Term ends, research begins?

Kirsty Penkman is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Chemistry at the University of York, UK.  Se is a member of the Editorial Board for Open Quaternary. Her research expertise is in analytical and environmental geochemistry and biomolecular archaeology and she runs the North East Amino Acid Racemization (NEaar) dating facility. As many of us in the academic world are finishing our semesters this week, she shares some of the challenges-and offers some solutions-for staying productive year-round.

The frenzy of the last few weeks of term has passed, the corridors are quieter.  Blank spaces in my diary don’t get immediately filled with meetings.  The list of daily tasks has morphed from short-term fire-fighting urgent deadlines into lovely longer-term projects that I am excited about getting my teeth into.

Being an academic is a joy, not only getting to research a subject you love, but also to teach it, to help others uncover those intriguing mysteries and beautiful solutions.  But the nature of the academic calendar means that the first week after term ends does feel like the calm after the storm.  Long to-do lists are written, great plans are made.  But then the time zooms by….


Looking back at my summer list (inspirationally entitled “long term summer thinking!”), only about half actually got done.  I had been so excited about my summer of research – coming back from maternity leave straight into the start of the academic year (and returning part-time) had meant that I hadn’t focused entirely on research for a long while.  So I had planned to use long summer days to analyse samples, sort out a backlog of data, write grants, write papers, re-jig teaching materials…the list goes on!  When I added up the number of full working days (not including conferences, etc.) that I had to achieve this in, I was horrified to discover I only had 17 free days over the 3 months.  Only 17 days!!

This meant that when I started back at the beginning of the Autumn term, I knew I had to make a change.  Something had to give – I couldn’t just keep putting my long-term research off until the vacations.  It was just the right time for me to take on board useful advice, and it happened to be the book “How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing” by Paul Silva.  I romped through this in a couple of hours on a train-trip back from a meeting in October, and it was the wake-up call I needed.


So the secret?  A very simple message – stop procrastinating!  I am one of those people who would say “I’ll write the paper / grant when I can find a clear day / week / month”; a “binge writer”.  Well, that never happens!  Silvia’s key message is self-admittedly obvious: you just need to:

  • set regular writing slots in your schedule
  • set goals for your writing
  • track your progress.

The philosophy is that the very action of writing has been shown to increase the frequency of your creative ideas, so writing breeds writing.  With the added bonus that if a nice long slot for writing does come along, you’ll be in a better state to take full advantage of it.  Never a fan of writing, one aspect which helped persuade me to give this a go was Silvia’s broadening of  the definition of “writing” – anything that contributes towards writing counts, so it could be sorting out data for a paper (as long as the data is also written up!).  For me, it was the right message at the right time.  I needed to change my writing mindset; instead of putting writing off for moments of inspiration or isolation, I needed to make time for it as part of my weekly routine.

I blocked out short periods of time in my diary to write; it was quite hard to find slots given I was in the middle of a heavy-teaching term, but I did manage to squeeze in 3 slots every week.  I have to admit I haven’t succeeded in keeping all of them (machine breakdowns, students who need to get data by a deadline, etc.), but my log shows me I’ve written for over 90% of the time I put aside.  Looking back at my diary for the previous term, much of that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t specifically set aside time.  As a consequence of starting this half way through a term (and therefore having to shoe-horn time into an already packed schedule), I have also discovered which periods of time aren’t productive for me, so I can organise my schedule for the future based on that valuable information.

I am definitely not the perfect finished article yet, but writing regularly has definitely worked for me.  It is often difficult to prioritise longer-term research when short-term externally-imposed deadlines abound, but it is one of the most important parts of our jobs, so I shall continue to keep my precious writing time sacrosanct.  I have learnt this lesson a bit late – one of the tips for grad students in the book is to start this type of writing schedule as early as possible, as it will make that goliath thesis more manageable.  And if you think you don’t have enough to write about now, go along to your supervisor and see if they have anything you can dust off and work on; I am sure you won’t be disappointed!

So now that I’m writing a lot (or at least a lot more than I used to), hopefully the division between “term ends and research begins” will be less evident.  Now I just have to learn to write good – sorry – better!


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