November 1, 2009

Ten Tips for a Productive Post-Doctoral Fellowship Year

So, you’ve won a post-doctoral fellowship? You have been awarded a semester, year, or several years free from the responsibility of teaching and institutional service. You are the envy of your colleagues and friends and you will finally have the time to focus on finishing whatever important intellectual project you proposed in your winning application. Congratulations!

Semesters on leave are precious and rare opportunities in which we all hope to be as productive as possible. However, having unstructured time can be a trap that leads to less (not more) productivity. Tanya has just completed a productive fellowship year, and Kerry Ann has watched post-doc fellows come and go over the past five years with varying degrees of success. Based on our collective experiences, we suggest Ten Tips to make your fellowship year as productive as possible.

Tip #1: Start with a Plan
Start your fellowship year with a set of realistic, concrete, and achievable research goals. “Finish book” is a bit too vague. Instead, list the specific projects you will need to complete, estimate the time to complete them, and map each task onto your calendar. Your deadlines need not be set in stone, but they will provide a structure for you that will help you stay on course and keep moving forward. This will also help you limit the amount of time you spend on each task.

Tip #2: Write Every Day
Faculty development researchers have found that the key to productivity is writing every weekday for at least one hour. Writing from the first day of your fellowship will ensure that you don’t wait until the end to start the most important part of your work. While most people are resistant to this idea, daily writing provides you with the opportunity to stay in constant contact with your work and will continually allow you to generate new ideas.

Tip #3: Prioritize Your Writing
Given that the purpose of your post-doc is to enable you to complete a writing project, writing needs to be your top priority each day. The best way to align your time and your priorities is to write first thing in the morning. Too many academics make the mistake of taking care of everyone else’s needs before they attend to the most important part of their work. Don’t let it happen to you.

Tip #4: Tame Your E-mail
Never check email first thing in the morning. Check it only after writing for at least one hour, and limit yourself to a couple of times a day. Remember, you are on fellowship, you’re not on call. To remind everyone of this, put an auto-responder on your email that indicates you are on leave. And, you might want to sign off of your departmental listserv because you really don’t need to be apprised of every minor decision.

Tip #5: Create Support and Accountability
Join a writing support group. These groups can be in the department you are visiting, across disciplines, across town, or online. Writing groups provide vital support and feedback and make the process much more enjoyable. There are many different types of writing groups, and it is important to find the one that suits you best.

Tip #6: Build in Feedback Loops
Decide in advance how many presentations, conferences, and/or guest lectures you will give. One or two per semester are good for sharing your ideas and making sure you are productive, but too many can get in the way of meeting your writing goals. At the beginning of the year, determine who can read your work and give you critical feedback and let those people know you are on fellowship and plan to send them your work.

Tip #7: Create Structure in Your Day
Develop a daily routine that works for you. Tanya likes to go to the office in the morning, coffee shop in the afternoon, and saves reading for home in the evening. Whatever routine works for you and your energetic rhythms is fine, but develop a regular routine will help keep you on track, regularly connecting with others, and out of the house each day.

Tip #8: Know Your Limits
Figure out what your personal limits are. When you are on a fellowship, the time seems limitless but each of us has limits on the amount of time we can spend each day engaged in intense mental labor. Determining your limits will prevent you from feeling like you are not doing enough while keeping you productive.

Tip #9: Track Your Work
Keep a log of what you do each day and how long it takes you to do it. This sounds a bit neurotic, but if you record that you wrote for an hour, checked email for thirty minutes, then read for 90 minutes, you will feel inclined to limit web surfing, and won’t end up spending ten hours in front of the computer with little to show for it.

Tip #10: Celebrate Your Successes
Reward yourself on a regular basis. Each week that you meet your writing goals, do something nice for yourself – a meal out at your favorite restaurant, a nice bottle of wine, a manicure, a ballgame, a trip to the beach or the mountains, a walk in the park, a visit to the history museum – whatever suits your fancy. You deserve it!

Ultimately, the success of your fellowship year will be measured by how productive you are in terms of your research and writing. The clearer you are at the outset, and the more pro-actively you work towards creating support and accountability for your writing, the more likely you are to achieve your goals.

Tanya Golash-Boza
Sociology and American Studies
University of Kansas

Kerry Ann Rockquemore
Department of African American Studies
University of Illinois at Chicago
Author, The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure Without Losing Your Soul

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