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Academic resolutions and improvement as a moving target

Some of the best aspects of academic jobs can also be the most challenging: Deadlines are often self-imposed. We have to juggle a wide range of tasks each day that often involve mental gymnastics in order to switch gears (and we mix metaphors!). We’re our own bosses, and usually our own harshest critics. There’s also not much in the way of external validation; people rarely tell us we did a good job if we got the experiment to run, or wrote an especially thorough article review, or turned in our grades early, or wrote one more paper than we hoped to. Given that academia selects for high-achiever types, this can create a kind of self-perpetuating anxiety loop: we can always squeeze another hour of work in. There’s no clocking out at the end of the day. No whistle at the end of our shift that says “ENOUGH.”

There are benefits to this: an often remarkable flexibility in our workaday lives that can be especially under-appreciated if you’ve never had to work 9-to-5 jobs with stringent time clock requirements (I was put on probation at my retail job for consistently being five minutes late — little did my nineteen-year-old-self know that I’d be perfect for academia!). But one challenge is figuring out where the line is in terms of coming up with healthy goals and metrics for productivity.

In the last couple of years, I’ve being coming up with academic resolutions each year to try to give myself measurable, reasonable-yet-challenging goals to focus on areas for improvement. I know myself well enough that I can’t just stop feeling like I can do more, so the point is to channel that energy into something tractable. Otherwise, that runaway energy can cause unnecessary anxiety and unrealistic expectations, ad infinitum.


I would resolve to stop using PhD Comics in so many blog posts, but Jorge Cham would have to resolve to be less on point.

Last year, one of my academic resolutions (I’ve even seen the hashtag #academicresolutions going around Twitter) was to keep up more with the literature, with a goal to read a paper a day. Meghan Duffy (who blogs at Dynamic Ecology) joined me, and came up with #365papers as a way to keep accountable. The hashtag took off, and while most of us didn’t reach our goal, I still think it was a success. It got me reading more deliberately, for one. I was less likely to just relegate an interesting paper into some dark corner of my laptop, and more likely to carve out time to read. Since most of my ideas come from reading, this helped me stay out of a mental rut, while also staying abreast of what’s going on in other fields. As a perpetual resolution-maker and resolution-breaker, I’ve learned that the most important thing is not to quit once it’s clear I won’t be perfect; the point is to do better, whether it’s more steps taken, more pages read, more minutes spent writing, or fewer cups of coffee or cookies. I’ll be doing #365papers again next year, too, and this time I’m going to track some data on my papers to reflect on my reading habits at the end of the year (because data!).

2015 was a tough year in a couple of ways, with an injury and a lengthy recovery in the spring and my stepdad’s brief battle with cancer in late summer and fall. Despite our best-laid plans, life happens. Looking back, I’m proud of what I did accomplish, and I learned a lot about how to ask for help, readjust expectations, become more flexible, and learn how to work with limitations (like being one-handed for nearly four months). Learning to work intelligently and efficiently is important, because if you always feel like you’re barely treading water you’ve left no room for those random life events that are totally outside your control — and they will come sooner or later. One thing that has really helped is time tracking (I used the ATracker app). If you felt like there wasn’t enough time in 2015, and you’re looking for ways to squeeze more productivity in 2016, start by really assessing what you’re spending your time on now. You may be surprised.

So, what are my goals for 2016? I’m going to avoid things like a target number of proposals or papers this year, because so much of that is collaborative and outside of my hands, and my students are now starting to produce their first manuscripts (!). Instead, I’ll try to aim to always have something in all stages: preparation, review, and in press. It’s not going to be possible all the time, but I’d like to be balancing a mix of papers in different stages in the pipeline. I’ve also got some general goals for being healthier that affect my workaday life — drinking more water, bringing my lunch instead of eating at the campus dining hall, and taking walking breaks (and I have a FitBit!). I’d also like 2016 to be the year I spend more time in the lab, and get better at saying “no” to avoid over-committing myself. I also need to figure out email (as in, how to manage it all), but am still working out exactly how to do that.

In addition to redoing #365papers next year, I have some other  Twitter-friendly goals, because hashtag games are fun and social, and help with accountability:

1) Inspired by #365feministselfies, I’m going to try for #365scienceselfies, to show a year in the life of a scientist. One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how scientists can better develop empathy with non-scientists, and to show the process of science as a whole. I think this hashtag may do both, as well as using social media to chronicle my work in a more joyful, mindful way.

2)  One goal I failed at this year was to step up my blogging, which has fallen by the wayside a bit since starting a tenure-track position. Inspired by Meghan Duffy, I’m going to aim for #50posts in 2016. One thing I’ve noticed (especially as my blog’s readership has grown) is that the longer I go without blogging, the less casual I feel about it. Like any neglected task, I quickly start to feel like I need to come up with something really epic to make up for the missed posts. Meanwhile, blogging improves my writing overall, and serves a lot of my goals for outreach and community building.

Ultimately, we are all projects that are never finished, but that doesn’t mean we’re failing. We can always find something to tinker with, so be kind to yourself in the meantime. Those of us who were called to a life of discovery have to learn to become just as comfortable with the journey as we are with the destination, especially when the destination is a moving target.

Categories: Academia Professional Development Tips & Tricks

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Jacquelyn Gill

19 replies

  1. Great resolutions!
    I tried #365papers last year, but quit at 20 or so. This year I plan to track my readings more consistently, I guess it can teach me a lot about my reading habits. Is there any specific tool you plan to use to track the data on your papers?

    As for #50 posts, it sounds unreachable for me, but I’ll do my best.

    Happy new year!


    1. I think the trick is not to quit if you miss a day here or there– I would go a day with no papers, and a day with several.

      I just used a Google Drive spreadsheet to track mind.

      Happy New Year!


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