Dealing with Multiple Spinning Plates

Multi-tasking just became part of my daily life

Nobody ever told me or prepared me for just how much juggling was needed to thrive in academia. From teaching classes, to completing my degree, to doing my own research, to being an RA, to completing my roles in academic societies, to marking assignments, to attending meetings, oh and lets not forget emails, just to name a few. It was never like that when I started out, but as time moved on and my list of responsibilities grew, so too did the number of plates I had to spin all at once; multi-tasking just became part of my daily life

Tips for Multi-tasking

This section is not to say that I am the best multi-tasker, but to share some of the things that I have tried, including those that work for me. I was at a conference recently that had a workshop on resiliency in academia. One of the activities was brainstorming ways people manage this need for multi-tasking. As you would guess, what worked for some individuals did not work for all. So experimentation is key!

  1. Micro-manage yourself: This is what works for me. My schedule is broken down into specific time allocations for specific tasks. Once the time is up, I move on. At first this was hard. What happens when you’re in the zone for writing and the time is up? Do you waste that precious writing zone space? No, you capitalise on that and feed it into the next activity.
  2. Dedicate days to specific tasks: Have a teaching day or a meeting day. Personally, I have days dedicated to student supervision. All my supervision happens on those days only.
  3. Overestimate the time it will take to complete a task: Plan to be disrupted, plan for things to come up, plan to need to shift your attention every now and again.
  4. Take regular breaks: Chunking up time is a common way people manage multi-tasking. From coffee breaks between activities to full meditation sessions. Having a relaxing task between tasks can serve as a full stop for the last activity and a fresh new paragraph for the next activity.
  5. Lists: Who doesn’t like a good list? This post is a key example of that! Daily to-do lists and diary entries are also a common way of keeping track of what is needed each day.

What other tips or strategies do you use to keep all those plates spinning?

~ Chris

Dealing with Supervisor Feedback

The very first time I sent my supervisor a piece of my writing I was so anxious. I had read it over a million times. I also had a friend read it over as well and got their thoughts on it. I thought I had done a good job. After all, I had made it into the PhD program so I must be good enough to be here.

About a week later I got it back from my supervisor. The word document was covered in the garish red lines of the track changes function, there were crossed out sections and so many comment bubbles. My heart sank. Everything I had done was wrong. I was an idiot.

After licking my wounds I eventually took on board every point he made and my next draft was so much better. The flow of the piece, the logical connections, everything. What I realised was that the foundations of the piece were there, the surface just needed some rearranging and clarifying.

Looking back on this experience now (as well as having the experience of supervising honours students and giving them feedback on their work) I’ve realised a few things.

Detailed feedback means the reader has engaged with your writing

Giving feedback takes time and a lot of thinking. I’ve realised that for someone to literally tear my work apart takes a lot of time. And they wouldn’t do it if they didn’t care. The fact that your reader has so many thoughts on your writing means that they are passionately engaged in what you have written and want to make it better. And this isn’t just my opinion, I found this study  that basically says the same thing. If my reader was disengaged or didn’t care about my work they would probably just fix a few typos and send it back.

Academics aren’t explicitly taught how to give feedback

They give feedback the way their supervisors gave them feedback. So the quality of feedback can vary supervisor to supervisor. This is one thing to keep in mind. There are also some stock phrases we end up using which we understand but the receiver has no idea how to tackle. E.g., “I got lost”, “the writing doesn’t flow”, “the tone isn’t academic enough”. Eventually you’ll get the hang of these short-hand comments and understand how to process them. But academic writing is a world full of subtleties and annoying little rules that we have to learn.

The purpose of the feedback is different from undergraduate assignments

In undergrad you would have submitted an assignment and when you received it back it would have been evaluated. That is, you were given a mark and possibly a few comments. The purpose was summative as opposed to formative.

Whereas feedback on your thesis is supposed to improve it. You get to submit it a few times and get better each time. This type of feedback is different and takes some mental adjustment.

