My tips for productivity

One of the most significant non-academic things I learned during my first year as a PhD student was how to be productive even in moments when I really didn’t feel like it. In fact, I had a pretty good handle on this throughout college as well. I think as a society we tend to over-glorify productivity, and I have definitely done this myself in the past. While it feels great to accomplish many things, it is also important to take time to rest. However, for the times when you have no choice but to be very productive, here are some of my best tips.

  • Have a pre-work ritual. For me, this usually involves cleaning off my desk and lighting a candle; there is just something about candles that puts me in the zone to do work. But your ritual could be using some essential oils, washing your face, making a cup of coffee, changing into a certain type of clothing, etc.; just something to remind your brain that it is work time.
  • Be clear on what you need to accomplish. Seems obvious, but many people plunge right into the work they know they need to do immediately without considering what their next steps will be. This often leads to mis-allocating time and completing things at the last minute. Take 10-15 minutes even to review your to-do list, and decide what needs to be done this month, this week, today, and even this hour. Give yourself a reasonable amount of time to do it. That way, you won’t make excuses like “well I’m not going to get this done by 5 pm anyway so I might as well just wait to start it.”
  • Similarly: calendar blocking. This may seem unnatural, but so are our expectations of productivity at times. I learned this tip from Amy Landino. It’s nothing extremely novel, but I do think this is a superior approach to time management than a simple to-do list. When I make such a list, I still end up with various incomplete tasks at the end of the day. When I use calendar blocking, I literally force myself to get things done within a certain amount  of time. Then, if I don’t finish a task, I am forced to move to the next task and/or re-allocate the rest of the time for the day. I actually wouldn’t recommend living every day like this, but on busy days I definitely do this.
  • On that note, I recommend using Google calendar in general. I will talk more about this in my post on useful apps for students, but my life changed when I began to use Google calendar creatively in addition to (and eventually instead of) a paper planner.
  • Wake up early. Or stay up late! Or go to a coffee shop without your phone for a few hours in the middle of the day. Whatever works for you, but the point here is to find a solid chunk of uninterrupted time in an environment where nobody will be bothering you. Usually early in the morning works because it is before most people are awake so you are less tempted to check email, respond to text messages, etc., and the same is true late at night. Some friends recommended going to a coffee shop without a phone — I  haven’t tried it yet, but I think it sounds like a great idea!
  • Use one of those social media blocking extensions on your internet application. I never believed this would work until I tried it. I actually didn’t think I checked social media that much until I added an extension that gave me a 20 minute limit per day (on my computer), which was helpful because instead of being derailed for half an hour to check twitter, I kept getting the “shouldn’t you be working?” page.
  • Say no! I never feel guilty saying no to something that will hinder me from achieving what I need to for myself. Whether it is a social activity, a work opportunity, a request for help (obviously exercise discretion on what is actually more important), little interruptions can really hinder your productivity. Again, not a general rule but something to be strict with yourself when you really need to be productive.
  • Coffee, because obviously.
  • Exercise! When you are tired from a great workout, it suddenly becomes 10x easier to sit still for hours doing your work at the computer (if that’s the kind of work you do). It’s good for the brain, it will help you think more clearly, and just generally improves your productivity.
  • Last and most important tip, which I’ve alluded to already: minimize interruptions. A two second interruption from a quick text or someone knocking on your door can actually turn into a 20+ minute interruption because of the way it disrupts your focus. We as humans actually can’t multitask, no matter how tempting it can be to believe that we can. Focus on one task exclusively before moving on to the next, and you will develop a momentum that allows you to actually finish projects and move on. Resist the temptation to do everything at once.

Do you have additional tips for productivity? Or even tips you have tried and that didn’t work for you?

-AK

Pros and cons of the academic world

This is a topic that deserves more than one post, and given that I still consider myself a beginner in the “academic world” having only completed one year of grad school, I am sure I will have much more to say in the future. So I’m sure I’ll revisit this list one day with a more mature perspective, but I thought it would be interesting if I shared my observations, at this point, on the pros and cons of the academic world. (Another caveat: as I’ve shared before, I am a political science student. This could and probably does vary among fields.) With that being said, here is what sticks out to me.

