How to Thrive in Graduate School (Whatever That Means)

By Colleen Wood of Columbia University

Photo by Charles DeLoye on Unsplash

In addition to thematic panels, the 77th Annual MPSA Conference offered a wide range of roundtables on professional development including practical discussion of fieldwork and research tools and bigger debates on pedagogical practices and public engagement. Here I want to focus on the “How to Thrive in Graduate School” series and highlight common themes and advice that came up across panels.

Research

Coming up with worthwhile research questions, conducting research, and writing up results is a major draw to the academic lifestyle. While many political science PhD programs offer coursework in research design and methods, it’s not exactly clear how to ask a good question and make sure people hear the answer. Allison Quatrini of Eckerd College assured the audience that there’s no single best way to do research, but that when choosing a dissertation topic, it’s better to pose a big question than to show off methods skills to address a narrow topic.

To figure out what the big questions are, several panelists suggested keeping either a digital or analog journal with ideas that come to mind while reading for coursework and comprehensive exams early on in the Ph.D. process. Cynthia Duncan Joseph from the University of South Carolina explained that she writes a daily “wonder list” where she jots down anything she’s wondering about – academic or otherwise. She mentioned coming back to her wonder list every so often for research ideas.

For those who have found their question and have started collecting data, panelists discussed the best ways to promote their findings. While some are concerned that political scientists aren’t doing enough to communicate their research to the public, strategies for becoming a public-facing academic were a popular topic throughout the series. Gregory Collins from Yale University said that translating academic research for the public or policymaking communities is important, especially for theorists.

But how to do that? No format is necessarily better than the rest, according to Kimberly Turner from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. Op-eds, academic blogs, and podcasts can all be excellent platforms for sharing your ideas. “You get to tinker, so play — enjoy yourself and explore different formats to see what grabs your attention,” she told the audience at the Friday morning session.

Teaching

While research is often the focus of conversations about graduate students’ work life, panelists agreed that teaching is just as important and deserves as much attention.

When it comes to deciding whether to pursue a Ph.D. at all,  Allison Quatrini suggested asking what the teaching assistant (TA) experience looks like. There is a wide range of potential teaching assignments, from only grading assignments for a professor to organizing recitation sections or building your own class entirely.

At the graduate students’ perspective session, multiple panelists emphasized the need to pursue your own professional development. Luisa Turbino Torres from the University of Delaware explained that she is proactive about sitting in on undergraduate lectures and asking professors she admires to share their syllabi. Turner agreed and suggested that graduate students attend teaching and learning conferences, whether organized specifically around questions of teaching or sessions contained within bigger conferences like MPSA or APSA. Turner said she learned a lot about writing a syllabus and learning how to control a classroom, both of which she described as “crafts no one teaches you to do.” These skills are especially crucial for political scientists, given that we are talking about “something as incendiary as politics.”

Mentorship

Panelists across the sessions agreed on the importance of triangulating mentorship. They spoke about developing vertical and horizontal ties, emphasizing the importance of diversifying the range of perspectives and opinions. When it comes to picking an official advisor and building a committee, panelists recognized the need to balance department politics with interpersonal dynamics. “You don’t have to pick the obvious person,” Hannah Alarian from Princeton assured the audience. “Choose a mentor and be willing to fire them.”

In the Friday morning roundtable highlighting graduate students’ perspectives on succeeding in a Ph.D. program, panelists mentioned building relationships with grad students at other universities. Twitter and MPSA working groups like the Midwest Women’s Caucus, the Midwest Latino/a Caucus, and the Caucus for LGBTQ Political Science provide a great space for horizontal networking and creating a feeling of home in the discipline.

Mental health

The psychological stress of balancing imposter syndrome, teaching loads, research projects, and side hustles takes a serious toll on graduate students. Collins said that there are less frequent validations of success in graduate school, compared to other professions; this adds serious psychological weight to completing graduate study, he said.

The conversation about mental health continued into the Friday morning panel. Michael Widmeier from the University of North Texas lamented the stigma surrounding mental health challenges in academia. The energy and vulnerability required to communicate with one’s advisor and department administrators about mental health make it especially difficult to accommodate. Turbino Torres agreed and said she felt a huge relief after meeting other students and professors who are open to talking about anxiety and depression.

