Saturday, October 11, 2008

Making the most of it

(NB: there is a follow-up post here, prompted by some commenters' questions.)

A commenter on yesterday's post requested that I share some tips for making the most of a fellowship year. Granted, this probably would have been more helpful a couple of months ago, but better late than never.

The suggestions below are going to take for granted what you already know you should be doing: work hard, research, write lots. But there are other things that you should consider, and these things will improve not only your year there, but also your work and personal life when you return to your normal job:

Cut yourself some slack, already. Seriously, you need to give yourself time to decompress from the years of frantic deadline pressure you've just been given a reprive from. Plus, you've probably just moved, and you have lots to do. Seriously, your first 2-3 weeks will involve getting your apartment set up, learning the ins and outs of your new neighborhood, getting your library card, etc. If you move in the summer, there may be fun community activities in your neighborhood or town. Check them out, and become a part of the place you're living. The next 2-3 weeks after that, if you're on a residential fellowship, are likely to be "social" weeks, having lunch or coffee with the other fellows, or making courtesy calls on local faculty, and all this will be hard to reconcile with a sustained work schedule. This is not to say that you won't be working during this time, but it's going to be light working – compiling bibliography, plotting out a work plan for the year, figuring out what resources the local library has. Give yourself permission to take things slowly, and let yourself ramp up to full work speed. The amount of time this will take will vary depending on the length of your fellowship, or your own personal degree of exhaustion. But you already know that you do better work when you're well-rested. So consider this both a reward for hard work already done, and an investment in the hard work you will do.

Go to the office. If you have an office, that is. I tend to be a coffee shop worker, so this was a difficult thing for me to get used to. But being at the office makes you think, "I'm at work. I should be working." During your normal academic life, office time is often a mix of teaching, grading, meeting with students, etc., so it's hard to think of office time as research or writing time. But here, that's what it is, and that's what you came here to do. Getting in the office/work habit will serve you well not only during your fellowship year, but when you come home and learn that your office can be a place where productive things happen. Plus, being in the office lets you build those personal and professional connections that make a fellowship year so wonderful. My presence there meant that other people knew I was there, and we talked to each other about our projects, and I made some great friends. (And in my case at least, my presence in the office provided an opportunity, one particularly cold night, for a certain Interesting Development to offer me a ride home, and to suggest that "we should do something sometime." I'd hate to have missed that.)

Don't go to the office. The "go to the office" rule applies only to people on residential fellowships -- that is, those where you're away from your home institution. But if your fellowship has you staying in the same place where you normally work, stay well away from your office. If your regular work colleagues (not to mention your students) see you around every day, it's hard for them to process the fact that you are, in fact, on leave. You will be asked to read files, serve on thesis committees, and do all those things that you need time off from. If you must go in to the office to work in this situation, do it at times when no one is likely to be around. Resist the temptation to participate in the work-related e-mail chatter that will come your way. Mentally separate if you cannot do so physically. Behave as if you really are in another part of the country, even if you're not.

Impose some deadlines. Giving yourself time is important, but it's easy for a fellowship year to trickle away. No matter how diligent you are, you will almost certainly get less done that you thought you would, and that's okay. But you will hate yourself if you reach the end of your fellowship year and you've barely accomplished anything. If you make a schedule of medium-term goals, especially if it's punctuated by external deadlines (like, say, scheduling a conference paper each semester that depends on the research that you plan to do), you'll be more likely to get stuff done.

Get ahead of the game. This is something that I was not able to do, that I wish I had. Plan your fellowship year so that you finish your project several months before the year is up, then get started on the next one. That way, when you have to go back to your regular job, you've got some momentum built up on the next project. Right now, I find myself sputtering and trying to get started again, and it's difficult.

Take some time for yourself. This is aside from the "ramping up" month at the beginning. When we're in our normal work lives, we tend to place non-work-related things at the very bottom of our priority list, and they often disappear. This year is a chance to reset that balance, and bring it in to your life after the fellowship. Number one on my list was getting eight hours of sleep almost every night, for a year. Can you imagine what this would do for your health, your mind, and your overall attitude? This one thing alone made me a happier person. But I also started taking weekly yoga classes, made friends with my next-door neighbor, went cross-country skiing, exercised semi-regularly, took a trip to Chicago just for fun. I wish I'd done more exploring of the local countryside, as my online friend Dr. S. did on her fellowship year in England. Become a whole person again, and resolve to try to maintain that, at least in part, when you come home.


Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Thank you for this! I'm already kicking myself for a slower start on work than I meant to have. Clearly I have to chalk that up to "cutting myself some slack, already" and get on with the other items. Any tips on making one's home office feel like THE office?

AliceAcademic said...

Thanks so much! This is fantastic. I dived right into the work, and though I'm glad I now have an article that is just about done, I've got some catching up to do as far as connecting with colleagues and getting myself rejuvenated. Thanks for sharing these great tips.

Good Enough Woman said...

Great tips for my current semester of sabbatical leave, which, so far, I could have managed better. But I'll have next fall to try again since I split my two semesters over two years. I like the question about the home office. I find myself getting up every 15 minutes to take care of one thing or another. In addition, it's so easy to say "yes" when people ask me to do things (social, PTA, whatever).

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Good questions on the home office dilemma. I didn't have that, since I was on a residential fellowship, but I've been talking to neighbor C., who did. I'll post her advice tomorrow.

Dr. S said...

I will add to this that if you're going to take your sabbatical year outside of the U.S., you should get yourself a good accountant who can help you negotiate tax laws for "foreign income"--which can mean money you've earned from an American institution or funding body for work that you're doing abroad (like research). My fabulous accountant made it possible for me to have significantly fewer withholdings and a great tax benefit overall.

Dr. S said...

And can I add, too, that I would never have imagined I would ever have an accountant. But it turns out that if you have to interact with US tax law for people living overseas, it's worth it.