Thursday, March 31, 2011

Taking Control

When I explain time management techniques to academics, many respond by pointing out that one of the things they love most about academia is unstructured time, and that they are not willing to give that up. These academics look at my weekly plan and gasp: “Aren’t you giving up your freedom by so closely managing your days?” “What if a colleague stops by to chat when I am supposed to be writing; Do I send her away?!”


My color-coded calendar that marks my writing time in red, my teaching time in orange, and my administrative time in purple leads some people to believe that I have given up my freedom by structuring my days. They see that I have set aside specific times for writing, reading, preparing for class, teaching, and going to meetings and wonder why I would want to structure my unstructured time.

My answer is simple. If you are getting what you want done and enjoying a stress-free, productive life as an academic with lots of unstructured time, then time management is not for you.

If, on the other hand, you find yourself working long days and through the weekends and still never feeling caught up, then time management could be a useful tool.

Time management is not simply about being more productive; it is about deciding in advance how to make the most of our most valuable resource: time. When I plan my week, I include time to take long walks, to exercise, to have lunch with my husband, to pick up my children early from school, and to prepare home-cooked meals for myself and my family. I am convinced that, without time management, I would not find the time to do things that I think are important for my emotional and physical health.

In my current schedule, I have about five hours of teaching and three hours of meetings per week. With the remaining 32 hours of my 40 hour work week completely unstructured, I can decide ahead of time when, where, and what I want to do each day.

For some people, planning each day and week may sound a bit like their time is being too controlled. I like to think that taking control of my time is acceptable so long as I am the one making the executive decisions about how I will spend my time. With time management, you, after all, are the person making the decisions about how you will spend your time.

By deciding in advance, you can make sure you make time for leisure, reading, yoga, long lunches, trips to the dentist, or whatever other social, emotional, and physical needs you may have. You can decide before the week begins if you will spend your mornings reviewing articles, checking email, writing the third chapter of your book, or surfing the internet. You can also decide if you will grade papers this week or next, if you will revise your article on Monday or Tuesday. You can even decide if you will clean your house on Thursday afternoon or hire someone to do it.

I see unstructured time as a great privilege, because it allows me to decide how I will structure my days.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

How to write a book proposal for an academic press

So, you want to turn your dissertation into a book? Or, perhaps you want to write your first academic book on an entirely different subject. Unless you are famous and have publishers soliciting manuscripts from you, you likely will have to submit a formal academic book proposal to an academic press to have a hope of publishing a book with such a press.


Many university press websites have guidelines that can help you through this process. UC Press has a good set of guidelines as does Harvard. Be sure to check the websites of the press where you plan to submit to find out if they have specific guidelines.

In this blog post, I provide generic suggestions for what should go in an academic book proposal, and then suggest a method for writing such a proposal.

A book proposal for an academic press has seven basic components:

  1. A one-page description of the book. The most important aspect of this one-page description is the argument you will set forth. Here is one example of how to do this:
    1. Paragraph 1: Hook – Invite the reader into your proposal with an interesting anecdote or some surprising data,
    2. Paragraph 2: State your central argument. Back it up with a few sentences.
    3. Paragraph 3: State the contribution to scholarship and place in the literature.
    4. Paragraph 4: Provide a brief roadmap to the book.
  2. A descriptive table of contents. Dedicate one paragraph to each chapter. Give the title of the chapter and provide a three to four sentence summary of the chapter.
  3. A mechanical description of the final manuscript. Here you say that the estimated length of the final manuscript will be anywhere from 70,000 to 150,000 words. More or less may raise eyebrows. You also should specify how many illustrations and/or tables you anticipate.
  4. A description of the audience for your book. Tell the editor who you expect to purchase your book. Will it be read only in your field, or also in other disciplines? Will undergraduates be able to understand your book? Or, is it solely directed at faculty and graduate students? Could it be used in undergraduate or graduate courses? If so, explain which ones.
  5. Describe the competition. What are the existing books in your field? How will your book stand out from these? Do you use a different methodology or approach? Is yours designed for a different audience? If any of the competing books you mention are quite similar to your own, spend a few sentences explaining how yours is distinct.
  6. How far along are you? Do you have a complete manuscript? If you do, say so. If not, say how many chapters you have completed, and provide an expected date of completion. If this is your first academic book, I discourage you from sending a proposal before you are certain you will finish the book within a year. If the publisher requires a complete manuscript, you likely want to be less than six months away from completion before sending the proposal.
  7. Who might review your book? You can provide the names and contact information of people who you think might be appropriate readers for your book.

