Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Blogging is Thinking

Just over a year ago, I began writing a blog I was embarking on a fourteen month trip abroad with my family to conduct research with deportees in four countries. I wanted to record the experience, at least for us, our friends, and our family.

When I began, I was not sure whether or not I would have something interesting or useful to say on a regular basis. But, I figured I would give it a shot and hope that my blog would not join the ranks of most blogs – which feature a few posts and then disappear from existence.

It turns out that my original blog – after a year of regular posting – is fading out. The reason is, after writing a couple hundred blog entries, I realized that my blog tends to be about three distinct topics – my travels, my immigration research, and advice for academics. Thus, I decided to split the blog into three blogs:,, and

As a person who has to write as part of my job, you might think that writing a blog (or three) would interfere with my “real” work – writing academic articles and books. To the contrary, it has invigorated it and made my other writing easier. There are two principal reasons for this. The first is that writing a blog allows me to practice my writing, and thus to improve it. The second reason is that writing is thinking, and the more I write (and thus think) about my work – the more academic writing I can produce.

Blogging is Writing
Writing, like most skills, improves with practice. Writing blog posts three times a week has giving me quite a bit of practice with writing, and my writing skills have improved as a consequence. Writing is also a habit. Writing every morning on a consistent basis has turned writing into a regular habit for me. Since I blog – and thus write – on a regular basis, my writing gets better with practice.

My blogs have a very modest audience. Even still, they have a much larger audience than my academic writing. And, the production time is much shorter – I write, I click “post,” and it is online. When I write a journal article, I write, I revise, I submit, I revise, and even once it is accepted it takes several months or years for it to appear in print. For me, the instantaneous nature of online publishing provides an additional incentive to write and to share my ideas. Knowing that someone will read what I have written gives my writing purpose and inspires me to do more.

Blogging is Thinking
The second reason that blogging helps my academic writing is because writing is thinking. In my blog, when I write about my research, I think through my findings and theoretical approach and am able to solve puzzles that emerge. I also write about my methods, which allows me to think of ways to improve it.

For example, one of the greatest challenges in my research project this year has been to find deportees to interview. I have written about this challenge a couple of times. This has allowed me to think of new strategies to find deportees to interview, and to remind myself that I need to continue to think of new ways to find deportees.

I also write about emerging findings in my research, which allows me to think about them, keep track of them, and to ensure that they are integrated into my ongoing research. For example, in my research with deportees in Goiás, Brazil, I tried to figure out why Goiás is such an important sending region for Brazilian migrants. Writing about this, thinking about this, and receiving feedback and tips from colleagues in a virtual forum gave rise to new ideas about migration patterns.

Of course, I could accomplish all of this by simply writing a journal and keeping track of my thoughts. I did that with fieldnotes when I was conducting my dissertation research. However, I have found that the blog format – which allows me to share ideas, post photos, and discuss my findings with others – has worked better for me.

For me, it turns out, blogging is thinking.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Five-Year Plan for Tenure-Track Professors

As anyone up for tenure can attest, the time between your first day as an Assistant Professor and the day you have to submit your tenure file flies by. Colleges and universities vary on the procedures and dates, but in general, you have five years to put your tenure file together.

I know you are supposed to have six years, but it is actually only five. Let me explain. Suppose you begin a tenure track position in August 2010. By August 2011, you will have completed your first academic year, and by August 2015, you likely will have to submit some parts of your tenure file – such as the names of external reviewers. The review of your tenure case will be complete at the end of your sixth year. This usually means you have to start the review process about a year beforehand.

As you have five years to prepare, you need a five year plan. In this post, I will focus on the research side of the equation, as this is most often the most important part. However, this will vary by institution, and you need to figure out what is most important where you work.

Step One: Set your goals. The first step to creating a five year publication plan is to figure out what you need to accomplish to have a successful tenure review. How would you like for your CV to look in five years?

