Staying Sane in Academia

This is a quick followup to this post from the other day. Here I’m going to list a few of the strategies I’ve developed for keeping my job from driving me crazy.

  1. Find places to work: home, the library, the coffee shop, whatever. Although new professors are often able to get work done in the office, it only takes a few years before so many people know where you can be found that it becomes impossible to get uninterrupted work time. Closing the door is of little help.
  2. Say “no” to things. Many of us are abysmally poor at this, but eventually it becomes a necessity. Figuring out when to say “yes” vs. “no” is hard.
  3. Don’t be afraid to do a bad job on things. It feels awful to submit a poorly edited paper or proposal, but it is simply impossible to be a perfectionist when there are 30 things to do and a week in which to do them.
  4. Find ways to keep teaching fun. Teaching the same course over and over rapidly becomes boring. Ripping out and replacing lame lectures, coming up with new and exciting programming assignments, and offering interesting extra-credit work are all fun. My favorite kind of extra-credit work is a contest where students need to create the fastest or smallest code for some task — this really brings out the best in the students.
  5. Stay in shape. I spent a few years letting work destroy my exercise schedule and it was a terrible idea, I ended up 25 pounds overweight and with high blood pressure. I now run or hike 45 minutes a day regardless of how crappy things are at work.
  6. Keep doing technical projects. During my first two years or so as a professor I wrote too many proposals and spent too much time teaching and otherwise interacting with students. I was totally miserable until I realized that I needed to keep a couple of technical projects to work on myself. It’s not even hard figuring out which ones: there are always plenty of ideas that are too speculative (read: stupid) to hand off to a student, but are still great fun to work on.
  7. Stop caring about individual papers and proposals. It took a while for me to learn to get over rejections quickly, and to start to see the research process as sort of a broad, fuzzy, long-term effort with very vague ups and downs, rather than as a sequence of individual efforts punctuated by total victories and abject failures.
  8. Stop caring too much about tenure and just get work done. Obviously this has to be done in moderation, but it’s critical: the tenure incentives (lots of pubs, lots of $$, lots of service, high teaching evaluations) are simply too screwed up to take seriously.

14 thoughts on “Staying Sane in Academia”

  1. Nice! I think I appreciate the “accuracy” of this advice a lot more now than I did before I started.

    3. As a corollary: “Don’t be afraid to be flaky.” This was my biggest adjustment. I still feel a twinge of guilt when I cancel a meeting at the last minute or fail to deliver something on time, but the guilt is rapidly decreasing. Of course you have to be strategic on when to “flake.”

    5. (Exercise) I’m having a hard time with this I think largely because of my irregular hours. But I do think it is doable – especially if you succeed in step 3 (not being a perfectionist).

    8. (Not caring about tenure) Much easier said than done!

  2. Amen to all of that. I was going to single out a few items for extra agreement, and ended up listing all of them !!

  3. That’s pretty much right on target. Much of this advice applies outside academia, by the way.

    However, I find that advice number 3 is dangerous. Try spending a week doing sh*tty work. Tell me how you feel after that. A better way to phrase it would be to realize that some things can be done poorly.

  4. GC I feel very disconnected from my grad school self at this point. Probably only #1 applies fully. The best advice I can give is (1) find the right advisor, (2) work really hard, (3) make friends and have fun, (4) learn to write well, and (5) seek diverse experiences (internships, etc.). I was very lucky to succeed at all of these except #4.

  5. Daniel I have spent a week doing very poor work and it is awful. I’ve decided that by far the worst is when I give a really crap lecture or otherwise let down the students. I plan to exploit having tenure to stop doing that.

  6. Your advice is dead on.

    For #8, I find it helpful to secretly compare my job security to my friends’ and family’s job security. Very few jobs come with multiyear contracts, as do many academic positions. It is important to find the right reference group, then one can realize how fortunate one is even to be on the tenure track.

  7. GC: As a somewhat impartial observer (technical staff member in an academic department at a large public university in the US), the main sources of graduate student insanity I see are:

    1. A lack of *meaningful* communication between graduate students and their committees until crunch time. (At that point, it’s usually too late and the project goes into double overtime. This can be disastrous if you have a job offer on the table.)

    2. Research scope creep. (Usually caused by #1.)

    3. Being too afraid of failing to actually make any research progress, instead opting to putz around on Facebook and Reddit all day. (Usually caused by #2.)

    Dr. Regehr’s list is pretty spot on. Point one is key, and if things are going off the rails, you need to have a face-to-face meeting with your advisor sooner rather than later.

    I would add “but don’t go overboard” to the end his second point. Our department has some students trying to pull off 80+ hour work schedules every single week, and I can see it slowly crushing their souls as the semesters go by…

  8. Personally, I am terrible at #3. (Does that itself count as being bad at something?)

    I also find that often, when people give me permission to do a bad job on something, they don’t really mean it.

  9. Good advice except for #3, which is seriously bad. It’s why we have so many crap conferences so that people who submit crap papers can get them published. If its not good enough, don’t submit it. If you submit poor work, you can’t expect constructive feedback so you have wasted your time.

    But the keywords here are ‘good enough’ – once you get to the stage of changing rather than obviously improving, it’s time to stop

  10. Hi Ian- Item #3 may not be very well worded but I stand by it. Sometimes it really is better (or simply necessary) to do more things badly than few things well.

    The best way to avoid submitting poor papers is to avoid doing poor work in the first place :).

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