In the years leading up to my successful bid for early tenure as an assistant professor, I designed and taught two new graduate courses (of the five courses I was required to teach each year), led two major million dollar research initiatives, won a teaching award, published seven journal articles and three book chapters, presented at several national and international conferences, supervised two masters students who completed their theses, and gave birth to my first child. Far from this being the start to a hero story, the intense pace and heavy workload I experienced as an untenured, female academic also included an unplanned one-week hiatus in hospital to be treated for a peptic ulcer and lectures on finding balance from my physician.
While I survived my own sprint to tenure, I almost sacrificed my health and wellness. Sadly, my experience is all too common. Many untenured professors are struggling under unwieldy workloads and relentless demands from colleagues, students and the institution. In order to thrive and maintain balance during the long marathon of a successful academic career, I have learned to be very intentional about how I balance a demanding academic career while still enjoying an active and healthy family life. Based on my experience as an academic and mother, I offer the following advice for surviving and thriving on the tenure track.
First, time away from campus can be great for reflection and personal growth, especially on gender dynamics, as well as for being productive. Leading up to promotion as an associate professor, I gave birth to my second child. What was different this time, in addition to having both a toddler and a baby at home, was that I took a maternity leave combined with a sabbatical, and worked from home. In between potty training, playdoh and naps, I reflected on and wrote down my long-term goals as an academic, wrote and published a book, edited a peer reviewed journal and supervised my graduate students. I also made time for selfcare and good habits, like walks and play time with my children, preparing and eating healthy meals with my spouse, making time for daily exercise and getting enough sleep (okay, this last one continues to be a work in progress). Lately, I find that bringing academic work with me to the arena is a strategy that helps me to balance watching my two teenage hockey players with marking papers, drafting reports and reviewing dissertation chapters. So, balance work on campus with work at home to strive for optimal productivity.
Second, learn when to say yes and when to say no. Along my own tenure track pathway in academia, while balancing research, teaching and a demanding family life, I have learned that saying YES to diverse and unexpected invitations and opportunities to become involved in councils and committees, engage in projects, new teaching and research initiatives, innovative course design work, collaborative design and research teams, using a new technology or design for teaching, working with educators in the ministry and leaders in the classroom, has expanded and enriched my career in rewarding and exciting ways. I have not followed a linear path. A diverse range of projects, courses and leadership and service roles have challenged me to learn, grow and change in ways I could not have planned for and certainly didn’t imagine when I started my initial teacher preparation program almost 30 years ago. I am still excited and passionate about being a professor every day because of the dynamic nature of the work.
In the years between associate and full professor, I have also learned when and how to say NO. In part, saying no means that you hold yourself to your big goals, set priorities and establish boundaries. Set reasonable timelines for projects and block time in your calendar for this work. Blocking time for your priorities and projects gives you an idea of any “left over” time you might have for new requests. Avoid putting your own work, your own scholarship, and your own teaching, last. Avoid procrastination and time sinks, like twittering away hours on social media. Go for a walking meeting instead of taking a coffee break. There is more than enough work to go around, so you do not need to do it all. Learn the graceful art of saying no: Thank you for this invitation to become involved in…. I appreciate being asked… I regret saying no, however, I am fully engaged in… I am working towards a deadline for… Two of my doctoral students are working towards candidacy… Please approach me again in the future. So, strategy two is to learn when to say yes and when to say no.
Third, manage your time or others will manage it for you. I have learned to make every moment in my day count through the use of routines, processes and tracking systems. For example, I attempt to clear my inbox each day by acting/responding, filing or deleting. I eat a healthy lunch while reading graduate student papers and chapters. I develop systems and strategies, like daily, weekly and monthly lists, project management plans, and accountability charts, to keep on top of my work and reward myself for getting things done. I regularly document and track my accomplishments, through curating my curriculum vitae, organizing and filing relevant documents (such as teaching evaluations, evidence of productivity), sorting and organizing printed materials in my yearly Performance Review folder.
Fourth, find ways to become fully engaged with your academic community, on your campus and with colleagues at other universities, and seek out positive colleagues who generate energy rather than take energy. Work with trusted mentors and credible information to prepare for the tenure and promotion process. Too many new professors, myself included, experience fear and anxiety about the tenure and promotion process because they get seduced by urban legends and hallway talk, or get discouraged by sour colleagues, instead of talking to positive colleagues in senior leadership who have experience with the process. Instead, I encourage junior colleagues to seek out high performing and generous colleagues as mentors and coaches who will advise you, review your CV, recommend strategies to strengthen your research, teaching and service portfolios, and outline the tenure and promotion process at your institution. Talk to trusted mentors instead of getting distracted by horror stories, hallway talk and disenchanted colleagues.
Finally, develop a knowledge mobilization plan and project timeline for your research activities, grant writing, journal articles, conference papers and presentations, and other outcomes of your scholarship. Great advice I have been given and now live by is to set timelines and goals for the “productivity pipeline,” which means I aim to have a few manuscripts in preparation, a few manuscripts submitted for consideration, and a few works in press. I do keep track of new ideas that can be shaped into proposals for grants, conferences or journals. Prior to conference presentations, I try to work with my colleagues to develop a plan and deadline to prepare and submit the paper to a journal. Do not fly solo! Enhance your growth and productivity as a researcher by working with a collaborative research team that shares expertise and is willing to work on several manuscripts, with different leads on each on, at a time. Finally, and importantly, an investment that always pays off huge dividends is to mentor and support your graduate students as first authors by coaching them on academic writing, and also by co-writing articles and co-presenting at conferences with them.
Dr. Michele Jacobsen, Professor and Vice Dean
Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]
Ling Lei -Sep 20 at 22:31
Thank you, Dr. Jacobsen, for sharing your experience of success and for offering practical tips for managing an academic life as a mother. As a PhD student and mother of a toddler girl, I am deeply inspired. Thank you very much.
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