled water consumption. Or a collated and analysed set of stories about consuming bottled water and the rationales behind them (both of these are Masters’ theses of two of my students).

The problem with Masters’ students wanting to do PhD-level kind of work (or too broad of a project) is that they are often given a shorter time frame, which often requires them to rush through courses and do their thesis under financial duress and time constraints. Thus the importance of narrowing the research topic.

It’s also important that the Masters’ student supervisor/advisor is realistic in terms of expectations and ability to achieve goals within the shortened time frame, and often within tight budgets or the risk of facing a shortage of funds.

While it’s important that the topic is adequately covered and that the contribution is original, it doesn’t need to be a grandiose or far-ranging contribution. As Dr. Prieto indicates in her response to my tweet, an in-depth case study or an application of a theory to a different dataset could be an original contribution.

It IS important that the topic of the Masters thesis is narrow in scope, but competently executed.

3. An undergraduate (honors) thesis.

I teach in the undergraduate program in public policy at CIDE. My undergraduate students tend to be REALLY ambitious and want to change the world, and I am grateful for that. But that’s not the goal with their undergraduate theses. For me, an undergraduate thesis can be a systematic literature review, an application of a research technique to an interesting topic, a test of a theory or an empirically-inclined paper using data that are often not available. An undergraduate thesis doesn’t necessitate an original contribution in the sense of a Masters’ or PhD- level one.

There are various reasons why undergraduate students (or even graduate ones) want to do very broad topics, resulting in thesis that are not narrow enough.

But as discussed above, you can do a perfectly competent undergraduate honours thesis just by doing a systematic policy analysis, a solid literature review, an interesting exploration of a known quantitative or qualitative research technique, an empirical (or descriptive) case study, etc.

4. A seminar research paper

Seminar research papers tend to also be overly ambitious, as Dr. McConnaughy indicates below.

What I have done in my seminar courses is create a blueprint, a template for students to do their final papers. That way, I define the scope of the project in very narrow terms, I give them the tools they need to apply and I let them do the empirical testing or the archival or secondary source searches (though some students of mine even collect primary data!)

A few other things to consider and pieces of advice to remember:

Narrowing the research topic should entail a conversation with your advisor. You can start reading broadly, but you should be able to pare down the topic asking a few questions such as:

  • Can this study be undertaken within a reasonable (12 months/24 months) time frame?
  • Do I have the necessary funding for the entire period of time that this study will require me to do work/fieldwork/laboratory experiments?
  • Am I trying to do more cases than needed to prove the hypotheses I’m testing or answer the research questions I’ve posited?
  • Are the research questions posited aligned with time, budgetary and resource constraints?

Again, and let me reiterate this: narrowing the topic should be a dialogue with your supervisor. You’re not alone in the process.

Posted in academia.

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2 hours of research in the morning or 2 hours of #AcWri? Choose what’s best for you.

One of the reasons people with whom I talk to gets frustrated is because they can’t find the time to write, and they ask me how I can write for 2 hours every morning. Well, turns out, some days (luckily not EVERY day), I am so busy with administrative and busywork that I just have to maintain a “2 hours of research in the morning” strategy to keep me afloat. Instead of getting frustrated because I can’t put words on a document (though, do check my posts on getting your academic writing unstuck and my 5 “prompt” strategies to get some words out). I still keep with my “no email before noon” rule, and my “no meetings before 11am” rule, but at least I can count on the fact that I can move forward with my research.

I have spent the better part of the first three days of this week in meetings after two weeks of travelling (one week in Singapore at the International Conference on Public Policy, ICPP3, and one week in Valle de Bravo, at a workshop with policy makers on water governance in Mexico, and right now I’m at a workshop on conflicts in extractive industries). This is perfectly normal as I’m in the midst of deploying a large team of researchers and research assistants to undertake fieldwork for my project on water conflicts in Mexico. But it was a tad frustrating. Three. Full. Days. Of. Meetings.

Talleres de Etnografía y Entrevista

I’m growing used to this. I’ve transitioned from the “early career scholar” stage of my career to the point where I am managing a full lab, coordinating a large grant-funded project, and collaborating with a dozen coauthors in different papers and various projects. But managing a research team is really taking a toll on my actual “scholarly time”. Not entirely “senior professor”, but senior enough. While before I could spend ALL DAY reading, highlighting, scribbling, annotating, looking at datasets, running models, transcribing interviews, now I need to spend A LOT OF TIME simply managing research – looking at and signing contracts, negotiating budget lines, making decisions on equipment purchases, etc. Even though I have an amazing team of research assistants and a fantastic research manager, I *still* do a lot of administrative stuff.

Building habits that help me do rigorous research and continue publishing even under adverse circumstances has been very hard, but also something that I’ve needed to learn how to do. I’m someone who has so many interests that I often get distracted, so I had to build strategies to regain focus. I had to learn how to Move Every Project Forward Every Day so that I could make a little progress on everything I have on my plate. Despite the fact that I’m really well organized and I plan my entire year every December, there’s always something that can potentially derail me. Thus, I have learned to be content with myself when I’m so overworked that I can’t write 2 hours every day, and be just happy that I have 2 hours of research time every morning.

