How to be a productive writer
Note: This article was first written in Chinese on August 1, 2017 and translated into English in 2022.
A while ago, I read Haruki Murakami’s My Profession is a Novelist. Despite differences in the type of writing we do for our careers (him as a novelist and I as an academic), his book profoundly resonated with me. With the inspiration that came from reading his book, I would like to share with everyone some writing insights.
The part I found most touching in My Profession is a Novelist was in Chapter 6 "Befriending Time— Writing a Novel." Despite the chapter focusing on how to write novels, I feel as though there is much to be learned and applied to writing academic articles as well.
When it comes to writing novels, there is a popular misconception that novels are just made-up stories and they are written when inspiration strikes the author. Many people blindly worship inspiration, falsely believing that inspiration is the main driver of an author’s words. But what actually goes into the writing process of authors like Haruki Murakami?
When writing a novel, I make myself write ten pages a day, each with about 400 words…Even if I feel like continuing writing, I will stop at ten pages. On the other hand, even if that day I don’t feel up to it, I will push myself to fill up ten pages worth of writing. I do this because in long-term projects, consistency makes the biggest difference. If you write only when it comes easily to you and stop when you feel like it, it is hard to maintain a consistent writing schedule over time. As such, I write every day as if I were signing in for attendance, never breaking my daily routine of writing ten pages.
Haruki Murakami’s words deeply touched me. Almost all of the productive scholars I know consistently write every day.
I’ve heard before that an assistant professor in a top American university had a blackboard in her office that she used to record how many words she wrote each day. The result of this was that not only was she a productive writer but every article she wrote ended up being published in top journals. She has since been recognized as a leading scholar in her field. Not surprisingly, she went from assistant professor to associate professor and was soon promoted to full professor.
Similarly, one friend of mine used an Excel sheet to track how many words she wrote each day. She felt most clear headed in the morning, so she would go to a cafe without wifi and write for three hours, completing about 600 words a day. I’ve seen her Excel sheet before. When there were two zeros in a row (meaning that she did not write for two days), she left a comment beside the “zeros” that said “cut my fingers.”
Another friend is also an extremely productive scholar. During her non-teaching days, she spends every morning writing. She does this because she believes that writing is a very draining task; by doing the hardest work in the morning, when her mind is the clearest, she produces better results. When I first knew about her daily routines, I felt admiration and also confusion because I often felt as though I had nothing to write. Therefore, I was curious how she was able to write so much every day. On the contrary, she felt as though she always had something to write about: starting a new paper, editing an existing paper, writing a response memo, beginning a new project, taking notes on articles related to her papers, and summarizing said articles (which would often be useful later on when she wrote her own papers). By now she has made it a habit to write every morning. So long as she doesn’t have teaching scheduled, she would turn on her laptop and instantly be in her “writing mode.” Thanks to the habit, writing every day has become a process that doesn’t require much thought. How can we write every day? Below, I share with you her tips and tricks that have inspired me a lot.
For me, I can only write in the morning. My brain literally stops working after 12pm, at least the part governing writing... I think one way that might help is to spend some time in the evening thinking about the paragraphs you're going to write the next day: the main point, the papers you're going to cite, the supportive evidence, examples, etc. Then the next morning, you just write them out. I know sometimes we just don't know what to write. In situations like those, I just write anything in my head, which may not make any sense at all, but can occasionally give you intuitions.
To put it simply, plan what you want to write tomorrow. Break up an entire paper into 20-30 paragraphs. Don’t let the thought of writing a 9000-word English paper scare you into inaction. Reframe your thinking to focus on smaller goals such as writing 2–4 paragraphs or 600 words. In addition, having an outline is especially useful.
Then how does one concentrate when it is time to work? I am lucky in that as soon as I begin working, I won’t be distracted by my phone or the Internet. The only website I really open when I’m working is Google Scholar. A colleague of mine uses the Pomodoro Technique to help her focus during her morning writing sessions. She installed a Pomodoro timer app on her laptop that counted down in 25-minute increments, during which she would write and then take a timed five-minute break in between. If this cycle of working for 25 minutes and then resting for 5 is repeated 7 times, that totals nearly 3 hours of concentrated work. This technique is great because it breaks down a large project into digestible work periods while also allowing us to balance rest and productivity.
Well, some people may say: “Despite hearing a lot of sensible advice, I still can’t implement it in my own life.” I used to also be paralyzed by inaction and caught up in thoughts of “should I write or should I not?” (of course, even now I still have such moments). But after hearing what my friends had to share, I decided to slowly try and incorporate those methods into my own workflow. For instance, in May of this year, I started keeping track of word count in my Word documents and taking note of the words I had written each day. At the same time, I divided my papers into different, smaller sections such as the introduction, literature review (1, 2, 3, etc.), data, sample, variables, methods, descriptive results, regression results, and discussion. Then, before each writing session I would brainstorm a general idea of what I wanted to write that day as well as how much I aimed to write. Now, when I revisit the document I had worked on in May, I can still see the word count records I made at the time, which indicated that I had written 6,561 words in 7 days. I can recall very clearly the sense of accomplishment I had while I was writing that paper and seeing the word count grow day by day.
