The changeover between semesters can be a difficult time of year for academics. First-semester exams need marking just as second-semester teaching begins… and then there are the meetings … your research… and to top it all off, January has gone, and with it all thoughts of good resolutions!
But if you don’t pause now you’ll find yourself sleepwalking through to the middle of the year, doing the same thing and getting the same results.
So take a moment to ask yourself if you have any old habits – reassuringly familiar, but counterproductive in other ways – that you could finesse even a little.
- Don’t take your values for granted
Your personal values – in other words, why you are in academia – lie at the heart of everything you do as an academic. But it’s very easy to lose sight of them. Use your professional review document to remind yourself not only of your goals (publications, grants, PhD students, etc.) but of the values they represent for you. Ask yourself whether you feel satisfied with the direction your career is moving in. Are your achievements in line with your values, and those of the institution? If not, consider coming up with a revised plan now that you can present to reviewers. Ask yourself if your goals are realistic.
- Look again at work-life balance
Considering your personal values should also help you to look with fresh eyes at your work-life balance. There is no disputing that the pressures of academic life are not evenly distributed – but given the predictable large-scale patterns of the academic year, are you leaving yourself enough time and space for all the demands on your time? If not, it may be time to consider the following:
- Brush up on your time management
This is one of the keys to a successful academic career – if not the key to it. This time of year can be very revealing of how good you are at managing your time. Once a bottleneck has been dealt with you might want to reflect on whether you dealt with it as well as you could. Did you manage your marking efficiently and to deadline, for instance? Bear in mind that perfectionism is not a charming personal quirk which others should have to work around: in fact, it can seriously hinder your professional development and damage collegiate relations if you fail to recognize any time management problems you might have. Which leads me to my next point….
- Avoid over-investment
Being over-invested often accompanies perfectionism. But where perfectionism is applied to your own work, over-investment is usually expressed with regard to student results. Students need you to be an engaged, responsive practitioner, of course, but they also need your engagement to have reasonable and professional limits. Students need clear summary guidance about how to improve, rather than reams of detailed feedback, which, in the case of exams, they may never even see. Spending too long on student feedback also comes at the expense of the other aspects of your career (even, at times, your research), and can have knock-on effects for your colleagues, who may feel that their own, perfectly adequate feedback response looks insufficient by comparison with your over-investment. Use this exam and marking period to ask yourself whether you might have fallen into this very common bad habit.
- Limit your availability
Presentism – or being too readily available – can be related to the above points. While you must of course be physically present for certain parts of academic life, remember that other aspects require that you withdraw in order to research, think, read, contemplate your subject and your place in it. Remember that the same can apply to other colleagues too, and that while you may get some satisfaction from buttonholing them in the corridor to expound at length on a subject close to your heart, they may have other concerns that need their attention. Leave time for everyone (including yourself) to retreat. That way you will find that you have better working relationships all round as a result.