Post Academic

Reading the No Asshole Rule So You Don’t Have To: “Petty But Relentless Nastiness” — The Academia Angle

Posted in Surviving Grad School,Transfer Your Skills by Caroline Roberts on October 25, 2010
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Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionBob Sutton’s “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t” is perhaps the best workplace survival guide one can have. It could be reprinted repackaged as “The Worst-Case Survival Guide for the Office” and sold at Urban Outfitters. Everyone could use this book, grad students and academics in particular.

In fact, Sutton leads with a two stories about his own experience academia, one good and one bad. First, the good: “Our small department was a remarkably supportive and collegial place to work, especially compared to the petty but relentless nastiness that pervades much of academic life.” Yet his tale doesn’t follow the usual path of a department hiring a star who also happens to be a raging asshole. No. Instead, the department rejects the star in favor of someone who is a decent person. That is heroic.

And then Sutton continues with the bad story. He describes the time he won a best-teacher award. The students applauded him, and enter the asshole, who declares, “Well, Bob, now that you have satisfied the babies here on campus, perhaps you can settle down and do some real work.”

What an asshole. So, why is it that academia has such a reputation for being rife with assholes?

More after the jump! Image by foundphotoslj from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.

An Academic Turns to an Advice Columnist, Redux

Image SourceMy mom, a Post Academic supporter, sent me a news clipping in which another forlorn PhD turned to an advice columnist. A prospective PhD asks Harriette Cole of the syndicated Sense & Sensitivity: “The work is too overwhelming for me…. I feel burned out…. Do you think I should continue pursuing my degree or take a break and smell the flowers?”

After suggesting “self-care” a la Cary Tennis, she concludes, “… hopefully [the economy] will have leveled out by the time you have finished your degree. With the advanced degree, you will be able to re-enter the job market from a position of strength…. But don’t lose sight of your dream now. You can do it!”

It’s okay, Harriette. Sense & Sangria will take it from here. You’re not expected to know the oddities of the academic job market. Here’s my tips for these advice-seekers:

There’s something to this “self-care” business. Yeah, yeah, when Harriette tells you to get a massage and meditate, it sounds cheesy, but you need to take a break. Make it a year-long break if you have to, lest you wind up like furze-cutting Clym Yeobright. Teachers as a whole are expected to martyr themselves, and that’s a trap, usually designed to squeeze as much work out of a teacher as possible without the proper payment.

More after the jump! Image of Ann Landers in 1983 by Alan Light from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.

Conquering Your Inbox: Making Email Etiquette Work for You

Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionNow that you’ve tamed your inbox, it’s time to evaluate the quality of your online correspondence. Whatever you do, do not panic. Emails are not supposed to be great literature. They don’t even need to be grammatical. They just need to be effective and, most important, polite.

With the rise of email and IM in the workplace, it’s even easier to be rude. You can be rude via email even if that’s not your intention. Without seeing someone’s face, you can’t tell what a person really means. A “thanks a lot” in an email might read like a sarcastic “up yours” without the proper context.

At some point, your online words are bound to be misunderstood. Here’s how to be clear without offending your colleagues:

Choose your email length wisely. An email that’s too short might come off as brusque, like you didn’t think enough of the recipient to write a complete sentence. But a long email might open you up to unwanted critique or tempt you to go off topic. Stick to the task at hand.

More after the jump! Image from Deutsche Fotothek, Wikimedia Commons, under a Creative Commons license.

Conquering Your Inbox: Changing Your Email Habits

Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionA few days ago, I offered advice that helps channel all your emails to one account and gives you more control over finding emails that you need. That will only go so far, however, unless you change some of your email habits so you can make emailing more productive. For starters,

Convert emails to actions. Anyone who knows GTD is going to know this. An email is worthless if it’s just sitting in your inbox. Determine the next step. For example, if someone sends an email talking about a massive work backup, do you need to take steps to hire a new person on your team? And what’s the first step to reach that goal?