Making a habit of writing every day is very difficult. It can sometimes take several years of consistent effort and self-discipline. It is also important to consider that everyone has different routines and lifestyles, so a process of trial and error is necessary in finding the most suitable way for you to develop a habit. The process of producing a paper is long and difficult, and waiting to write until the moment inspiration hits will not allow you to produce your best quality work. Here, I’d like to further share with everyone a passage from Haruki Murakami’s book My Profession is a Novelist:
At the end, it is my personal opinion, but novel writing is very tedious, slow work. Seldom will you find it exciting or glamorous. I spend entire days sitting alone in a room with back-and-forth thoughts of 'this isn’t right, but neither is that,' racking my brain in search for the right words to form sentences or improve on them even the slightest bit. During this, no one will acknowledge my effort spent putting words on a page or walk over to pat my shoulder in encouragement and say ‘good job.’ It's just myself, celebrating my small successes with short inner dialogues of ‘hm nice.’ After the book is published, maybe no one pays attention to that sentence I meticulously composed. Novel writing is at its core, work. It is extremely time-consuming and labor-intensive, and it can be under-appreciated and discouraging.
Then why do we still write?
In answering this question, I’d like to share a quote which was used as a concluding sentence in Gengwang Yan’s book Essays on History:
Writing is not only critical for publishing and contributing to society but it is also the most crucial and serious stage of research. If we don’t write, research efforts will remain incomplete and our contribution to the field is rudimentary…Writing is the epitome of comprehension, a demonstration of the most rigorous thinking, and the most serious final stage of scientific research. If it is not written, it cannot be regarded as a completed research project.
Here is the link to the original article in Chinese: "'写写写'的心得分享: 将每天写作变成生活习惯." The author, Yue Qian, would like to thank Evalina Liu for her assistance with translations from Chinese to English.
How to edit and revise papers
Note: This article was first written in Chinese on March 4, 2018 and translated into English in 2022.
Last time, I wrote an article titled, “Insights on writing: Making writing into a daily habit”. In that article, I promised my readers that I would talk about editing and revising in a future article.
My academic idol Dr. Paula England recently tweeted something and I couldn’t agree more with what she said.
More and more I’m starting to realize that, like Dr. England, I enjoy “editing much more than writing first draft.” It’s so easy to become so caught up in the process of editing to the point where I become hooked. When I collaborate with someone for the first time, they sometimes take slight offense when I’ve edited so much of their writing. Once they get to know me, however, they come to learn that when I edit, I always restructure the article including its paragraphs, sentences, and word choice.
Today, I’m sharing my editing process partly because I was inspired by Haruki Murakami’s book “My Profession is a Novelist”. Writing a novel is quite unlike writing an academic paper, but Murakami’s process of revising his writing is so relatable to me. Next, I will draw upon excerpts from his original work and discuss my thoughts on editing academic papers.
The process of writing long novels isn’t like playing baseball such that completion marks the start of another game. If you ask me, the point at which a novel is finished signals the beginning of the most enjoyable part that’s worth your while.
Similar to Murakami, I usually take a break after completing the first draft of an article. If I have collaborators, I’ll send the draft to them. But after the initial draft, as Murakami describes, it’s “a rewrite from the very beginning, a process that is carried out on a fairly large scale”. During the first round of revision, I mainly look at whether the literature review is comprehensive and logical, and rearrange the paragraphs if needed. For example, in a recent article, my collaborator was responsible for writing the first portion of the literature review. Then when I read through it, I noticed that the deduction from the literature review to the research hypotheses was a little disjointed from our empirical analysis. I ended up cutting out a lot of what she had written. I also took arguments she had interspersed throughout the paper and combined them into one paragraph. As a result, the literature review, the formulation of research hypotheses, and the empirical analysis became more coherent.
Once this process is complete, I will set my work aside for another week and then enter the second round of revision. This time, likewise, I will make drastic changes and do a rewrite from the beginning, but with greater attention to detail. For instance, I might add some detailed descriptions of scenery and adjust the tone of conversations. I might check for inconsistencies with the plot development, and rewrite parts of the story that are difficult to understand at first reading to make the story unfold more naturally. This is not a major operation, but rather, an accumulation of minor procedures. After this stage, I will take a break before moving on to the next round of edits. This time around, it’s not so much an operation as it is an adjustment.
If we focus on the overall logic of the paper in the first round of revision, then the next stage is to revise the details of each sentence word by word. I’ll pay particular attention to the following things: Does each sentence have a transition word? Does each paragraph have an opening sentence? Does each section have a summary of reasonable length? Is there a bridging transition between each section? I’ll also check if I vary my vocabulary. For example, verbs (e.g. examine, investigate, assess, or evaluate), words that indicate a contrast (e.g. however, yet, but), or words that indicate causation (e.g. thus, therefore, hence). I like to alternate these terms and avoid having them appear in close proximity in my writing.