Success

With so much advice about conducting research, teaching, and taking care of your mental health, anyone in the audience should be able to thrive in graduate school just as the series title promised, right? But success is hardly a fixed concept, and panelists stressed the importance of setting your own terms for flourishing in a Ph.D. “Success looks different for everyone,” Alarian. “But shared tenets exist.”

One of those shared tenets: building a personal life and identity beyond your department. Widmeier’s comment that “Personal life is… a thing” was met with laughter, but the panelists tried to offer concrete suggestions for developing a healthy work-life balance. Pursuing hobbies, making friends outside the university, and focusing on family can all offer perspective and alternate sources of validation.

The “How to Thrive in Graduate School” series was certainly not the first time these conversations were hashed out, and it hopefully won’t be the last. Open discussions about struggles and success like this are crucial for uncovering academia’s hidden curriculum, and it is reassuring that MPSA continues to revisit these questions year after year.

About the Author: Colleen Wood is a Ph.D. student at Columbia University. Her research focuses on identity, migration, and the state in Central Asia. She writes about Central Asian society and politics for The Diplomat and is also a blogger for the 2019 MPSA conference in Chicago. Get in touch with Colleen on Twitter at @colleenewood or email at c.wood@columbia.edu.

 

Two Paths to the Palmer House: Planning for the #MPSA19 Conference

By Colleen Wood of Columbia University

Two Paths to the Palmer House: Planning for the #MPSA19 Conference

Being a first-timer at MPSA is often synonymous with attending and presenting at any political science conference for the first time. For those graduate students who will be presenting their research for the first time, the weeks leading up to MPSA are intense and exciting all at once (or at least, that’s how I’m feeling).

It would be convenient to gather all the “how-to’s” and “best practices” in one powerful post, but grouping all this advice together misses out on potentially powerful cleavages that divide the young academic community. After all, there are a million ways to divide humankind into two camps: morning people and night owls; inbox zero zealots and those who regularly run out of space on their Gmail; over-planners and the rest of us with a more “seat-of-their-pants” approach to the world. Normally any one of these differences is enough to undermine a working relationship; but since we first-time MPSA attendees have to stick together, I offer advice for preparing for the conference according to two different philosophies of time.

Three Weeks Until MPSA

In the deliberate planner’s mind, there’s no time like the present to build an MPSA schedule. She searches the All-Academic website for interesting panels (based mostly on buzzwords from her dissertation prospectus and random sub-sub-subfields she read about for comps once) and carefully records all the panels of interest in her bullet journal. There’s a color-coding schema involved, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.

At this point, the extemporary grad student knows MPSA is coming up but has too much on his plate at the moment to worry about the future. He thinks about his conference paper for a while in the shower one morning and plans out the perfect intro paragraph, but loses his train of thought immediately after sitting down to write. No worries, he’ll finish the paper later (but definitely by the March 22 deadline).

Two Weeks Until MPSA

Both the go-with-the-flow and hyper-methodical attendees manage to put the finishing touches on their conference papers to upload to the MPSA website and submit to their discussants by March 22. Philosophies about planning and the order of the universe aside, everyone is in this to get feedback on their work, which even the most chronically-late student can appreciate.

Riding the high of submitting something before a deadline, the spontaneous student scribbles out a few goals for her first MPSA on post-its she’ll attach to her desktop for motivation. She’s not too nervous about her panel, though, since it’s so far away.

Submitting his paper awakened a fire in the organized student, who got to work immediately researching the venue and planning out a walking tour. Even after walking around the hotel in Google Street View and downloading an app to reserve parking spots for cheap far in advance, though, he craves more information. This grad student registers for an online orientation for first-time attendees (the one on March 18th looked good but the one on March 26 at 11am Eastern worked better for his schedule) and rests assured knowing all his questions will be answered.

One Week Before MPSA

With only a week left to prepare for his first conference, the procedure-oriented student has decided to get serious. She organizes her thoughts using DAGitty in place of her more traditional vision board. There, she carefully charts everyone she wants to ask for coffee or lunch meetings against a list of carefully curated spots with a good vibe, that aren’t too close to the hotel (the lines will be long with conference-goers who just googled “coffee” before their panel), and are also friendly to a grad student budget

After seeing a friend of a friend post on Twitter that they’ll also be in Chicago next week for the conference (all thanks to the #MPSA19 hashtag), the planning-averse student remembers to reach out to other friends and a few scholars whose work he admires to meet up.