Pros:

  • Smart people. You are surrounded by them! It is inspiring. You have professors and mentors and even people who share no interests with you but whose intelligence and passion for their subject is so evident that it motivates you with your own work.
  • Learning. This should go without saying, but many people, particularly those who actually aren’t in the academic community, forget about its most straightforward goal, which is learning. It’s not just about writing the current paper or finishing a project or getting through the semester, it’s about taking in each learning opportunity like a sponge and continuously building on your own knowledge and expertise.
  • Learning for money. Yes it’s about learning, but if it is your job, it is also about money. And my experience, at least, is that I am receiving financial support to receive an education that I will later use to continue enjoying all the “pros” on this list. Isn’t that cool? (Note: I’m not saying this to brag. However, I actually think too many people complain about the low salary of graduate students. While it is nothing to write home about, you are literally being paid to receive an education while many others with similar credentials are taking out loans to attend Masters programs or law school. So it seems like a good hand of cards to be dealt.)
  • Intellectual stimulation. Some might argue that this is the same thing as learning, but I actually don’t think that is true. There are aspects of research that require creativity, problem solving, analytical thinking, brainstorming, and sometimes it can generally feel like a giant puzzle. Even in the moments when not a lot of material learning is being done, other kinds of stimulation are likely going on.
  • Some level of autonomy. While most people in the academic world work within a college or university, there is still a degree of freedom (although it varies depending on one’s field, institution, level of seniority, etc.) when it comes to one’s teaching and research endeavors. That sounds a lot more appealing, to me at least, than being told explicitly what to do by a superior.

Cons:

  • Smart people… You are surrounded by them. Yes, this is beneficial, but it can also be a negative thing. Smart people can be great, or not so great. They can be kind and helpful, or rude and condescending. You don’t know which it’ll be, you just know that they are intelligent (at least enough to ~make it to where they are in life~).
  • Self doubt. It’s not a coincidence that most grad students and professors are familiar with the term “impostor syndrome.” This is sort of a result of the social environment of academia, but it is also just something that naturally happens when you are inundated with tons of high level material and attempting to stay above water with it all.
  • Work-life balance. I’m struggling to decide whether this is a pro or a con when it comes to academia, but at this moment I am going to place it on the “cons” list. Here comes a mini rant if you are interested in why:
    This entire blog is about my endeavor to find a balance between work and life that feels effortless. I recognize that it will never feel completely effortless, but I do strive to live my life in a way where work and “play” complement, rather than compete with, each other. There are definitely some positive aspects of the work-life balance of an academic as compared with some other professional routes. One’s time is somewhat flexible, and we can often choose, aside from a few pre-scheduled commitments, when we want to do our work. This doesn’t decrease the workload, but it allows scholars to exercise discretion in how they’d like to complete the work. On the other hand, there is a certain culture of overworking ourselves and signing up for various projects and constantly engaging in self-improvement exercises (like learning more and better methods, writing more and better papers, networking, etc.) and just generally always being “on,” that it can feel wrong or even guilt-invoking to take some time off. That’s why, at this moment, even though it is the middle of summer and I have the most freedom with my time that I have had in actual years, I’m currently seeing the work-life balance element as a “con.” However, I will say that every single day I work to foster a mindset that resists that norm, and that I hope to be vocal in opposition to the idea that we need to overwork ourselves to an unhealthy extent in order to be successful academics.
  • On the flip side of having a certain level of autonomy, it can also be problematic to work within a field so reliant on “the institution” as academia is. You’ve heard of “the ivory tower.” And if you know anything about working in higher education, you are also likely aware that it has many bureaucratic elements to it. You can sometimes feel like just one cog in a larger machine, one that you have little to no control over. The extent to which this is a problem basically depends on your outlook, although it does impact some practical realities of life as well (such as when one experiences problems with their pay, health insurance, or some other aspect of life that there is a lot less bargaining power over than there might be working for a private firm of some sort).
  • The job market. I researched the benefits and downsides of attaining a PhD extensively before I seriously considered it. The only reason I was comfortable entering this process was because I knew from the start that I was very open minded about the kind of job I would pursue in the future; if I thought I would only be willing to use a PhD to become a professor one day, I would certainly have tried to dream another dream. According to Google, the prospects aren’t getting better soon. 
  • It’s never ending. Now if you enjoy the lifestyle of an academic, then this is not really a problem. But what I mean by this is that, as one of the advisors at my institution shared in one of the first meetings we had as new students, your first day of graduate school is your first day on the job. Sure, you are still in the formal schooling portion of your journey, but when you receive your degree and go on the job market, there is no magic switch that will be flipped and turn you into a full-fledged professor. I am very keen on the power of manifestation so I try to act like I already am where I want to be in all aspects of my life, so this is actually something I love about the process. But if you feel overwhelmed as a graduate student, you can see the road ahead, and you are just perpetually waiting for that step in the process that you think will bring you fulfillment… Well, then the outlook seems bleak, my friend. It is unrealistic to think that you will enjoy the process later if you do not enjoy it now.

