Post Academic

A Ban on Busywork

Posted in Transfer Your Skills by Caroline Roberts on February 11, 2011
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Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionLately, I’ve been hearing a lot of people talk about how exhausted they are. I know how it is. I’m still catching up on all the sleep I lost from recent cross-country trips. I’m still not even sure which state I’m in. But I started thinking about why people get exhausted. Sometimes, you can’t avoid it, but most of the time, you can avoid it by eliminating the biggest scourge in the workplace–busywork, aka, the type of labor others dump on you when you look like you’re not working hard enough. There are ways to work a little smarter. These tips aren’t a cure-all, but they might give you an extra hour of rest each night:

Know what is your job and what isn’t. You shouldn’t be doing people’s work for them, whether they be your colleagues or your students. Remember what Patron Saint Tim Gunn says–some people just want to fail.

Beware excessive time-management timesucks. I love, love, love time management solutions. The best ones stay out of your way, which means that once you set up a system, you can keep using it without revising it.

Remember your primary goals. Your primary goal, as a grad student or professor, is to get published. That’s it. You may need to do work beyond that in order to keep getting paid, but anything that cuts into your writing time is a problem.

Attempt to suppress your guilt. While you want to be a good team player, remember that everyone else needs to step up. Slackers are a problem in both the ivory tower and academia, but you are not their parent, and you shouldn’t cover for them. You’re only hurting yourself. If you don’t meet your primary goal and don’t get a job or a promotion, is the slacker going to let you sleep on her couch? I think not. Even if the slacker is cool with your crashing at her pad, do you really want to? That couch will be filthy.

Look at things from a Hamster perspective. I could write about this, but I’ll save time by pointing to the smarties at Lifehacker. They have a list of tips for how to avoid “fake work” in the Hamster World.

Image of a bee collecting honey from a lavender flower from off2riorob 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.


Dealing With a “Flexible” Job

Posted in Transfer Your Skills by postacademic on August 6, 2010
Tags: , , ,

Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionSo you accepted a flexible job–Hamster, Academic or Other–and you’re turning into a contortionist? Unless you have an escape hatch, these tips can help you create a more reasonable work-life balance:

Start automating tasks. Evaluate the grunt-work that you have to do. I had one job in which I had to pull crazy hours to meet work goals. I did this for a while, and then I lost my damn mind, and I realized that the workload wasn’t going to let up. So I bought a book from Lifehacker, and I figured out a way to automate cut-and-paste tasks using macros, and I started turning to spreadsheets to keep a tally of what I accomplished. A little Spreadsheet Fu made my job somewhat easier.

Do not answer e-mails immediately. If you are offline, then be offline, and stay offline. Turn off the Crackberry at night. If it can wait until the morning, let it wait. Some things are going to be urgent and will require your attention, so prioritize and answer e-mails only for major events or deadlines.

More tips for surviving a flexible job below. Image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Breaking Down Big Tasks Into Small Chunks

Posted in Surviving Grad School by Caroline Roberts on July 21, 2010
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Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionStress and freak-outs are par for the course in academia. You have one goal, especially in the humanities–getting a tenure-track job. All or nothing. That’s why individual grades mean so little. The whole situation seems like pass-fail, with an inclination toward fail.

To avoid failing, you have to trick yourself by breaking up this monster task into small tasks. Otherwise, you’re going to feel overwhelmed.

In the Hamster World, someone usually gets paid to break down large tasks for you. These people are team managers or producers, and good ones figure out who does what and when it should get done. Sometimes, it feels like they’re telling you what to do, but it’s also their job to take a lot of the worrying off your shoulders so you can focus on the task at hand. Here’s how:

Start a daily checklist. I’ve evangelized checklists before, probably to the point where regular readers roll their eyes, but I mention them because they work. Building a checklist is a critical psychological exercise. Instead of thinking “I HAVE TO FINISH MY DISSERTATION OR I WON’T GET A JOB AND I’LL BE A FAILURE … WHERE’S A PAPER BAG FOR ME TO BREATHE IN???” sit down and make a list of what books you have to read, who you need to talk to and what chapters you need to write. Throw in what you need to do to submit the dissertation officially. It might not look so bad.

Image of Legos from Wikimedia Commons under public domain.

Save Your Sanity by Backing Up Your Computer Files

Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionAt work, one of my colleagues suffered a hard drive crash, and it’s going to be a while before she can access her files. In the Hamster World, an IT department can come to your rescue. But what do you do if you’re a grad student or an academic and you don’t have IT guys at your disposal?

It’s time to get in the habit of backing up your files regularly. The process is kind of like flossing. It seems tedious, but it can save you from losing your files, which is almost as horrific as a root canal.

I use Norton 360, which nudges me every so often and tells me that it’s time to back up my computer. Windows also has a Backup and Restore feature.

A backup won’t do much good if you aren’t backing your files up to a CD, DVD, or external hard drive. The external hard drive is your best bet. It might cost a little something, but it has plenty of room. All you need to do is connect the external hard drive to your computer via a USB cable, plug it in, turn it on, and launch the backup program.

If that seems unwieldy, consider saving your files in the cloud. Try opening a free Dropbox account at The Dropbox software creates a folder on your hard drive. By saving a file in that folder, it is automatically saved online, and you can fetch it when you need it. An even simpler alternative is Google Docs, although it has some space constraints and might not be the best fit for a dissertation-sized file.

