It’s official! As of July 1st, 2017, I have been a postdoc for a whole year! To attempt to distill an entire year’s worth of new experiences into a single listicle of lessons learned might seem Sisyphean, but academics are masochists, right, so why not?
And so, for your reading pleasure:
Four Totally Weird Tricks for Managing Self-Direction in Your First Postdoc
Academics are self-directed. Having gone through seven years of graduate school, I knew that before I became a postdoc. But though my adviser was pretty hands-off, and though as a postdoc I do have a faculty mentor, the amount of “freedom” you have once you’re no longer a student can be… overwhelming.
As a postdoc, my goal is primarily to conduct research, but I also teach one class per semester, am involved in program assessment, and participate in a few cross-disciplinary collaborations across my institution. There aren’t no deadlines; I set yearly goals with my faculty mentor and department chair, but for whatever reason, not having a dissertation deadline looming over my head has made the passing of time feel oddly nebulous. Not that I want to write another dissertation.
But, as the listicle approach suggests, I have figured out a few strategies for managing that nebulousness. These strategies have enabled me to be pretty productive in this first year of my postdoc, I think; productive enough for me to feel reasonably confident re-entering the job market this year.
1.) Plan Your Week
Even if you don’t stick to the plan. But plan your week, and specifically, plan when you will write. This requires knowing how and when you write best.
I tend to work best on difficult projects when I know I have a large chunk (at least four hours) of time in which to write. Usually, this will mean starting the project first thing and working on it until I get to a decent stopping place–or at least until my brain feels saturated with the project. Sometimes it means starting up right after lunch. Sometimes I end up finishing something “early” and then switch to another project, but when it comes to scheduling my week, I usually block out entire days or half days for difficult writing projects.
And boy, this is hard. Well, blocking them out isn’t. But keeping those blocks clear of other commitments is. I’ll talk about that in a minute. But first–goals.
2.) Set New Goals Every Week
My institution has a “writing group” that isn’t really a writing group. The UWF CUTLA (Center for University Teaching, Learning, and Assessment) Writer’s Group is really just a weekly email sent out by the director with a Google Form in it. In this Google Form, you report whether you met last week’s writing goals, and you set new goals for the upcoming week.
It’s not magic, and I certainly have weeks where I don’t meet my goals, but making explicit goal-setting a regular part of scheduling my week has really improved my ability to schedule. I’m constantly re-learning what can be accomplished in a week, and using that to schedule the next week. It’s a constant reminder of what is and is not getting accomplished, and a regular reminder of what projects need more attention. I definitely scheduled my weeks before joining the CUTLA Writer’s Group, but the constant reassessment of goal setting has definitely helped.
3.) Protect Your Time
I know, I know. This is something you’re supposed to learn in graduate school (according to my adviser), but it’s really easy, especially being the newbie in a department, to get excited about collaborative projects and let them soak up all of your time. That’s not to say you do nothing but your own research–that does not a good departmental citizen make. But being very strategic about when you choose to engage in collaborative projects, mentoring, and teaching is important.
Frankly, it’s kind of easy to “know” this, but much harder to enact in the moment, especially if meetings get scheduled right in the middle of your sacred “write at home” time. As a people pleaser, my instinct is to say, “yes, of course! I can make that time” to better accommodate other’s schedules if I technically can make a time, whether or not it really works with my own plans. Part of this comes from my knowledge of my own schedule’s relative flexibility; as a childless adult, I don’t have to schedule meetings around daycare or school hours. So, yes, technically I can attend that meeting at that day/time, but if it will cut into my best writing hours, should I? When do I compromise with others whose needs are different from my own, and when do I hold my ground? I’m still working this part out, and if you have any suggestions on the practicalities of this delicate balance, I’m all ears. Or eyes, as the case may be.
4.) Strategically Plan Your Conferences…? Maybe…?
Honestly, I’m still tossed up on this one. My usual conference application strategy is to apply to pretty much everything, especially if I can be on or organize a panel, and see which ones I get into. One year this meant I attended the Writing Research Across Borders Conference, the Rhetoric Society of America Biennial Conference, and a Computers and Writing Conference all in one semester. It was not a good semester for my wallet.
Frankly, it wasn’t a great semester for productivity, either. Conference proposals take time to write, and then presentations take time to prepare. To be fair to myself, that was also the semester I took my exams, which just so happened to be timed in between all the conference attending, so I guess I took it in stride. But just thinking about trying to attend three conferences in a semester and make progress on conducting research and writing articles exhausts me.
Let me be clear, I know that conferences are excellent places to test out new ideas and receive feedback from colleagues on research. But they’re also expensive and time consuming, as I said, and thus, should really be used sparingly.
And there you have them. Four Totally Weird Tricks for Managing Self Direction in Your First Postdoc. Next time, Thirteen of the Weirdest Emails Students Ever Sent Me. Just kidding.