What my PhD Taught Me

This past December, I quietly marked a milestone: my 20th anniversary of earning my PhD.

Earning my PhD was one of the most challenging exercises I’ve ever undertaken. It was intellectually difficult, of course, but it was also difficult in other, unexpected ways: navigating the tenure denial, reinstatement, and then departure of my thesis advisor; negotiating a change in advisor and research topics between the MS and the PhD; coping with undiagnosed anxiety and depression; dealing with sexism and harassment.

I’ve spent some time recently reflecting on the past 20 years, post-PhD, and specifically what key lessons I’ve taken with me from the experience. Here, I’ll share the top 3 lessons from that time, and how they’ve served me in my career.

Lesson 1: Earning my PhD taught me as much about how to “learn” a subfield as it did about the process and history of inquiry in my specific thesis subfield.

I haven’t done a single bit of research on my thesis topic (other than getting articles out from the diss) since defending. I transitioned to other research projects in related areas in my postdoc, continuing one of those when I arrived at Carleton, and have continued to branch out to other areas since. I’m in the process of learning an entire subfield in which I was not trained (HCI), and for the moment, primarily publishing in that space.

It’s true that I learned enough to make me the “world expert” on my thesis topic at the time. But those skills are useful for picking up any subarea in any subfield. Skills like knowing how to do a literature search and review. How to learn, develop, and practice the common research methodologies in an area. How to learn the predominant writing style, and develop and tweak it to your own writing style. How to review and critique your own ideas and the ideas of others. How to figure out how the questions that inspire you, fit into the discourse of the field/subfield. How to frame an argument. How to discuss and contextualize results.

And, as it turns out, a number of those skills translate well to learning new topics and areas enough to teach them — a skill that’s vital when you teach at a small liberal arts school, where more often than not you’re teaching “outside your area”.

Lesson 2: Perseverance and consistency are underrated keys to success.

Inspiration gets way more credit than it should in terms of conditions for success. We like to think the most successful researchers are the ones with the best ideas. And that’s true, to a point. But the best ideas often start out as messy ideas — “quarter baked, not even half-baked” ideas as one of my post-doc colleagues called them. You need time and patience to wade through the muck of an idea or question to find the core nugget. And you need to be willing to play the long game, because sometimes you have to wade through A LOT of muck to get anything useful, and sometimes you wade through a lot of muck only to realize that it’s all muck, and you need to start over. Or, you think you’ve found the nugget, but those reviewing your work disagree and think it’s still muck.

Research is deeply unsexy, when you think about it.

My PhD trained me to show up and put in the time every day, whether I felt like it or not, whether I got some workable results or found a bug that meant I had to throw out all the code I wrote over the last month. It taught me to deal with the inevitable rejections of conference and journal papers and grant proposals, to dust myself off, identify the key points of valid criticism, and try again. It helped me grow a thicker skin. (Which, as it turns out, is also helpful when you work with undergrads at a teaching-focused institution and teaching evaluations play a large role in your tenure case.) At the same time, it helped me develop confidence in my ideas and in my work, which has also helped me persist when a line of research seems to be heading nowhere.

I’ve since used this perseverance to good purpose in my personal life, from training for marathons to earning my black belt to recovering from injuries to navigating the world of international adoption. Consistency and perseverence yields results.

Lesson 3: Your network is your lifeline.

Grad school was not a shiny happy experience for me, as I alluded to above. It was hard. As one of the few women in the program, it was isolating. It could have been lonely — if I hadn’t found my people.

The connections I made with the women in my department were my lifeline. My roommate, a fellow EE major from my undergrad institution, with whom I navigated those early years and classes. The woman who started in my lab at the same time, who took almost every class with me, studied for months with me for the quals, suffered through our respective dissertations together, and became a close friend. The women in other labs, both older and younger, who became friends and allies and fellow advocates for change. The (painfully few) women professors, who modeled how to deal with everyday sexism with grace and strength and modeled how to change the system from within the system — and that leaving a toxic situation instead of attempting to change it is sometimes the best choice.

I also learned how to identify male allies, and how to cultivate those connections, with both peers and professors. I’m grateful to the male professors who helped me figure out ways I could foster change in the department, and who willingly went to bat for me. I still use those lessons to this day. And to my peers, who helped provide pockets of acceptance and safety in an environment that often felt unwelcoming.

