Tools for Making Progress in Academic Life
This post is particularly focused for the population I work with – graduate students and postdocs – but can be helpful for any stage of an academic career – whether as the person struggling or someone trying to help them.
Academia attracts bright, ambitious, high achievers — capable of great work. But graduate school and postdoc positions can challenge a person in ways to which they are not accustomed. Large swaths of unstructured time, long unending projects with no instruction manual while also learning how best to establish, maintain and grow working relationships with faculty and colleagues. As Vanderbilt University Graduate School’s Academic Life Coach, I have been working with graduate students and postdocs through a host of concerns for the past three years. I would like to share some of the things I have learned with you in hopes that you will find it helpful in your own journey.
“I feel stuck!”
This is a common refrain I hear from graduate students and postdocs alike. Through our coaching conversations, we usually find that incorrect goal setting, non-tracking of actual progress and self-criticism are interfering with the ability to establish progress and build momentum; a likely culprit can be found in perfectionism (“fear of failure”), which can contribute to procrastination. This is such a common issue that it has a name: The Perfectionism-Procrastination Cycle. (Google it… you’ll see!)
You need to find a new way of making progress. The bad news is that perfectionism, like its relative Imposter Syndrome, never really goes away. The good news, however, is that once you learn to recognize it, you can start to establish ways of managing it and re-employ those techniques every time it returns to derail your progress.
The prescription for such an ailment includes some of the hardest things for perfectionists:
- set SMART (read: small!) goals
- short, focused work sessions (try the Pomodoro technique and turn off all notifications on phone and computer – these distractions are commonly used as procrastination techniques)
- track progress and celebrate wins – cross off those small goals on your list to show progress and build momentum
- practice self-compassion – negativity leads to lower productivity!
- share your work (early and often) and get feedback
- establish accountability partnerships
I hope to share more tidbits in the coming months on common topics like the importance of mindset and self-compassion, navigating academic relationships and managing up. Let me know if you have questions or concerns you think would be good to include. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.