Those are my observations so far, and please don’t take this list as an indication that there are more “cons” than “pros.” If I had to sum up all I’ve learned about this journey so far in one sentence, I would be sure to make the point that almost ever positive aspect has a negative side to it, and vice-versa. This could be discouraging, or it could be a great thing depending on one’s ability to selectively focus on the “good.”

Do you consider yourself to be a part of the “academic world”? Have you shared some of these experiences, or are there other elements I missed? Comment below!

-AK

What am I studying? My research interests

2nd post of the day because I am behind again 🙂

As you likely know if you’ve read any of my previous posts, I’m a graduate student studying political science. But, a “PhD in political science” can mean various things, so I thought I would discuss in greater detail what my research interests are. (Please note that I do not have, nor am I (yet) anywhere near having a PhD.)

I always kind of knew that I would study politics in college. I’ve mentioned this before, but I spent 4/5 of my life “knowing” that I was going to attend law school, so that combined with my interest in politics made it the natural choice for a major in college. Luckily, I developed great relationships with a few of my college professors, and it is probably no coincidence that I adopted some of their research interests as a result. As of now, my research interests are still somewhat broad and subject to change– I’m only entering my second year of grad school, but I hope to narrow that down a bit this year.

During college, I was a research assistant for one of my professors who was doing a project on media coverage of the Affordable Care Act. My work consisted mainly of coding news statements in accordance with several predominant frames that mainstream media were using in discussions of the ACA. Although the work itself was somewhat tedious, I found the overall topic and approach to be extremely interesting. It was crazy to me how distinct the primary frames used seemed to be (i.e., certain news networks adopted visibly more conservative/ liberal approaches to discussing the issue, and this was evident not through overt statements but through the use of certain, essentially “coded,” language). Having taken a media and politics course with the same professor, this experience cemented my interest in the media and political communication. In short, I find it really interesting to study the institution that is primarily responsible for informing citizens, because the opinions that they form are a consequence of the information that they take in.

Another topic I am interested in is gender & politics– less because of the issue of the gender disparity in politics (although that is a real issue!) but more because I find it particularly important to look at how our institutions work in terms of representing groups that have been historically disenfranchised. I also have taken various classes at this point relating to women and politics, have written several papers about it, and my current research assistantship involves that topic as well, so I’ve kind of naturally begun to focus on that area. There are, of course, other minority groups and groups that have been disenfranchised from the political politics, so it is likely that in the long term my interests will extend to studying more than just women and politics.

Those are the particular topics I am interested in, but in terms of the approach I’d like to take to better understanding them, I am leaning more toward an individual behavior/ psychological approach rather than an institutional approach. The way I see it, our political outcomes are the consequence of vote choice, and vote choice is the consequence of individual opinions, which are the consequence of various things– socialization, personal experience, the information one consumes (hence my interest in the news/ media), etc. So I am interested in finding some unexplored areas in the literature to examine further when it comes to why people believe the things that they do, particularly when individuals are under false impressions about reality, or hold political preferences that are counter to their own advancement, and so on. I am interested in making sense of the opinions people hold that don’t make sense. When it comes time to decide on a dissertation topic, I’ll probably try to combine these interests in some way that also involves applicable current events.