Looking back on my initial struggle with the benefit of hindsight made me realise that understanding and processing written feedback is just another skill to learn in the PhD process. And, it’s a skill you’ll need especially if you ever decide to run the peer review gauntlet and deal with reviewer feedback… but that’s an entirely different blog post.

Have you ever had a similar experience with receiving feedback from your supervisor?

– Alessa

Being Involved in Academic Societies – Is It Worth It?

From the Society of Personality and Social Psychology to the International Society of Behavioral Medicine and the Stress and Anxiety Research Society (just to name a few that are relevant to me), there are so many different academic societies out there for all sorts of disciplines and subdisciplines. These societies span both local (e.g., the Australasian Society of Behavioural Health and Medicine) and international (e.g., the International Society of Behavioral Medicine) territories. They offer fantastic opportunities for researchers and practitioners to network and cross-pollinate their knowledge. They also afford (voluntary) opportunities in being involved with the running of the society. But should you sign yourself up?

I am where I am today because of my involvement in academic societies

I am involved with both the International Society of Behavioral Medicine and the Australasian Society of Behavioural Health and Medicine. I hold different roles in both societies and have been involved with both of them for a number of year. Over that time I have had the opportunity to develop organisational, leadership, and communication/outreach skills (including to ECRs, other academics – including big name academics, society members and potential members, and other stakeholders) that I just would not learn in either teaching or research. So, without this being a brag-fest, yes, I think being involved with these kinds of societies are well worth it!

What exactly do these societies offer?

It depends… Doesn’t it always!? It depends on how much you are willing to give and what the society is willing to offer. Generally, there will be something targeted toward ECRs like resources, grants, postdoc positions, workshops, social networking opportunities, and professional networking opportunities. Generally there will be an executive committee which would see you placed in a position of responsibility over some aspect of the society. If the society holds conferences, then there will be multiple teams that you could be involved with in helping to plan the conference. You could also volunteer at the conference to help out with the day-to-day running. There could be websites and social media pages that need managing. The list goes on. Whatever the role, these extra duties provides the opportunity for you to showcase your skills to other academics (often very senior academics), to learn from the other society members and refine your skillset, and to be pushed to further better yourself in ways you might not have been expected to do so. Above all else, it is an amazing networking experience!

This all sounds very time consuming…

I would be lying if I said that it wasn’t. If you are on a 40/40/20 workload then this becomes what is known as ‘external service’ and contributes to your 20. If you are a student (like I was when I started with these societies) then I saw it as a way to break away from study without feeling guilty. However, ultimately, all my roles in academic societies probably contributes about half of my 20% service load for work. The other half is taken up by internal service; committees like ethics, academic progress/integrity, learning and teaching, and research. So while serving in academic societies is no small task, it also will not overload or overwork you.

The takeaway

If you can, I would recommend taking a more active role in at least one society. See where it takes you and what you can learn!

~ Chris

Advice for Day One of the PhD

It’s that time of the year when people in the Northern Hemisphere are starting their PhD programs. Here in the Southern Hemisphere people start at random times of the year. Nonetheless, I thought it might be time to write a blog post that outlines some advice I would have given myself on Day One of the PhD journey.

Consider teaching while doing the PhD

Teaching can help you cultivate important employable skills such as communication skills. Explaining a complex concept in a simple way in the classroom is a skill that takes a bit of honing. Also, another aspect of teaching is grading assignments. Although at first that process might seem a little tedious, it can actually improve your own writing skills. See this post for more detail.

Sort out your system of planning and plan out your year

Learn to become a proactive rather than reactive researcher. Start to plan out your days (see this post for more details). Also broaden your scope and start to plan out your year. Try and get a big picture view on the goals you want to achieve and then break those down into smaller goals for each month (or each semester).

Set up good writing habits now

Ultimately, the point of the PhD is to write a PhD. So it is worth your time investing in your writing. Read books on how to improve your writing. I’ve found ways to continually write throughout the PhD and make it less scary. 