At the time I was in grad school, the idea of a “mentor network” was not in vogue — but that’s exactly what I was developing. I’ve continued to do this post-PhD. My network was vital to my earning tenure, and navigating my department as the only woman professor. It continues to be vital as I explore moving into administration full time in the next phase of my career. And it continues to grow.

And of course, as a senior woman in my field and department (and academia generally), I work to improve my mentoring skills, so that I can be a valuable resource, sounding board, and advocate for those coming up behind me.


I wish, in retrospect, I’d written down my reflections at my other PhD anniversaries. How did I view the PhD 5 years, 10 years, 15 years out? How did my recollections, and what I deemed important, change over time? Hopefully, when the 25th anniversary rolls around, I’ll remember to jot down my thoughts.

However, one thing was true then, is true now, and will be true in the future, I’m sure of it: I will not mark the anniversary by re-reading my dissertation. No. Thank. You.

Preparing for an especially busy term

I knew, going into this academic year, that my year would be especially busy. Between stepping into the STEM Director role, finishing my 3 year stint as the director of a cohort program, and teaching one more course than I should be due to a staffing shortage in my department, the year was going to be full, no matter what. I knew Winter Term, in particular, would be especially chaotic — several rounds of grant applications to review (and grant funds to award) in STEM, the selection of next year’s cohort in the cohort program, the selection of a new director for the cohort program, and tenure track hiring in my department. And despite my best efforts to avoid this scenario, my heaviest teaching term — 2 of my 4 courses this year — falls, you guessed it, in Winter Term.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve had a similarly full term — Winter 2016, to be exact, when I was teaching an overload, chairing a department, and chairing a tenure track search. That term almost broke me, even with my hyperfocus on self-care that term.

And while my schedule is what my schedule is, and I can’t control the number of responsibilities I have, I can control my approach. And, as I learned in Winter 2016, and in Winter 2019 when I had a challenging term despite advocating for a lighter term to deal with an expected heavy set of responsibilities, controlling my approach is crucial to maintaining my mental health.

Over at Dynamic Ecology yesterday, Meghan Duffy posted about her strategies for successfully dealing with a busy fall semester. The post contains excellent advice — blocking off time, saying no, etc. — advice that I will definitely borrow during this period of overwork. I’m also taking a few additional steps, to meet my responsibilities in as sustainable a way as possible.

First, I’ve modified the way I plan for the term. I tend to set research goals for the term at the start of each term, to keep myself on track and to keep myself from bailing on research, or spending my research time unproductively, when things get busy. I sketch out everything on my calendar for the next 10 weeks. But this term, there’s just too much to wrap my head around. So I’m only planning a month at a time, to prevent myself from getting too overwhelmed.

Second, I’m putting off interesting but not time-sensitive projects. I decided not to meet a conference paper deadline next week, because I can submit to the same conference in a few months and get feedback then. I’m fortunate in that I am not likely to be scooped in the interim, and I’ll be able to more fully concentrate on the paper starting in mid-March. I’d also originally thought about revamping the assignments in one of my classes to revolve around datasets, but decided that while this would be an interesting and worthwhile use of my time, it didn’t need to happen now. (“It doesn’t need to happen now” is kind of becoming my mantra this term…) I have a couple of research projects that I’ll move forward in smaller steps this term, but the bigger pushes forward will have to wait until Spring Term.

Third, I’m hyperfocusing on managing my energy levels. Monday was the first day of classes, and by the end of my first class I had very little left in the tank. And I still had another 70 minute class to teach! It also didn’t help that I still had some prep to do in between the two classes, so by the time the second class was over, I felt nearly catatonic. Lesson learned: No class prep can happen in between classes — I need to use that time to replenish my energy. This is especially important as an introvert, since teaching two courses means a lot more people time. I also want to experiment for a couple of weeks with upping my sleep. I normally get 7 hours, but my gut tells me that I’ll need 7.5, if not 8, hours of sleep to optimally function given everything on my plate. I need to move some things around and really restrict the time I spend on, say, social media, to make this work, but I’m willing to try.

