Academic New Year Blues- still the same unfinished tasks to do!?
Happy New Year, everyone! Wherever you are, I hope you came good into this 2023. May it be a healthy, successful and marvellous year for all of you!
So… a new beginning. Well, that’s big. Every year just the same procedure, new year, new me, new tasks, new adventures – right? Well, no. Not for all of us. Because there is this list with bullet points on a monumental task – e.g., finishing your book publication of your PhD thesis or a still tough editorship of this conference publication you wanted to finish in 2022. Or maybe it is a couple of peer-reviewed papers, one of them R+R (revised and resubmitted), which suddenly did not make the journal because the editorial board said no. So, new game, a new search for a journal, and once again, re-writing and adjusting.
Sounds familiar? Welcome to the private hell of PhD candidates and postdocs (well, every human being in the crazy world of Academia, actually). So, I guess, we all didn’t work hard enough last year. That must be the reason, right? Because what else could it be?! Some of us are perfectionists, workaholics, people, who hustle for our life’s meaning, and I think a lot of you tend to negative self-talk and a huge amount of self-blame, even self-hatred to give. I am like this myself. I know that I am working my ass off and that I am NOT doing too little to get things done. But how to get rid of this gnawing self-doubt that you have failed?
Let’s start with an example. I am working on the publication of some conference papers – I share the editorship with a colleague. She is a hard-working academic mum with a lot of energy and a lot of ambitions. We organised the conference back in 2019 (OMG, was that now FOUR years from now! – you see the self-blame cutting in like the sharpest razor blade in history? Welcome to my brain. It’s sometimes really rough in there…). Where was I? Right, the conference. I was busy working on my PhD thesis and working on a third-party-funded project. My thesis was connected to this project by the material and the region, so it was easy to switch between thesis work and project tasks. And the conference was a combination of both topics. I had connections to a bunch of colleagues who worked on similar topics and the conference was a great success. So, we thought about editing conference proceedings – but not just the good old collection of everything said and done, no. We wanted to do a peer review, we wanted a good overview of theory, interdisciplinary views and a lot of examples and case studies. The people taking part in the conference were willing to publish their papers and we found a few more topics that fit well into our volume.
The conference was held in March 2019 – and 2019 was a year full of ups and downs with my PhD thesis and so on. We still managed to think about our timeline for the volume and by January 2020 we wanted the first papers to be sent to us. The year 2020. What can I say? I mean, you were there, too, right? The first half was weird. Super weird. Never heard of weird. Okay, well, I got a new job, and moved to another country in 2020, next to all that pandemic chaos around us. I suddenly had to give online lectures and work with new tools (Panopto? I never even heard of this before…) and get used to a totally different way of doing things, because every university has its little finesses. And coping with the reality of a pandemic was another big issue. No need to say that the work on our volume was not our priority. I finished writing my thesis and concentrated on my final exam. I finished my doctoral degree online in December 2020 and it was a strange year. I learned a lot of new stuff and new online tools and how to teach online without losing your students on the go, but writing and editing a volume? No way. We got back on track and searched for reviewers. And yes, every one of you who has done this before – it is getting harder and harder because we all have a tight schedule.
We managed to work through our review process and sent the papers back to their authors. The pandemic hit us again and again. Some of my colleagues had a very severe course of CoViD-19. I waited for the whole volume to be corrected until the end of 2021. And now we started with thoughts about a really good introduction. Took us all year. Is it finished? No. Why? Well… I was working for about 6 months with a vacant secretary’s office, meaning my supervisor and I were coping with the sh*tload of university administration by ourselves. Positive thing: I am now able to do this stuff. Negative thing: These hours were missing from my time available to work on the volume. Next to this, I had really exciting things to do – my first so-called “Vorsingen” for a junior professorship. I have raised the first funding side project I started working on in 2021. I wrote a lot of articles and I was at a lot of conferences (actively taking part by speaking about my PhD thesis and stuff) and so on. And all this next to my usual workload. Our volume? Not priority. I could not even think about it. In October, I managed to read my way back into the topic, trying to design a first raw draft of maybe a first draft of our introduction. My colleague had similar crazy things to get through, and none of us was able to cope with all the new stuff.
It was not helping that I met my thesis advisor in November 2022 and he asked me about the volume, reminding me that we actually have a number of the volume reserved for us (8), and other volumes (9 and 10) are already in print or published. I felt ashamed. My brain immediately started the circle of guilt and self-doubt. My time management was bad. I did not work hard enough. Etc., etc., etc.
So, how to leave this circle? I am still looking for the right answer. But I know – I am doing enough. I need to sleep my needed hours, I need to do my physical exercises (back pain!), I need time away (far far away) from my computer, with my family, my friends, and my loved ones. I need to talk to my colleagues at work or at conferences, getting the train of thought on new matters and topics. I need to relax – me-time is very serious business. And yes, cleaning your apartment, doing laundry, watching Disney movies while ironing, listening to good music while vacuuming and reading mystery novels are important parts of it.
So, what is my way to getting rid of my New Year’s Blues and my bad academic conscience?
1. Accept the status quo.
Nobody can turn around the past. What’s done is done. We can work on our future goals. It will not be the last volume of conference proceedings to take forever to be published. We know the game. It is what it is.
2. Look for help and friends to talk about your problems. I am not alone in this case. I have my co-editor and partner in crime. We have writing plans for this January. I have another bunch of people, my Committed-Writing-Group (more on this topic next time), where we write, talk about writing, about how we hate writing, about how dumb we feel sometimes etc. and it helps a lot. The need to know that you are not alone is valid. Because things are easier when you are not alone and have people who can understand your struggle.
3. Shift priorities and get back on track. This one is and will be hard work. This is hard work because it is about how to get the work done, start working on it and finish it. The first step is to get back on track and force yourself back to the problem and the task. My co-editor and I have already made this step. Now we have to stick to our plans, as well as possible. I have no conferences or talks to give this year (well, so far), so the next weeks (until my holiday in February), will be rough and full of work, but definitely worth it. When I return in March, I can work on a good base.
4. Accepting that my time management can be as good as possible for a human being on this Earth, but Academia has its own rules and university business sure does too. And there is this thing called life – the strangest unforeseeable things have happened in life, right? Around 75% of my time management “fails” are not my fault. The other 25% are important for learning, and for me to do better in the future. And every academic being out there has failed to hold deadlines, missed meetings, and forgot about other important stuff. We are human. And we all know about the often very insane and unhealthy standards in Academia, especially when you are an early career researcher.
5. There is no immediate cure. Only your consistency and persistence. So, let’s face the music.
So, I will keep track on my work and I will let you know, if there are any productivity tips and tricks that helped me with my workload and against my bad conscience. Let this year be our year!
All the best,