My Experience With Being Interviewed Part 2: Expressing Passion

You Have To Show Them You Are Passionate

The first few times I applied for a job, I had a colleague read over my applications. The colleague was an established figure in academia and was involved in the hiring of academics at their institution. The advice they gave me was that I had to show my passion for the position I was applying for, especially since I was trying to skip a post-doctoral position and bee-line directly into a lecturer position. Now, passion is not everything (and I don’t think anyone hires someone just becuase they’re passionate), but I think it was an integral part of getting to the interview stage.

How I Expressed Passion In My Applications

CVs are pretty dull to read. I tried to inject my own passion in them by highlighting all the extra stuff I was doing around my passions. Society involvement, awards, community activity, and so forth. But where I really brought out my passion was in my cover letter. Every sentence was worked and reworked to highlight just how excited and motivated I was to be working psychology. That I had thoroughly enjoyed every experience thus far and was anxious to continue. Now, this was not a lie. I love what I do. But the point is that I used my cover letter to express that excitement and dedication.

Cover Letters vs CVs

I guess this is as good of a place as any to briefly talk about how I distinguished my cover letter from my CV. All too often cover letters read like mini-CVs: “Here are the key lines of my CV related to this job”. But another colleague of mine recommended using the CV to spell out the connection between the lines in my CV or, as they put it “your cover letter should read between the lines of your CV for the hiring panel”. As such, my cover letters rarely mentioned content that was in my CV, but rather, spoke about what I had been doing in the different roles listed in my CV and how they were interconnected. How my research was feeding into my teaching, how my passion for supervision and disappointment in ECR support (at least, the ECR support available to myself) pushed me to take on roles where I could to try and provide ECR support for others or to support those who had the means to provide ECR support. This kind of qualitative detail just doesn’t come across in a CV. But it works well in a cover letter and provides many opportunities to bring out your passion.

The Follow-Through

I think almost every interview I had opened with “please tell us a bit about yourself and your passion” or something to that effect. In all my post-interview discussions with the hiring committee (usually about why I was unsuccessful), I was praised for the passion I had expressed. So whether or not this is something that the hiring panels were looking for, it was certainly something they were taking notice of. So how did I express this passion in the interview? I was emotive, I was excited, and I was confident. Most of the interviews I went for involved a presentation of my research to date and, for me, that was where I expressed my passion the most. As academics, I don’t think we spend much time considering how we present. But tonality, speed of delivery, movement, the rhythm with which we talk, eye-contact, humour, and the level of casualness all influence how a presentation is received. The combination of these things that work best for one person differs to the next.

Have Your Say

I hope you guys have found this interesting and, perhaps, found a new idea or two. Use the comment box below to suggest ways that you bring passion into your applications and interviews!

~ Chris

Shifting mindsets from competitive to collaborative

In Australia, if you are a psychology student, this is the process:

  • Step 1: Get into a psychology degree
  • Step 2: Get consistently higher grades
  • Step 3: Get into the one year honours program with your fabulous grades
  • Step 4: Go and do a professional masters (e.g., clinical, neuropsychology, or organisational) or a masters of research (which leads to a PhD)

(N.B., there are variations between institutions, but steps 1-3 are fairly universal. And I’m certain that this experience probably extends beyond just psychology students.)

This process puts into a competitive mindset.

I have to get good grades to get into Honours. 

I have to do better than all my friends or I won’t get into honours.

I can’t ask for help from my friends or they will steal all my good ideas.

Although you are jovial with the people you sit next to in class, you moan about lecturers and assignments together, at the back of your mind you are constantly thinking “are they smarter than me? Will they get into honours and I won’t?” And, if you’re not careful, this mindset persists even once you make it into honours and beyond. I’m fairly certain some people spend their entire academic careers thinking like this. 

This mindset is so unhelpful. I’ve found that you get infinitely more out of your education when you think about the people around you as collaborators rather than as competitors. Once thing I loved about doing the honours program was that everyone was working on a different project and writing a thesis. We could explain the methods of our studies to each other and offer advice. We could ask each other for help with statistical analysis. This is because we didn’t feel like we were competing anymore. One person might have been conducting a longitudinal study on anxiety and gut issues and another person might have been researching decision-making under pressure, both of which have completely different methods and different ways of analysing the data. There was no way to “steal ideas” from each other so it felt safer to share and ask for help.

