Nearly all university administrators are really faculty in disguise. We take jobs in administration for a variety of reasons. Whether we are a Department Head, Associate Dean, Dean or Provost, most of us want to both do our jobs well and remain active in our fields as researchers and writers who publish our work. As anyone who has tried to do this juggling act knows, it’s very hard, and the cost of success is often our weekends, and a full night’s sleep.
As someone who spent more than decade in administration, first as a Director of Graduate Studies in Sociology at North Carolina State University, and then as Department Head of Sociology at University of Illinois at Chicago, I’ve personally experienced this struggle. In addition, I’ve worked with administrators in my role as a writing coach, while running seminars on how to write for English language journals in universities across Europe and at my own week long retreats for academics. My experience, and those of my students and clients, provide some clues for how to succeed as an administrator who retains their identity as a member of their academic discipline and remains a publishing scholar.
Here’s the deal. You’ve taken a job, probably a full-time job, that is about institution building, improving the quality of education, devising plans for faculty development, or perhaps fundraising. This is important work. Whatever administrative job you have accepted, you believe in it. Your work matters. It is real work. Yet, from the moment that we begin graduate school, throughout the time have spent climbing the academic ladder, most of us have internalized the notion that our “real” work is our research, and that everything else we must do, from teaching to service to administration may be important but it’s not the work that counts. This is far more true at research institutions than at teaching intensive colleges, but it is increasingly true everywhere. More important, it is the cultural logic of most disciplines, your teaching matters but what makes you a real scholar, esteemed and valued by others in your field, is your research. This cultural logic becomes our private standard too, as assessment of our own self-worth often hinges on our success at publishing. I remember my first few years as a Department Head, having been hired to clean up an organization in some turmoil, spending every waking moment re-inventing the department, and loathing myself for not finding time to get my “real” work done. One of my private clients told me a similar story. She was widely acknowledged as a super star at her college. Yet, she talked about having felt somewhat unsuccessful in the last few years because she was not publishing at the same rate as when she had been a faculty member. This amazing woman had re-designed a major and was on every committee that had to do with diversity on her campus. She had won a major teaching award. Yet she had that nagging voice that only writing and publishing was “real” work.
Many administrators talk about that nagging feeling that they are not succeeding because they aren’t publishing as often as when a faculty member. That is nuts. The nagging voice doesn’t even increase research productivity. Now I’m glad to report that after a week at one of my writing retreats, administrators often finish that paper, and have it accepted. But my real success as a writing coach is when that little voice stops nagging, that “real” work is going undone as administrators invest in building programs for students, and supporting their faculty. My point here is to step back and remind yourself that your real work is administration. That’s what you have chosen and it’s what’s paying your bills. That’s fine. Careers are long, and investing in others, your students, your faculty, your institution is important and real work. Give yourself a break.
As a writing coach, and one who spent years an administrator, I also understand your desire to stay active in your chosen field. But let’s be realistic. You must find new strategies that work for your new role, and you must accept that you will not publish as much right now as you have done before taking an administrative job, or as you will, after you leave it. So how to be as productive as possible while living the life of an administrator? Be realistic. If your goal is to publish as much as you always have, you’ll just spend your time angry at your failure. Is being a publishing scholar part of what the university is paying you for? If not, ask yourself why you want to do it? If it is just because of that nagging voice, the internalized guilt that the only “real” work is publishing, try to re-evaluate your self-assessments. Your real work is administration and it’s OK if you spend your weekends with your friends or family, and not publishing. But if you love to do research and write, and you miss it when you do not make time, here’s some strategies.
In the 21st Century with higher education budgets shrinking from state legislatures, and small liberal arts colleges going bankrupt, it’s a stressful time to be a professor. The standards seem to keep rising for getting a job, getting tenured and promoted. Yet, for many of us, this is the life we want. The freedom to teach and write about what you care about, is really a great way to make a living, even a privilege. The academy is also one of the few places left in American society where some professors, certainly not all, have the possibility for job protection known as tenure.