View the PhD as a time to acquire skills

Develop your statistical and analytical skills. Learn different statistical programs. Create a list of skills that you want to achieve by the end of your program, rather than just aiming for that title.

Treat the PhD as a job

This advice, as controversial as it may be, was vital to my mental health. I chose to view it as a 9-5 job rather than as an all consuming part of my life and it made for a better PhD. Also, be prepared to ride the academic rollercoaster of having busy times and quiet times and learn to plan for that. 

Foster your friendships

Your PhD buddies are your most valuable resource. Don’t view them as competition. This also applies to your online network. Join academic twitter. I didn’t join until the last six months of my PhD journey and I regretted not joining earlier. There is so much kindness and sharing of resources and tips, you are honestly doing yourself a disservice not being part of that community.

Read our blog

This last piece of advice is probably a little cheeky. I guess I should say, read blogs in general. But especially the Thesis Whisperer’s blog or the Research Whisperer or Research Insiders.

What other advice would you have? Any other good blogs I should add to this list? If you are just starting out now, good luck and connect with me on twitter (@alessateunisse).

– Alessa

My Experience Being Interviewed Part 5: Should I Take the Job?

The Recap

Over the last few weeks I have written about my experiences in showcasing passion in interviews and job applications, how I prepared for academic interviews, dealing with the rejection of not having enough experience, and how I coped with an interview that went completely wrong. Today I want to talk about what happens when the hiring stars align and you are offered the position – should you take it?

If you are good enough for one job offer, you are good enough for another

When I was applying for work I spoke to other academics in the department. I heard stories of “I knew someone that went straight into a full time lecturer and researcher position out of their PhD, and they were swallowed up by teaching and didn’t have the network and support in place for research”. Another piece of common anecdotal advice was people regularly admitting to turning down full time academic positions to do postdoctoral work. In short I was told no, you don’t have to take the job. If you’re good enough for one job offer, you are good enough for another.

Acknowledge your needs and wants

In today’s academic job market, it can be hard just to get to the interview stage, let alone to a stage where a job offer is made. So how do you decide to turn a job down when another may not show its face for some time? You need to balance out what you need/want vs what the institute is offering. What you want may involve things like job/financial security, or somewhere that may or may not involve uprooting, or a relaxed work environment. Can you live without some of these if necessary? What factors are an absolute must for you?

For me, at least, there was a need for a secure income. Uprooting was an option, but only in fantastic circumstances. As I went through the hiring process of different institutions I quickly got a feel for the culture of the institution, and in my own head had started preferencing where I really wanted to go vs where I would want to avoid. In the case of the interview that went wrong, I had ultimately decided that even if offered a position at that institute, I probably would have turned it down. They didn’t offer me that position, but did offer me a 6 month teaching only position, which I did indeed turn down. It was not long after turning down that position before I was offered what I can only call the job of my dreams; a permanent full time lecturer and researcher position.

The Takeaway

No, you do not have to take that job. If you are good enough to get one offer, you are good enough to get another offer. If the position or the institute is not what you like or need, do not feel that you have to say yes to the offer. It is ok to say no.

PhD Student: An Expert or a Skill Builder?

The PhD Student: Expert or Skill Builder?

When I started the PhD, this whole process was advertised as a chance to create new knowledge. I was going to become an expert on a tiny thing in the world of knowledge. And this may be true. During the PhD, despite imposter syndrome, I did become an expert on my topic. 

However, I think this is the wrong perspective to have. Not everyone who graduates with a PhD will end up in academia. Ending up in industry is a fantastic result (even if navigating that world sounds difficult and your program didn’t really prepare you for it). Especially now, during a pandemic, that the academic job market has dried up and universities are in crisis, the near future is looking a little grim. I recommend reading this post by the Thesis Whisperer once you have finished here. She relays the idea I’m trying to communicate here passionately and clearly. 