Perhaps most difficult for me, I am embracing the art of delegating. One of my biggest strengths is the amount of self-motivation I possess. One of my biggest weaknesses is that this self-motivation tricks me into thinking “I’ll just do X, too.”, even when there’s no time for X. Additionally, being the truly effective leader I aspire to be means giving others control and responsibility, giving them guidance, and then getting out of their way. This term, I literally can’t do everything, so delegation is a must — both at work and at home. I need to ask for help. So I will ask for help. Even if internally, I’m cringing at the thought of “imposing” on someone with my ask.

Finally, I’ve decided to embrace the suck. Yes, it’s a difficult term. Yes, I have too much to do. What can this experience teach me about setting and maintaining boundaries? What can I learn about prioritizing? I’ll be meeting and interacting with a lot of new people — what can they teach me? How can I use my experiences, as painful as they might be in the moment, as part of my professional growth? Having so much on my plate means many opportunities to learn and grow, as a leader, a colleague, a mentor, and a professor. I want to take advantage of this unique time.

Are you staring down an especially busy time period, at work or in life? What strategies are you using to make it manageable? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments.

How I won NaNoWriMo 2019

NaNoWriMo 2019 Winner Badge
Things I did not know about myself before I started: apparently, I am motivated by badges.

A month ago, I embarked on a quest with hundreds of thousands (287,327 in 2018, for instance) of other writers around the world: to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.

Or, in my case, a memoir of sorts.

My original goals for NaNoWriMo were somewhat modest: to write, every day, on one of the stories in the list of stories I drafted at the end of October. A list that ended up growing and shifting over the course of the month, as I combined shorter vignettes into longer “stories” and added stories that came to mind as I wrote. I committed to minimal, if any, editing, so that I could just get the words out and onto the page, without judgment. I thought that 50,000 words would be nice, but not necessary.

And, to make the time for this endeavor, I decided that writing this draft would “count” as my scholarship for the month.

My NaNoWriMo word count, plotted as a line graph. Source: nanowrimo.org
That upward trend line is addicting to me, as it turns out. The top, darker line is my cumulative progress over the month, while the bottom line is the target line to get you to 50,000 words in 30 days.

For accountability, I committed to logging my progress daily on the NaNoWriMo site (which generates pretty graphs and infographics for you as you progress). I also figured, since I’ve found forums like those at NCFDD (Carleton is an institutional member) useful, that I’d use the various NaNoWriMo forums to both keep myself on track and to encourage others.

By the end of the month, I’d drafted 14 complete or mostly complete chapter/stories and wrote 52,158 words.

I’d “won” NaNoWriMo!

So, how did I do it?

A bar graph of my word count by day. Source: nanowrimo.org
My daily progress. You can see the pain points towards the end of the term, and my day off on Thanksgiving. And the spikes at the end when I became motivated to finish early — which I did, on November 29.

I found the stats and daily progress charts addicting. Seeing the upward trend of the cumulative graph, and the bars on the daily graph, provided much-needed motivation, much like Jerry Seinfeld’s chain. I’d calculated I needed just under 1700 words a day to stay on pace to hit 50,000, so I rounded that up to 1700 and tried to hit that. I ended up hovering around 1800 per day. This gradually built up a cushion of sorts, so that when the end of the term got messy and busy, as it always does, I could do a lighter writing day without falling behind the pace.

Posting my progress on Twitter and Instagram helped motivate me to keep writing, particularly when I hit the Week 2 Slump that veteran WriMos warn about, when you hate everything about your writing and question your sanity for embarking on such a foolish quest.

Having that story list was key when I did hit the inevitable slumps, as was my commitment to minimal editing. The story list also helped me find holes, or time periods with fewer stories than others, and privilege drafting one story over another on a day when I couldn’t decide where to start.

Surprisingly, I found the community aspect the least helpful, mainly because I didn’t really have time to engage as I would have liked. (See: end of Fall Term.) I didn’t utilize the buddy system, and I only spent a little bit of time on the local forums, and a bit more time than that following hashtags on Twitter and Instagram.

The thing that surprised me the most was just how fickle my memory is about certain details. I’ve carried many of these stories around in my head for years, with some pretty vivid details. But the supporting details, I found, were hardest to recall. Who was in that feminist junior faculty book group, and what year did we meet? Did I encounter Foot Fetish Man in just that one class before the hallway confrontation, or was there a longer history? I tried my best to not let these lapses in memory derail me, writing around them and keeping a list of details to research later.