At this juncture, I'll take a long vacation. If possible, I’ll leave my work in the drawer for two weeks up to a month, forgetting that it even exists, or trying to forget about it...After carefully preserving the work like this, I'll begin to thoroughly modify the details again. A well-cared-for piece will leave a very different impression on me than it did before. Faults that were not discovered before come into sharp focus now. Whether there is depth to the work can also be discerned now. Just as my work was carefully preserved, so was my mind.
“Careful preservation” is another key component. After a few rounds of intense editing, I also like to take a break for a week or two, aiming to forget about the paper if I can. When I revisit the article, it feels as though I’m editing a completely new paper. Many of the faults that I missed in the first few rounds will now surface.
Sometimes, editing an article for long periods of time can be a strenuous task. I’ve noticed that oftentimes, I start off editing very attentively but I become more careless as I proceed. For this reason, I try to start from different sections every time I edit. This way, I can thoroughly review and revise each section clear-headedly and scrutinize every section meticulously. For example, in the first few rounds of revisions, I might focus on revising the front end (i.e. the introduction and literature review) and make slight edits to methodology and results, while temporarily disregarding the discussion section at the end of the paper. When I’m on my third round of revisions, I will carefully inspect the following: Is the equation in the methodology section accurate? Is the results section clear? Does the discussion tie back to the introduction and research findings?
Not only has the work now been carefully preserved, but it has also been rewritten to some degree. At this stage, the opinions of a third party are going to be of great importance...However, if you ask me whether I’d blindly accept any feedback, that would not be the case. After all, I had just finished writing a novel with painstaking effort, and though I had cooled down after taking a break, my head was still full of ardor for my work. As soon as I hear criticism, I will inevitably feel enraged and emotional, and perhaps even find myself entangled in fierce quarrels.
Murakami’s frame of mind deeply resonates with me. I still recall my reaction when I submitted articles in the past and received a letter of rejection along with comments from reviewers asking 'Why didn't you mention so and so?' or 'What does this mean?' I would complain to my advisor, 'I mentioned this in the article already. Why didn't the reviewer read it more carefully rather than saying I didn’t mention it in the first place?' My advisor would then tell me, 'Never blame the reviewer. If they make a critique, it means that we weren’t clear enough in our writing. We need to take those suggestions and make revisions and clarifications accordingly.' My advisor’s response has deeply inspired and impacted me. Later on, when I receive comments from reviewers, I would still occasionally feel dejected but I would only hold myself accountable for it; perhaps I could’ve been clearer in my writing, or I could’ve restructured the writing to enhance the comprehensibility. As an example, there was a past article where I did a lot of sensitivity analysis, but the piece was rejected upon the first submission. The reviewer said my analysis didn’t take into account many other important considerations, so it was unclear whether my results were robust. In reality, I had mentioned these additional analyses here and there when I introduced the variables and major findings. I didn’t blame the reviewer at all; instead, I singled out the important sensitivity analysis in the article and formed a new section dedicated to it. Sure enough, when I submitted my paper to another journal, reviewers didn’t make the same criticisms and they even commented that I did a “comprehensive, thoughtful analysis” and found my results very convincing.
In addition, when I bring in a third party, I will strategically choose the third party to review my draft. Everyone is extremely busy with their work and life in general, and it is time-consuming for others to read my entire article and make suggestions. Thus, I usually single out parts that I am most unsure about, and send them to my colleagues who have more expertise in the corresponding area. For instance, I once had a solo-authored paper where I wasn’t certain if I had sufficiently addressed the reviewer’s comments on theory and methods with my edits. Therefore, I sent the theory part of the article (roughly three pages of text) to a friend who specialized in theory. Meanwhile, I shared the equations and methodology sections with another friend who was well-versed in statistics. I explained my specific concerns to them and pointed out areas where I hoped they could focus more on. This way, they could read and make suggestions that were more targeted.
In other words, the most important thing is the act of editing itself. When the author is determined and believes 'I want to make this better,' sits down at their desk, and sets about revising their work, such an attitude is incredibly commendable.
I think if you have the mindset that “I want to make this better,” you may discover, like Murakami or Dr. Paula England, that editing is a fun process.
All good papers were accomplished through editing. I hope this article has been of some inspiration to you. Most importantly, I hope you can find joy in editing!
Haruki Murakami's excerpt is from chapter 6 of My Profession is a Novelist, “Befriending Time— Writing a Novel”.
Here is the link to the original article in Chinese: "改论文改到嗨是一种什么样的体验." The author, Yue Qian, would like to thank Doris Li for her assistance with translations from Chinese to English.
Note: This article was first written in Chinese on January 27, 2016 and translated into English in 2022.
