New Year’s Resolutions for Academics

[This is a guest post by Michael, a PhD candidate in Political Science. He can be reached at hulley22@gmail.com.]

It’s that time again; time to make New Year resolutions. As academics we might as well make them personally relevant. So, without further ado, here are some suggested 2011 New Year’s resolutions specifically for academics.

  1. Resolve to take a break. Since my last post I’ve done nothing on my dissertation. It’s been quite liberating. In the real world, people take vacations. In academia, we don’t (even though the rest of the world thinks we only work 9 months out of the year). We work more than 40 hours a week. We work from home. We work on the weekends. When we aren’t working, we feel guilty. Just stop! I decided to take a vacation from my dissertation and it has been amazing. 1a. Resolve to make that break total. My break from my dissertation has been complete for nearly a month. Prior to my total break I would head up to my office and spend hours staring at my computer screen. I accomplished absolutely nothing with the exception of being able to respond to emails in record time and develop rather witty Facebook statuses. The total break has allowed me to remove from my head the guilt of not working on my dissertation. It’s as if it doesn’t exist. I spent most of last semester feeling guilty when I wasn’t working and when I was, I was unproductive. On December 30th, for the first time in nearly a month, I thought about my dissertation. My thoughts even surprised me. Instead of thinking about if I would finish my dissertation I thought about when. To put it simply, this total break from my work has helped me to counter burnout. You might want to consider doing something similar if you find yourself overburdened by your research and writing. Obviously, the break will have to be tailored to your responsibilities and schedule, but don’t shortchange the value of a good-sized break. And don’t take a “working vacation”. Remove your work from your life for the allotted time.
  2. Resolve to dance with who brung ya. In Texas, and I assume other places, “dance with who brung ya” is an idiom that simply means be loyal. In this case, I mean be loyal to yourself and your passions. Since I have taken a break from my dissertation I have rediscovered the things that led me to grad school in the first place. Unfortunately, many of the things I love were taken from me when I started the PhD process; something with which I’m sure many readers can empathize. In my chosen field practicality gives way to theory, and I don’t like that. I don’t really care about “filling gaps in the academic literature”. I care about solving problems and addressing important questions. Because the academy and the real world are so different and because grad school sucks every minute of your life away, often times you might lose focus of the things that brought you into your respective fields of study. When you pile on top of that the fact that much of what you might read in grad school has no relevance to your own interests (or dissertation), you can become pretty jaded and lose sight of what you love. Since the total break from my dissertation I have reclaimed many of those things I once loved. I’ve come up with more writing topics in the last month than I have in the last 4 ½ years! I even asked for a book for Christmas that has nothing to do with my dissertation or academia, and I plan to read it soon. Crazy, huh? I’ve even investigated the thought of doing some freelance writing about things I care about (culture, public policy, and religion). Whether or not someone would pay me to write my thoughts or whether anyone would want to read them isn’t really important at this point. What is important is that I care about things other than grad school. I care about things that I find intellectually stimulating even if the supposed open-mindedness of academia does not. That wouldn’t have happened if I spent 24/7 working on or thinking about my dissertation. Had I not rediscovered my interests beyond my dissertation, I would be miserable, intellectually uninterested, and frankly, pretty lost. In other words, get a hobby or return to an old one!
  3. Resolve to watch less TV. I think this would be good for all Americans, not just academics, but if we are following resolution number 2, then a good way to rediscover the things you love is to ditch the TV. Just try giving up an hour a day. Use that hour to read for pleasure, workout, get out of the house or office, clean, etc. Use it for anything other than staring at the idiot box or doing academic things. Yes, it is sometimes great to veg out in front of the TV after a long day of staring at computer screens, books, and papers, but give yourself some time to be productive for YOU! You spend your work day doing things for students, your department, and your advisor. Why waste your night doing things for CBS, NBC, and Fox? 
  4. Resolve to care less about your dissertation (or other research) and more about yourself. I really like this one. I’m not saying write your dissertation in crayon or skip the proofreading. I’m just suggesting you not let your dissertation take over your life. Graduate school can be very bad for your emotional, psychological and physical health. Believe me. I know. I’ve been to a cardiologist twice for likely stress-induced episodes and I know academics on anti-depressants. The social and economic costs can be pretty staggering as well. Exercise regularly. Get up and get out of the office for a few minutes and walk around campus or your neighborhood. Go find non-academics to hang out with. (They exist, and they are wonderful!) Go watch a ballgame. Focus as much on you as you do your dissertation. Feel free to tell people in your department no when they ask you to read something for them or attend a given event. Give yourself a time that you will either stop working on your dissertation for the day or a prolonged break before returning to work. Put simply, schedule YOU time. 
  5. Resolve to understand you are more than your CV, dissertation, lectures, or job talks. And you are definitely more than your discipline, advisor, committee, and students say you are. Academia has a way of breaking you down. You are consistently told your work isn’t good enough. Papers may be rejected several times before they are accepted for publication. You have to deal with lazy, entitled, apathetic undergrads, and you get paid pennies to do it. Those things are characteristics of your job, and yes, they suck. They are not, however, descriptions of your worth. Don’t let those characteristics define you. I have failed miserably at this over the past few years. Academia makes me cynical and I’m tired of it. In two and a half months I will be a father for the first time. I don’t want to be grumpy and hating life when my daughter arrives. I don’t want academia’s problems to be her problems. If asked to describe yourself without using your job title or academic qualifications what would you say? I am ___?____. 
  6. Resolve to watch Big Bang Theory (Only half joking). Yes, this contradicts number 3, so adjust your time accordingly. It’s only 30 minutes out of your Thursday nights. We all need a good laugh, and what better way to get it than to watch a bunch of socially awkward academics attempt to interact with each other and the beautiful, uneducated yet normal girl who lives across the hall? Do it! You won’t regret it! It might even remind you of some of your co-workers.

What New Year’s resolutions should academics make that are not listed? Are there any disagreements with those listed? Let me know what you think and have a productive and sane 2011!

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