The thing that helped me the most was my daily research habit. I’m already in the habit of working on my research for at least 30 minutes a day, so it was straightforward to swap in “writing a memoir” for “drafting a conference paper”, which is what I would have been doing last month. I ended up writing for about an hour a day most days, but honestly, I was working on research for about an hour a day most days throughout Fall Term, so again, the transition felt natural.

So, what’s next?

The draft is still not complete. I haven’t started a few key stories, and a few others are not quite finished. There are holes, particularly in my post-doc and post-tenure years. I could probably spend an entire NaNoWriMo just finishing the draft and get another 50,000 words, although I don’t know if I want to wait until next November to do so.

There are all those missing details I mentioned above, so I’d like to do some research — interviewing people, perhaps, or figuring out if I can dig up old and now defunct blogs from my past, or find old emails. (This is where my habit of getting rid of things on a regular basis proves detrimental!)

I’d also like to publish this, eventually, somehow. But the structure is still in flux. Should this be a proper memoir, meaning I’ll definitely have to fill in more of the time periods for consistency’s sake? Or would this work better as a series of connected essays around some central themes, like belonging and boundaries? And if I go the essay route, which seems better suited to the structure at this point, do I try to publish a few as standalone essays first? Questions, questions!

What’s definitely next: continuing to write on a more consistent basis. I really enjoyed the process of writing every day — the discipline, the creativity, the sense of purpose I felt. I’ve continued to blog for as long as I have because I enjoy telling stories. This project was storytelling on a larger scale. Ideally, I’d find time everyday to continue this project, maybe coming up with a monthly word target (10,000?) until I finish whatever I count as my “first draft”. Realistically, that’s not in the cards — December belongs to other projects, and Winter Term will be especially busy with other priorities. But I can certainly find some time each week, and that’s certainly better than nothing, particularly if it’s something that’s rejuvenating me.

So, NaNoWriMo is over, but for me, NaNo continues. I’m excited to see where this all ends up.

All in for …. NaNoWriMo?

November is fast approaching, and around these parts November’s usually meant the start of AcWriMo. What is AcWriMo? Basically, it’s like NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), but for academic writing and without the 50,000 word goal.

I’ve participated almost every year since 2012.* (I can’t find any record of whether I participated in 2018, but that’s also the year I was rehabbing a broken elbow, so I suspect if I was participating, it was on a very limited basis.) I’ve always found it very useful. November is a VERY busy time, busier still since it’s the end of Fall Term. AcWriMo gives me incentive to continue plugging away at my research even (especially!) when there are 10,000 other things demanding my attention and energy. I also enjoy the community, although in recent years the community aspect is very much reduced.

But NaNoWriMo’s always intrigued me. 50,000 written words in a month? Towards a BOOK? Could I do that, someday? Are there stories inside me, lying dormant, waiting for the right time? Do I have a compelling story to tell?

At the end of last year, making my #19for2019 list (19 goals for 2019), I decided, why not? (see number 15)

When something weird, or unsavory, or infuriating, or just plain annoying happens at work, I’m fond of saying “someday I should write a book about all of this wackiness”. Because let’s face it: a lifetime of working in male-dominated fields, of being the token and the first to break the gender barriers in various venues, and I have a LOT of stories. A LOT.

So, I’ve decided that NaNoWriMo 2019 is “someday”. I am going to attempt to draft a book. A freakin’ book. Probably a memoir? Maybe a bunch of connected short stories? I’m not 100% sure at this point. I’m just going to start writing and see what happens.

Well, ok, something as big of an undertaking as a BOOK is not something that you can “just start writing”. So, there’s been a bit of planning. Since I officially committed (i.e. signed up on nanowrimo.org), I’ve done a bit of outlining and sketching out ideas, just so I’m not staring down a completely blank page on November 1. I’ve also taken a good hard look at my calendar, and decided that this project is going to be my academic writing for the month of November (and the last week of October), in order to make the math work out. I guess this is kind of academic writing, since it’s academic story writing. At least that’s the story I’m telling myself.

I doubt that I will hit 50,000 words by November 30. I doubt that I will actually finish an entire draft by November 30. But it’s sure worth trying! And at the end of the month, my word count and page count will both be non-zero….and that’s a start. A pretty darn good start.