People say that writing a dissertation is a very dreadful, if not the most agonizing, stage. Let me share some of my thoughts on the process with you.
In the United States, many PhD candidates compile the papers they published during their PhD studies and make that their dissertation. Although I have published a few papers during my PhD studies, my dissertation is entirely new. Originally, I was planning to graduate in August, but my graduation date was advanced to May because I will be starting my new job earlier than I had anticipated. Under such great pressure, I am glad to find that I have not fallen behind. In fact, I am in an excellent mood every day despite the pressure, so I would like to share some useful tips on how I am able to do so. It is my hope that everyone can write their dissertations efficiently and happily!
1. Setting realistic goals for yourself is very important
I am very determined to graduate on time because of various life pressures. This, in combination with my personality, makes me avoid resorting to delaying my graduation as a backup plan. Knowing myself, I can only focus on one single thing at a time, so I’ve paused all of my other ongoing projects (including a ‘revise & resubmit’) to not overwhelm myself. I created larger goals (like finishing a certain part before a given month) as well as smaller goals (like writing 700-900 words per day). As long as I complete a daily goal, I can be satisfied with my progress even if I have wasted some time here and there. If we write dissertations while working on other projects in addition to balancing family demands, it’s easy to burn out mentally and physically.
2. Documenting progress helps you gain a sense of accomplishment and remain in high spirits
This point somewhat ties into my first point. Every day, I document my progress on Weibo (a China-based microblogging platform similar to Twitter). Doing so not only spreads positivity to those who see my posts but also holds myself accountable. I’ve even developed somewhat of an urge to post something every day as a way to report my progress to my followers. This gives me a sense of security and at the same time, it makes me feel more accomplished. Consequently, I can focus better while I work to complete my daily goals. Meanwhile, don't be too harsh on yourself. There is no need to criticize yourself for writing too slowly or not getting anything done; life already comes with enough pressure as it is, so treat yourself gently!
3. Just sit down and write; don’t judge your writing
It takes me hours to get into the flow when I write on my computer. I always take my time, fixing things here and there. When I plan out the day, I like to take into account this warm-up period. Another key point is to write shamelessly. Oftentimes when I am writing I’m slow as molasses and the quality of my writing is simply appalling. But after you have a draft, you can take your time to edit it, and the quality will only improve from then on. Sometimes, I’m also not the most objective person when it comes to judging my own writing. For example, I was really displeased with my second dissertation chapter (update: this chapter has been published in Journal of Marriage and Family) no matter how much I edited it, but when my mentor read it, he remarked, “I enjoyed reading the chapter. It is well thought out and well executed. The writing is good and easy to understand. Great job!” As the saying goes, a good dissertation is a done dissertation.
4. Find a source of entertainment
Don’t make your life revolve around your dissertation because then you’ll start to feel lifeless. For instance, I always dress up before heading to the office to work on my dissertation. I also have peers who envision themselves to be bestselling authors writing a novel; this is actually quite helpful for writing the introduction because in essence, we write papers to sell our ideas to the audience. Apart from that, I also have to teach while working on my dissertation. Even so, teaching is a relief for me because I have the opportunity to interact with others.
5. Rest, rest, rest!
Generally, I concentrate on my work for 4 to 5 hours, and spend another 2 to 3 hours on campus dealing with other tasks and doing some errands. When I get home in the evening, I stop working altogether and don’t even think about anything work-related, and I don’t feel guilty about it! This makes it so I wake up in a good mood every morning because I feel energized and ready to take on the day. In the late afternoon, I’m still in a good mood because by then I will have ended a day of hard work, and I can look forward to the evening which is my self-care time. Also, I try to get at least 8 or 9 hours of sleep each day. If I sleep later, I would also accordingly wake up later the next day. This way, I can maintain mental clarity in the mornings and head to work fully recharged. I don’t do intense physical activities like running or aerobics, but I do make sure I go on a walk for 30 to 60 minutes on every work day. While I walk, I’ll listen to music, people watch, or space out.
These are some tips I have summed up as of now. Hopefully, you’ll find them useful. Once I finish defending my dissertation, I’ll revisit these points and see if I have any new insights to add. You’re also welcome to add to the list. Be open-minded to trying new things and find what works best for you. At the end of the day, finding strategies to work efficiently is also a part of figuring out who we are!
The original article in Chinese is "如何高效、快乐地写博士论文？." The author, Yue Qian, would like to thank Doris Li for her assistance with translations from Chinese to English.
Note: This article was first written in Chinese on April 26, 2019 and translated into English in 2021.
A 2018 study published in Nature Biotechnology found that the prevalence of moderate to severe depression and anxiety among graduate students was more than six times the prevalence among the general population. Nature’s 2017 PhD survey revealed that doctoral students were most concerned about things like work-life balance, future career prospects, and financial issues. These findings highlight the significant mental health challenges faced by academics.