Don’t reply immediately. There’s a rule that you should let something you just wrote marinate for a while before you start editing it. Other people’s ideas should marinate as well. You might need to get something done right-now-this-minute, but it always helps if you give the whole team a chance to chime in. Someone might volunteer for the job, or someone else might quash the task. Don’t waste your time until you see how the situation plays out.

More after the jump! Image from the German Federal Archive, Wikimedia Commons.

Conquering Your Inbox: Changing Your Email Structure

Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionAn inbox can be one of the most depressing time-sucks known to humanity. You can spend hours answering e-mails and engaging in discussion. Hours will fly by … yet you haven’t accomplished a bloody thing, and there are still 100 emails you still haven’t answered.

I’m not going to pretend I can help you solve all your inbox issues, but when I entered the Hamster World, I had to figure out how to tame my inbox fast, or I was going to drown in an email tidal wave. These tips involve organizing old emails and changing your email behaviors to stop email threads from growing too long.

Evaluate your email service. Is your email service doing the job for you? Consider the features. Can you create folders? How much space do you have? Can you search your emails? If you aren’t happy, notify your supervisor or IT, or open your own gmail account and have everything sent there. Then …

More after the jump! NWRC programmer Irma Lewis at the console of the ALWAC III computer in 1959. Image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.


An Academic Reaches Out to Salon

Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionIt was only a matter of time before an academic wrote a letter to an advice columnist. In this case, last week a recent PhD wrote to Cary Tennis of Here’s the last paragraph, which sums up what so many people have been going through:

But also, it just sucks. I get headaches. I can feel my blood pressure rising. I cry (at home, not in front of students). And I haven’t even addressed the other parts of academic life — trying to get published, presenting papers in front of experts at conferences, dealing with the whims of university administration. I don’t know what I’m doing. Sometimes I feel like I don’t know why I’m doing this anymore. But I’ve spent so much time and energy and money working toward it — and I’m afraid that if I quit academia, I’ll be miserable, as I was when I worked in data entry. I suppose I’m just wondering if you can tell me how I can either be at peace with the crap parts of my field, or with the prospect of giving up the great parts of it too. I want to be happy. And I feel like I don’t know how to get there.

We’ve written before about the physical toll of being in grad school. And, in the letter to Cary Tennis, the author mentions having to deal with plagiarists and, but the author doesn’t mention turning to anyone else for help. Far too many academics fly completely solo, and it sounds like part of the issues driving the author of the letter involves a lack of support.

More after the jump! We don’t have a picture of Cary Tennis, but we’ll go with an advice columnist anyway. Image of Ann Landers from 1961 by Fred Palumbo from Wikimedia Commons, Library of Congress, no known copyright restrictions.

No One Describes Grad Student Life More Accurately Than The Onion

Posted in Absurdities,Surviving Grad School by Caroline Roberts on October 9, 2010
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I recently came across this delightful tidbit from “The Onion.” As usual, the satire captures the truth better than any straightforward report:

A routine toothbrushing turned into a profound exercise in nightmarish, existential horror Monday, when poverty-stricken Columbia University graduate student Marc Edelstein, 24, came across “the most gigantic cockroach this side of Gregor Samsa” in the bathroom of his one-room, walk-up efficiency.

Another quotation describes the grad-school condition in general:

“Every day, I can’t believe I am living in that apartment. The humiliations society forces me to undergo, just to get my stupid Ph.D, defy all rational, intellectual thought.

What’s the worst you had to go through to achieve your graduate degree? Please share in the comments. I left before I could look the cockroach in the eye, so to speak, but I remember several long nights of part-time catering. When the tips for slinging mashed potatoes and BBQ sauce paid better than my job as a TA, I really started wondering if the universe wasn’t playing a joke on me.

Stop procrastinating: Write your cover letter!

So we’ve more or less covered what you’ll need to send in a complete application when you’re applying for your typical humanities–OK, specifically, English–tenure-track position.  We tried to get you to contact your letter writers and start the process of herding cats.  And we’ve pretty much discussed CVs ad infinitum over the first seven months of Post Academic.  We could say more about what to do with your writing sample, but you should be set if you have a publication or have something publication-length that you have under review.