I’m excited to see where this adventure takes me. If you’re also participating, you can follow my shenanigans on the NaNoWriMo website (I’m drcsiz), or follow along on Twitter. And whatever writing you happen to be contemplating in November, happy writing!


*interested in a recap? Here are links to all my past AcWriMo posts:

2019-20 academic year theme: Doing my best

Despite my faulty memory to the contrary, Fall Term always starts out with a bang and keeps its foot firmly on the gas pedal. Those well-rested feelings from the summer last approximately 48 hours in a good year, replaced quickly by the franticness and panic that is the ten week academic term. Before the term starts, it seems, I am already behind — yes, even with the extra bonus week we got before classes started this year, thanks to a very early Labor Day and a very late Thanksgiving.

I expected going in that this fall would be a bit more frantic than usual, with my new part-time administrative position. But things have also been, frankly, chaos on the home side. Fall is middle school girls swim season, which means 6 intense weeks of daily practices for the 7th grader starting the first day of school, and 5-ish meets (2 this week, whee!). It’s all over at the end of this week, but it effects the rhythms of the entire family. Fall is also cyclocross season for my partner, which pretty much means races every weekend, and lots of moving pieces to get everyone where they need to be. On top of everything else, the 3rd grader has some new additional diagnoses in his cocktail of special needs, and thus the transition back to school for him has been … less than ideal. There are days where I’ve used up all of my cognitive/emotional/coping resources by 8am … and I still need to put in a full day at my day job as well as the evening second shift that is parenting.

Sigh. I’m exhausted, and it’s only Week 4 of the term.

The other day, a colleague I hadn’t seen in a while asked how I was doing, and I replied, “I’m doing the best I can, and that’s all I can hope for right now.” And it hit me: THIS needs to be my mantra, my theme for the academic year:

Doing my best.

At the start of every sparring match we do in taekwondo (we spar at the start of every class), we look our opponent in the eye, shake their hand, and say “Do your best sir/ma’am”. We don’t say, “Spar perfectly.” We don’t say, “Perform at the same level you did the day before.” We say, “do your best” as a way of acknowledging that we’re in different places each day, we have different needs and pressures each day, and our only ask of each other is that we bring whatever our best is today to the match. We execute, and learn, from wherever we are.

I want to do this in everyday life. I’m not in the same mind space everyday, and neither are those around me. The way I live should acknowledge this fact.

Doing my best means extending myself some grace on the mornings where the 3rd grader tantrums from the time he gets up until he gets on the bus, and being ok with moving priorities around to focus on those that don’t require as much mental energy.

Doing my best means continuing to take professional risks, whether that’s sending out a paper before I feel it’s “ready” for review, or taking a possibly unpopular stand and pissing people off, because those risks are meaningful to me, and being ok with whatever outcome happens.

Doing my best means being thoughtful about the priorities I set and the activities and tasks I chose to pursue, and chose to let go. And about communicating my boundaries effectively and compassionately to others. (And respecting the boundaries of others!)

Doing my best means being willing to play the long game in terms of fostering the changes I want to see in my institution and department, so that I have the resources and people on my side that I need when I decide to push for a specific change.

Doing my best means being honest, with myself and with others, about my reservoir of resources, capitalizing on my high-energy days and retreating/reflecting on low-energy days.

Fall term is still going to be chaotic and frenzied and often panic-inducing, but this term and in subsequent terms, I can always do my best. That is something I can always control, no matter what life throws at me.

How will you do your best this academic year?

Personal productivity: what I’m using now

I am a bit obsessed with productivity and productivity systems. I listen to productivity podcasts and read productivity books and blogs. I enjoy learning how successful people organize their lives and their schedules: what’s their morning routine? how do they get their kids out the door? how much do they sleep? how do they approach setting goals and tracking their progress towards those goals? what tools and systems do they use and recommend? Perhaps this obsession with efficiency, and with systems in general, is why I studied engineering in college.

Productivity as a concept has come under attack lately, and I can’t say that I disagree with these points. I view productivity systems as a way for me to make sure I’m on top of, and making room for, what’s truly important in my life (both at and outside of work), and spending my limited energy doing things I value, and not tracking down things, notes, ideas, etc.

Since I love hearing about what works for other people, I thought I’d share a snapshot of what’s currently working for me. Maybe you can get some ideas for your own systems from what I do. And I’d love to hear about systems and tools and tricks that you’re loving right now, and how you use them.