Once you clear the first hurdle, and get a job as a tenure-track professor, you can take a deep breath. And then get ready, set, and prepare for the next hurdle. Your first task is to assess your situation. Just what are the requirements to get tenure? Be sure to do your homework. Look at the vitae’ of those recently tenured. Interview your colleagues and the Chair. In most 4 year colleges and universities, you will be expected to write as well as teach and contribute to the campus community. The question is what percentage of your evaluation is based on teaching, what on service, and what on publications. Pay attention to the local norms, and organize your career strategy accordingly. If you, like most professors, have to do research and write, at least to some extent, how do you juggle all these tasks? Teaching and service work create immediate demands on your time, and you face immediate sanctions if you do not show up to your classes or your committee meetings. The consequences for not writing are not immediate, so it’s easier to procrastinate. But think about your undergraduate students. Do those who write their papers the week they are due get a good grade? Of course not. Nor will you be promoted if you put off your writing day after day.
An alternative to procrastination is to celebrate your identity as a writer. After all, whatever research you do is only intellectual self-stimulation until you’ve made the effort to communicate your results or ideas to others, until you write them down. In graduate school, most of us develop our identities as researchers, and teachers. But if we are to be successful as academics, we need to own our identities as writers. Writing is not just an add on, the way you share your findings. Writing is not just something you do, a writer is something you must become.
Repeat after me, you are a writer. You are a writer. Writer’s write. They write because they have something to share with the rest of the world. They have a contribution to make. You have a contribution to make. If you are not convinced this is so, you may be in the wrong job. If you love to teach, and really have nothing to write, find a job that rewards you for being a great teacher. But if you have a contribution to make, you must organize your life so that you can give that gift to the world. Your writing is important beyond your ability to stay employed. What you have to say matters. An important first step to success is to find other writers to meet with regularly. You don’t have to be in the same field, but being at the same career stage is a good idea. Tell each other what you intend to do, and how, each week. And then report back. Don’t be ashamed if you fail to meet your goals, use this accountability team to figure out why, re-group and try again next week.
The most often cited research shows that most people are more productive if they write every day. If you write just 45 minutes a day, you will have written for nearly five hours that week, even if you skip a day. Try that, since evidence suggests it works for most people. See if it works for you. I’ll tell you a secret, it doesn’t work for me. I simply can’t clear my mind enough to write on days when I’m teaching a three hour seminar. Nor can I clear the headspace on days I have long committee meetings. I just can’t. So I don’t try. What do I do instead? At least once a year I go away, by myself or with another writer (not my husband!). I go away for a writing week. Sometimes I rent a cabin, without internet, in the mountains in Colorado. One year I went to write in the tiny cabin of a sailboat off season. I’ve also gone to professional writing retreats. I so believe in the effectiveness of a yearly retreat, that I now hold one for academic writers a few times a year. A once a year retreat may boost your writing but it won’t get you tenure. You have to find a regular writing practice that works for you. If you can’t work on days you teach, or perhaps on days you meet with your collaborators, then stack your work by the day. I can do research related tasks, read an article, find some citations or run an analysis between meetings. That counts towards your 45 minutes a day of writing, and might be easier for you than actually typing words on a screen. I cannot write or even seriously revise unless I have quiet and a block of time. So I keep one full day a week for nothing but writing. I find I am productive writing in my home office one full day a week, with no distractions. Don’t try this, of course, if you have children at home. Or if you are the kind of person who can’t write at home until the dishes are done and the beds made. You need to find a pattern that works for you. But if you are to be a productive publishing scholar, you must find a writing practice that you can follow.
Repeat after me. You are a writer. A writer writes. You need to find a writing style that works for you. I recommend once a year to find a way to hide out from your other responsibilities, perhaps borrow a friend’s cabin in the woods off-season, or go to a writing retreat with the benefit of a writing coach and accountability group. Even more important, however, is to plan a weekly schedule that you follow religiously. Block out your writing time, whether it’s on a daily or weekly schedule, and make that time sacred. Find a few colleagues to share your weekly goals with, whether at a local coffee shop or a Skype call, and hold each other accountable for adhering to your writing schedule. You are a writer. A writer writes and publishes their work to make a contribution to the world. Your work is important and if you do not write no one will ever have the benefit or your wisdom. You are a writer, and one lucky enough to have a job that pays you to share your contributions with the world. Looking forward to reading what you have to say.
