The older you grow in academia, the more often you think: If only I could go back and talk to my younger self about how to do this right. We’ll never get to have that conversation, of course. But we can do the next best thing: hold forth to younger scholars about what they should do differently. (Or the next, next best thing: write a blog post about it.) Here are ten bits of advice I regularly push on my junior colleagues and would want to push on junior me. Mostly these are directed to grad students and early postdocs, but they are suitable for scholars of all stages:
1. Write every day. You see this advice almost everywhere, but you won’t be convinced of its value until you try it. Sadly, I didn’t give this habit a real go until a decade into my career. Currently, I write for one to two hours a day, first thing in the morning, usually on whatever academic article I’m pushing on. An obvious benefit of this practice is that you simply write more than you would otherwise. A less obvious benefit is that your writing process becomes much more fluid. A totally unexpected benefit is that it revs up your mind for the day.
2. Batch your email. For a few years now, I’ve only been checking email three times a day: mid-morning (after morning writing), early afternoon, and before signing off for the day at 6 pm. This has done wonders for my ambient anxiety levels (consistent with recent research), and for my ability to fall into episodes of deep, satisfying work. (To be clear, I would never have the willpower to simply limit how often I check email—I use a service that does this for me.) For some people, email may not be the big, bad distraction it is for me. A more general version of this advice: if there’s something that regularly hijacks your attention, batch it.
3. Organize your PDFs. I take it that many grad students these days have a system for managing PDFs. The “system” most of us used when I started grad school in 2005 was to have hundreds of inconsistently named PDFs confetti-ed around our desktops or buried in project subfolders. This is no way to do scholarship. (Remarkably, as far as I can tell, many senior researchers still seem to use this system.) I’ve used Mendeley for more than a decade now. It’s pretty good at what I want it to do: extract citation information from newly imported PDFs, allow me to organize my papers into folders and subfolders, and export citations in different formats. Cooler cats than I prefer Zotero. Either works.
4. Take notes in the cloud. After resisting Evernote for years, on account of its profusion of bells and whistles, I finally gave in about five years ago. I now love it—like, can’t-imagine-life-without-it love it. A few times a day I’ll find some treasure—a diagram, figure, quote, or turn of phrase—and send it to my Evernote account. Later, I can easily pull of up long-forgotten delights by searching my tags and titles. And because Evernote lives in the cloud, I can save choice snippets from anywhere and later access them from anywhere.
5. Take notes on paper. That said, I’m no stranger to paper. When I need to think something through carefully—the structure of a presentation, the design of an experiment, the flow of an argument—I turn to pressed pulp. For the last five years (on and off, admittedly) I’ve reserved Saturday mornings for “analog work” of this sort, usually paired with coffee and a pastry. It is one of my favorite rituals, and one of the most rewarding. Stare at the blank page, let your mind retrace its steps, and you soon find how much stuff has been accumulating and percolating. Some of it, at least, is worth scratching out on a page.
6. Read widely. One of the best ways to bring freshness into your writing and work is to read beyond the borders of your field. You’ll inevitably run into unfamiliar frameworks, puzzling phenomena, and new-to-you techniques; you may stumble on insightful quotes and analogies; at the very least, you’ll meet a fun new term or two. And you may well come away with portable intellectual tools. Different fields have different modes of argument, different rhetorical tricks, and different ways of dissecting problems. These may be familiar in the field where you found them, but fresh when you port them over to your own patch of intellectual turf. Bonus benefit of reading widely: it gives you the perspective to realize just how small that patch of intellectual turf is.
7. Disconnect regularly. The deeper you get into your work, the easier it is to lose perspective on it. Grad students often spend a few years tunneling into the weeds of their chosen problem. Nose in the dirt, they can no longer contextualize their work in a way that others find engaging. One way to get more perspective on your work is to disconnect regularly, to pull out of your work for actual—that is, no-work-allowed—vacations. To repeat: no work whatsoever. Taking breaks of three days or more always helps me pull back, see the forest, and take a longer viewer. There are other ways to get perspective, of course: reading widely is one; regularly talking to people beyond your area is another. And there are other good reasons to disconnect regularly: sanity and wellbeing come to mind.
8. Cherish criticism. Good criticism is hard to find. When you get some, hold onto it. Not all criticism is obviously helpful at first, and some may seem downright destructive, but you need to write it down so that you can evaluate its merits when you have more perspective. A tragedy I often see play out in young graduate students is that they get really good critical feedback at an early stage of a project but are not in a position to appreciate it; as a result, they let it drift over their heads with a smile and nod. (This happened to me, repeatedly.) Regardless of how comments about your work feel at first, write them down and revisit them when you have more distance. Also helpful: talking criticism over with a sympathetic but unsparingly honest third party.
9. Collaborate—with caution. Collaboration is one of the joys of research. Collaborators broaden your outlook, sharpen your thinking, keep you in check; they motivate you more than you ever could yourself; and they make academic life just plain fun. The flip side is that collaborations can be trying—and, tragically, many prove fruitless. A successful collaboration needs at least three things. First, it needs intellectual chemistry. Ask yourself: Are you excited to talk to talk to each other? Second, it needs complementarity. Ask yourself: Do you and your collaborator bring non-overlapping expertise to the project? Third, it needs commitment. This is where the caution comes in. Many of us rush into collaborations with people who are likable and brilliant, ignoring signs they may not be able to commit in a serious way. Often this is due to over-commitment elsewhere; sometimes it is due to general flakiness. Keep your eyes peeled for red flags, and try to give collaborations a trial period before going all in.
10. Let ideas cool. Projects often die on the vine, not because the people involved have failed in some way, but simply because the ideas have lost luster over time. The appeal of a new direction, topic, or approach is often irresistible. You must endeavor, nonetheless, to resist it. Or try this: let the new idea cool before acting on it. That is, have the idea, flesh it out, and, once it’s documented, let it sit. I suggest a period of three to six months, maybe longer. Often you’ll find that the obvious appeal an idea had at conception grows less obvious with time. (Some ideas will continue to burn bright, of course, and then you’ll know to act on them.) Behind this last bit of advice is a truth that, though blindingly obvious, takes years or decades to appreciate: Your time is finite; use it well.
Those are the ten nuggets of advice I tend to impart to any young scholar who will listen. To be clear, I am no paragon of productivity or success—not by any means. But I promise would be much less so had I not blundered my way into these practices and lessons. A glaring irony here is that past me would have probably ignored such advice. And future me would probably make very different recommendations. But so it is to live and learn.