You can find out about departmental expectations by asking your mentors and colleagues. You also should look at the CVs of people who recently have been awarded tenure both in your department and at other institutions. If you think that it is possible that you might leave your current place of employment before going up for tenure, you need to be aware of standards at other institutions. And, even if you don’t plan to leave, you still need to be aware, as things might not work out for you at your current institution, and it is important to be marketable. Once you figure out the departmental and disciplinary expectations, you can set your own publication goals.

Step Two: Make a plan for achieving your goals. Let’s say, for the sake of this blog post, that your goal is to have one book and three articles in print by the time your tenure file is reviewed. You must now figure out how long that will take to accomplish, starting from the ideal publication date. You need to plan.

For example, if you would like for your book to be in print by August 2015, when you submit the names of external reviewers for your tenure review, you need to work backwards from that date. For your book to be published in August 2015, you need to submit the final version to the publisher by August 2014. For that to happen, you likely need to submit the original version by August 2013, which means you should submit the book proposal no later than February 2013. There you have your first concrete goal: Submit your book proposal to potential publishers no later than February 1, 2013.

You can then do the same thing with the articles, based on the time it takes for articles in your field to be accepted and published, and the number of articles you reasonably can submit in a year or a semester. Keep in mind that articles are almost never accepted upon first submission, so allow time for revision and re-submission.

Step Three: Map your plan out onto a calendar. Once you have decided, for example, that you will submit your book proposal by February 2013, your first article by February 2011, your second article in August 2011, and your third article by February 2012, then you can begin to map out the steps required onto a calendar.

For example, if your first goal is to submit an article by February 2011, then you can use the time between now and February 2011 to ensure that your article is ready for submission. You might use August 2010 to make a plan for the revision of one of your dissertation chapters, September 2010 to do the literature review, October 2010 to re-analyze the data, November 2010 to write the first draft, and December and January to finish the revisions and get peer feedback.

You will need to do this for each of the goals you have set. However, if you have never mapped your goals onto a calendar before, it might work best for you to focus on one goal at a time. For example, once you have revised one chapter of your dissertation into an article, you will have a better idea as to how long it will take to do the others. Then, you can develop a feasible plan for the remaining articles.

Step Four: Execute the plan. The best way to meet your publication goals is to work on them consistently. If you spend at least one hour every day from Monday to Friday working on one of your publication goals, you are much more likely to meet them than if you only work on them on the weekends or only work on them over break. If getting tenure is important to you, and getting tenure requires publishing, it behooves you to do something that gets you towards publishing each and every day. Usually that “something” is writing. It also includes data analysis, reading background literature, and letting ideas percolate. However, most academics find it fairly easy to spend hours and hours reading and running data, yet find it harder to spend time actually writing. For this reason, it is important to write every day to ensure you achieve your goals.

If you have already started your faculty position and did not make a five year plan, it is not too late. You can make a plan based on what you would like to have accomplished by the time you go up for tenure or promotion, no matter how much time you have left.

The planning process can be stressful as you think of all you have to do. At the same time, it can be calming, as you come to terms with what you will and will not be able to accomplish over the next five years.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

New Faculty and “The Latte Factor”

Money is a touchy subject among academics. However, we actually live in the real world and have to make real-life budgetary decisions. And, our research and writing may well depend on us being judicious about those decisions.

The transition from graduate student to faculty member usually comes with a number of perks. A substantial raise is one of them. For example, I went from earning $1,000 per month to $4,000. One of the first things I did was to purchase a home. I was tired of living in apartment buildings with irritable and irritating neighbors, and yearned for the freedom of a single-family home. I thought about getting new furniture. But, two things held me back. For one, I had three children under the age of five that could were very likely to damage the new furniture. Secondly, I didn’t have the cash and didn’t want to go further into debt.

In fact, I soon realized that $4,000 a month wasn’t actually that much money. When my I sat down and came up with a budget based on my income and expenses, I realized I did not have enough money to buy whatever I wanted at the grocery store, to go shopping for new clothes, to drink lattes every day, or to go out to restaurants on a regular basis.