It was during honours that I realised it takes a village to write a thesis. Apart from the support from non-academic friends and family, you need your nerdy buddies around you. I set up weekly coffee sessions where we could discuss our projects and ask “the hivemind” for help. This continued throughout my masters and PhD. From the outside we just looked like a bunch of PhD students eating lunch and whining about their PhDs. But the sessions were so good for our mental health and often for our PhDs. Sometimes your supervisors don’t have all the answers, but one of your friends might. Sometimes you’re just too close to the problem to see the solution. Your friends have more distance and might be able to help. Foster your friendships and shift your mindset. It will help you get through the PhD.

A final caveat: Some people are in labs or research groups that don’t have the best culture. They are very competitive for a variety of reasons. Check out this post for some advice.

– Alessa Teunisse

My Experience Being Interviewed Part 1: We Found Someone With More Experience

This Series

This is the start of a series of posts on working through difficulties in finding employment following your PhD. I have previously written about my personal experience with feeling like there was this gaping space between PhD and Post-Doc, I have also written about how academic jobs are advertised in diverse places. But for the next few weeks I want to talk about some of the struggles and my personal strategies for once you have scored an interview. Today will be about the ever soul-crushing “we found someone more experienced” justification for not getting a position and some reasons why this might be. I also recommend that you read up on my resiliency and rejection in academia series on dealing with the emotions of being rejected, becoming resilient to rejection, using rejection to improve yourself, and what it is like being the rejector.

A Tale As Old As Time

I had heard the good old “we found someone with more experience” statement plenty of times throughout my life, not just in academia. But it was a statement I associated with applying for positions above your capabilities. I also knew well in advance that the academic job market has become extremely competitive, so over the 10 years or so of study I had put a lot of effort into accruing experience. By the end of my PhD I had nearly 10 publications to my name (some of which I was first author), five years of experience in a research team where I was involved in all aspects of the research process, and five years of teaching experience across all aspects of teaching which, near the end, included lecturing, content development, and co-convening. Yet despite this, I was still being told “There was someone with more post-PhD experience than you” by multiple universities.

So There Must Have Been Some Serious Contendors?

Before I go any further, it is worth noting that I did not want a post-doc, I wanted to go straight into a lectureship. Time and time again I was told that I was too junior to go straight into a lectureship, which I appreciated but I persevered. Ultimately, I received an appointment as a full-time lecturer and I am very happy with where I am. But not every job I applied for was at a lecturing level and that is not what this post is about. This post is about entry-level post-doc positions looking for people fresh out of their PhD but still saying that I did not have enough experience. I actually built up the confidence and asked one employer about what this other person had that I was lacking – I wanted to know how I could improve myself for future applications. “They had a few months extra post-PhD time than you”. Now it is impossible to tell if this person and I had equivalent pre-PhD experience, if the few months extra post-PhD trumped anything my pre-PhD experience counted for, or if this was a decoy to prevent revealing more details about the decision than needed. But this was not an uncommon response from prospective employers.

The Saving Grace

Why didn’t I want a post-doc? Because I already had my own research agenda, I had the connections, I had my own story that I wanted to tell and was ready to tell it. I just needed somebody who wanted to hear it. The place that hired me were more interested in my pre-PhD experience than the time since I had graduated. They were interested with where I wanted to take my PhD work, how I planned to do it, and did I have the necessary support or could they provide the support to help me achieve that. There was a lot more to this on than just research (in the way of service and teaching), but that was the research side of things.

The Takeaway

We know that the academic job market is competitive, I suspect the decision between person X and person Y may not always be completely objective, particularly if two candidates are both perfect fits for the role. Nevertheless keep trying! Being told someone has more experience than you does not mean you don’t have enough experience. Keep trying!

~ Chris

Academic Writing Hacks Part 4: Cafe Surfing and Flow

N.B., all the posts in this series were planned prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Your priority at this time should be staying safe. If you happen to have time for writing, then these tips may help. If not, bookmark this and come back to it later when the world has calmed down and we have conquered this virus.

In my earlier posts I talked about setting up a writing schedule or finding a time of day to write that suits you and your brain. However, sometimes we all just having looming deadlines we need to meet and we need to spend a solid day or two on a single writing project.

