Academic Advice

Year One, Done


Well there you have it. The final papers are in. The last classes are closed. And this theoretical phenomenon called a summer break has arrived (more on that later).

Four (or five? or six?) more years of this doctoral thing? Why not? But in the meantime, here are the top lessons I’ve learned in the first year of my doctoral program:

1. Admit What You Don’t Know

It’s ok not to know everything. This is true for life in general, but I was glad to find that it still holds true in a field where knowing things is the main form of capital.

So when a colleague throws out a name or obscure theory, you could still nod along like you know what they’re talking about, then dash to wikipedia later. But there’s no need. Almost everyone, academic or otherwise, loves sharing their knowledge. Just say “Oh, I haven’t read much XYZ, tell me more” and they’ll gladly give you a briefing, then totally forget about it.

Boom. You’ve learned something. They’re happy. You’re happy. And you’ve just experienced the academic equivalent of bonding over a round of golf. And if someone gives you a raised eyebrow about not knowing an obscure reference, it’s a good sign that you should avoid that person anyway.

2. Chase Your Wild Geese

One of Google’s many claims to fame is their policy encouraging engineers to spend 20% of their work time on random projects of interest . While Google has apparently rolled back this policy, the rest of us should not.

I constantly come across random articles, authors, and ideas that I’d love to know more about – even if they have nothing to do with what I’m working on. As a chronic procrastinator, I know it’s often best to resist the wild goose chase.

But is that chase always a bad thing? I used to force myself to abstain completely from these tangents, but oftentimes, my wild goose chases ended up leading to important discoveries, side projects, and information I was glad I knew for later work.

So now, I compromise: instead of dismissing those urges completely, I save them in a folder for a weekly night completely dedicated to wild goose hunting (I actually named the folder “Wild Geese”).

First, this keeps me on task during work time. It’s also much easier to resist the goose, because I know I’ll be able to chase after it later. At the same time, this system also gives credence to the fact that, sometimes, you really do need to go off after that goose – that there’s a reason the topic caught your eye in the first place, and oftentimes, it’s more closely related to your work than you think it is.

Ok, sometimes it’s not. At all. But it’s often our life’s goose chases that make us interesting.

3. Doing What You Love is Dangerous

The other night, I actually caught myself saying “Oh good. I’m done with my work for the day. Now I can get ahead on more work!”

No complaints. I love what I do. But I realized that was getting out of control when someone asked about my hobbies and I drew a total blank. I could list plenty of things I used to do when I had a stressful job that I tried to avoid – it turns out I may have been a much more interesting person back then.

Again. No complaints. But just like being in love with a person, even if you’re absolutely, utterly in love with your work, some time apart is always good for you.

Which leads me to…

4. There is No Such Thing as a Summer Off

Let’s be real, teachers know this already. But just wanted to reiterate that it’s still true in academia. Summers are filled with writing, conference proposals, side projects, side jobs to make ends meet, and everything you put off until the summer, mistakenly imagining you’d have time to do it.

I’m actually looking forward to classes starting up again, so I have less to do.

Which leads me to the last, and probably most important point…

5. Prioritize: Schedule Social Life Like it’s Work (stick with me here). 

I’m busy. You’re busy. It’s a universal truth that we all seem rather busy. I used to say I’m having a busy week. Then I moved to saying I’m pretty busy this month. Later I concluded that it’s been a rather a busy year. It’s now time to admit that LIFE is busy, not only because we live in a culture that glorifies being busy, but also because we live an amazing world with infinite things to do, explore, and learn about.

So for me, being “busy” has become less about the number of tasks I have to do and more about how I’m prioritizing things.

I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve been “too busy” to schedule lunch with a friend, a night out, or getting to a friend’s birthday party, but I can’t think of one time when I’ve been too busy to schedule a work meeting. Why is that?

I’ve had to cancel on friends and social events because I’ve gotten too busy, but when would I ever do the same thing for a work meeting, a project, or a course? Never.

Again, it’s not a matter of being too busy; it’s about how I’m prioritizing my life. Work stuff comes first, and if there happens to be room left over, and I happen to have enough energy, a social life comes next.

The problem is, like I said above, there will always be more work. I’m still far from perfect at this, but I’ve been trying to prioritize social engagements in the same way I would work meetings. I put them in my calendar, and nothing else goes there. If someone at work tries to schedule something that day, I say “I have a meeting” (the truth) and no one bats an eyelash to reschedule our work for another time.

So there you have it. Just a few points from a ton learned this year – and none of it even touches on actual academic content. But we can discuss that over coffee. Which I’ll schedule. And prioritize. And it will be grand!

Feel free to comment below or on the blog’s Facebook page

Follow on Twitter @chriskbacon

1 thought on “Year One, Done”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s