Despite my increased service and administrative workload, and my travel schedule, I’ve continued my routine of waking up early every morning and maintain a “2 hours of research” policy even if I can’t do my usual “2 hours of #AcWri academic writing” every single day. I try (but I’m not always successful) to write generative text, but I still read at least two academic journal articles each morning. I’ve done a few edits to three of my research papers (an activity that definitely should count as academic writing). I have been planning the data collection strategy for my bottled water project. This doesn’t mean I’ve been able to write for the entire 2 hours I block for my #AcWri, but it does mean that I still have 2 hours of research every single morning.

Handwritten notes in academic research

These past few mornings, even if I haven’t written 2 hours consistently every day (some days I’ve been able to), I have been thinking about which changes I’m going to have to make in an R&R and two recently rejected papers. I’ve been drafting notes to myself regarding my expected scholarly output and deadlines for the fall. Maybe I haven’t written for the entire 2 hours, but I’ve definitely done 2 hours of research every morning, before I need to head to campus to deal with administrative and managerial tasks.

#AcWri while travelling

Again, this is quite important. Do what works best for you under the circumstances. You can’t follow the “Write Every Day” mantra if you’re always running against the clock (though I hasten to add, my friend Jo Van Every believes, and I concur with her, that even 15 minutes of writing every day can help you move forward – take her 15 Minutes #AcWri Challenge!)

New writing setup on campus

Using the “book 2 hours for my research every morning” strategy allows me to stop worrying about the scientific and technical component of a project and start using that time to think through my research. Yes, in an ideal world, I’d be able to write every morning for the entire 120 minutes period. But sometimes my body doesn’t respond that way. Nobody’s body does, despite building routines, I think. Thus, in closing, I do not believe we should berate ourselves if we can’t write generative text every day.

If we haven’t been able to write for a while, the best strategy we can apply I think is to start reserving 2 hours every morning for research purposes, and THEN start doing exercises (such as the ones proposed by Patricia Goodson in her book “Becoming an Academic Writer”) to start increasing the time one spends writing scholarly research. And even if you can’t block 2 hours every morning, you could start by blocking 30 minutes just solely for research and then build from that.

That’s what I’ve been doing myself.

Posted in academia.

Common mistakes to avoid in academic job market submissions

I did a poll on what the topic of my next blog post should be, and by and large, job market advice has been the most sought after. I’ve been on both sides of the search committee table: I’ve applied to lots of academic jobs, and I’ve participated in and chaired search committees. Thus, I have some experience dealing with application documents. I don’t want to repeat what other people have written about, though (look at how many blog posts already exist on the issue of mistakes that are often made when writing and preparing academic job applications).


Photo credit: Reuben Ingber CC-licensed on Flickr

Earlier this year I sat on a job market panel at the Midwest Political Science Association (MPSA) and offered some advice, which I noted here in bullet points. The mistakes I note here are errors I have actually found in real applications, so none of these are made up. BUT, more importantly, SEEK OTHER ADVICE. Don’t take my suggestions here as gospel of truth. Your mileage may vary.

1. Address the cover letter to the right person.

To be on the safe side, address it to the search committee chair. Make sure NOT to address it to the departmental secretary!

2. Demonstrate that you have done your research on the department and each of the department’s faculty members

Don’t make it clear that you didn’t even look at what other faculty do and which courses and programmes they teach.

a. Do you know which courses you would be able to teach?
b. How does your current training help the department and their teaching needs?
c. Can your teaching be quite versatile and are you able to adapt to departmental needs?

3. The RIGHT FIT discussion is always very important. How do YOU fit in a department?

Don’t insist on being the best thing since chocolate cake in a department where your expertise would probably be already well represented.

a. Make sure the fit flows (e.g. do NOT make the assumption they should be loving you because you are you, but DO sell yourselves as your work IS in fact valuable)
b. Fit relates to current and potential (future) needs. Maybe they’ll need an experimentalist or an ethnographer in the near future?
c. How can you expand the skills set, or the knowledge area (or areas) in a specific department?

4. The content of the cover letter – don’t re-summarize your doctoral dissertation, but do offer some insight into how your project fits with the overall department

Don’t republish and summarize the entire CV in the application letters. One page or page and a half should be enough.

a. Make sure that your letter is short. Long letters take more time to be read.
b. Do NOT undersell yourselves. You may have adjuncted or be a sessional or contingent faculty, but that does not make you any less of a PhD or any less valuable. Do NOT put yourself down for being a contingent faculty member. You are still faculty.