With a mortgage, bills, taxes, a student loan, child care, and credit card bills to pay off, I was not living in the lap of luxury. It took a while to come to terms with the fact that, although I was no longer a graduate student, I still had to watch my spending carefully. Once I began to budget my money, however, I was pleased to see that I did have money for some of the things important to me, such as taking a family vacation over winter break.

At the beginning of my second year, I wasn’t any further in debt, but I did not have any savings, despite a substantial increase in my income. I decided that I had to be even more careful with my money. I did get a raise, but my paycheck changed little, as my health insurance costs had gone up, and I was now paying into retirement. I re-did my budget, and included a line each month where I set aside money for the three summer months when I don’t get a paycheck, and money for vacation. Each year, as my paychecks and living costs change, I re-do my budget so that I can prioritize what I need and want in my life.

Budgeting Can Help Your Research Agenda
Why am I telling this story? Because budgeting is something I rarely see discussed in forums on advice for new faculty. Yet, budgeting is one of the most important things new faculty can do. For one, it takes away some of the stress of not having enough money. Secondly, having money set aside can actually help your research agenda. Let me explain two ways this is possible.

Money for Research
At my university, they often award faculty summer grants of about $8,000. If you take this money as summer salary, they take out taxes and other things, and you end up getting only about $5,000 of it. If, on the other hand, you spend all of the money on research-related expenses, you can get the whole $8,000. Many academics need to travel for their research. Plus, if you live in a small university town, traveling elsewhere for library research or fieldwork can be a welcome break. The trick, however, is that the $8,000 is money they will reimburse you for expenses. So, you need to have the money on hand in order to spend it and get reimbursed later. In addition, if you have family members who you’d like to take with you, you will have to pay for their airfare up front. Again, you will need cash on hand for that. And, you can’t use the grant to pay your mortgage or bills. Having saved up your money over the course of the school year will make it easier to take the larger sum and get research done, as opposed to taking the smaller sum and not have funds to travel for research.

Summer Teaching?
At my university, they also offer the option of teaching a summer course, for a percentage of your annual salary. With the exception of some people who do this as part of a study abroad program, all faculty I have talked to say they do this for the extra money.

I have to say this gives me pause, especially when Assistant Professors at R1 universities teach summer courses. Most new faculty members, presumably, are like me, and experienced a great increase in salary when they made the transition from graduate student to professor. And, even though the new position comes with new financial responsibilities – new clothes, a nicer place, student loans, etc. – I can’t help but feel inclined to suggest to new faculty that they more carefully consider their priorities.

At the end of the school year, we are all tired from the various service and teaching responsibilities that we have. Most of us have not gotten all of the research done that we would like to. And, if you are at a research-oriented institution, if you don’t publish, you will not be awarded tenure. Of course, you can get some writing done while teaching a summer course. But, most of us are too burned out to write in addition to preparing an intensive class. I think it is safe to say that teaching a summer class in most cases leads to a less productive summer in terms of research.

If you are not worried about your research productivity, then this does not make a difference. If, like most assistant professors, you are, then I would encourage you to avoid summer teaching unless it is absolutely necessary. If, for example, teaching a summer class is the only way you can help your mother pay for open-heart surgery, then, by all means, go for it. Most of us, however, do not have such life-threatening reasons to teach over the summer.

Many of us can avoid the need to teach over the summer through careful budgeting. Let’s suppose summer teaching nets you $5,000. That is equal to $417 per month for the year. Sounds like a lot to cut from your budget. For some, it could mean cutting out one latte a day, one night out drinking a week, and two nights out eating each month. For others, it could mean renting or purchasing a less expensive place or forgoing the purchase of a new car or new furniture. The only way for you to know, however, is to create a budget, and, moreover, to track your spending.

If you are starting a new faculty position this year, I encourage you to think carefully about your budget before making any major financial decisions. If you are an Assistant Professor and already find yourself in a position where you are teaching every summer, I urge you to assess the extent to which this is allowing you to meet your tenure requirements. If it is getting in the way of them, it might be time to re-assess your budgetary decisions.