Academic work involves long projects. Of the five Lesser known lessons from academia Daniel McCormack discusses, three are about the difficulties of long projects. (He goes into some detail about each of these. I encourage you to read what he has to say in addition to my thoughts.)
I want to focus on the aspects of academia that are selectively bad: they’re bad for some people, but not for others. And because people who are in academia are disproportionately likely to not be bothered by them, I suspect they get short shrift in advising discussions.
- You like working on long-term projects.
- You are good at managing your time over very long time periods.
- You don’t need to feel like you’re succeeding.
Compared to a monograph, a journal article might look short but, at 6,000 to 10,000 words, it’s really long. A lot of your long projects can be broken down into a series of shorter projects — your article starts out as a conference paper, then gets expanded into an article — but even those shorter projects are long.
Sometimes your projects deceive you.
You will have periods in your academic career where you write and publish a lot. The publications come relatively quickly. You have a good idea of what they will be when you start them. I say “deceive you” because this kind of productivity usually comes after a long period when you were reading, researching, writing things that were primarily about exploring and articulating ideas, engaging in various forms of discussion that helped you developed your ideas, and a lot of other work that wasn’t leading to publications.
You will have one of these deceitful periods early in your career. The work you did during your PhD will form the foundation for a lot of writing. Not all of that writing will look like a reworking of elements of your PhD, but it all grows out of that foundation. This is a good thing because the pressures on early career researchers to publish require you to get a lot of things submitted and keep moving them through the review, revision, and resubmission process to get them published.
However, if all you do is focus on the projects that have a clear timeline and task list, you will eventually hit a wall. That wall might look mostly like being fed up with the questions and material that is relatively easy to turn into publication. Or it might be that you run out of things to say about the material that you have. All projects produce new questions. At some point you need to investigate those questions and generate more material that could become publications.
That wall might also look like Imposter Syndrome.
You have used the lies your project was telling you to plan a new project and get frustrated when your first draft needs much more work than you thought. You discover half-way through your project that the argument isn’t what you thought it was going to be and then freeze. You spend ages trying to write an introduction but can’t get any further because you aren’t sure what exactly you are introducing. You aren’t even sure how to start because you don’t have a clear idea of what you are writing.
There are a lot of phases of a project that have no product for external consumption at all. Really good research involves taking risks, which means going off on tangents that might not result in a publication at all. It’s hard not to think of this kind of writing as a waste of time, which means that a lot of those tangents get cut off prematurely because there is no obvious outcome. This is the secondary deceit of the early career phase. The fact that you did a lot of that work on your last project as a PhD student means that you probably think of the time and effort as something you only had to do because you were a student.
The pressures to produce measurable outputs, in a context in which there are also pressing demands on your time from students and the day to day administrative demands of your job, makes it hard to justify spending time on writing and research that doesn’t have some kind of measurable output on the horizon. This is why, in my work, I focus more on the process and practice of writing than on any particular writing product.
You can do this
You might need new strategies. You might have to ditch making commitments and setting deadlines as a way to motivate yourself for a bit while you work on those early curiosity driven stages of the writing process or work more on generating more research findings. You might have to experiment with writing the middle before you write the introduction. You might have to try writing a really awful first draft.
You might also want to think back to all the work you did before you even started thinking about conference papers and publications. Acknowledge what the whole process was really like and how long it took to get to the point where you could write a “draft” that didn’t need much revision. Acknowledge the conversations you had with your supervisor, friends, and colleagues to work out your arguments before you started putting them down on paper (literally or figuratively).
You will get to the point where the drafts just flow again.
A version of this post was sent to the email list for people interested learning more about the Academic Writing Studio on 13 July 2018.