Three Days out from MPSA

The first-time attendee who takes life as it comes realizes he is relieved to be participating in a Junior Scholar Symposium, mostly because it means he doesn’t need to play around with Beamer templates for a few hours before actually building a slide deck. He hunkers down to finish reading and jotting down comments on the other panelists’ papers.

Meanwhile the hyper-organized student has had her slides ready for so long it feels like the content is tattooed on the inside of her eyeballs. She continues to practice the talk, trying to shave off an extra 37 seconds to get her presentation to fit neatly in the 15-minute allotment.

The Morning of MPSA

The more spontaneous grad student screenshots a map of the Palmer House while on the train from the airport to the hotel; she circles the room where her presentation will be and figures she’ll look through the program later that morning to choose panels to attend based on proximity to her new home base.

Before checking in to the hotel, she stops by a grocery store to pick up some snacks – cold brew concentrate, energy bars, dried fruit. As she’s standing in the checkout line, she’s proud of thinking to buy food ahead of time; none of these snacks make too much noise to eat, so she won’t embarrass herself in a panel, and it’s a way to save money since she already maxed out her department’s travel reimbursement fund for the year.

By this point, the planning-intensive student has already organized his store-bought snacks by calorie count and color in his hotel room and is heading to the conference. On the walk from his room to registration, he practices his elevator pitch introduction in anticipation of all the people he’ll meet that day.

Fortunately, there are no hard and fast rules for making the most of your first MPSA. Whether you’ve got backups to your backup plans or intend to roll in with an off-the-cuff attitude, remember that we are all descending on the Palmer House Hilton for similar reasons: to make connections, learn something new, and get productive feedback on our work.

About the Author: Colleen Wood is a PhD student at Columbia University. Her research focuses on identity, migration, and the state in Central Asia. She writes about Central Asian society and politics for The Diplomat and is also a blogger for the 2019 MPSA conference in Chicago. Get in touch with Colleen on Twitter at @colleenewood or email at c.wood@columbia.edu.

Work, Well-Being, and Social Connections: Advice from a Graduate Student on Finding the Correct Proportions

By Kevin DeLuca of Harvard University

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“If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” – Some wise person

For academics, I think the saying is backward: “If you, an academic, love what you do, you’ll work every day of your life.” The line between work and life in academia is often blurred, making the achievement of work-life balance elusive. For graduate students still in their first years of being “in academia,” it can be particularly hard to find a healthy, sustainable routine. Compound this with the anxiety and stress that comes with the typical grad program and voilà: the recipe for a well-being disaster.

Given the premium academia places on over-working, most graduate students feel they can’t spend much time on other important aspects of their lives. This is causing a mental health crisis among grad students; it’s time to make a healthy work-life balance in academia the norm.

Finding Balance
One definition of “balance” is: “a condition in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions.” In my view, the essential elements of “work-life balance” are:

  1. work, of course;
  2. well-being, including leisure, mental health, and physical health; and
  3. social connections, including relationships with family, friends, and social groups.

Each of these elements should be “in the correct proportions,” and a worthy goal is to develop each category every day. Notice that in order to achieve this balanced development, you must spend time doing things that are NOT directly beneficial to your career (*gasp*). Of course, finding your personal “correct” proportions is the hard part.

By virtue of being grad students, we all share common challenges in our pursuit of healthy and productive academic lives. The following advice is meant to provide a general set of tips to help grad students achieve a healthy work-life balance. These are based off my own personal experience dealing with the stresses of grad school – if you are struggling with mental health issues in your program, please contact a trained counselor for help, consult services that are available on your own campus, or access resources like the Academic Mental Health Collective or National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Less, More Efficient Work
Most grad students feel they must continuously be working in order to keep up with their work. There are two ways to combat this problem: 1) make the time you spend working more efficient, or 2) reduce your commitments.