I used to struggle with taking care of my mental health. At the beginning of my graduate studies, I was worried that I couldn’t write a good MA thesis and I almost cried in front of my advisor. Later, I successfully defended my MA thesis, but I then started to doubt whether I could come up with a dissertation topic. Again, I discussed my “emotional panic” with my advisor. When it came time to graduate, worries over unemployment during my job hunt drove me to break down once more.
I did end up finding a job, but there was immense stress in my first year of working. I had to move, prepare materials for my lessons, apply for a work visa, and adjust to an entirely new environment. On top of all this, I had no time to develop any new projects, and papers submitted for peer review had all been rejected. This brought me to another breaking point with my advisor, as I worried that, if this trajectory continued, I would not be able to get tenure.
However, in my third year of working, my mentality had a drastic shift in a positive direction. I slowly started to accept that I was the type of person who gave their all to whatever they were working on. Even if a few years later I did not get tenure, I would be fine. I came to believe that, with my capabilities and work ethic, I could excel in other jobs even if academia did not work out. As I learned to prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and take whatever comes my way, I finally felt at ease to tackle anything the future had in store.
Because I am easily troubled by my mental health issues, I try to be mindful of practical strategies that help improve my mental state. I have found some tips useful to me and I will share them in this article. I am hoping that, by sharing my experiences, I can start a discussion about how to take care of our mental health. If there are techniques that you have found helpful, please feel free to share them.
Never compare yourself to others
This is SO important.
I have never been one to heavily compare myself to other people. In high school, I was in an “Olympic Class” in which students were trained for international science Olympiads and, for a long time, I scored in the bottom three of the class. Despite this, I studied at my own pace and was accepted into Renmin University of China, a prestigious university. Therefore, since high school, I have accepted that there are plenty of smarter people out there in the world. Rather than comparing myself to them, I should just focus on improving myself and doing what I need to do.
In academia, smart impressive people abound. From big names to rising stars to job market stars, intelligent and remarkable people are everywhere. Furthermore, in academia, everything is public information. If you want to see who won an award, what paper someone has published, or what research funding people have secured, all it takes is a quick google search. Surrounded by brilliance and bombarded with updates of these individuals’ every move, we understandably feel anxious about our status and success.
Fortunately, very rarely would I compare myself to others. When I began my PhD studies, I made very slow progress but I felt grounded with my pace. Although it was monotonous reading articles and writing papers all day and every day, doing these things calmed me down. Thinking back, in my six years of graduate studies, my mental health hit rock bottom when I began job hunting. I couldn’t help but browse the “Sociology Job Market Rumours” forum to keep tabs on who got campus interviews and who received job offers, which caused me to look at my situation with worry as I had not heard back from any of my applications. This addiction to constantly comparing my (lack of) progress to the achievements of others did not benefit me at all. Conversely, it triggered excessive anxiety, took up a lot of my time, and consumed my mental energy.
Among my current colleagues, some publish a number of first-authored articles in top journals every year, some have received millions in national funding for their research projects, and still others have countless awards under their belt. Nonetheless, I do not compare myself to those who work alongside me or those in my field. Everyone’s career path is different and everyone’s road to success is unique. Differences in research areas, scholarly interests, methodological approaches, and target audiences all lead to variations in research output. There is no use in comparing our own path to another’s.
Focus on the present
In the beginning, I mentioned how I struggled with mental health. In reflection, my biggest weakness is that I have trouble staying calm and tend to focus on worst-case scenarios (in Psychology, it is known as “catastrophizing”). This kind of mindset makes me very prone to feelings of anxiety. For example, when I first began my job, I was already worrying about the future. Would I be able to get tenure in the next six or seven years? What would I do if I couldn’t? During my PhD years, when I shared my worries with my advisor, he was always very patient with me. He would calm me down and tell me that, “Don’t worry so much. Don’t worry about what will come in three or five years. Just focus on the next three months. Think about what goals you can work on right now and do your best to accomplish them. We have no control over the things that will happen three or five years from now.” It took me a long time to understand what my advisor taught me.
Why do I emphasize focusing on the present? I have realized that, when I feel anxious and irritable, it is almost Zen to engage in self-calming exercises like analyzing data, writing papers, and editing papers. Doing these things allows me to momentarily forget all that is weighing on my mind and grounds me in a feeling of pure happiness. Rather than worrying about things that will happen half a decade from now, I like to try and appreciate the process of doing things I love. This is my understanding of how focusing on the present can help relieve moment-to-moment stress.
Focusing on the present moment can also help manage stress in the long term. When I was developing my dissertation proposal, I could only come up with the topics for two empirical chapters out of the three required. My advisor said to me, “It’s alright, just start writing. When you analyze data and write your first two chapters, a third topic will naturally come to mind.”