Now that you know what the components are, it should be easier to imagine how you will write such a proposal. I suggest you start with the chapter descriptions, as those should not be terribly difficult to write. Once you have those done, you can begin to work on the introductory first page. When you get stuck, turn to the other, easier parts of the proposal. Describe the audience; list the reviewers; say how far along you are.

Once you get a full draft of your book proposal, set it aside for a week and work on the book, preferably on the Introduction. Pick the proposal back up after a week and see how it reads. Edit it and give it to a friend to read. Once you are comfortable with it, send it out to presses.

You can send your proposal to as many presses as you like. Some presses even allow for multiple submission of the entire manuscript.

Good luck!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

How to Respond to a “Revise and Resubmit” from an Academic Journal: Ten Steps to a Successful Revision

When I submit an article to a top journal, often the best possible outcome I can hope for is that the editors will invite me to respond to the reviewers’ comments and resubmit the article. At this point, I have successfully completed five requests to revise extensively and resubmit. Over time, I have developed a straightforward approach to these requests.

In this blog post, I will describe my method in ten easy-to-follow steps.


Step One: Read the Letter.

Read the letter from the editor carefully and make sure you indeed have a request for a revise and resubmit. Other possible responses from the editor include: 1) Reject without an invitation to re-submit; 2) Conditional acceptance, where you are asked to make minor changes; and 3) Outright acceptance, where changes are not required, but might be suggested. If you are unsure, you may make an inquiry to the editor or ask a more experienced colleague to read the letter for you.

Step Two: Create an Excel File to List the Revisions.

Create an Excel file with four columns in which to put the suggestions for revisions. I open a blank Excel file, and create four columns. I label the columns as follows: “Reviewer”; “Suggestions”; “Response”; “Done?”.If you widen the columns and wrap the text, that makes it much more readable, especially for the middle two columns.

Step Three: Extract the suggestions from the reviewers' and editors' letters.

Read the reviews to extract the suggestions for revision and put the suggestions in the Excel file. This step requires the painful and painstaking process of closely reading the reviews and extracting all of the useful suggestions. On some occasions, the reviews can contain useful information, but not relay the information in a congenial fashion. The beauty of this step is that you can rewrite the suggestions and not have to look at the mean-spirited reviews again. For example, the reviewer might write: “One major problem with this article is that the research methods are suspect.” You can re-write this as: “Provide a more accurate and complete discussion of the data collection.” Be sure to label each suggestion according to where it comes from: Reviewer One, Two, or Three, or the editor.

Step Four: Re-arrange the suggestions for revision in a logical fashion.

Oftentimes, two reviewers will both mention in different ways that you need to build up the conceptual framework or the literature review. If you group all of the literature review suggestions together, it will be easier to tackle the revision systematically. Be sure you have labeled each suggestion according to where it came from, in order to facilitate this process. Organizing all of the suggestions for the Introduction, the Literature Review, the data analysis, etc., will make it easier to respond to the reviews.

Step Five: Decide how you will respond to all of the suggestions.

If the suggestion is to more clearly define the difference between “transnational” and “transborder,” then you can write: “Add one paragraph to the conceptual framework that clearly explains the difference between transnational and transborder, and why this distinction is useful.” Be sure that the suggestions you lay out for yourself make it clear what the next step is.