One of the best ways to increase work efficiency is to focus on creating periods of “deep work” – work time that is completely free of distractions, especially social media and email. Aim for at least 90-120 minutes of distraction-free work per session (but don’t stop yourself if you’re on a roll!), then aim to have about 3 sessions per workday. Try not to force yourself to work more than that – this is crucial. You need time to relax and invest in other parts of your life. Four to six hours of work might not sound like a lot (especially if you think you work 60 hours a week), but most people can’t do more than 4-6 hours of intense work per day anyway, plus you’ll need time to do other work-related things (meetings, classes, emails), so this is actually an ambitious goal.

If you cannot keep up with all of your obligations with a healthy work schedule, you need to reduce your work obligations as soon as possible. It’s OK to do less. Make it a habit to say no to work you don’t really want to do. It’s tempting to overcommit due to social and professional pressures in academia, but these pressures are based on unrealistic expectations about what you “should” be doing. I find it’s better to focus on work quality, rather than quantity of academic obligations.

Successfully keeping your work from invading other elements of your life is the first step to establishing a healthy work-life balance. By focusing on making your work efficient and limiting your work obligations, you can decrease the total amount of time you spend working and increase the time available for other important aspects of your life.

Investing in Well-Being
“Well-being” is an all-encompassing term meant to include physical and mental health, along with any other things that make you a happy, balanced, healthy person. Taking care of your health, as well as spending time on non-work leisure activities, can improve your quality of life while also giving you the energy to be productive at work.

Rather than suggest specific activities, I want to suggest a more general philosophy of leisure time. My advice for improving well-being is similar to my advice on improving work efficiency: make your leisure more productive. By that, I mean spend your leisure time in a deliberate way and, most importantly, in a way that allows you to totally disengage from your work. I call this kind of leisure “deep leisure” – the much more fun variant of deep work. It’s about being fully engaged in a particular leisure activity with no (work) distractions.

Given that the typical schedule for grad students is often unstructured, it can be hard to fully stop working to enjoy leisure time. Imposing structure on your time – including scheduling leisure activities – can be highly beneficial to your well-being. You have to convince yourself that it’s OK to unplug from work for a while. I’ve had many conversations with other students where they remark that a lot of “leisure” time they spend is also spent with a lot of anxiety about other work they have to get done. This is not time spent leisurely! Allow yourself to enjoy time off, guilt-free, and schedule this time into your day just like you would homework or classes. Make time for a life beyond work.

Many grad students feel guilty about “wasting time” on leisure, but leisure is not a waste. In fact, it will likely improve your performance as a researcher, since you’ll be more energized, focused, and motivated to work after spending time relaxing. Even if all you care about is improving your career prospects (which you shouldn’t!), it’s a smart move to engage in deep leisure and not overwork yourself.

Social Connections and Positive Externalities
Social connections are not totally distinct from well-being, since many people’s mental and physical health depends on positive social interactions with friends and family. But they are different because not all social interactions are relaxing or leisurely, and because improving relationships with friends and family often involves tradeoffs between other work or well-being goals.

For example, taking time to call a family member is time not spent on homework. Spending an afternoon helping a friend means you can’t spend that afternoon in the office working. Going to lunch with people in your department means you’ll have less time to watch your favorite show later. Of course, many social interactions can also be considered “leisure” time – like going to a party or having dinner with a friend. But some social interactions are more leisurely than others, and it can be tempting to opt-out of many of them to get more work done.

The fact that many grad students feel pressure to keep themselves disconnected socially in order to be successful (I’m definitely guilty of this) reveals how unhealthy the social norms in academia can be. Instead of isolating yourself, try something different. Be the externality you want to see in the world. Check in on your peers from time to time. Thank people often. Give back to your department or community by volunteering. Do things to make your workplace welcoming and friendly for everyone, especially for those who may feel isolated.

Grad school is difficult by nature, but should never require you to isolate yourself or keep you from being a healthy person. It’s true, investing in your community, friends, and family takes away from time you could be working! But fostering better social connections will make you feel good about yourself, feel more like part of a community, and can give you that sense of accomplishment that is too often absent from our academic work,

The Correct Proportions
Finding the right proportions for these aspects of our lives can be hard. You won’t always get it right. The key is to strive for balance and to forgive yourself (and learn!) as you work through the process. I hope that these ideas can help you find your balance.

About the Author: Kevin DeLuca is a Political Economy and Government Ph.D. Candidate at Harvard University. His research interests include voter behavior and elections in the United States. He can be reached by emailing kevindeluca@g.harvard.edu or on Twitter at @cantstopkevin.

