The key skill that all PGRs and ECRs need to acquire is juggling. The thesis, the further research, the teaching, the first lecture or seminar, the networking, the conference presentation, the proposals to publishers, the admin . . . and on . . . and on. The bad news is that the quantity never gets any less. The good news is that, like real-life juggling, you get more adept. Here are some handy hints which I hope will help you on your way.
1) Ask for help: Don’t be shy. Overwhelmingly, administrators, line-mangers, senior colleagues, speakers at conferences, researchers in your field etc. are only too happy to pass on information and advice or share ideas. Be pro-active. For example, ask to sit in on colleagues’ lectures or seminars to learn a few tricks of the trade; ask a colleague who has experience of interviewing to look at your CV; or email a speaker in advance of a conference and ask if you can meet up and discuss how their research relates to yours. No-one will see this as incompetence or pushiness; everyone will recognise a lively interest.
2) Follow the rules: When the invitation to the interview asks you to send two pieces of writing, don’t send one or three. When the publisher asks for a chapter-by-chapter outline of your proposal, don’t attach a pdf of your thesis. When the journal says that the maximum length for an article is 7,000 words, including footnotes and bibliography, and that they use MLA documentation style, don’t send 10,000 words in Chicago and a note saying your bibliography is on the way. (Believe me – I’ve seen all these many times over.) There is absolutely no advantage in irritating the recipient or appearing unprofessional.
3) Remember Parkinson’s Law: ‘Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.’ This takes two classic forms. Firstly, there is the kind of person who feels they are not making their best effort unless they go right to the wire. So, lectures are being revised minutes before delivery or extra notes are being scribbled on the back of an envelope as they stand to give their presentation. Secondly, there is the kind of person who can’t let their work go. So, just one more reference, one more footnote, one amended paragraph and all will be marvellous. Learn to recognise when enough really is enough. There’s a whole career of lectures, presentations, publications, etc. ahead of you; it doesn’t all have to be perfected this time round.
4) Focus: When the wonderful Eddie Mair (after the bike-crash interview with Boris Johnson, Eddie Mair is forever ‘wonderful’) interviewed Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, he asked him if he ever looked at the screen and suddenly realised that an hour had passed and he’d no idea what he’d been doing. The answer was a single word – ‘no’. The moral, of course, is that you don’t get to be a world-class inventor unless you know how to focus and you, probably, don’t get to be a good academic either. If your will power is wobbly, follow Zadie Smith’s advice and use Freedom or SelfControl. Doing that enabled her to produce her latest novel.
5) Review: We all have ‘x’ number of obligations, ‘y’ number of projects on the go, ‘z’ number of bright ideas we’d like to develop. And then there’s ‘a’ and ‘b’ to consider and ‘p’ and ‘q’ looming up. In short, there’s too much ‘stuff’. The key is for you to control it rather than it to swamp you. Every week, or every month at the most, find a spare half-hour, a quiet room and a cup of coffee and review. What deadline is approaching; what needs chasing up; what can go on the back-burner, etc. – and make a note. And remember, though you want to be involved, want to be productive, want to be a good colleague, that’s not the same as saying ‘yes’ to everything.
6) Alone or together: A lot of academic work is solitary. It’s one pair of eyes reading, one pair of hands (or in my case, two fingers) word-processing, one head thinking – hard. This is necessary, almost I’d say, ‘sacred’ time. But there is also teaching, discussion, response, collaboration in networks and associations, online and at conferences. The tricky bit is getting the right balance. Sometimes that conference is just what you need to get your mind re-charged; sometimes it’s an avoidance tactic. Try and be honest with yourself.
7) Don’t beat yourself up: I’m sure there were days when Shakespeare thought drama was a waste of time and he’d be better off training as an accountant, or Einstein felt a bit dim, or Dickens knew he couldn’t write another word. (In fact, he wrote more than four million words, not counting the more than 14,000 extant letters and the many essays.) Be kind to yourself. You don’t have to be ‘brilliant’ or ‘charismatic’ or ‘inspirational’. Most academic lives – like lives generally – follow a pattern of peaks and troughs rather than ever onwards and upwards and, when you look back, you sometimes realise those ‘troughs’ were actually important periods of gestation. Personally, I’m a great fan of old-fashioned virtues like dedication, perseverance, plodding on. Not very glamorous, I know, but we don’t have to be operating at a pitch of fevered competition or achievement all the time.
8) Keep the faith: Believe in the value of your subject, the value of your endeavours, and believe in yourself.