With any luck, by now your exams are long since marked and your grades are all submitted. My guess is that you’ve spent the last two weeks catching your breath after the eight months of insanity that typically accompanies the fall and winter teaching terms. And no doubt as summer approaches, you’ll be hearing this question from all of your family and friends, “So, are you off for the summer now?”
Probably that question irks you as much as it does me – since summer typically means just dropping down to a 40 hour work week (and that actually feels like a rest!) Here’s a much more relevant question about your summer – one you should be asking yourself actually, “How can I use the summer months most effectively?”
Early in my career I developed the following (bad) summer routine:
May: “I’m exhausted!” – Shell shocked from months of working evenings and weekends, I would collapse both physically and mentally. I would still go to work every day but I wouldn’t tackle any major goals; instead I would get sidetracked on tons of little jobs that took little mental energy and that (probably) could be left undone forever (e.g. back-tracking through the 3000 emails I never had time to answer, clearing through piles of clutter to find my desk, sorting through pounds of mail that I had ignored for the last few months…)
June: “It’s conference season!” – I would normally blow a week, at least, attending a conference or two. Helping my grad students to prepare the papers, presentations and posters for these conferences would eat up the rest of the month.
July: “It’s time for summer vacation!” – or more precisely – it’s time for another “working vacation” since one or more of my students would always be writing up their thesis in July and I’d have to read/review/revise for them every couple of days. (After all, I’ve got to get them done and out the door by August 31 right?)
August: “Back to school!” – spurred on by those annoying back-to-school ads that start on August 1 (aimed at cheering up frazzled parents) I would frantically try to get all the materials ready for the fall term.
By the end of the summer I would be inadequately rested (having worked during much of my vacation) and totally stressed (because I had journal papers to write up and I never managed to get to them). So, about ten years ago I decided to change my summer routine. These were not huge changes – just a few small tweaks to ensure that I would end the summer with a sense of accomplishment. Here’s what I do differently now…
- I forcibly limit the post-teaching ‘collapse” to a few days not a few weeks – this is not really that hard as it turns out – it’s just a matter of keeping the momentum going. Also, instead of doing less productive things like sorting through old emails and filing paper as my mental break, I spend a week updating all of my course materials while the good ideas are still fresh in my mind. (Incidentally, I do this right after the fall term, as well – before taking any time off for Christmas.)
- I then push on into May, stepping back up in intensity a bit to work on writing up one or two journal papers. I usually work at home instead of going into the office during this time – since I actually get much more done at home. My goal is to get at least one journal paper submitted by May 31, preferably two.
- I now only attend conferences in alternate years – so I save myself the mental and physical fatigue associated with travelling and attending these events. I do send students every year though since conference papers are very important to their success in scholarship competitions and it is extremely enriching and motivating for them. So, I still spend most of June helping the grad students to prepare their papers, presentations and posters, but with the extra time I have saved by not attending all of the conferences myself, I squeeze in some more work on another journal paper. This effort might sometimes push into early July.
- I try to take all of my vacation in in one big chunk in the last two weeks of July and the first two weeks of August. (It normally takes me a week or two just to ‘wind down’ and so breaking it up just isn’t as restful.) At this point I have one or two papers submitted, all of the students’ conference papers and posters are done, and I’ve even had some time in early July to help those students who are writing a thesis. Once on vacation, I don’t work; in particular, I try not to check my work email and I ask people not to call me unless there is an emergency. (Really – it’s okay to be unavailable when you’re on vacation!) It really helps to go away somewhere, preferably somewhere without internet access. It also helps if your grad students take some vacation then, too.
- In the last two weeks of August, it’s time to start prepping for classes. Two weeks is plenty of time for this, since I was so efficient in updating things back in May while the topics were fresh in my mind.
That’s it! I end the summer with one or two papers submitted, I am fully rested, and I am all ready for fall classes. Most especially – I am not stressed because I know I’ve had a very effective (and productive) summer.
Hopefully some of these ideas will prove useful to you. Perhaps you have some even better strategies for using the summer months effectively yourself? Please comment and share your ideas!
Thanks for reading – I hope you have a terrific (and effective!) summer.