Welcome to the inaugural post on the “Help for New Professors” blog! I’m starting this blog at the suggestion of one of my (much younger) colleagues who recently said to me, “I would love a book that offers advice to academics early in their career. “
Never one to pass up a great idea I thought, “Hey! I could do that!” After all what old professor doesn’t love to give advice? Despite being a bona-fide old fart (I’ve got the gray hair to prove it), I do remember the stress and insanity of those early years, probably because the stress and insanity never went away.
Am I qualified to give advice to new professors? Well, if making lots of mistakes along the way counts towards the requisite skill set – I’ve got tons of training! However, the main goal here is to let you know that you are not alone and that you’re probably not doing as badly as you think you are – because everyone is struggling! And if perhaps you get a chuckle or find a gem of truth in something I post here – all the better!
So to get started – the topic for today is “fear control”. You see, there are many skills that can make you a successful academic: effective time management, good writing abilities, being really smart (that one’s easy right? after all you DO have a PhD! ;-)), being a good mentor… What else? Oh ya, never needing sleep and having a family that doesn’t mind you working evenings and weekends… I am sure I could think up a better list but, no matter how long a list I came up with, the one skill that would always be right at the top is “fear control”. Really, once you have that mastered, the rest becomes easy.
Stress can seriously inhibit your productivity, which in turn increases your stress, creating a vicious cycle that can eventually paralyse you completely. Have you even found yourself bouncing around your office rifling through filing cabinets, shuffling through papers, swearing at your computer for beeping in another 20 emails, wishing away the line-up at the door, and cringing at the site of the message light blinking on your phone? At times I have been so overwhelmed that it’s felt like my head might spin right off and go into orbit. At some point I realize that I’m getting absolutely nothing accomplished, and I plop down into my chair in a complete daze. Then I remember my mantra – “control the fear”.
So – maintain your perspective, and practice keeping the fear under control. Face it – you are never going to be caught up, never. Not gonna happen. So get over it. Are you the type – like me – that always started assignments early, submitted reports on time and never, ever missed a deadline? Well – that’s all got to change. You must now learn to prioritize and grovel. Prioritize to ensure that items that absolutely have to be done on time (such as submitting grant applications and preparing for class) actually do get done on time, and grovel for extensions whenever it’s possible to get one. That’s what ALL your successful colleagues are doing and, once you realize that, it eliminates a ton of stress.
As it turns out, except for grant applications and a few other (primarily teaching or administrative) things, most of the deadlines that academics encounter are entirely fallacious – no one even expects you to meet them. Case in point – conference paper submissions. Don’t bother busting your butt to get these in by the posted deadline – you’re the only one who will and, as a result, your paper will sit lonely and neglected for weeks until the others start trickling in. I’ve organized a few conferences in my day and I can tell you – that paper deadline is pure fantasy. It’s purposely set early because they know that people are going to be asking for extensions and they want room in the schedule to grant them. If you take a minute to email the conference’s technical program coordinator asking for an extension, I’m 99.99% sure you will get it. In fact, they’ll probably be so damn happy you even bothered to ASK, they’ll thank you for it! Most people just disappear off the radar and the technical program coordinator ends up phoning and emailing people repeatedly begging them to submit their paper. (Can you tell I’ve been through this little nightmare more than a few times? We’ll talk about NOT agreeing to organize conferences in a future post on effective time management. :-))
Getting a deadline extension actually turns out to be easier than you might think. The truth is, EVERYONE is behind, no matter where they work and, consequently, no one can resist a good grovel. The trick to this is to grovel early – don’t grovel on the deadline date – do it a few weeks ahead. That way the person you’re getting the extension from can, in turn, have time to grovel to whomever they need to, in order to get their own deadline extension. As long as you keep in mind that grovels move up the food chain and budget time for this – you’ll rarely get turned down. In this context – it’s important to set grovelling deadlines for yourself – “If I’m not at this point in the work on this date, I’d better request that extension.” Also – keep in mind, grovelling deadlines are priority (i.e. drop-dead) deadlines – just like grant application deadlines. Set and keep your grovelling deadlines religiously.
Perfecting you grovelling skills and accepting that you are never, ever going to be caught up are the cornerstones of “fear control”. However, learning to juggle your many commitments effectively is also critical to maintaining fear control. That will be the topic of a future post… So, for now, hang in there, do some grovelling and postpone a deadline or two. I think it will do wonders for your blood pressure!
If you have a topic you would like to see discussed on this blog – please leave a comment to let me know. Also please use the comment feature to provide feedback – I’d love to hear your thoughts!