Later, when I began my job, I confessed to my advisor that I was not sure what my next big project should be. He said, “you are not a book scholar, so you don’t need to worry too much about what your next big project will be. Just think about what topic you would like to explore in your next paper. In the process of writing it, inspiration for your next project will come naturally.”
Things played out exactly as my advisor had said. My third dissertation chapter was finished with ease. My project ideas came flowing one after another and I tackled each project one step a time without feeling drained of ideas.
Let me give an example. I was once invited by a colleague to contribute a paper to a journal’s special issue. I readily agreed because at the time my collaborator and I were just about to write a paper that precisely fit the theme of the special issue. When we were writing the article for the special issue, I found another point of interest for further research. As such, my collaborator and I wrote another article that is now under review for publication. Moreover, through contributing to this special issue, I connected with an early-career scholar whose work I had been following. We agreed that once we wrapped up our articles for the special issue, we should collaborate. The resulting collaborative article that came from our informal conversation has now been accepted for publication. [Update: the three papers were about women's fertility autonomy in China, premarital pregnancy in China, and assortative mating in remarriage in China, respectively. All three papers have been published by now.]
The experiences I have had these past few years allow me to slowly understand that the best ways to deal with my anxiety are to be present in the moment and to enjoy the feelings of fulfillment brought about by “mindful working.” I earnestly work on every paper and challenge myself to think of new areas of research in the process. As I give my all to the current opportunities within my control, I worry less about what will happen in the future.
Find something that keeps you going
I feel that it is very easy for people in academia to question the meaning of their work. It is also easy to feel frustrated and fall victim to self-doubt. One reason is that every project takes several years to be fully completed (it takes an even longer time if people are looking to publish a book). Additionally, when papers go under review, they can be criticized harshly and rejected in an instant, turning the hard work that went into it to dust. At times like these, it is difficult to not question oneself.
Thus, I believe it is very important to find meaningful things to engage in. For me, that has been public sociology. I am very passionate about disseminating social sciences research to the general public (particularly when it comes to topics of marriage, family, and gender). The reach of most academic papers is very limited, so many important findings are not noticed by the average individual. I find that it is an extremely gratifying experience to convey scholarly findings in digestible terms to those beyond the academic sphere. Writing articles for popular media while staying true to science has become a creative hobby of mine. Over the course of writing, I have discovered that this creative outlet has significantly relieved me from work stress.
Some of my friends love to teach. They enjoy helping their students grow and that is a source of fulfillment for them. Another friend of mine specializes in research on gender and work. She served as a consultant for many local organizations in hopes of promoting workplace diversity and inclusion. Find something that keeps you going, instead of focusing all your meaning-making on publishing academic papers. This is something I find helpful for maintaining good mental health in academia.
Having a guilty pleasure
This tip was inspired by a friend. To put it simply, we need to find our favorite way to spend our leisure time. For a long time, my guilty pleasure was keeping up with new episodes of Gossip Girl every week or watching various music videos from my favorite singer Jane Zhang. Later, I followed a Chinese reality show about intimate relationships, which featured the interactions of three celebrity couples. I was really engaged with the TV series and entertainment shows I liked. For example:
Every week, when I was waiting to watch new episodes of TV shows, it became something that I could look forward to. Moreover, when I was watching those shows, I forgot all about work-related stress. In conclusion, I highly recommend everyone find their guilty pleasure, immerse yourself deeply (do it in moderation, however), and enjoy yourself. This is also another way to maintain positive mental health.
Of course, the aforementioned examples are all drawn from my personal experiences. Please feel free to share any well-kept secrets of your guilty pleasures or helpful strategies.
Here is the link to the original article in Chinese: "如何在学术界保持心理健康？." The author, Yue Qian, would like to thank Evalina Liu for her assistance with translations from Chinese to English.
How to manage your time, emotion, and research progress as pre-tenure faculty members?
Note: This article was first written in Chinese on April 19, 2017 and translated into English in 2021.
After graduating in the US with a sociology PhD, I became an Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC). This is a tenure-track position, meaning that the institution will appoint us for a few years followed by a performance evaluation. If we pass, we are granted tenure. If we fail the evaluation, we would have to pack our bags and leave. It has been nearly ten months since I started my position in July 2016. Reflecting on my first year of being a pre-tenure faculty member, I have gained some insight that I would like to share.
During my first year, I needed to teach three new courses. Therefore, I spent a great deal of time doing course prep. Given my previous training, I was more familiar with academic research on China and the US. Now that I am working in Canada, I hope to also teach my students about research on Canadian families. Hence, I spent a lot of time familiarizing myself with the current state of Canadian family research.
Evaluations of teaching only make up a relatively small fraction of our tenure promotion evaluations. Even so, in my view, teaching involves direct interactions with students that can have significant impacts. If we are not well-prepared, there is almost immediate—and oftentimes face-to-face—negative feedback from students, which can take a huge toll on our emotions and self-esteem. Plus, I enjoy sharing my knowledge, so I consider it an intrinsic reward to inspire students through the research I like. In my teaching, I also encounter many eager and thoughtful students with high levels of critical thinking, and it is always a delight to exchange ideas with them.