Tools

I use a mix of paper and digital tools to keep on top of things. It’s easier for me to plan and mentally process things on paper, but features of digital like tagging and alarms keep everything organized. My workflow involves writing things down and then transferring them to some cloud-based tool. At first glance, this might seem inefficient, but I’ve found that transcribing allows me to engage with my notes on a deeper level, to see patterns and connections I didn’t previously notice, so it’s definitely worth the time I spend on it.

My low-tech tools include:

Notebook with daily intentions and to-do lists.
My current daily notebook, with the big-ass paper calendar in the background.
  • A daily notebook. I use notebooks in various parts of my life — one as a lab notebook, one dedicated to leadership work, one to record craft project ideas and sketches, one as a journal — but I use one notebook as my catch-all planner and meeting note taker. My daily intentions and to-do lists go here. Meeting notes go here. Things I want to remember from a conversation, or from whatever I’m reading, that need to be transferred somewhere else later, go here. It’s also a good place to jot down those “oh, I need to do this” thoughts that like to intrude while you’re in deep focus mode. I’ve tried daily paper planners before, but I really like the non-structure of the notebook, so that I can tweak my daily format as much as I’d like as the mood arises.
  • A big monthly paper calendar. At the start of every term, and summer, I sit down to plan out my goals for that term. I can’t plan unless I can “see” the time laid out, so a few years ago I bought a big-ass paper calendar. I put any important dates on there, work and home, so that I can keep those in mind when scheduling projects (for me and for my classes). In the summer, I put the kiddos’ summer camp dates, which helps me see when I have child care coverage and how much coverage I have. Once my planning is done, I lay out the pages for the term-in-progress on a long desk surface in my school office that otherwise would be wasted space, so that again, I have a visual representation of the term and know what’s coming up.

My high-tech tools include:

  • Evernote. This is my digital catch-all. I transcribe meeting notes and put them here (along w/ meeting agendas), so that I can tag and organize them. Clippings of articles I’ve read and want to revisit, or want to read later, go here. Ideas for classes I’m currently teaching or will be teaching go here — which comes in handy when, say, you only teach your signature elective once every 3 years. I keep my notebook system simple: home, school, research, and STEM Director. (I do need to clean up my tags, though — they are getting a bit unwieldy!)
  • Todoist. I adore lists, and particularly to-do lists. I had a hard time finding a digital to-do list keeper that works with my brain, but Todoist is pretty much perfect for me. Minimal interface, and allows me to categorize by project and assign due dates.
  • Google calendar. With all of the hats I wear at work, and with 2 busy kiddos (and both my husband and I with active hobby lives too), having a digital calendar is basically a necessity. It’s also much easier to schedule meetings when someone can see when I’m free and when I can see when they’re free, since who has time for 10 back-and-forth emails setting up a time and place to meet?

Systems/habits

As much as I love my tools, it’s the systems and habits that keep my life from spiraling into chaos. (Well, most days anyway. Having kids means you can only control so much. Having a kiddo with special needs means every day is going to have some degree of chaos, and every day’s chaos will be different.) The habits remind me to pause and reflect and not just run from one thing to the next, which is my natural inclination.

Here are the habits and systems that currently work for me:

