Tuesday, October 16, 2018

I am Marie Morganelli, and This is How I Work

Today, I am hosting Marie Morganelli in the "How I Work" series. Marie Morganelli has an earned doctorate in English Literature. She has taught literature and composition at the community college and university levels since 2006, and has professional experience in marketing, copywriting, and volunteer management, as well as visitor services for a large cultural institution. She is passionate about informal education, particularly with zoos and other cultural institutions, and with telling a good story. Her freelance business, www.precisewords.org, focuses on clear, concise copywriting for small businesses, nonprofit organizations, and other publications who need help telling their unique story to further their goals. She is a huge fan of travel, coffee, and wine.

General: Marie Morganelli has a PhD in English literature, and is building a freelance copywriting business while working by day as an administrator for a university with a large online presence.
Current Job: Freelance writer for Precise Words Copywriting
Current Location: Manchester, NH
Current mobile device: An apple iphone 6, with which I have a love/hate relationship
Current computer: MacBook Air 13 in.

Can you briefly explain your current situation and research to us?
I finished my PhD with no interest whatsoever in working in an academic field. I was burned out from the politics of graduate school, and stressed by the many hoops one has to jump through to get anywhere with a career in academia. I do love teaching, though, and so taught part-time for an online university while working full time in education and guest services at a cultural institution (zoo). The part-time job led to a full time job as an Associate Dean, so, ironically, I did find myself working in an academic field, though because our program is unique, my traditional title does not quite match my somewhat nontraditional role. Our hierarchy and program management are somewhat different than at a traditional university, which is what drew me to it.

While I feel very lucky to have this position, I missed working in a creative capacity, and have an entrepreneurial spirit, and so I have been working on building a freelance business to indulge my creative interests, utilize my skills, and feel as though I have some agency as to my personal success.

What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow?
My MacBook Air is one of my favorite purchases ever. I bought it when I started teaching online because it is so lightweight and portable. I previously had a Windows-based laptop which was heavier and thus harder to lug through airports, and it was prone to crashing from viruses. Macs cost a lot more but crash a lot less, and the MacBook line is incredibly lightweight. I opted for the 13 in. because the bit of extra screen space is helpful. The 11 in. was just too small to be practical for me.

I prefer a laptop to iPad because I like having my files with me as well as the full size keyboard.

As for apps and software, I use Microsoft Word almost exclusively to write, though I do sit down with a notepad and pen quite often and rock it old school when writing a first draft. The pen in my hand helps me think better, I find. That also prevents me from web-surfing when I should be working!

I don’t use many apps in the course of getting my work done, though I do use the internet at large quite a bit for research.

What does your workspace setup look like?
I have a desk, chosen specifically for its large surface so I could spread out, in my spare bedroom. I have a second monitor that is incredibly helpful. Sometimes, when the weather is nice, I take my laptop outside and work on my porch.

I currently sit in a traditional office chair, and it’s killing my back. I am on the lookout for a backless kneeling chair to help with posture.



What is your best advice for productive academic work?
I do try to stay current in research and academic writing given my day job, but the truth is, I do not love it. I much prefer to work on my freelance projects or personal writing when it comes to professional writing. There is something about academic writing that has never truly appealed to me.

How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks?
I am continuously working on ways to do this better. Right now, my billing is tracked through an excel spreadsheet and I use the calendar built in on my mac, so I can sync with my phone. I tried using a paper calendar, but online seems to work better. I am determined to find a better way, though!

Besides phone and computer, do you use other technological tools in work and daily life?

These are the key items. I wish I could get by with using technology less, and I have been making a conscious effort to stare at my phone less overall, which helps. The truth is that I type much faster than I handwrite, so working via computer will probably always be necessary.

Which skill makes you stand out as an academic?
I’m a pretty terrible academic, to be honest! I am a terrific teacher, though, and an excellent writer. I have the skills to be a good academic but not the spirit. The skills and confidence I learned in graduate school, though, directly influence the work that I do now, both as a freelance writer and as an administrator, and I am not sure I would be on my current path without having gone through that experience. I do have a pretty strong dose of self-confidence when it comes to knowing that I’m good enough and smart enough for the work that I’m doing.

What do you listen to when you work?
Usually, silence or the birds chirping outside, which make me happy because it means that spring is finally, finally here. Sometimes I listen to classical music.

What are you currently reading? How do you find time for reading?