 


Juggling Academic Time and Technology: Advice from a Millennial

By Garrett Pierman of Florida International University

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The digital age is in full swing, especially in academia. In class, our students, if they are allowed, are browsing, tweeting, liking, and sharing across the web. They are also, one can hope, occasionally taking notes. Maybe you’re doing much the same – a like here, a comment there to break up the research sessions or avoid awkward small talk in the elevator. At home, our phones are our constant companions as we compulsively check for email replies, student concerns, and notifications from the academic and public political worlds. Technology has enabled us to do more. More work with more information, citing more literature, and reflective of more data, more of the time. This looks, from a distance, wonderfully efficient: we’re reachable at a moment’s notice, our inboxes are tidy, and our instantaneous information spigots are always open. But is more, in terms of the use of technology, always better?

Demirbilek and Talan, in their 2017 study of student multitasking, empirically confirm the suspicions of most instructors (Demirbilek and Talan 2018, 117–29). Students who have the ability to text and use social media in class do so, and their grades suffer as a result of their distraction. This situation is a familiar one – it increasingly seems that our glassy-eyed students can only see the world through an Instagram filter.

We would be naïve to think that this same distractedness that is affecting our students passes us by. On the professorial side of the desk, every distracted moment must be paid back, often from the already spartan reserves of personal time. At family gatherings, in quiet moments of rare leisure, even at the dinner table, we find ourselves as acquaintances in our present moments as we pass from one byte of work to another on our phones. This distracted and alienated state, which increases stress, strains personal relationships, and tempts academics to devote even more time to the already demanding ivory tower, has gotten so out of hand that the French have passed a “right to disconnect law”, forbidding employers from expecting employees to reply to work emails outside of paid hours (“For French Law On Right To ‘Disconnect,’ Much Support — And A Few Doubts.” NPR. February 3, 2017). This attempt to demarcate the spaces of work and leisure is unlikely to pass here in the United States, especially in academia, but has some lessons to teach us.

Here are some of the practices my colleagues and I have developed over the years to more intentionally use technology to work better, have more free time, and increase our qualities of life:

  1. Consider a device ban in your classroom.
    Setting a device ban forces each student to be present in the classroom. While some of them will be skeptical until their grades improve, selling it as a deliberate break from life outside of the present moment, such as many of us do at dinners with friends, has convinced many of my students.
  2. Set email office hours and expectations.
    Set a time (or a few) during the day to check and respond to emails. Make these times known to students and colleagues so they know when to expect replies. At the extreme end, you can sign out of your academic email totally outside of these hours, forcing you to become more deliberate about checking and, as a bonus, less tempted to check during moments of downtime.
  3. Uni-task purposely.
    Teach when you teach, email when you email, and sleep when you sleep. Our brains do better when we focus on one thing at a time, even though we prefer variety over monotony. Thus, spend shorter periods doing a sequence of different things instead of all-day doing a less productive mix of emailing, engaging in the present moment, etc.
  4. Demarcate spaces.
    In addition to the signing off and uni-tasking, consider leaving your devices out of certain spaces entirely. For instance, if you find yourself staying up late checking your phone in bed rather than sleeping, consider putting the phone on the other side of the room. Not only will you be forced to actually sleep in your bed, but you will also have to physically get up to turn off any morning alarms, which makes snoozing less likely.
  5. Embrace your free time.
    Now that you’ve signed off and put your phone away, go do something else outside of work. Sleep. Read. Cook. Spend the energy you would have wasted multi-tasking on pondering instead of a distraction. Taking the time to be rested, engaged, and mentally well, as a mentor of mine likes to put it, is the part of your job you do before you get to school.

In reading this, you might get the idea that I’m a Luddite. If anything, I am the opposite: as a millennial and a scholar, I see the amazing productivity and progress that we can do with technology. But these accomplishments are less likely when we are screen-addicted zombies. To combat that tendency, I simply suggest here that we take a good, hard look at our daily practices with technologies and ask what we can do better. In order to stay productive, sometimes we need to turn off the phones, tune out the email, and drop out of the digital world, at least until tomorrow.