A glimpse of the horror you will feel after a busted hard drive from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Hoaders, Academic Edition: Evernote, How I Love Thee

Posted in Surviving Grad School by Caroline Roberts on April 10, 2010
Tags: , , ,

Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionArnold has been talking about digital clutter, and I am going to make a shameless product plug. I don’t work for Evernote, but they have helped me tame both digital and paper clutter.

This program allows you to enter notes either through your desktop, through a Web interface, or through your phone, and it syncs the content from all sources. You can submit different types of content, including text, photos, and even voice messages recorded on an iPhone. My favorite part is the Web clipper, which allows you to select text on a Web page and send it straight to your Evernote account.

Evernote also lets you add multiple tags to your notes, which makes it easier to find content. You could type up notes from all those copies of Quicksand (hi, Arnold!), put them into different Evernote files, and then tag them “Quicksand.”

The best part of Evernote, bar none, is the ability to sync notes from anywhere. If you have an idea, and you aren’t around a computer, speak it into your phone or type it out, and then it can re-sync with your Evernote account later.

Now I feel like a person in a Ronco ad, but here it comes … but wait, there’s more! Evernote is free. You have to pay based on storage, so if you store a considerable amount of files, you might need to plunk down a little per month. That said, I use it all the time, and I still haven’t paid, although I imagine it is only a matter of time. I’d still set aside a little in my budget for it.

There, end of product endorsement. But, if you are a grad student or an academic swamped by digital files, Evernote is one of the best ways to sort out the mess.

Image of post-it notes by EraserGirl, public domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Hoarders, Academic Edition: Tackling the Paper Pile

Posted in Surviving Grad School by Caroline Roberts on April 9, 2010
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PhotobucketPaper has an unusual ability to breed. Paper has no visible sexual capacity, yet it multiplies like a bunch of teenagers at a prom. One day, you set a sheet of paper on your desk, and the next you have a full blown stack, and you no longer have room for your laptop, your coffee cup, or your sanity.

Determine How Long You Actually Need the Material:
You don’t need to hold on to everything forever. As with books, you need to create keep or toss piles. Hang on to material relating to fellowships, financial aid, and recommendations (either for you or the ones you write for students).

Think Vertically: For the paper you need later on, either punch holes in it and place it in a three-ring binder or slip the paper into hanging file folders. You’ll save space, and it is easier to sort through folders when they are upright than when they are flat.

Use Meaningful Labels: Binders and files won’t do you a bit of good if they aren’t labeled efficiently, so you must get in touch with your inner librarian. For example, determine how you think of the classes you teach. Do you tend to think of them by title or by course number? Choose whichever one works for you. Then, subdivide by year to make it easier to find the older files.

Create a “To-File” Box: If you don’t need a sheet of paper in the next day, then it shouldn’t be on your desk. Place the papers in a “To-File” box. Filing items right away can be tiresome, and you won’t always have enough time to do it, but the “To-File” box will help you tidy up your desk.

Set Aside a “To-File” Time: A full “To-File” box is a chaotic “To-File” box. Schedule an hour or two a week, depending on how much paperwork you generate, to put the “To-File” papers in the appropriate binders or hanging folders. Filing papers is about as exciting as a stick in the eye, but the time you put into filing will save you double the amount of time later.

Image of old-school Moscow file cabinet by Leonid Dzhepko, posted on Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.

Hoarders, Academic Edition: Lessons From Tim Gunn. Yes, That Tim Gunn.

Posted in Surviving Grad School by Caroline Roberts on April 6, 2010
Tags: , , ,

Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionLeaving grad school or looking for a fresh start? Trying to suppress those hoarding instincts so vividly described by Arnold? You’ll feel even more liberated if you can figure out what is most important to you and get rid of the extra books that have been crowding you out of house and home.

A few tips from fashion mentor Tim Gunn can help with your spring cleaning. Gunn hosted a show called “Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style,” in which he helped women clean out their closets and choose what items to keep, toss, or donate. The same rules can apply if you are having trouble parting with a few books.

Keep: This is the fun part. Set aside plenty of time to go through your books, and choose the books that either mean a lot to you or the books that you think you’ll need for later. Let your sentimental flag fly.

Toss: Most of your books probably ended up in the “Keep” pile, didn’t they? Now it’s time to stop being sentimental. Try to part ways with half the books you initially want to keep. Hang on to first editions, autographed copies, “milestone” books, or books you know you will read later. (This is different from books you think you will read later.) Spending a lot of money on a book is not a good reason to keep it if you’re not going to use it, even if it is a Routledge book with a foxy cover.

Donate or Sell:
If you’re the donating type, your local library may want your books for a book sale. You could also announce a book yard sale on your friendly department listserv. But, if you want to make some bread off this endeavor, go no further than The Powell’s Web site features an interface that lets you input a book’s ISBN number. Once you input the number or a set of numbers, Powell’s will tell you a) if they want your book or not or b) how much they are willing to pay for your book if they want it. You print out a mailing label, they pay for shipping, and the money goes into your PayPal account. The process at Powell’s is much, much easier than what you will find at eBay and Amazon Marketplace. No excuses!

Even if you don’t plan on leaving grad school or academia, sorting through your books on a yearly basis can keep you organized, and being organized is always a time-saver.

Listen to Tim Gunn! Photo by Jennifer Boyer posted under a Creative Commons license, from Wikimedia Commons.

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