What do you do then?

For this, we need to harness the power of flow. Flow is “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter

I found the video linked below a great introduction to flow.

As this video suggests (at around 6:10), there are five triggers to creating flow

  1. Risk
  2. Novelty
  3. Complexity
  4. Unpredictability 
  5. Pattern Recognition

This blog post describes flow and provides some great tips on achieving it.

For me, the best thing is triggering novelty. So, typically I would start writing in the morning (either at my desk at home or in my office on campus). Then, after lunch, my brain can’t handle any more writing. What I would do then was pick up my laptop and head out to a cafe. I would order a coffee, put on my sound cancelling headphones, and trick my brain into thinking this was a completely different day and I was ready to write again. This way I would squeeze an extra hour or two of writing out of my day when I normally wouldn’t.

For me, cafe surfing was a great way of getting novelty in my day and triggering flow. But right now we’re all confined to our homes. No cafe surfing allowed (thanks, COVID-19). The way I’ve been coping with this is by starting my day on my desktop computer at home. After lunch, I brew myself a coffee, pick up my laptop, and start writing on the sofa. I’ve moved somewhere else (in my tiny one bedroom apartment) to trigger the novelty aspect. But also, this is a pattern my brain recognises: Alessa gets a coffee in the afternoon, picks up her laptop, and changes location. Therefore, it is time to write.

Have you come across flow before? How do you trigger it?

This is the last post in this series for now. I have plenty more writing tips but I’ll save those for future posts in a few months’ time.

— Alessa Teunisse

Overworked then underworked then overworked – The Academic Rollercoaster

A Personal Experience

So this is a reflection of my own experiences with workload within academia as both a PhD student and a recently appointed lecturer. I find that workloads seem to go up and down. There are times where I will sit at my desk and go “oh wow, I can actually breathe, I can finally get to those little things that have sat there for months” and then there are times where I find I need to work crazy hard and really make every hour count for two hours worth of work. Below is how I have started to rationalise this to myself.

The Calm Before the Storm

So, I have started to rationalise the low periods as the calm before the storm. The period where all those little loose ends can be tied up before I am overrun with work and overcommitted to things. But this has also helped a little bit in realising that, during these calming times, I shouldn’t begin to commit too much. I noticed early on that with a slightly less full calendar I would begin saying yes to many things I would otherwise say “I would love to, but maybe another time”. Lo and behold, saying yes to lots of things leads to being overworked (shocker!).

A Balancing Act

The other thing that I tell myself is that it is all a bit of a balancing act. I become overworked for a period of time so that I can then be underworked for a little bit and get to all those loose ends. Once they’re done, the work builds back up and then eases off so new loose ends can be addressed. At least, that is what I tell myself.

Underworked Doesn’t Mean Not Working

When I say underworked, I don’t mean that I am not working. There is always something to do. But there is a difference between feeling like you are on top of everything and know that your normal day will be full without being crammed compared to having to do things much faster than usual or working a few extra hours here or there to make deadlines. But it definitely feels like you can work and breathe vs feeling like you are just go go go.

In Closing

I used to think this was maladaptive, that this was a somewhat abusive relationship between me and my overcommitments. However, with a bigger perspective on this ebbing and flowing of workload I have realised that it actually works quite well, at least for me. Have you noticed similar patterns in your workload or perhaps you have experienced something different? Use the comments below to share your experience!

~ Chris

Academic Writing Hacks Part 3: The Terror of a Blank Page

N.B., all the posts in this series were planned prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Your priority at this time should be staying safe. If you happen to have time for writing, then these tips may help. If not, bookmark this and come back to it later when the world has calmed down and we have conquered this virus.

When I started my PhD, I got the impression that people would spend the first part collecting data and reading and the last part just “writing it up”. Although this process sounds like batching tasks (as my last post described) it can actually be quite inefficient.

I can only speak to my experience in psychological research (I have no idea how people in the arts write PhDs. I can’t even picture how to frame a PhD purely in theoretical terms without any data) but for me it was more efficient to be writing consistently throughout my PhD, rather than just writing it all up at the end. How is “present me” supposed to remember all the things “past me” did? Why did “past me” choose this variable/methodology/analysis?

However, there is nothing more terrifying than a blank page.