  • Daily meditation. A few years ago when I went back to therapy, my therapist strongly suggested I try meditation as a way to manage my depression and anxiety. (They even led me through a short meditation at one session, which I thought was cool.) Now, if I don’t start my day with 10 minutes of meditation, I feel lost, uncentered, and unfocused. I use the Headspace app and love it, but there are many other good ones out there too.
  • Daily intention setting. I don’t remember where I got the idea for setting daily intentions instead of starting the day or week with a long and loosely prioritized to-do list, but that’s been a game-changer for me. (You can see a couple of examples in the image of my daily notebook, above.) When new tasks come in, I weigh them against my intention/priority list for the day before deciding whether to tackle or table that task. The 3 limit forces me to prioritize AND be realistic about my available time. Listing my intentions in my daily notebook allows me to go back and see patterns: what days were hard for me? what days’ lists were too ambitious? Bonus: I’ve retrained my brain (most days) to acknowledge that I’m not a terrible person if I didn’t meet all 3 intentions — it just means I was not cognizant of what the day held when I set those intentions.
  • One sentence journal. I think this idea came from one of Gretchen Rubin‘s books. I love the idea of journalling, but not the (self-)expectations around journalling (the journal has to be a complete record of your life and feelings, etc). But committing to writing at least one sentence a night about the day? That’s easy. So, I write at least one sentence in my journal every night before bed, reflecting on something that happened that day. Often I end up writing several sentences, but if I’m mentally exhausted I’m only on the hook for one. Keeping even such a minimal journal has actually been super beneficial for recognizing patterns in my depression and anxiety, which means my therapist and I can figure out better systems for keeping that in check. And it’s a great way to remember what happened last year, 2 years ago, and so on.
  • Sunday night meeting. I got this idea from NCFDD originally, the idea of sitting down with yourself and your calendar and all of those notes you took during the previous week on various projects and figuring out how you’re going to spend your time and energy the coming week. Sunday nights work because it’s a good way to transition from the weekend to the work week, but I’ve also done this first thing Monday morning, or sometimes even Sunday morning, if Sunday’s heavily scheduled. I also use the time to make sure I’m working towards the goals I set at the start of the term, and to readjust goals and timelines if necessary.

As with everything, my systems and tools are a work in progress. I suspect in 6 months at least one of these tools or systems will change — but for me, that’s part of the fun!

My HERS experience

(This is the second post in a series of posts on moving into academic leadership. Part one, in which I talk about my move into an academic leadership post next year, is here.)

I perused the brief bios of the 60+ women in my HERS cohort one sunny September afternoon with an increasing feeling of dread. How on earth did I, an unaccomplished hack and imposter, fool the admissions committee so badly?

I was preparing that afternoon for my first of 4 residential weekends at the HERS Institute. The HERS Institute is a leadership program whose purpose is to prepare women for higher education leadership positions, and to increase the number of women in such positions. There are three such offerings each year: 2 residential offerings over the summer, and a year-long one at Wellesley College, which is the one I attended. I’d originally applied to one of the summer offerings, was waitlisted, and then encouraged to apply for the year-long one, where I was accepted. (In retrospect, I think I got way more out of the institute by spreading it out over an academic year, a point I’ll address later on.)

I expected the HERS Institute to give me a taste of what academic leadership was like, to help me figure out if academic leadership was a viable career path for me, and to teach me the tools I’d need to achieve a leadership position and succeed once there. HERS delivered on all fronts. I hate throwing the word “transformative” around, since I think it’s way overused, but in this case “transformative” definitely describes my experience with the institute.

Here, I’ll break down the key aspects of the institute and what I took away from each.

The cohort

While there are many, many aspects of the HERS program I found valuable, perhaps the most valuable were the connections I made with women leaders from other campuses. My HERS cohort ran the spectrum: large schools, tiny schools; public schools, private schools; seasoned leaders, people testing the waters; pretty much every academic discipline represented; extreme extroverts, extreme introverts. The diversity of experiences lent itself to spirited conversations and discussions. You don’t realize how insulated you become at your institution, forgetting that schools that are very different from yours may share more similarities with yours than you think, and that some of your ways of operating might be a little, er, messed up. Perspective is key!

It’s easy for an introvert to get lost in such a large and dynamic group of women. HERS divided us into cohorts in various ways — institution type, current role, career aspirations, etc — and shuffled us among these groups over the course of each weekend (“your table for this session is your similar institution group”, etc). I felt a palpable sense of relief when I walked in, heart pounding, that first morning to find myself at a small table of 5 women from small undergraduate institutions, and warmly greeted by a fellow scientist from the midwest. I especially looked forward to the times we spent in our “similar roles” cohort, a quirky mix of personalities that managed to find the humor in even the toughest conversations.

Now, when I’m facing a tough situation at work, I often think back to “what would So-and-So do in this situation? didn’t Person X deal with something like this and talk about it in our group?” I go back to my notes to see who else is working on a project similar to mine. I keep in touch with my 60+ new friends on Facebook and our listserv, providing insights and advice, congratulating people on new positions, and asking for help. I value these connections and relationships greatly and look forward to continuing to cultivate them for years to come.