Professor Risman is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is known for both her academic writing, including her latest book, Where the Millennials Will Take Us and for writing for a public audience including editorial in the Seattle Times, CNN.com and Raleigh News & Observer. She has taught writing classes to graduate students at UIC and to graduate students and faculty at universities throughout Europe. She also hosts writing retreats bi-annually and can be reached at RismansWritingRetreats@gmail.com or http://www.barbararisman.com/rismans-writing-retreats.html
Congratulations on your tenure! You are one of the few Americans left with any sort of job security. After more than two decades of education, and at least six years, and probably more, of precarious employment, you have arrived at your Associate Professorship. You know just how lucky you are. You’ve worked very hard, but so have others for whom no job exists in this shrinking professoriate. Take a deep breadth. Celebrate.!
I am going to assume you’ve worked so hard to become a tenured faculty member because you truly love your job. Some of you love the teaching most. Others love the freedom to study and write about your intellectual interest. Few of you think committee work is the best part of the job but some of you may love that too. Whatever is your passion, now is the time to follow it. You are free from the immediate pressures of unemployment. You are free from the immediacy of the terrors of publish or perish. What now?
How do you keep up the discipline of writing when service commitments will no doubt become heavier? Perhaps you’ve been waiting for this opportunity to become an advisor to a student organization that you know helped you survive college. Some of you you have even been putting off becoming the soccer coach or the class parent for your child’s homeroom until after your promotion. Now is the time to do those things. You earned it. Finding a comfortable balance between work, family, and life is your right. If you’ve put that off until now (and I wouldn’t have recommended that), now is the time to re-balance your work, family and leisure time. Life is very short. You deserve to enjoy it. And you deserve the right to keep your career on track.
Here’s how. It’s time to think big thoughts. You do not have to publish quickly at this point in your career. You can take the time to decide what your next major project will be. If you want to shift your research area, take the time to read widely. Be generous with your co-authorships, junior colleagues and students will be grateful, and you’ll get credit for both the publishing and for mentoring. It’s time to be captain of this ship, take time to chart your course before you move forward. Don’t just move forward on the path you have been walking. But do keep moving forward with your intellectual life as researcher and writer.
Do not do just what comes easiest, just more of the same. If you do that, without deep reflection and conscious decision, you may become dissatisfied, perhaps even disengaged. The excitement of tenure will wear off, and if you haven’t found your next challenge, you risk becoming the dead wood you once detested. You have the luxury, and it is a luxury, of following your passion. If you love to teach, shift gears and write about pedagogy in your discipline. If you actually enjoy committee work, think about moving into administration. Perhaps start by writing about higher education. Use the freedom of tenure to consciously choose the next direction for your career. You have the freedom to make a radical shift to or to jump further into your current research area wholeheartedly It is now the time to be reflexive and make a deliberate choice about the direction of your career.
While you are doing this, keep writing. If you lose the discipline of a regular writing practice, it is very hard to start again. Be lenient with yourself, however, in what you define as part of your writing practice. You are at the stage of your career when you can take a little time to asses what you want to study, and where you want to publish. If you are changing directions, and must learn a new literature, consider that part of your writing practice. Everything that moves you forward with a new intellectual project is part of your daily writing ritual. What is most important is moving forward and not letting all your time be spent on teaching and service. Both are like housework, very important, but will expand to fill as much time as you allow. Your intellectual work, your writing, takes even more discipline now that the immediacy of pressure has been lifted. Your career cannot move forward without some attention to writing, whether about pedagogy, higher education, or your research. In some colleges, you are not expected to publish often, but in every college or university, it helps your visibility. In research institutions, your ability to be promoted depends on writing productivity. No one knows about your research findings until you publish them.
Congratulations again on tenure! You hard work has paid off. You have won the lottery of a lifetime position as a professor. You are now mid-career with many years ahead of you. It’s the time to re-assess, choose your next path, and begin writing your way to your Full Professorship.
One ritual shared by all of us with a doctorate is writing a dissertation. For some of us, it’s the most major writing project of our careers, for others it is just a launching pad for a career as a writing professor. But for everyone, it is a hurdle that takes incredible work to jump. And while you are writing the dissertation, the end is never assured.
