“Keep a consistent schedule that balances research, teaching and service!”

26. Januar 2022

When did you decide to enter academia and to become a professor?

I’m not sure that I ever made a conscious decision to become a university professor. It just worked out that way.

I realize that this sounds funny, since I obviously did choose to enter a PhD program. And I consciously applied to academic jobs as a graduate student. But I was always considering other options, too. While I was doing my undergraduate degree in Political Science at McGill University, I was more interested in a career in journalism or working for the federal government in Canada. I loved to read, learn, and write about politics, and I wanted to have an impact on the world, however small. Journalism or government seemed like good fits.

But as with so many moments in a career, my personal life affected my professional one. I did have opportunities to work in the Canadian parliament or federal government, but these were not great matches for my partner. Print media – one of my loves – was already in trouble with the rise of the internet and on-line content. So when I got accepted into the PhD program at Harvard, my partner enthusiastically supported our move to the United States. When, years later, I was weighing (again) whether to work for government or stay in academia, he was enthusiastic about moving to California to accept a tenure-track job offer. Yet, even in my first few years as an assistant professor, I kept the idea of leaving academia in the back of my mind, especially if the challenge of balancing work and family became too difficult.

Luckily, the longer I stayed in my job, the more I enjoyed it. I like the control over many aspects of your work life, the freedom to read and learn as part of your job and, especially in a public university like the University of California system, the joy of teaching students who are the first in their families to attend college. I feel like I can have some small, positive impact on the lives of inspiring young people.

What are the three most important ingredients for becoming a successful professor?

Keep a consistent schedule that balances research, teaching and service. This starts even as a graduate student. Keep regular hours, as if you are employed in any other professional job. Set goals with deadlines: plan a presentation for a conference, promise to share a paper draft with a reading group, apply for a research grant. Don’t get overwhelmed with the big tasks like, “I have to write a book for tenure!” Break it down to the individual chapters, and then sections of chapters. With teaching, give yourself a set amount of hours in the week to prepare lectures or do grading, and try hard to stick to that. Learn to say ‘no’ to some service work, and try to schedule that into regular (but somewhat limited) chunks.

Seek balance outside of your job. I would define a “successful” professor as one who has a sense of well-being within and outside academia. There are, of course, a fair number of scholars who seem to work all the time and who are constantly publishing another book, or traveling to multiple universities to give talks, or overseeing three or four research projects at the same time. When I work, I work hard and with a lot of concentration. But I need to take time to exercise, to spend time with my family, or to read some popular fiction that doesn’t require much thought in order to decompress.

Learn from others and ask for advice. So much research has moved to team-based projects, but there is still an image of the successful professor as a person who toils away in the archives, or lab, or library, as a solitary researcher or author. That is not how you learn to be a social scientist, or how to become a better one. In graduate school, I learned as much – if not more – from my fellow grad students as I did in formal courses with world-renowned professors. They taught me about human subjects review. They demonstrated how to give strong job talks. They read early drafts of dissertation chapters and offered supportive, but honest, feedback. As an assistant professor, more senior colleagues offered advice and support. Even now, I look to people I admire and ask them how they manage the exploding number of service requests I face or what new literatures I should read in the field of migration or political sociology.

How do you keep yourself motivated in challenging times?

I stick to the basics that I discussed above. I try to keep regular hours, breakdown tasks into smaller, manageable bits, and try hard to attend to my well-being by staying physically active, trying to hike or bike in nature most weekends, and snatching regular hugs from my kids.

How do you manage both family and academic career?

It’s hard. Really hard. Working parents – and especially mothers – often face this perpetual guilt. When you are spending time with your family, you wonder if you shouldn’t be working to advance your career. When you are working, especially if you are working long hours or are away for a conference or research, you feel guilty that you aren’t spending time with your family. In my case, I had to acknowledge the guilt, make peace with it, and then try to get rid of it. I’m allowed to have a fulfilling career. And I’m allowed to say ‘no’ or turn down opportunities to have a rich family life.

I had my first child at the end of grad school, and my second as an assistant professor. There were times I would cry because of the pressures I felt. But there was also joy. A journal rejection doesn’t seem as important when your toddler yells, “Mama!” and runs to hug you when you pick them up at daycare. They think you are amazing. And, as older children, they give you the opportunity – and excuse – to try new things, like mountain biking with my youngest.

In my case, a supportive partner was also invaluable. He always supported my professional career. Further, I made the decision early on to use daycare, even when my kids were just babies. I needed to have an identity and activities other than just as a mother. My colleagues at UC-Berkeley were also quite supportive, even though in the United States, the support for working families is really limited, which creates stresses.

Do you have a specific writing strategy? And if so, how does it look like?

Again, I try to break writing down into chunks, especially for big projects. If I don’t have the mental energy to write up analysis, can I work on the ‘methods’ section of a paper?

Ideally, I’d like to write a bit each day, or every second day. Research shows that people who write regularly – even just a few paragraphs a day – are more productive over the long run. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to make that work for me. I need to block off 3-5 hours for writing. That’s hard, especially between teaching, committee meetings and other administrative demands. But my goal is to have two 4 hour chunks, just for writing, each week.

I’ve also found that writing with co-authors has been very helpful to keep on track, and it is really enriching, intellectually. You need, of course, to choose good collaborators who you can count on. And, early in your career, you probably need to have at least half of your publications as sole-authored work, at least in many sub-fields in sociology and political science. But as you move from being a junior scholar to a more established academic, the service demands begin to pile up and then co-authoring is a great way to keep writing. It is not as lonely, you can share the load, and you can encourage each other to finish a piece.