You should view your time as a PhD student as a time to build skills (both academic and non-academic). Be selfish and focus on yourself. Acquire skills and add them to your CV. You never know where you’ll end up after the PhD, so it is best to try and collect all the skills to maximise your chances of employment.

Study Design skills: Try and make sure that you are using different study designs (qualitative, quantitative, mixed designs) and engage in theoretical and empirical work. Conduct a systematic review rather than a narrative review. Or do both.

Analytical skills: Include different types of analyses. Don’t just stick to your favourite ANOVA all the time. 

Programming skills: Learn statistical programs, like SPSS, R, Python, Jamovi etc. (see this post for more on this). Also, if relevant to you, use different programs to deliver your experiments (e.g., Qualtrics, Matlab etc.). 

Communication skills: Become a tutor or get a guest lecture in a unit. Both will teach you valuable communication skills. Take workshops on writing for publication and other academic skills as well as writing for industry (e.g., how to write a memo).

Supervision skills: If you can, try to mentor students or supervise honours students’ projects. 

Management/Organisational skills: While teaching, I was lucky enough to become head tutor on some of the units and as a result I ended up training and hiring tutors, arranging class times, managing the online learning system (e.g., Blackboard or moodle). This gave me great skills in managing people and organising many spinning plates.

In short, treat the PhD as a time for you to level up. Not just as an expert on a specific area but with the skills you can then use in future employment.

Have I missed any skills? What else can you learn during a PhD?

– Alessa

My Experience Being Interviewed Part 4: What Happens When the Job You are Interviewed For is Different to the Job Advertised

Leading up to the interview

They say that a job interview is as much a chance for the applicant to showcase themselves as it is an opportunity for the workplace to showcase themselves. There may be issues in moving from PhD to post-hoc and the job market may not be fantastic, but universities still have to convince applicants to work for them.

This particular story is about a job I applied for at a large Australian university that did not showcase themselves well. I had been resilient through my failed job applications, used what I had learned from these failures to improve myself and showcase my experience and passion. This lead me to applying for a post-doc position described as a 40/40/20 breakdown. The research was half post-doc and half independent research. It was a perfect set up. I applied and I scored an interview. I prepared as thoroughly as I could. In the first 2 minutes of the interview I realised I was completely wrong about everything.

Making the wrong first impression

The interview panel included people I had not seen on the university website. Maybe the department website was out of date, that’s fine. Then the first question I was asked was “Why did you apply for this job”. I showcased my understanding of the job, the department, and how I fit in. I talked about grants and a 3-year research plan. I spoke to the skills I had and how they could contribute to a post-doc project. The response I received: “well… we are offering a full-time post-doc position. You might have some time for independent research, but that’s on your own time, not ours. Teaching is a maybe if we are short-staffed”.

The job advertised was not the job being offered to me.

I made it to the second round of interviews

The next question was “so what do you know about this project?”. I had no idea. I drew on where the industry was headed and what I knew of the staff members research. In the end I wasn’t too far off the mark and, somehow, was invited into the round two interviews. I was told it had come down to myself and one other person. The round two interviews were much more organised than the first.

What I learnt

Ultimately, I walked away confused and deflated. It left me wondering whether I would take the job if I received an offer. But ultimately, I learnt that while planning is important it’s not everything. We need to be able to adapt to the unexpected and be flexible in how we approach stakeholders – a one size fits all will not always work. I learnt that a lot of this could have been avoided if I reached out to the head of department and asked for more information about the position. It was a poor interview process, but ultimately, there are things on both sides that could have been done to avoid it.

In the end, though, I received a job offer from another institute, the interview process with them was amazing and extremely professional, and I have been unbelievably happy there ever since.

~ Chris

You vs. the PhD

One of the best decisions I made when I started the PhD was to treat it like a job. I would attempt to only work Monday to Friday during business hours. I didn’t realise at the time how radical this idea was (I was not involved in academic twitter at the time).