One of my current goals is to read more. Reading is one of my favorite things to do, and so I decided to make time for it. I read for at least half an hour every night before bed (with a hard copy book or my non-backlit Kindle) in addition to any other reading I can squeeze into a day. I am currently halfway through “Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee, which I highly recommend. It’s riveting.

I also read business-related books, and right now am reading “Blue Ocean Shift” by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, which is about changing one’s perspective from being a competitor to being an innovator. After that, I plan to dive into “Change Your Space, Change Your Culture” by Rex Miller, Mabel Casey, and Mark Konchar, because the concept of space and place is one that interests me a great deal and that affects many aspects of our personal and professional lives (and was a focus in my dissertation).

Are you more of an introvert or extrovert? How does this influence your working habits?

I am an introvert through and through. It took a long time for me to realize this. I spent years not really understanding how I could not consider myself shy yet found myself wanting to spend so much time alone. Then I started learning more about introverts and recognized myself immediately. I do work to embrace and appreciate myself for who I am, and know that sometimes I need time to myself, and I protect and defend that time. But I also recognize that sometimes a person needs to act like an extrovert to get things done. My previous role at the zoo managing guest services taught me how to function like an extrovert when needed.

Being a writer really is the perfect job for an introvert, except I do think it’s important not to let my comfort level at spending time alone become a crutch or a habit. Instead, I make time to participate in activities outside my home because “introvert” does not have to mean “hermit!” Plus, personal connections are how one grows and nurtures a business as well as are an important way to stay connected with others.

What's your sleep routine like?

I really wish I could confidently say that I get eight to nine hours of sleep a night every night, but that would be a lie. I am working towards meeting my goal of eight hours of sleep a night but I have yet to meet that goal, except on weekends. Typically, I try to at least get ready for bed by 9pm, and then read for a bit. I wake up around 5am to work on my freelance projects for a few hours before going in to work at my full time position.

What's your work routine like?
I work best in the early mornings, especially with a deadline, such as a time I need to leave to get to my full time position. I do not work well at all in the evenings when I am tired, so I reserve evenings for meal preparation, exercise, reading, and my artistic hobbies (cross-stitching, drawing, and stained glass).

What's the best advice you ever received?
Years ago, I asked my dad what advice he would go back and give his younger self if he could only give himself one piece of advice. He thought about it for a moment and then said: “Save early, save often.”

He was right. The impact of compounding interest is real. The impact of getting into a habit of saving regularly is real. Thanks to that one piece of advice, I opened my first retirement account when I was still in college, before I even had my first full time job, and I am definitely seeing the rewards of that now. This advice translates into other aspects of life as well, because making a habit to move consistently forward, one step after one step after one step, is how to accomplish one’s goals and make dreams a reality.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

PhD Defenses Around the World: a Defense at Wayne State University

Today, I have invited Dr. Victoria Abboud to share her experience of her PhD Defense. Dr. Abboud has enjoyed a seventeen-year career in post-secondary education, the first eleven of which were spent teaching in the college and university systems in Michigan, Ontario, Alberta, and briefly in Brazil. For five years, Victoria served as an administrator in colleges in Ontario and British Columbia, and she recently became a certified coach who supports graduate students through her organization, The Spirited Academic. In the classroom, in administrative roles, and now as the Manager of Programs in Talent Development at a social innovation hub (Toronto), Victoria has been devoted to thinking through the ways in which group dynamics can be used to innovate and support the overall operational, process, and pedagogical goals of diverse communities of learning. Her current role focuses on building and delivering programming that encourages innovation leadership, social engagement, and collective impact.

It took nearly eight years for me to reach that moment where there was not one more word I could write, not one more reference I could squeeze into the works cited, not one more comma I could change. I had hit "send" for the last time on my dissertation draft and I awaited the phone call from my advisor that it was time to DEFEND.

My defense was scheduled in the summer: that time in southeast Michigan when the humidity is stifling and you can see the heat rise from people's heads when they walk into air conditioned spaces. My family piled in to the car, we crossed the Canada-U.S. border, and I told the U.S. border guard that I was going to my dissertation defense. He could tell by my exhausted eyes and shallow breaths that my story was true - no one would take on that level of stress to hide questionable activity.

At my university, dissertation defenses are public. Members from the department, the institution, and elsewhere are welcomed into the room while the sweaty PhD candidate presents the tome, smiles awkwardly, and mentally shuffles through every page read, studied, or written while awaiting the next fateful question from The Committee.