It is so easy to retreat back to data collection or data analysis or designing the next experiment (especially if your current study produced less than desirable results). But I found ways to make writing easier. I called this “scaffolding” my papers. That is, I set up the framework (which is easy to do) for “future me” to come back later and finish.

In my second post in this series I mentioned chronotypes and how you should organise your schedule around when your brain is most ready to tackle certain tasks. In my afternoon slump, when I needed something monotonous to do, I would open up a Word document and format it correctly to meet APA standards. I would write in the headings I would need for that paper (e.g., Methods, Participants, Measures, Procedure, Results, Discussion etc.) because I didn’t need too much brain power for that. Then I would add in details that I already knew (even if my study was still running), like describing the participants and I would just place an XXX for the numbers that needed to be added in later.

So far, this is what you can do even if you don’t have your data yet and you don’t have too much brain power:

  • Format the word document to the correct formatting standards (e.g., APA)
  • Add in all the headings that this paper/chapter will need
  • Add in easy stuff you already know (like describing your participants)

Then, in another afternoon slump, I would write the procedure section as well as the measures/materials section. This is especially good to do while you’re in the middle of data collection because the procedure is very fresh in your mind as well as all the measures or materials you are using. I just put a XXX for anything I don’t know and that future me will have to fill in.

  • Procedure section
  • Measures/materials section

Then, on another day I would come back and think about what types of analysis I would do and just put in those headings in the results sections (e.g., Descriptive Statistics, Correlations, Analysis of Variance etc.). This will probably change later, but just putting in headings can help me feel more control over what I will need to do later. I know that in my descriptive statistics section I will probably need a table that displays means, standard deviations, and a few other stats for each variable. So I will format up a table, listing all the variables and have it ready to input numbers later.

  • Put headings in results section
  • Format a blank table (with some information added in)

The last thing I do is write in my hypotheses and aims in the introduction section (while the rest of it is still blank). Then, I sometimes list relevant papers or topics there (for example, things I cited in my ethics/IRB application or in the protocol I wrote when designing the experiment). Or even a note to myself e.g., hey, you decided on this because X and Y. Look at these papers to remind yourself later!

  • Write in hypotheses
  • List relevant papers
  • Insert bits from my IRB/ethics/protocol

So by this point, my Word document looks really full and I haven’t done anything too cognitively demanding yet. No data analysis or introduction/discussion section writing. However, in my brain, it looks like I’m just editing some writing I’ve already done rather than writing something new. This trick is enough to get me going on this paper or chapter of the thesis.

Do you do this? What other tricks do you have to get you over the terror of the blank page?

— Alessa Teunisse

Statistify yourself! The advantages of learning multiple statistics software

We are taught our institutes chosen software

Generally, institutions will choose a single statistical package (be it SPSS, SAS, Stata, R, JASP, Jamovi, etc) and only teach that one package to students across all of their statistics subjects. This makes sense from a learning and teaching point of view. However, what happens when you are trained on SPSS and then apply for a position at an institute that only uses R? It is not unheard of for some job descriptions to even require competency in that particular institute’s chosen program. So what should you do? I have found knowing a range of programs helps to have a competitive edge and addresses this exact problem. Below I run through my own experiences learning JASP, Jamovi, SPSS, Stata, MPlus, and R.

The easy stuff

Some programs are actually really easy to learn. For example, JASP and Jamovi are point-and-click based programs that are freely available and almost deceptively simple to use. However, the trade off is the lack of customisability and power of these programs. For example, Jamovi does not do bootstrapping for anything other than moderation and mediation models. Nevertheless, these are programs that some institutes may use if they cannot afford a paid statistical package and do not want to go through the trauma of learning R.

The moderate stuff

SPSS, Stata, and MPlus (and potentially others) are actually not too bad to learn. Once you learn how to write syntax for one, learning it for the others isn’t too bad. However, they each have their own quirks and approaches to syntax. These are programs that will take a little longer to learn. However, I have found learning these the most beneficial. Each can do things the other can’t and being able to shift between them almost on the fly has empowered me to run analyses my colleagues have not been able to do.

The hard stuff

R. For some this is a walk in the park, for many others the mere sight of that capital letter is enough to instill fear. However, it is extremely flexible and completely free. The big advantage of this is that it is a piece of software you will always have access to. No subscription needed. There are many many other benefits to R which I just do not have the space to explore in this paper. But it is because of these advantages that more and more institutions seem to be turning to R over other programs. 