Our department head was very supportive of my research and accommodating of my work habits. In my second semester at UBC, I needed to teach two courses. The department had originally scheduled me to teach for 1.5 hours every day from Monday to Thursday. When I found out my schedule, I immediately wrote an email to the department head expressing some concerns I had. I typically need large chunks of uninterrupted time to conduct research, but teaching from Monday to Thursday would lead to a fragmentation of my time and thus a reduction of my research productivity. Subsequently, with the support of the department head, the staff responsible for scheduling helped me arrange my courses to be on Tuesdays and Thursdays only.
Before I graduated with my PhD, my advisor urged me that I should allocate at least two days a week to research while on tenure track. For this reason, my basic work schedule involved teaching and addressing other related tasks on Tuesdays and Thursdays while concentrating on research on Mondays and Wednesdays. I usually worked on my research in my study room at home instead of going to my office. This helped to reduce my commuting time, avoid other external distractions, and establish my spatialized rituals (as recommended by Helen Sword in her book Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write). I usually spent Fridays doing course prep whereas, on weekends, I tried my best to get some rest. Although the plan sounded well-structured, my Mondays and Wednesdays intended for research were frequently interrupted by other matters, so in reality, I had less time for research than planned.
In my personal experience, if I do not block out time for my research, I will easily be carried away by other matters, but everyone works differently. For example, I have colleagues who wake up at 5 AM every day, work until noon, and spend the afternoon taking care of other tasks. The key is to figure out what strategies work best for you and to stick to them.
Undoubtedly, there is a lot of pressure for pre-tenure faculty members. If we want to keep a sustainable lifestyle and remain highly engaged with research in the long run, we have to find a work-life balance. Otherwise, we will easily experience physical and mental burnout. When I was a grad student, I tried all kinds of stress management techniques: online shopping, exercising, playing the piano, binge eating, and drinking, to name a few. Some were healthy coping strategies, while others, not so much. After I came to Vancouver, I actually had little desire to shop or binge eat; I drank but only moderately. What is my new stress reliever?
At the end of every workday, whether I was teaching or doing research, I would inevitably feel exhausted, hollow, and ‘brain-dead.’ To counter this, I have started practicing hot yoga regularly, which always makes me feel rejuvenated after every session. I try to do one hour of hot yoga four to five times a week. I chose this exercise partly because I have always liked doing yoga, but mostly because a yoga studio is five minutes’ walk from my apartment. The convenient distance and the fact that I have already paid for monthly membership give me no reason to slack off. My hour-long yoga sessions are really a time when I can take my mind off other things. I also have friends who run, weightlift, or play tennis. The key to staying healthy is to overcome our inertia and get a fitness routine off the ground.
Challenges at work
I do not think I look particularly young among Asian appearances, but regardless, I am still relatively young as I went straight from undergrad to grad school and then to my current job. At the same time, I am an Asian immigrant woman. These demographic characteristics of mine make my work a bit challenging.
What bothers me most are the challenges of teaching. In one of the courses I taught, I had a five-minute quiz at the beginning of each class time to make sure students had read the assigned articles. I soon realized that out of the 75 students in my class, many (there always appeared to be 5–10 per class time) left either after handing in the quiz or in the middle of the class. These students did so without seeking my permission or even informing me. It also happened that the classroom door was in the front of the room, so every time they left during class, it was very disruptive to me and to other students listening to the lecture. Although roughly only a tenth of the class did so, their detriment to my mood and self-esteem outweighed the positive impact of the majority of the students who were well-behaved and engaged.
I was very troubled at the time, so I communicated with my colleagues to seek their advice. My colleagues validated my experience that, as a young female instructor, classroom management did sometimes pose a challenge. It was disheartening that sociology students, who learned about social inequalities in class, would perpetuate these “inequalities” based on age and gender (and, to some extent, race and immigrant status) in their daily interactions. I also spoke with a female colleague in the department who is an excellent instructor. She said she faced some of these challenges when she was younger, but one of the advantages of aging was that it became relatively easier to gain respect from students. Although compared to her male colleagues, she has more of mom-like authority than professor-like authority, being older makes it easier for her to manage her students.
As I later reflected, Max Weber proposed three kinds of authority: traditional, charismatic, and rational-legal. If traditional authority was harder for a young immigrant minority woman to attain, I needed to establish rational-legal authority. For example, I will include “arrive no more than five minutes late and no early departures” in my syllabus next year. In addition, when I teach in the future, I plan to do pop quizzes—sometimes at the beginning of the class, sometimes at the end. In this way, I can check not only whether students have done the readings in advance but also whether they have paid attention in class. Hopefully, I can rely on established rules and expectations to promote positive student behavior and create a better classroom atmosphere.