Although my committee was comprised of wonderful people with deep knowledge of their fields and an encouraging attitude towards my work, my sitting in front of the audience and answering questions was not an experience that their previous support could calm. In fact, their role during the defense was to ensure that I could withstand critique, that my work and my characterization of it could be clarified for our mixed-discipline audience, and that I could speak eloquently about my own contribution to the Academy. They were the gate-keepers between me and my membership in the Academic club.

In my presentation, I shared my gratitude for those who supported my effort, I tried to make light of the stress and pressure, and I offered a version of my research that was meant to be understood by folks who were not specialists in my field. After all, after eight years, I was supposed to the specialist of my own dissertation and a contributor to the progression of my field. The sign of a true scholar, in my mind, is one who can distill the complexity of his/her/their research into explanations that reach everyone. If not, then what's the point of higher learning?

The rounds of questions were challenging but reasonable -at least now I believe they were reasonable- but my external examiner asked a question that required me to do critical analysis on the spot. There was no place to hide. I couldn't go to a coffee shop to contemplate her question for hours. The time was here. Now.

I took a sip of water, and, amazingly, I mustered the courage and the intellectual strength to explore the question while answering it. It was a moment of beauty! I was creating the argument, offering the supporting research, and weaving a rhetorical tapestry that I never imagined I could create - especially not when I was feeling so exposed and fearful.

In hindsight, I am not surprised that I reacted so strongly to the whole defense experience. After years of identifying with my research and intellectual exploration, after fusing my identity with that of the 200+ pages of writing that lay like a boulder on the table in front of me, how could I not feel that my very existence was at stake? Fight, flight, or freeze took over and it felt that the multi-hour experience of the defense would be my rebirth or my death. Of course, none of that was ever true, but it would take years for me to realize it and to breathe deeply in spite of it.

There is a moment in every defense when the PhD candidate realizes that this experience is theirs. I suspect it happens about three-quarters of the way through when the last few questions are coming around. By then, there has been some success (hopefully!) and maybe even some answers that s/he/they will revisit for years to come because of how they could have been better, more articulate, more focused. Regardless, when that moment of realization occurs, the tension releases, the amygdala reverts to normal activity, and the dread of the experience begins to drift away. It's the moment when that candidate becomes a fully-fledged Doctor of Philosophy. That's the moment when the toil, the pressure, the emotional turmoil of wondering "why" or "can I do it" shifts into a sense of "I'm doing it" or "I got this."

The committee deliberated for about ten minutes and I returned to the room greeted with clapping and "Congratulations, Dr. Abboud!" shouted by my committee and my audience. It would be months before I would actually recognize that I was done, that the rest of my life was ahead of me, and that I was not defined by the pages I produced, but it was that moment of real-time thought exploration while answering the external examiner's question that marked me, forever, as a professor.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Q&A: Time for family during the PhD

I recently received the following question from a reader:

Hey! Interesting schedule... But, when do you make time for family & friends, maybe for a romantic relationship? Do you feel that close relationships will be an obstacle to your academic work?

I am currently doing my PhD and I heavily rely on a the patience and support of my partner, my family and my friends. But I struggle with making time for working during the weekends or going to the gym more often.

Do you think one can have a academic careers or doing their PhD very well and maintain a satisfying social life?


My quick reply at that time was:

During my PhD I was in a long-distance relationship with my then-partner now-husband. I took all my holidays to travel and go to see him, but during the stretches of separation I usually just focused on work. Most of my social interactions took place in the lab and during work hours. My family was in Belgium, so I would travel once every 2 or 3 weeks to go see them (initially every weekend, but the long drive started to wear me down).


Let me expand a little bit, and also give my 2 cents based on my current experience:

when do you make time for family & friends, maybe for a romantic relationship?

As I mentioned, during my PhD, I'd hang out with my family and my then-partner now-husband for only certain stretches of time (weekend, trip to visit). At this moment, the long-distance years are long since behind us, and we have a one-year-old child. I am spending much more time with my family. My afternoons are reserved for my baby (I work a split shift typically), and my weekends are family time. When possible, my husband and I have a cup of tea in the evening together to unwind and talk.

Do you feel that close relationships will be an obstacle to your academic work?


On the contrary, you need a good support network. Don't isolate yourself, but remember to have fun regularly.

I struggle with making time for working during the weekends or going to the gym more often.

Spoiler alert: you don't have to work during the weekends. If it doesn't work for you, and you get your work done during the week, then no need to work on the weekend. As for the gym, you can try out going in the morning before work, or during your lunch break. Would that work for you?