The Takeaway

There are plenty of programs out there, some harder than others, but in a competitive industry having the ability to say ‘yes I can use X program’ could be important. The institute I am based at uses Jamovi, yet my ability to use R, SPSS, and MPlus (among others) has made me a go-to person for conducting analyses outside of Jamovi’s scope. There are other programs like MatLab and Python which I have not personally learned. Please feel free to comment on your experience with these or other programs. What would you recommend others learn?

~ Chris

Academic Writing Hacks Part 2: Batching your tasks and conquering your schedule

N.B., all the posts in this series were planned prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Your priority at this time should be staying safe. If you happen to have time for writing, then these tips may help. If not, bookmark this and come back to it later when the world has calmed down and we have conquered this virus.

In my last post I recommended the book by Paul J. Silvia’s “How to write a lot”. Now I’d like to touch on some other points that could help you focus on your writing.

What is your chronotype?

There is a plethora of research out there that tries to describe chronotypes. A chronotype essentially asks you to define yourself in terms of what time of day you are “most active”. Are you a night owl or an early bird? (Or, as I usually joke a “permanently exhausted pigeon”). Some people go deeper and say there are four types: Bear, Lion, Wolf, or Dolphin. Feel free to fall down this rabbit-hole.

However, my main point here is to work out when your brain is most focused (especially for writing) and when it is not. For example, I know that (after some experimenting) my best writing is done between 10am and 12pm. Whereas, after lunch, my brain is mush. So if I have the freedom to organise my day, this is what it might look like:

  • 9am – emails and admin
  • 10am – writing time
  • 12pm – lunch time
  • 1pm – meetings or a more monotonous task (such as replying to emails or data entry)
  • 2pm – coffee time (perhaps chat to colleagues/friends about current problems and brainstorm solutions)
  • 3pm – something creative (e.g., designing a new experiment or following up on an interesting idea in Google Scholar)
  • 4pm – emails and admin

We don’t always have the luxury of a free day to organise as we please (for example, teaching classes or grading assignments or intense data collection can get in the way). But sometimes, some things have more flexibility than others.

If it’s possible, try and block out your writing time. Keep it as sacred and schedule meetings outside of that window. But the most important thing is self awareness. When are your best hours for writing? Is it 11pm? 6am? Then work around that. Also, experiment with this. Perhaps you always assumed you were a morning person, but try writing after lunch or in the late afternoon. 

Time Blocking or Day Theming

A lot of the productivity gurus talk about time blocking or day theming . I visualise it as batching something or meal prepping. Why spend 40 minutes every night cooking dinners, when you could make a week’s worth of dinners on one night in 2 hours. It’s much more efficient.

It’s all about blocking similar tasks together rather than switching between tasks. So, have a set time to respond to emails, perhaps twice a day (I still need to get the hang of this one. I’m addicted to my inbox). Or have one or two days a week when you schedule all your meetings. If you can cluster all your teaching on one or two days (or half days), then try and do that. So your week could look like:

  • Monday AM: Emails, planning the week, prepping for meetings
  • Monday PM: Meetings
  • Tuesday AM: Teaching
  • Tuesday PM: Teaching
  • Wednesday AM: Writing/Data collection
  • Wednesday PM: Teaching admin
  • Thursday AM: Writing/Data collection
  • Thursday PM: Meetings
  • Friday AM: Writing/Data collection
  • Friday PM: Writing/Data collection

Of course, this is an ideal schedule and life doesn’t always lend itself to this. But aiming for this (i.e., proactively tackling your schedule) is better than just simply reacting to everything in your life. This way you feel more in control of your life.

Have you tried batching your life? What time of day is best for writing for you?

— Alessa Teunisse

Rejection, Rejection Everywhere – Part 4 of 4: Being the Rejector

The Other End of the Stick

Throughout this mini-series on rejection, I have shared my thoughts and experiences on receiving rejection, developing resiliency in receiving rejection, and harnessing rejection for self-improvement.Today I want to close this series by talking about being on the other end of the stick – being the rejector.

Does My Rejector Hate Me?