5. Which additional skills do you bring to the department and to the institution?

Don’t apply to a department where your methodological and research expertise would probably already be very well represented. Look for areas where you can contribute. Make clear connections between your expertise and that of the others, and show complementarity with other faculty members and their research.

a. Languages (beyond English and the mother tongue of the country where you are applying)
b. Computer training
c. Spatial analysis (GIS)
d. Social network analysis
e. Writing
f. Coaching
g. Networking skills
h. Multiple research methods – and how you are not just following the same method and model as others do (please don’t always do field experiments)

6. Don’t assume anything about money, or salary.

Don’t talk money from the get-go.

a. Do talk about your willingness to travel and/or relocate
b. Salary conversations are usually reserved for AFTER a campus interview and a job offer. That’s where negotiation begins.
c. Be honest from the start. Don’t tell the department you’ll take the job and then leave them hanging or drop them swiftly.

7. Teaching statements are more than philosophical love letters.

Don’t offer grandiose statements about how much you love to teach and then show you don’t know which courses and degrees this institution offers.

a. Make sure you KNOW which courses are being taught at all levels
b. If it’s a multi-campus institution, know what you’d be expected to teach and where you’re expected and able to teach these courses. Think about logistics beforehand.
c. Examine syllabi of courses offered at the institution you are targeting, and offer examples of your own syllabi, quotations from former students’ evaluations, positive and negative.

8. Research statements need to be brief but also show your potential as an independent researcher.

Don’t rely solely on your dissertation work and show how you can do work beyond, and how well you’ve thought about it already.

a. How does your research go beyond your doctoral dissertation?
b. Do you have a clear pathway and know exactly what your next steps will be?
c. Where do you see yourself in X years?
d. Which journals you are planning to publish within?


Photo credit: liss_mcbovzla CC-licensed on Flickr

A couple of additional points:

  • Make sure someone else reads your documents and gives you feedback.
  • Look for mentors and ask how you could get your CV and research statement and teaching statements to be stronger.
  • Attend career-focused workshops and panels at your discipline’s major conferences. ASK QUESTIONS.
  • Remember: the academic job market is atrocious. Don’t despair, and be prepared to move laterally to non-academic jobs if you need to.

A few additional blog posts I’ve read on the topic are linked in here, here, here and here.

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Becoming an Academic Writer (Patricia Goodson) – my reading notes

Even though I write a lot about Academic Writing, I rarely read books now on #AcWri. Not because I don’t want to, but because I have so much stuff that I need to write myself that I end up shunning any other type of reading other than my scholarly work. HOWEVER, I had heard so much about Professor Patricia Goodson’s book “Becoming an Academic Writer: 50 Exercises for Paced, Productive and Powerful Writing” that I had to actually buy it (I could have asked for it as a review copy, but I figured it was important to pay for the product itself if I benefit from it).

As my brief Twitter-sized comment above says, I found Goodson’s book quite compelling. Goodson is quite clear in that her book is more of a workbook than a textbook. I strongly believe that the fusion of workbook-type exercises with more theoretically-grounded accounts of the basis for each exercise and/or routine that Goodson presents is quite compelling. Goodson actually encourages the reader to seek a deeper understanding of why we procrastinate when we actually should be writing, and how to overcome roadblocks (also well known as “writer’s block”).

There are obviously points where I agree with Goodson, and one or two areas where I definitely have my disagreements. For example, while I am a big advocate of considering anything that pushes our research forward, “academic writing” (e.g. writing emails about a paper or datasets to a coauthor or a student, writing summaries of articles and books, etc.), I am definitely not on board with considering the writing letters of nomination or recommendation or providing feedback to students actual AcWri. I may be alone in my assessment of what should be considered #AcWri, but that’s literally the very one disagreement that I could find with what should be otherwise read as a fantastic workbook.

Goodson’s “Becoming an Academic Writer” is a logically-structured, fast-paced read. I literally devoured the entire book in one sitting (though Goodson explains how to best use the book). I would skip Chapters 1 and 2 and go directly to Chapters 3 onwards to the exercises. I haven’t tested them, but having read them and suggested similar stuff in my blog posts, I am completely on board with using Patricia Goodson’s “Becoming an Academic Writer” as a workbook to teach how to improve your academic writing. The other book I think you should consider reading, and I’ll be writing a set of reading notes on that one too is Wendy Laura Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success

I’m not the only one who sings Patricia Goodson’s praises. Dr. Pat Thomson wrote a review of Goodson’s book here. Her post provided me with a good reminder – I should mention that I paid for Goodson’s “Becoming an Academic Writer” on my own dime, so I have no obligations to provide a nice review. I just loved her book! And I thoroughly recommend it, both for my own students and for anyone (established or up-and-coming) who wants to improve their writing with systematic exercises. You can read more about the underlying logic of the POWER method that Goodson preaches here (link to a PDF of one of her talks).

UPDATE – Grateful to Shalini Sharma and Marieke Riethof for useful and insightful feedback on the issue of whether writing letters of recommendation and student feedback notes should be considered #AcWri.

I clarified my position on Twitter, as I think what Goodson’s book is about is teaching you to self-motivate to do your academic writing. I don’t need motivation to do stuff for my students!

Posted in academia, writing.

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