The curriculum

The HERS curriculum is roughly equal parts personal and institutional. Each Institute has a theme (ours was “People of Power and the Power of People”) and each weekend had a particular focus (examples: communication, leading through change, critical higher ed topics, career paths). We heard from experts, worked through exercises and case studies, spent time in self-reflection, talked in small groups, and talked in larger groups. We learned about leadership models and change frameworks. I now feel competent enough to read and interpret financial statements. We grappled with how to have difficult and crucial conversations, about social justice and race and difference and Title IX, about inclusivity and who has a voice. I left with a better appreciation for and understanding of enrollment management and athletics and how each contributes to and reflects the mission of the institution.

We had homework before each weekend — targeted readings and some kind of individual work (a worksheet, a reflective exercise, an assessment). I still refer back to the readings on a regular basis. Our big, multi-month homework assignment was to interview all of the senior officers on our campuses (president, deans, CFO, directors of admissions and development, etc) to discover what our institution’s “story” is, and report out on that. Truth be told, I DREADED this assignment, but found it one of the most fascinating and enjoyable parts of my experience. The senior officers were so generous with their time, candid with their thoughts, and honest about our institution’s strengths and weaknesses. It was a true gift to converse with them, and I have a much better understanding of our institution as a result — and feel much better equipped to step into the leadership fabric of the institution.

Higher education institutions and the issues they face are large, complex, and many-faceted. The curriculum gave me the tools to navigate this landscape. I’ve already used specifics from readings and case studies in my own work. The curriculum also helped me get clear on my own priorities and values, which will center the way I lead. (Interestingly, I’m working my way through Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead right now, and it definitely complements the personal work I did at HERS.) Most importantly, it’s equipped me to be a better observer and participant at my own institution, to ask better questions, and to connect the dots more easily (“oh, THAT’s why that senior leader responded in that way to that comment.”).

Going into HERS, I worried about the distributed structure, spread over months. Would I become detached as life intervened between weekends? In retrospect, spreading this over the year allowed me valuable time to reflect on, and process, the material, and integrate it immediately into my work. I could try out and try on frameworks and practices to see if they fit, figuring out how best to modify things for my situation and values. This was especially important coming out of one of the tougher weekends, where it seemed like every topic and discussion was weighty and difficult — the space was vital to process the conversations, read further and deeper on the underlying issues, and clarify my principles. The “small intense doses” version of HERS worked well for me!

The practice: Leadership project

The HERS Institute has its own capstone project: a self-defined “leadership project” that addresses some need at your institution. The leadership project proposal is part of the application process. The project itself is fairly open-ended, acknowledging that all institutions and situations are unique and changing — participants have quite a bit of leverage in defining the project’s scope and deliverables, and the project can morph over time. While much of the work on this project occurs outside the institute, we did have a few sessions about the projects specifically, and a “similar projects” cohort. Also, it was expected that as you encounter more of the curriculum, you incorporate that into your project where applicable.

Originally, I proposed a project I’ve been working on for a while behind the scenes as my capstone: launching a program involving students in academic civic engagement projects, for academic credit, outside of specific courses, with a computer science aspect. For instance, this could be maintaining and growing projects that came out of a specific course or capstone, or working on projects that don’t neatly fit into a particular course or a ten-week span. When I was selected as the new STEM Director, I shelved my original capstone so that I could work on something more directly related to the role I’ve stepped into. My new project examined ways to build community within our new science complex as we move into the new space over the next year.

The cohort proved valuable in helping me flesh out some of the fuzzier aspects of my original project, particularly around assessment and getting buy-in, and in thinking through my even fuzzier revised project. The project(s) required me to think strategically on many levels, thinking big picture while also getting into the weeds on how I was actually going to do these things. Applying concepts and readings and learnings as I got deeper into the project and the institute really brought the curriculum to life, and brought more clarity to my project and its goals. It was, and still is, difficult and challenging work, but intellectually and personally fulfilling.

Final thoughts

I highly, highly recommend this experience to anyone who’s found themselves in a position of leadership or who’s seriously thinking about taking a leadership path. And not just the traditional department chair/dean path — if you’re directing a program, leading an initiative or important committee, or in any sort of visible and influential role, you’ll find a home in HERS. In addition to the tangible advantages I’ve discussed above, it’s really changed how I approach every aspect of my job, from teaching to scholarship to mentoring, and gotten me clear on who I am and what I stand for.

If you’re thinking about applying, this page has more info. I’m also more than happy to talk about it/answer questions, so shoot me an email (adalal at carleton dot edu).