I tend to think of politics as a problem waiting to be solved. If individual behavior and institutional outcomes made perfect sense, there would probably be no political scientists to study them. But there are, because puzzles and problems exist, and we want to make sense of them. I am an Americanist (I probably should have mentioned this earlier), and in our system– in case it isn’t obvious– there are lots of problems. People aren’t always represented, outcomes aren’t always beneficial to the majority, people don’t always hold opinions that make sense. I think resolving this last issue would have a positive impact on outcomes, as preferences would be more aligned with actual individual needs and desires. I’m not naive enough to believe that my research alone could actually resolve this problem, but I do believe that political scientists studying individual behavior play an important role in demonstrating empirically that these problems do exist, and there is a need to take action to solve them.

-AK

The More I Learn, the Less I Know

(And I’m okay with that!)

I want to share my personal experience with the progression of my political outlook. Not because I think the views that I have or have held are particularly interesting or unique, but because of what it illustrates about growth and understanding and the importance of the willingness to adapt, at least for me individually.

I grew up in Lancaster County, PA. While not as conservative as a small town in Texas, it is a relatively conservative area. My first memories of being politically aware involve the 2004 election. Almost all of my classmates claimed to support George Bush (which is laughable, as we were like, 9 years old, and I have no idea how this conversation began). From what I knew of politics (AKA most likely my family’s spirited discussions at get-togethers) I simply knew that I was not “supposed” to like George Bush (see: political socialization). As a result of the clash between my beliefs and the apparent beliefs of those by whom I was surrounded, the strength of my own beliefs increased, as I felt isolated, alienated, and misunderstood. As a child!

I think that if I had grown up in an environment where there was more diversity of thought, politically, my passion for politics would never have developed as it did, because it would not have been as prominent an aspect of my life as it was when I spent every day thinking “how can I hold such different beliefs from those around me? And how can all these people think the things that they do?” My consequent interest in politics prompted me to make my one friend who called herself a Democrat a John Kerry necklace out of paper. It also inspired this lovely piece of artwork, courtesy of 4th grade me.

It’s not that my entire family is “liberal,” it’s just that the outspoken side was. I happen to have a father who loves hunting and fishing, has no interest in politics whatsoever [especially if it involves interrupting his regularly scheduled enjoyment of football], and sees “staying out of his life” as the only role that government should play. I don’t explain my family’s perspectives to denounce or pass judgment on either side, because I hear them both.

The ability to understand both sides of an issue is a skill that I intentionally started fostering a few years ago. First, I was somewhat forced to take a free market economics class as an aspect of a summer internship program. This class called into question some of my assumptions and beliefs about the world, but I tried my best to be open minded and I can honestly say that it was one of the most educational experiences during my college career. I still do not agree with every single argument advanced within the course, but I can much more fully appreciate them. Additionally, in college I participated in Maryland Student Legislature (MSL), which is an awesome organization that models the Maryland state legislature, encouraging students to write and debate their own legislation. My participation in this club led to friendships and conversations with people of all political affiliations and beliefs.

Both of these experiences were fundamental to my development as a person. They didn’t necessarily shape my views in any concrete way, but they certainly shaped the way that I think. I have learned to constantly be open to assessing and challenging my beliefs, and to apply this in every facet of my life. I am no longer afraid of “being wrong.” I think the fear of being wrong stems from a deeper fear that if one is wrong, then a belief that is important to them, or even their entire belief structure, is called into question. When you mentally detach yourself from your beliefs, treating them not as truth but as incidental consequences of your current understanding of what is logically true, then you can constantly refine your belief structure so that it does reflect truth rather than what you wish to be true.