Note from the Author: As educators, we have to consider the environments we create in our classrooms. Our use of technology has to be beneficial and inclusive to make learning possible. Thus, we have a responsibility to take into account that none of these are one-size fits all solutions. While suggesting to some students to unplug during class may well help them, that is not always the case: many students use laptops and other devices to be able to fully participate in our classes. We should encourage them to do so. Any device policies we include should make room for good-faith use of these devices without the student having to disclose anything sensitive, such as disability status, to anyone including us. Instead, any advice I give here is meant to start a conversation about how we want to use technology: inclusive course design must also be part of that conversation (https://www.chronicle.com/article/Should-You-Allow-Laptops-in/245625/).

About the Author: Garrett Pierman is a PhD Student in the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Florida International University. His research focuses on the ways in which technology affects democratic discourse. His work has appeared in the Journal of Strategic Security, the journal Class, Race, and Corporate power, as well as the Marx and Philosophy Review of Books.  

 

The views and opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Midwest Political Science Association, MPSA staff, and/or other site contributors.

Do Academics Stink at Work/Life Balance?

And is this scaring away students?

By Alex Ellison

At the 2018 Midwest Political Science Association Conference in Chicago, IL, I attended the session, Trying to Balance Work and Life with Joel Raveloharimisy from Andrews University, William Raymond from Benedictine College, Marjorie Hershey from Indiana University, and Jacob Holt from Columbus State University.

When I was in my second or third year of college, my advisor made the suggestion that I might like getting a PhD. “And doing what with that,” I asked. “You could become a professor.”

What?!

I was the first in my family to go to college. The daughter of a wine salesman and a waitress, I did not understand that college could be more than the place I learned; it could be the place I worked. I loved college, so this sounded wonderful!

Then I talked with my department advisor about my new plans. I was a German major and I would soon learn that because of the mass department closures happening around the country, the language professors were arguably the most bitter and resentful — not the kind of people who would offer encouraging advice for a starry-eyed undergraduate. He said, passively, “Yeah, sure. I suppose you could teach at one of the sister colleges.”

I heard similarly condescending remarks from a seemingly caring speaker at a conference on Cultural Diplomacy in Berlin. As we walked and talked and I shared my plans and ambitions with him, he said, “You know, it is very difficult to be a woman in academia.” This was in the year 2009.

Fast forward to my first job after undergrad, a service-learning coordinator at the University of Nevada, Reno, where I worked while applying to graduate programs. Their German department was on the butcher block at the time, and I made the mistake of seeking guidance from a few very angry professors, one who seemed to resemble Karl Marx more and more each day. Not surprisingly, these folks strongly advised against my future plans.

Despite the naysayers, I was admitted to the University of Chicago’s Masters of Social Sciences program. I was taking my first step toward getting a PhD! I eagerly met with one of the faculty members in the German department during the admitted student weekend, and he couldn’t have been more annoyed by my visit and showed no interest in me as a prospective student.

Needless to say, I finally got cold feet. At some point, the collective words of discouragement overrode my more fantastical, head-in-the-clouds side, and I declined the University of Chicago offer.

While my life is fulfilling and full of meaning and joy today, I can’t help but wonder if I would have also been happy in academia. Is academia as terrible — especially for women who want a family — as some of the naysayers would suggest? Even if a degree in German history was a suicidal mission, why was there so little encouragement along my path? The experience gave me the impression that professors are an unhappy lot. That they lack balance and are constantly stressed out.

But the same could be said for people across a wide array of professions.

Are people in academia less able to find balance? Does the nature of their work, with the competing pressures to research and teach, make balance impossible?

These questions led me to wander into the session on work/life balance at the 2018 Midwest Political Science Association conference. Marjorie Hershey offered some refreshingly sound and friendly advice. I found myself wishing I’d had her as an advisor and mentor while I was an undergraduate. To the academics with families, she said to get involved in your kids’ lives; get involved in your communities. She stressed the importance of getting involved in the world around you, no matter how busy you are with research and publishing. She gave this advice:

It is hard to create a relationship with people if you wait until you’ve done enough publishing. There will never be a time when you say, “I’ve done enough publishing, I’m done!”

She said academia is actually one of the more autonomous institutions to be employed; professors are allowed relative independence in their work compared to other professions. She suggested taking advantage of this and not falling into the trap of living by others’ rules or trying to mirror others’ lives.

