Staying motivated in the unstructured work environment of academia can be difficult. For me, it has always been easy to stay on task during the field season because the summer ticks away regardless of how much I get done. I have to be organized and get in while the plants are growing and the tides are favorable. As summer gives way to fall, I have often gone through productivity slumps. This was especially true after I was done with my coursework and, more recently, when I was struggling with some mental health issues. In spite of these challenges, I have been at this graduate school game for (*gulp*) nine years now, and I’ve learned a thing or two about how to bring structure to my days and set myself up for maximum productivity. In other lucky news, I have tons of smart friends who kindly offered up some of their best advice on a Facebook thread I started. Thanks Tanya, Jeff, Christy, Brendan C, Danielle, Haley, Kevin, Sarah, Brendan H, Anne, Vadim, Ashley, Chhaya, Jamie, Lyndsey, Eddie, Jessica, Caroline, Sacha, Becky, Bjorn, Carlos, Aviva, and Colin!
Here are my top tips for staying focused and productive!
I have been really busy the last several weeks working on writing my dissertation and preparing to teach an Introduction to Ecology course. All the time spent staring at my computer has me daydreaming about all the hours I have spent doing field work over the course of my PhD. I flipped through some half finished blog posts and journal entries form that period, and found the start of the story I’m about to tell you. I was instantly transported back to that day, which was memorable but also pretty representative of how most of my field days went. Some of this is certainly Type II Fun.
Sometime in August of 2016…
I wake up before the sun has inched its way above the horizon, and fumble to turn off my alarm as quickly as possible. At the foot of the bed, my dog whines softly. My husband, Daniel, turns over and away from me in his sleep. In my non-field season life, I often hit the snooze button. I know it’s not good for my brain, or whatever, but I don’t care. I love it. During the field season, my alarm is set so uncomfortably early most days, 4:00 am or maybe 4:30, that snoozing seems masochistic. Also, it’s a little rude to the sleeping partner and pup. Besides, when you’re racing the tides, time is always of the essence. So, instead of rolling over for five more minutes of sleep, I roll out of bed and try to land on my feet. The cat judges me from Daniel’s pillow.
Note: I originally published this article in the 4th volume of The Brickyard, the graduate student publication edited and put together by a group of folks in the UC Davis Grad Group in Ecology. You can find a link to that publication here, and the article below is largely the same. I’ve made a few minor changes and conjugated the title in a more pleasing way. I hope you like it!
On the fourth day of the new presidential administration, I got an email from my funding source saying they didn’t know if the money would keep coming. I knew the attitude toward science would shift with the change in power, but I never expected such concrete impacts to my life within the first week. When my paycheck did come two weeks later, I knew I had to change my approach. I wanted to feel I was working to make things better, and if I experienced a near miss, it’s almost certain someone else had taken the hit. Like any good type A personality, I knew what I really needed was a plan.
I read a lot of think pieces, I talked to a lot of folks I respect, and, in the end, I developed an approach that felt right for me. I offer you my own guidelines now, not as prescription, but as an attempt to empower you to make a plan for how you will approach the coming years. Interrogating my own motivations and priorities was emotionally taxing, time consuming, and frustrating. Inventorying my special skills required grappling with imposter syndrome for the millionth, and I’m sure not last, time. I still haven’t gotten over the daunting size of the issues we face, but as Cairns and Crawford once wrote, “It is almost too late to start, but tomorrow is even later.”