Do you think one can have a academic careers or doing their PhD very well and maintain a satisfying social life?

Absolutely - I think it's important. As I said before, you need a strong support network, so you need your social life. It also helps to take some distance from your research every now and then - you'll return to it with renewed energy and more creativity.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: Failure in academia

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better - and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!


Failure is part of life in academia - yet we are terrified to talk about our failures. In today's post, we'll explore the topic of failure in academia, we'll see how some academics are breaking the taboo, and we have a look at what you can do when failure has you bogged down.

The reality of failure in academia
When we see the curriculum vitae of a fellow academic, we only see all their achievements. We don't see the sweat, heartbreak, and rejection behind all these successes. We see the outcomes of funded projects - the papers that were accepted for publication. We don't see the positions we applied for but didn't get, the grants that were rejected, or the papers that were rejected.

And rejection there is plenty. Depending on the journal, the acceptance rate of papers is somewhere between 15% to 35%. Elsevier has a neat feature on their website where you can use your paper title and abstract as input and find the suitable journal* - the journal finder. One of the metrics you can see through this journal finder is the acceptance rate of a journal. I used the title and abstract of a paper I am working on, and found that my target journals have an acceptance rate between 18% - 36% (with one outlier, a journal with a 98% acceptance rate).

Another way to get insight in the acceptance rate, is by exploring profiles of reviewers on Publons and check published review reports. Reading more review reports will make you more accustomed to the sometimes stern language used by reviewers (although the reviewers who chose to make their review reports will typically watch their language a bit more).

Breaking the taboo
Over the past few years, more academics have started to share their shadow CV - a list of "failures": rejected positions, rejected grants, rejected papers... Since its introduction, more scholars have posted their shadow CV on their website as a contrast to their actual CV. Slowly but surely, the taboo of rejection is being torn down.

Along the same lines we find the series of interviews "How I Fail" by Dr. Cheplygina. I personally find this series very fascinating, and love how junior and senior academics openly share their experience with failure. You can find my own participation in the series here.

Dealing with failure
We all deal with failure in a different way - and I do think it gets easier to move on after a rejection as you get more used to rejection. I also think sharing our frustrations and sadness over rejection with fellow academics can have a healing effect.

With that said, here are a few ideas on how to deal with rejection. First of all, acknowledge yourself and your feelings. Do you feel angry? Do you feel misunderstood, sad, frustrated, upset...? All your emotions are valid. Stop for a moment to acknowledge how you feel - and then ask yourself what you want to do next. Do you want to keep working so that your minds stays busy? Do you want to take the rest of the day off and hole up in your room with a fiction book? Do you want a piece of chocolate? Listen to what would be right for yourself, right now, and honor yourself.

Then, once you've dealt with your emotions and given yourself the time and space to feel your feelings and do what feels good, and when you feel ready to face the rejection in a rational way, you can think about your next step.
Did you get rejected for a job? Which other jobs can you apply for? How can you improve your application documents?
Did you get rejected for a grant? Do you want to pursue funding for the research topic from another source? Do you want to instead apply for funding for another research topic?
Did you get a rejection for a paper? Which comments from the reviewers are particularly helpful? How can you improve your manuscript? Can you submit your paper to another journal?
Once you know what's next, you can take a deep breath, gather your troops, and prepare for the next battle - win or lose!

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*Not an endorsement for Elsevier - but just referring to their little neat feature.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Passive voice in academic writing

As a follow-up to my recent poll about the use of first person in academic writing, I recently ran a poll on the use of passive voice in academic writing. As I had some issues with my Twitter account, the poll accidentally got posted twice. For both polls, luckily, the answer is the same: most authors avoid the use of passive voice.

For me, avoiding passive voice is something I am working on, but I know I could (and should!) do better in that regard. This poll has reminded me of my problem with the passive voice (and I also sometimes write sentences that are too long when I use the passive voice).

Here's the result of the poll and its associated wake:

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Six Steps to Create a Super Focused Workday

Today I welcome Dr. Amber Davis as a guest author. Amber is a political scientist and PhD coach, who studied at the London School of Economics and Leiden University, and holds a PhD from the European University Institute in Florence. She teaches stress-management and productivity seminars for PhD students and created the The Stress-Free PhD to help you increase your productivity, re-ignite your inspiration and lower your stress levels. She is currently hosting a giveaway for this program. Check out her blog for more of her writing.