The one element of your application package we haven’t gone into is the most fundamental and probably the most important — the cover letter.  Not every application in the initial stages will ask you for recs and/or a writing sample, but you definitely need a cover letter, which is basically the first (and maybe only?) chance to make a good impression.  Well, duh, right?  That’s obvious, but how you want to present yourself might not be so much.  So before you get ready to crank out what’s in effect 50 form letters, take some time to think about how you want search committees to see you, even if it’s for, like, the one minute your evaluators give your application if you’re lucky and good.  As always, the same caveats apply: take my advice for what it’s worth, as someone who could package an application up well enough to get good convention interviews, but could never cash in on my chances with a t/t job.


"Tailor Shop Yau Ma Tei Hong Kong" by Cantona (Creative Commons license)


Format matters: When you’re sending out a job letter, make sure it actually looks like, you know, a letter.  That means to put iton letterhead even if you have to sneak it out of the office, to date it, to address it to the proper person, to make sure your paragraphs and margins don’t look wonky.  Also, be sure your letter is a reasonable length; I never sent in a job letter that was longer than two pages single spaced, though it’s more like one-and-a-half pages after you account for the header, date, and formal address.  I know it’s superficial, but you don’t need a strike against you with a weird looking letter before anyone actually starts reading it.

Tailor and prioritize: Don’t be lazy and just send out the same letter to basically the same kind of jobs within your field.  Tailor your letter to make it appear it’s the only one you’re writing, even if everyone knows it’s not.  Maybe it’s because my research enabled me to try for various kinds of positions — from basic 20th c. American lit to Asian American lit to multiethnic lit — but I was always conscious of targeting my cover letter to the specific parameters of each and every posting.  And even when the areas of interest for the list of jobs you’re applying are pretty much the same, the goals and profiles of the institutions aren’t.

More cover letter to do’s below the fold…


Reading Getting Things Done So You Don’t Have To: Taking Action … Or Not

Posted in Crib Notes,Surviving Grad School by Caroline Roberts on October 1, 2010
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Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox Extension,not usedGetting Things Done is all about moving from gathering information to taking action on that information. David Allen advises that once a task comes on your radar, you have three options: Do it, Delegate it or Defer it. He does not mention an option that comes up repeatedly throughout the book–Ditch it. Let’s go through each option:

“Do It”: Finishing a task will make you feel much better. Of course, that’s easy for a hamster to say, and a dissertation or a job application is a different matter altogether. Allen recommends that, whenever you gather up and process your tasks for the day, you do anything that can be done within two minutes. Otherwise, you’ll never get around to it.

“Delegate It”: So you’re a grad student or an underpaid academic. “Delegate it” is off the table. Your school doesn’t have the funds for delegating.

“Defer It”: You’ll want to defer the task, especially if it is a big one. But before you defer it, ask yourself if there’s a chunk of the task that you can do in under two minutes. See Post Academic’s past entry on breaking large tasks into small chunks.

Read about the “ditch it” option after the jump! Image from the German Federal Archive, Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.

Reading Getting Things Done So You Don’t Have To: Organizational Simplicity

Posted in Crib Notes,Surviving Grad School by Caroline Roberts on September 29, 2010
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Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionOne thing I’ve learned after sitting in on usability studies, which test how consumers respond to websites, is the following:

If it isn’t easy, people won’t do it.

It doesn’t matter how cool the widget you’re promoting is. It doesn’t matter how important your product is or if it is genuinely beneficial to someone. If the item isn’t easy to find or if the form isn’t easy to fill out, people will not do it. By extension, you’re not going to get organized if you don’t make it easy on yourself. Many of David Allen’s GTD ideas revolve around making filing systems easy.

Filing papers sounds as exciting as being dipped in a vat of boiling oil, and you went into academia so you could avoid being a lameass paperpusher. But Allen’s theory is solid–you won’t mind filing as much if you can file an item in under a minute. If it’s hard to file, you will let your papers get scrambled.

More after the jump! Image of a file cabinet by Elizabeth Roy from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.

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