This is certainly a question that I have asked myself after receiving harsh feedback or rejection letters from journals. But is this really the case? Not that long ago I was reviewing a manuscript for a journal and, for the first time ever, felt the need to recommend a rejection rather than a revise and resubmit. The idea of recommending a rejection plagued me and I waited until quite close to the review deadline to submit it. I read through that paper multiple times questioning my own understanding of the science as I attributed my lack of enthusiasm for the paper to some flavour of Imposter Syndrome. In the end, after really getting my head around the paper, I decided that my initial instinct was right. The study was flawed beyond redemption. It turned out the other reviewers had the same views and the paper was rejected.

But this showed me that deciding to reject something or provide less than desirable feedback does not necessarily mean the rejector was raging over the poor quality of your work or trying to marginalise you. But that their own feelings about being the rejector are just as intense and anxiety provoking as receiving the rejection. Now, of course there are exceptions to the rules and I suspect there is an art to this. But at least that was my first experience.

Is It Personal?

I guess this is the other thing, right? The rejector has seen your work. Depending on the type of work it might be anonymous or it might not be. But that is rarely enough to prevent that little thought asking if the rejection is a stab at you as a researcher and your abilities or simply an acknowledgement that things didn’t quite work out this time and to try again. Personally, when I have been the rejector, it was the latter. A case of “I can see what you were trying to do, and I value and appreciate that, but maybe there is a need to try again while considering a few extra things”. I certainly was not thinking “oh my god, how did these people even get their degrees?” or anything malicious. Again, there’s always exceptions, and I am basing my experience on an N of 1. But, I think it shows, at least to some extent, that the rejector doesn’t necessarily want to make you go down in flames, and it also ties in nicely with the idea of trying to view harsh criticism as a way of building upon yourself.

Closing Thoughts

Rejection and harsh criticism, on the face of it, seems brutal. But once you scrape beneath the surface I think it is more complicated than that. Neither party is trying to be hurtful, and neither party wants to get hurt. However, written communication often lacks all those extra things that we use to determine the intent of a message, so we project our own expectations onto it. This gives us an opening to build upon and minimise the impact of this stuff.

Academic Writing Hacks Part 1: Setting up Good Writing Habits

N.B., all the posts in this series were planned prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Your priority at this time should be staying safe. If you happen to have time for writing, then these tips may help. If not, bookmark this and come back to it later when the world has calmed down and we have conquered this virus.

I’m aiming to write four posts in a little series titled “Academic Writing Hacks”. Hopefully it will help you to knuckle down and write that PhD/grant/paper.

When I started my PhD journey my supervisor recommended that I buy a specific book. He told me to buy my own copy because if I borrowed someone else’s that I wouldn’t ever give it back. The book was Paul J. Silvia’s “How to write a lot”. As the subtitle suggests, it is indeed a practical guide to productive academic writing.

It was a short, easy to read book that not only gave me really practical advice but was funny in places. I found myself saying “of course” and “that makes total sense” and “why did I spend money on a book with advice that was so obvious?” However, it’s nice having all that obvious and comforting advice in a single place. And also, sometimes we can get so lost in PhD writing stress, it’s nice to have someone practical and funny sit us down and gently explain things to us (in book form).

I’ve linked a few reviews here (but I thoroughly recommend you get a copy of your own):

But, in short, he tackles common barriers to writing such as

  • I don’t have the time to write!
  • I need to do more analysis/read more articles first!
  • I need a new desk/computer/nice chair before I can write
  • I need inspiration to write

He also provides motivational tools such as tracking writing (using a spreadsheet) or having small achievable goals (such as writing 200 words a day) as well as how to start a writing group (or Agraphia Group as he calls it). There are also some great tips on how to set up a writing schedule (whether it be a daily writing time or just three times a week).

Reading this at the beginning of my PhD journey really helped me to set up some good habits. Towards the end of my PhD journey I fell off the wagon and writing this blog post made me realise that I need to read this book again.

One way I love to procrastinate from writing is to look up productivity tips. It is so easy to keep reading blog post after blog post touting practical habits and excellent apps/tools to start writing. But ultimately, all you need is a small window of time and something to write on. The rest seems to be a frame of mind. Hopefully this book (and the other posts to come) will help.

Have you read this book? What other books helped you with writing?

— Alessa Teunisse