When I realized how crazy it is to keep arguing against somebody who has a really good point, but one that seems to contradict your own core beliefs, I had to reevaluate the way I approached conflicts with my own perspective. If somebody advances an argument that you really cannot contradict, then it is time to reassess your own beliefs. The only thing stopping you is your own pride.

I am not here to say that I have disavowed all of my prior political beliefs. No, there is still a 4th grader Alex within me, who is inspired by a passion for what is fair and just, and who thinks this should be a political priority above all else, and I do believe that this causes me to align more naturally with one party than the other. However, there have recently been many situations where, the more I learn about a political issue, the less I feel I actually know.

The more I realize how complex government and policymaking are, the less I’m willing to accept as “correct” policy solutions that oversimplify issues and fail to account for many real life consequences. The more I learn about how little the voting public actually knows about politics, the less inspired I feel by the idea of democracy (but hey, it’s the best we’ve got). The more I learn about how injustice has systemic, sociological, and individual choice causes and consequences, the less at ease I feel with certain political remedies, and the less faith I have in their effective execution. The more I learn about polarization these days (example 1, example 2, example 3) , the less I’m sure that a two-party system can effectively satisfy their political wishes. The more I learn about the tendency for people to reject information that is factually accurate but that that does not accommodate their belief structure, while accepting misinformation and bad arguments as evidence for their own beliefs, the more I wonder why everybody can’t just be more open minded so that these tendencies don’t exist.

Why everybody can’t just accept how little they actually know? We should all be wary of the tendency within ourselves and within others to claim omniscience on any topic. Particularly those with a vested interest in convincing others that their knowledge is superior.

Would we be so polarized if we separated our self from our beliefs? Would we then take it as a personal attack if others did not agree with us?

Personally, I think that detaching myself from my beliefs– i.e., no longer embracing them as an identifying characteristic– has been the best thing I could have done. In fact, it actually changed the direction of my life path. When I was certain about the problems I could identify in the world, and certain that I could be a part of the solution and that I had the “right” idea about what that solution was, I believed I was destined to be an active participant in law and politics. Then came the period in which my mentality transformed. When I finally decided that my curiosity about the truths of the world actually outweighed my need to feel like an active player in the political world, I decided that a Ph.D. was a more appropriate path. As of right now, I could not be happier with that decision.

However, regardless of whether it impacts one’s life path in any concrete way, I still believe that it is essential to reevaluate the way that we approach information that conflicts with our beliefs.

Opening your mind leads to opportunities for self-development and improvement. Keeping your mind closed leads to stagnancy, intellectual plateau, and prohibits self-growth.

Why a PhD?

Most of my friends and family would know that, for most of my life, I believed I was destined to become a lawyer. I loved using facts and rhetoric to prove a point. When I was opinionated about a topic (which was most of the time), I could not let my argument go unheard if faced with opposition. I also wanted a job that would provide financial security and I associated the law with a relatively high degree of prestige. I was passionate about politics, and thought that studying law was the first obvious step on the path to political involvement.

To pursue this goal, I went to college and studied political science. I found my educational experience so fulfilling because of my amazing professors, and I quickly developed a very close relationship with the library. I still wanted to attend law school, and that goal motivated me toward high academic achievement. However, when it came time to begin the process of taking admissions tests and actually applying, I began to reassess my plan.

A few summers ago, I was fortunate to intern with the Washington Council of Lawyers, a public interest bar association located in Washington D.C. This was an awesome experience; they had a mission that aligned with my values– to expand access to justice by getting as many lawyers to practice pro bono or “low” bono as possible. Through this internship, I had the opportunity to meet with many lawyers and pick their brains about their career paths, ask for advice, and learn what their work was like on a day-to-day basis. While I walked away from this experience still hoping to become a lawyer, only upon further reflection did I realize that the daily life of a lawyer was, perhaps, not for me. (This seems to paint the profession of law with a broad brush, but after researching the lifestyle associated with the types of law that interested me the most, this was my conclusion.) I realized that work-life balance was actually very important to me. I also realized that the type of fulfillment that I hoped to gain by working within the law would possibly be better achieved by working to change and impact our laws in another way. However, after an internship with the Maryland General Assembly, I also ruled out working as a staff member for a legislator; despite my immense respect for the work that they do and the impact they have on the process, I learned that the behind-the-scenes work did not provide the expressive outlet that I was looking for.