What if you could sit down at your computer every morning, click open your documents, and have your work simply flow? Ah, how wonderful would that be? Maybe academic work can’t be quite that effortless, but there are simple things you can do to increase the odds of focus and flow happening. First point to note is that focus doesn’t happen spontaneously. It requires the right conditions. Ironically, academic culture with its insistence on working long (and even longer if you can!) linear days does not foster these conditions. Working past the point of diminishing returns is how our energy dwindles and focus is lost, and academic work is all about harnessing the power of focus! It can be a bit scary to go against the grain and creating a shorter, but more intense workday but it will pay off. Take a leap of courage and try it (this is the most difficult part of all, the rest will follow). A few ideas to get started:

1. Limit your work hours

‘Manage your energy, not your time’ is the best advice I got when I was finishing my own PhD, and now it is the advice I give others. You need mental energy for intense focus, and you cannot do it for more than so many hours a day. Three or so hours of focused work is achievable, perhaps a little more if you are up against a deadline. Trying to concentrate for an entire 8-hour workday doesn’t work! Your brain can’t do it. Less is more. You can get a lot done in even one (!) focused work session a day. Instead of counting hours, and feeling you have to work ‘more’ to achieve and feel good about yourself, try tracking the quality of those hours. Quality over quantity, and every focused work session counts!

2. Work in intervals


The same principle applies for how you work: intensity matters. Working in intervals ensures you stay focused… The key here is to stop before you get tired and distracted. For most people this means intervals of around 20 minutes to an hour. I recommend 45-minute intervals to start. Next time you sit down for a work session, use a timer and track when your concentration starts to wane. It means your intervals should be slightly shorter. In between intervals, take a break! Get away from your desk and let your mind wander. Mind wandering is key for new ideas and insights to emerge, and it also helps you replenish your mental energy for the next work session.

3. Prioritise

Taking a few minutes at the beginning of each work session to figure out what you should be working on is a powerful practice. Ask yourself: what is the most important thing to work on next to move my project one step ahead? And follow up with: and what is the next small step to take, and finish within the next work session? Achievable goals will propel your forward. Breaking it down like this will make sure you have your priorities straight (you are working on the ‘most important’ thing, not the most urgent one, or the most convenient one) and it will make it doable (you are focusing on something you can actually complete). Double win!

4. Plan for distractions

Take a moment to write down your top-3 of distractions. Is it social media? Checking the news? Your colleagues distracting you? Noise levels? An inability to concentrate when working at home? What takes you out of the zone? Is there any way you could plan for these distractions? There are apps to block the internet, you can block out your colleagues with head phones, you can switch your phone to airplane mode, and you can find a place to work where few opportunities to procrastinate are present. For a couple of hours a day, what would concentrated work look like? Dream it up, then find out how you could make it a daily reality. Make sure it’s doable though. An entire day without distractions is an impossibility. But an hour (or two or three, depending on circumstances) is doable.

5. Focus doesn’t always look productive


Academic work is messy, and it isn’t linear. Maybe you feel stuck and blocked, and you can’t seem to get anything done, despite your efforts. Don’t worry! Not all work is ‘active’ and visible. Sometimes the brain is working things out…on its own time. Trust this process, and know that during these ‘slow’ and frustrating times the important work of generating new ideas gets done. Research shows that the best way to find answers to complex puzzles is to think hard about the puzzle at hand, then completely relax and think of something else. The answers will come…when they do. Let yourself off the hook and allow yourself time and work sessions to simply ponder, and not ‘get anywhere’. It will pay off a few days, weeks or months down the road…

6. And repeat!

Making focus a habit is the key to success in the long run. Creating a work schedule can be really helpful to get there. What would your ideal workday look like? What time will you start, what time will you finish? (Remember: keep it short and sweet). How long will your work sessions be, what will you do during the breaks? How to plan for distractions? Go down the list of steps above. No need to overthink this schedule, just do it, and adjust as you go along, day by day. Once you find your rhythm, stick to it, and it will become almost effortless. You will want to keep working this way, and before you know it focus will have become a habit…

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Poll about working from home

Some time ago, I ran a poll on Twitter about how often academics work from home. Slightly more than half of all have a designated work-from-home day, I learned from this poll.

Some parents work a split shift (myself included): adding a few hours of work after the kid(s) are asleep at night. During baby's first year, I was working 6 hours daily in the office, and then tried to add an hour at home in the evening (with mixed results, I often feel rather tired in the evening).

Here's the wake of this poll:

UA-49678081-1