As I transitioned from grad school to work, one of the biggest changes I have noticed is that suddenly there is no one else at the same stage as me. Demographers have always placed great emphasis on the concept of “cohort,” meaning that there are some commonalities among people who experience the same event at the same time. During grad school, there are usually five to ten students admitted in the same cohort. When we had to write a paper, prepare for PhD candidacy exams, or look for jobs, there was always someone to exchange ideas with and we could encourage one another. After we graduated and start working as faculty members, almost all of our colleagues are in different life stages and at various points of their careers. Everyone’s life and work priorities also differ. All of these make it difficult for pre-tenure faculty members to find a companion to forge ahead with.
If there are any regrets from my first year of work, it would probably be the fact that I did not take the initiative to greet others or make friends since it takes time for me to get comfortable around others. As a result, I had hardly talked with several of my colleagues despite having worked in the department for nearly a year. Before I started working, my mentors shared their experience with me and advised me to take the initiative and try inviting every colleague out for coffee or lunch to increase my visibility in the department. However, such advice is difficult for introverts like myself to follow.
Still, I do communicate frequently with my colleagues who are near my office. I have never been one to be afraid of asking questions. If I had a teaching or administrative question, I would immediately communicate with the department head, my assigned faculty mentor, or my colleagues in the adjacent office.
Don’t forget about your past social support system! When I had questions or felt confused, I still sent emails to my mentors from grad school. They always replied to my lengthy emails with patience and helped me through many difficulties.
In addition, I keep in touch with my former friends, especially those who have just started their tenure-track job. Although we live far apart, we are at similar stages of our careers, facing similar pressures and worries. Now, I am sharing my experiences in the hopes that you can feel the social support of the larger academic community.
In my first year at UBC, I spent a considerable amount of time and energy doing course prep, teaching, and managing the classroom. On top of that, I moved across the border, was adapting to the new environment, and had to deal with all kinds of administrative procedures and immigration paperwork. Because of all these things, I did not publish any new articles.
My takeaway is that it is a major challenge to start any new projects in the very first year of the tenure track. After starting my job, I submitted a paper and received a “revise and resubmit” request. Following a long period of revision, it was finally accepted. All of my papers that are currently under review and the ones that I am currently writing were initiated during my grad school days. They were “work-in-progresses” from back then, and now I am just starting to wrap up these projects. I feel that the “research pipeline” often mentioned by my mentors is quite important. It is crucial to plan well in advance and decide which papers need to be published before we are on the job market as well as which papers we need to write, submit, and get published as soon as possible while on tenure track. The peer-review cycles and processes are out of our control, so the only thing we can do is to keep writing and submitting, and to submit again if our paper is rejected.
Besides, I think writing a sole-authored paper is an extremely lonely endeavor. In a sole-authored project, I will be the only person who knows the research thoroughly. Thus, it is difficult to discuss with others when I come across problems during the research process. Without a collaborator to keep me accountable, I often lack the motivation or the self-discipline to continue my work. For example, one of my sole-authored papers was rejected, and it has been almost half a year now, but I have yet to start revising it. So in reality, “keep writing and submitting, and submit again when rejected” is easier said than done. It is even harder to put into practice when it comes to working on a sole-authored paper.
All things considered, I am fortunate to have many reliable and compatible collaborators whose research interests overlap with and complement mine. At the same time, they also are my friends and form my social support network. I have collaborated with them to publish various papers. After receiving my PhD, I have collaborated less with my advisors. Now, my primary collaborators are almost all friends of mine who, like me, are in the early stages of their careers (or towards the end of completing their PhD). We are all similar in terms of our work habits and work pace, and we share the same pressures of earning tenure. Moreover, everyone’s moral sense is very similar, so there are not any disputes or estrangements stemming from the division of labor or authorship. We should cherish collaborators who are compatible with our work abilities, research interests, and professional ethics. They are my collaborators but above all, valuable friends. Of course, the issue of how many articles you should work on alone and how many to collaborate on with others also needs to be adjusted and planned according to your institution’s standards and expectations for tenure and promotion. If you are at a university that discourages collaboration and places a lot of emphasis on sole-authored work, you will have to stick it out and do your own research no matter what.
This is what I have learned so far. Inevitably, personal experience has its limits. For example, since I started my job, I have had less contact with my family and friends (especially those in China). Oftentimes when I called them, I tended to rush through the call. I am aware of this fact and feel very guilty towards them. However, as a single and childless person, I still have more time and freedom at my disposal. By contrast, assistant professors who are parents face the pressure of earning tenure on one end and the struggles of parenting on the other. They cannot control when their children cry or how their children behave, so they face different challenges in balancing work and life than I do.
That being said, it would be such an honor if anything I have shared resonates with you.
Here is the link to the original article in Chinese: "在加拿大当助理教授的第一年：如何管理时间、情绪和研究进度？." The author, Yue Qian, would like to thank Doris Li for her assistance with translations from Chinese to English.
Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of British Columbia