Reflecting on my academic and professional experiences revealed that the times when I felt the most fulfilled were the times when I was given the opportunity for creative inquiry. Summer internships at the House of Representatives’ Historian’s Office and the Library of Congress’s Publishing Office offered me the chance to research and write; although the work was focused on history more than politics, I found it intellectually fulfilling on a daily basis. I also did a lot of thinking about the people who inspired me the most, and realized that all of my professors fell into that category. This was when I first looked into obtaining a PhD.

Fast forward through taking the GRE, researching academics in my field of interest, applying to programs, explaining myself to friends and family, and ultimately deciding to join the program at GW in Washington D.C., here are some of the reasons why I am so excited for this new journey.

  1. I’m not done learning. Okay, I never will be done learning, and neither will anybody who lives their life to the fullest, in my opinion. What I mean by this is that, even after 4 years of college courses, I did not feel that I had learned all that I wanted to about political science–  not even close. I honestly felt that I could have spent many more years staying up past midnight in the library reading and writing about politics, continually learning and increasing my knowledge and understanding of the world and the people in it.
  2. The setting. My desire to study political science stems from a deeper rooted curiosity about why people think and act the way they do, and why they believe the things that they do. What better a setting to study these things than in D.C., during this administration and with all of the current political ongoings? No offense intended, but on either side of the political spectrum, the amount of ideological inconsistency at the individual level seems to be impressively high. I am also extremely interested in the media and its impact on public opinion, so, as you might imagine, I am looking forward to studying “fake news.”
  3. I don’t just want to be a professor. While becoming a professor would be a dream job, I do not enter this experience with unrealistic expectations about the job market or my own prospects within it. I see a PhD in political science as an avenue for me to gain methodological skills while also achieving my own personal goals of research and inquiry in a subject area about which I am interested and passionate. I know that there are plenty of analytical research positions available outside of academia, should I need to resort to that option. Sure, I could probably gain the methodological skills needed to succeed in this realm elsewhere, but that would not be as personally rewarding, in my opinion (will update on whether I still feel the same approximately 4-5 years from now).
  4. It’s funded. No, I probably won’t be making more money than I would with another form of employment Yes, the opportunity cost is worth it to me. If you are a college student looking into post-grad plans and don’t realize the funding opportunities that exist at many grad schools, I highly recommend you do some research on this, because I never imagined I could be paid to obtain a graduate education. My program will cover the cost of tuition and provide me with a stipend for living expenses, allowing time to focus on my research and work. This was actually a major factor in my decision.
  5. Numbers and survey research. I studied political science at a liberal arts college, and thus, I did not get much quantitative training, aside from one senior level course. I am not the best at math, but I want to improve and I get so excited about the opportunity to use numbers and statistics to display trends.
  6. Finding stuff out. If you are in, or have ever thought about attending a PhD program, we are probably like-minded and you know exactly what I mean when I refer to that cool feeling you get when your research leads to a discovery that seemingly nobody has previously made.
  7. The challenge. I appreciate criticism because it helps me to be and achieve my best. While I am somewhat nervous for the rigor of PhD courses and my own independent research, I anticipate the process of researching and working and soliciting feedback and then reworking to be difficult, tedious, but ultimately rewarding. (This might be a “me” thing, but I like that kind of process.)
  8. I am a little bit odd in the sense that the downsides don’t really scare me. I am not afraid of spending the next 5-7 years not earning money or working in the traditional sense, because I have grown up in such a way that I really only value money insofar as it provides for my basic needs and wants, which are relatively minimal. I also am not intimidated by the amount of work that will be required, the difficult job market, or the admittedly low percentage of people who finish their PhDs. In a weird way, all of these aspects excite me. Which is probably why I am one of the “crazy” few to start on such a journey.

Do you think you would ever pursue a PhD? What do you think of academia and the nerds like myself who never want to leave?

-AK