Because of the relative autonomy and the ability to mostly choose research directions, she gave the advice to choose research pursuits that fit into our lives:

If your free time consists of what you have during nap time and nursery school, don’t become a political philosopher.

So, perhaps it is not a question of whether or not academics can balance work and life, but if they are in the appropriate academic domains given their life situations. However, it does seem like academics are uniquely positioned to fail worse than other professionals at the whole balance thing. They simultaneously need to be liked by their departments and offer their service to the university, research and publish endlessly, never ever really knowing what the magic number, and they are pressured to fill up seats in their classes with students who will give them high marks as teachers. The pressures are real, but perhaps not insurmountable, and perhaps not a reason to avoid the profession altogether.

So here are some tips from the panelists:

  • Don’t be discouraged and fearful about pressures — Know that pressure will exist in this space and experiencing that pressure doesn’t mean you are weak, unsuitable, or disliked
  • It’s easy to focus on what’s immediate rather than what’s important — don’t let yourself fall victim to this trap; prioritize work and life so that you can tackle what’s most important first
  • Don’t confuse the time you’re putting into a project with the quality of your work — “It’s not the hours you put in; it’s what you put into the hours.” — Jacob Holt
  • We can’t be all of the things at once, but we can be all of the things throughout our careers — Our careers are a marathon, not a sprint; you may be teaching heavy at one end of your career and research heavy at another end
  • Invest in something you are passionate about outside of work — whether it’s a creative project or triathlon training, you have to have something you care about that is not your teaching or research

And sometimes, work/life balance emerges naturally once a family enters the stage. When we’re single, work doesn’t necessarily need to be balanced with anything else. As someone from the audience shared, when he was single, he simple worked until his brain was fried and he couldn’t work anymore. The family is often the force that makes us create balance. However, it’s arguably a good idea to start working on balance, even if you don’t have a family; you’re probably not working as well as you’re capable of with that fried brain and 3.5 hours of sleep.


Alex Ellison is a blogger at the 2018 Midwest Political Science Association Conference in Chicago, IL. She is the Founding Director of MENTEE, a non-profit organization that helps immigrant, refugee, and low-income high school students gain career exposure through job shadows and mentorship. She is also an independent education consultant and college counselor. Read more from Alex Ellison on Medium

Why Would A Mom and A Business Owner Get An MPA?

And what does she do with it?

By Alex Ellison

Photo by Dakota Corbin on Unsplash

I was accepted to the University of Chicago to their MA Program in Social Sciences. I visited, sent in my deposit and then backed out.

I moved out west. I started a business. I had a kid.

I applied to the Masters in Education Technology program at the University of Nevada. I started, realized it was not what I wanted and stopped.

I applied to the Masters in Public Administration program at the University of Nevada. I didn’t start.

Business grew. Kid grew…

I reapplied to the Masters in Public Administration program. 2 years later I finished. I did it for me. I wasn’t looking to get a job with the degree. I wasn’t looking to get a pay raise, since I was my own boss. I did it because I liked school and I also thought I might do more government contracting in the future (I was doing contract work with school districts), for which this degree would be helpful. But my reasons for getting my masters were largely personal, not professional.

I did get a research grant while I was in graduate school to go to Switzerland and investigate their dual education system and apprenticeship model. This work fascinated me and led to some interesting work in northern Nevada. However, once out of my masters, the umbrella was gone. The “home institution” no longer existed. I was busy with my work, but I tried to continue the research on my own, but it just felt futile without mentors and support.

I talked to another mom about this. She is a full-time teacher with 3 kids; she was a Fulbright scholar and she has two masters degrees. She too lamented over the difficulty in finding organizations, think tanks and fellowships to attach to when no longer available for, or interested in, a full-time research commitment, a job in the field, or a PhD.

I would love to see a conversation at MPSA’s Annual Conference this year around continuing our research when we are no longer officially “in the field,” yet we want to continue our research on the side and continue to be part of the political science and public policy community.

Alex Ellison will be a blogger at the Annual MPSA (Midwest Political Science Association) Conference in Chicago, IL. You can learn more about the conference and schedule here. She will be attending the Trying to Balance Work & Life andGrant Opportunities & Strategies sessions. Read more from Alex Ellison on Medium