The first step in getting on with it is accepting that it is going to be a struggle. This is hard. If it were not hard, many more people would try to earn their Ph.Ds. But it shouldn’t break your spirit or dampen your enthusiasm for your discipline. And if it is doing either of those, you need to veer course and assess the situation.
Every student deserves helpful respectful feedback. If your major professor isn’t reading your draft chapters within a month of receiving them, or is responding in ways that are undermining your confidence or self-esteem, it’s time to think about changing advisors. Or at least scheduling a meeting to talk about a way to move forward where you can meet his or her expectations, and receive the mentoring that you need. If you need deadlines to finish a chapter, ask for them. If you’d like to know what you got right, as well as what needs to be improved, ask your advisor to be sure to point out what’s on-target as well as what is wrong.
If you don’t seem to have time to write, that’s your problem, not your professors. You have to prioritize yourself. You have your research assistantship or teaching responsibilities or perhaps an outside full-time job. All of those responsibilities come with immediate deadlines. You may also have a family that needs you, and you can’t be writing instead of cooking dinner. All this is true. But it doesn’t matter. You need to find some time, hopefully every day, to move forward toward your degree. It may be that some days that is only listening to a podcast of a book you need to “read” while you are driving home from dropping your children at the day care center. That’s moving forward. You need to schedule in some time every day, and significant time, several days a week.
Think about it this way. Once you get a full-time job, even if you are young and starting out, you should be saving a very small amount of money every month, having it taken out of their paycheck before you ever see the money. If you do that, you just may have savings for your children’s college, or your own retirement. Even if you save just $10 a month, that is a start. So too with writing. Even though you are scarce on time, you must pay yourself first. What are the long-term consequences of taking a year or two longer to get your degree? The sooner you are finished, the sooner you begin a full-time professional job, the higher your lifetime earnings. A delay of a year, or two, will significantly depress your overall lifetime earnings.
Now that doesn’t mean you necessarily should finish as fast as is humanly possible, even if the Department’s Director of Graduate Studies insists you should. What are some good reasons for taking your time? If you hope to land a tenure-track job in your discipline, and the requirements have escalated so that you must have several peer-reviewed publications, book chapters, and an encyclopedia article or two, by all means, stay a graduate student long enough to build the vitae you need to get the job you want. But that means more writing, not less. In many fields now, certainly in my field of sociology, tenure-track jobs require publications, and that may mean more time in graduate school. This means more time writing, different kinds of articles and book chapters, as well as a dissertation. Daily writing is even more important and so is assessing whether you enjoy this kind of work.
The big question about writing, for graduate students, is do you enjoy it? Once you have defended your dissertation, you are often doing the same work as faculty, for far less money. You are doing research, often teaching, and writing. Do you like to write? Think about it, seriously. There are a variety of jobs open to incredibly well-educated Ph.Ds. And only some of them mimic the job of your major professor. Most of them do not. Now is the time to take stock and really pay attention to what part of your work makes you want to get up in the morning and go to campus. What part are you doing just to jump thru the hoops for your degree. Be honest with yourself.
Do you love research, but really dread writing it up and presenting it? Maybe a career as a research scientist in a big lab or major research or policy Institute is right for you. Do you just love to teach but dread writing? Perhaps a full-time tenure track community college position would make you most happy. Do you just love to do research, write and teach, but prefer to spend more time on the research and writing? If so, you are probably someone who should take an extra year to build up your vitae to be competitive for a research intensive university. If you love to teach, and research and writing is something you enjoy but don’t want to spend too much time doing, build up your expertise as a scholar-teacher. Even here, however, writing matters. But try writing something about pedagogy, or make yourself an expert in the scholarship of teaching and learning.
Whatever you decide, you need to write to finish your degree. If you want a research intensive faculty job, you need to publish soon, and often. If you want any academic job, you need to finish your dissertation and create a writing practice that nourishes your soul. If you don’t enjoy writing, many academic jobs are not going to be a good choice for you. But don’t despair, at least half of all Ph.D.’s work outside the academy. Some non-academic jobs require intensive writing, but others do not.
As you write your dissertation, keep a journal about how you are feeling. Use that to steer your course into the job market. But first, remember, a good dissertation is a finished dissertation. It is only the start of your career and not the measure of your worth. Now that you’ve read this, make yourself a writing schedule and go back to your keyboard.