I wanted to put some emotional distance between me and my PhD. If my life was nothing other than the PhD, I knew that the minute I hit a setback I would crumble. I wanted to make sure that I had a “professional distance”. This would help not only to be more critical of my own work but also allow me to attempt to have a “work/life balance”. I needed to foster my friendships (this would also benefit my PhD, see here) and focus on my mental health.

I’m not lazy. The thought of only working during business hours can appear lazy to some. I just like to think I’m efficient. You can give yourself 8 hours to write a methods section or you can squeeze it into 3 hours. For me, the time pressure helped. I would block out sections for my day to write and I *had* to get my writing done in that time.

Sure, there were times when I worked late and worked weekends. Especially when I was cramming teaching into my schedule and marking assignments late into the night. Or if I had over-committed that semester. But this was an exception and not the norm.

Now I understand that sometimes we can’t make these decisions in a vacuum. Some PhD-ers work in competitive labs and your worth is apparently only measured by your constant presence, productive or not. I’m sorry if this is your situation. Or perhaps you have other challenges that prevent you from setting these limits for yourself. For me, I was just working alone with my supervisor so I could set my own rules. This was isolating sometimes, so I had to foster my friendships and seek support. But overall it taught me how to be independent, to manage my time effectively, and I finished my PhD in 3 and a half years.

Was I so radical? Did you set limits to your PhD work like I did? Or did your PhD creep into everyday of the week?

My Experience With Being Interviewed Part 3: Preparing for the Interview

The Recap

So far I have shared my experience with receiving the ‘sorry, we found someone with more experience‘ rejections. I also have spoken about showcasing your passion in applications for work and how this translates to the interview room. But now I want to turn my attention to talk about that period between when you have scored the interview and just before you step into the interview room; I want to talk about preparing for the interview itself.

Your Application

Let’s start with the obvious one; review your application. Every job requires your application to highlight specific skills and abilities that meet the requirements of that specific job. As such, each application you write will ultimately be a touch different. But the last thing you want is to mix up your applications. So, I studied my own cover letter and CV. When studying these, I did so with the job description next to me with highlighters in hand. I colour coded different parts of my application and matched it with the respective part of the job description. I took these with me into the interview so I could easily source this information if needed.

Know the Hiring Panel

This one is not always a possibility, but in some cases you will be told who the interviewing panel will be ahead of schedule. This information gives you a lot to work with. Learn everything you can about the hiring panel, what their research is, what work in the community have they done, are there videos of them presenting their work or lecturing? All of this can help you to not only understand the interests of the panel but also to glean a little about their personality. I found this particularly helpful because it did mean I could position myself in such a way that hiring panels found me personable and relatable.

Know the Staff and How You Fit In

This is a must, in my opinion, but is also a great fallback strategy when you don’t know the hiring panel. Almost every institution will have staff profiles. These, for the most part, will be up-to-date with photos, descriptions of staff research interests, and descriptions of what staff teach. Sometimes it also includes administrative roles of staff. All of this information can be paramount in knowing exactly how you will fit into the institution. But, as an added bonus, if you do not know who is on your hiring panel, you now have a bit more of an insight into who might be on your panel. In fact, this is exactly what happened with most of my interviews. I did not know who would be on the hiring panels but was able to know each panel member by face because of the research I had done prior.

Rehearse Presentations

Some interviews with universities will require a research presentation of some kind, so obviously, practice and prepare. However, I have been to other interviews where I was told “no presentation is required” and then in the first 10 minutes or so of the interview I get “please tell us about your research”. Luckily, in my case, I had already prepared a presentation on this topic and presented it to a number of interview panels and had feedback from each to improve the presentation. When I was caught off guard in this particular interview I simply gave that presentation. So it may be worth having your story rehearsed and ready to perform even if there is no explicit request for this.

What are Your Strategies?

Use the comments below to share your own thoughts and strategies for preparing for interviews. Do you do something different? Perhaps you have tried something I have suggested and it did or did not work – what was your experience?