Note: You must respond to all of the suggestions. There may be some suggestions that you disagree with. This is fine, but you have to make a conscious decision not to respond to any particular suggestion. For example, the reviewer might suggest that you return to the archive to explore more biographical features of a certain person. You can respond that this step is not necessary for your argument. Place all of your instructions to yourself for how you will respond in the third column.

Step Six: Tackle your revision plan, step by step.

Now that you have made a clear plan for revision by outlining all of the reviewers’ suggestions and have decided how you will respond, you can tackle the revisions one by one. If you feel intimidated, start with the easiest ones. Usually, the easy ones will be something along the lines of: “Find and add a quote from Diana’s interview that elucidates how subjects talk about discrimination.” Even easier: “Add citation from Stephens (2009) about transnationalism from below.”

Step Seven: Use your Excel file to write the memo to the editor.

You should not send the editor your Excel file. Instead, you can use your Excel file to write a neat, comprehensive, and well-formatted response memo to the editor. Here is an example from a memo to the editor:

Reviewer One suggested that I engage the literature at a deeper level to get the most out of the data. I have included a more in-depth analysis of transnationalism into my data analysis section.

Step Eight: Double-check

Go back to the original reviews, and double-check to make sure that you have not missed anything. Go through each critique, and double-check your memo to the editor to make sure you have addressed each critique and have explained how you have responded to the editor.

Step Nine: Do a final read-over.

Read over your article to make sure that you have maintained the flow and argument of your paper even after having made the revisions. Read it without thinking about the reviews, but imagine a reader who is unaware of your original article or of the letter from the reviewers, as that reader is now your intended audience.

Step Ten: Re-submit!

Send the revised article and the revision memo back to the journal editor!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What Is Your Vision? Beyond Time Management for Academics

There are a wide variety of books and blogs that will help you with time management as an academic. Kerry Ann Rockquemore's book: The Black Academic's Guide to Winning Tenure--Without Losing Your Soul has excellent tips for time management as does Advice for New Faculty Members by Robert Boice.

After reading these books and others (especially Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen), I came to realize that effective time management is a matter of aligning your every move with your long-term vision.

Before worrying too much about time management, give some thought to your long-term vision for your career. Many people, if pressed, can figure out a five-year plan for their career. However, it is much more difficult to imagine the long-term future. Despite the difficulty of doing so, it can be a great exercise.

To get an idea as to what your vision is, you must ask yourself:

  • Who am I? 
  • What do I want? 
  • Where do I want to be in twenty years?

If you are currently in graduate school, it is often hard to think beyond the immediate goals of finishing coursework, passing comprehensive exams, and defending a dissertation. If you are on the tenure-track, it can be difficult to even imagine anything beyond the goal of getting tenure. I don't expect anyone to provide an immediate answer to the question of what your vision is. However, I do think that it is important to reflect on this question and to realize that there is more than one career path, even for academics.

For example, some people may have the goal of becoming University President. Others may wish to become the President of their disciplinary association. Still others may wish to lead an institute, a social justice center, or a teaching institute. Some academics may want to be head of the department. Others might want to get tenure and start a business on the side, or spend most of their time gardening. The point is that there are many potential goals an academic could have. And, there are distinct paths to each.

If your long-term goal is to be the President of your disciplinary association, your everyday decisions should be distinct from a person whose long-term goal is to be the head of a teaching institute on campus. Ideally, your vision, your five-year plan, your semester plan, your weekly plan, and what you do each day should all be aligned.

In my blog: Get a Life, PhD, I have discussed the five year plan, the semester plan, the weekly plan, and daily writing. In this post, I am suggesting that these five levels of planning need to be in harmony.

Imagine going through life knowing that each action you take is aligned with your long term vision. That would be fundamentally different from making decisions on the basis of your immediate needs, and saying yes or no to requests primarily based on feeling external or internal pressure to commit to others.

I believe academics have the power to take control of their lives. I also believe that it is remarkably empowering to take control. Taking control does not mean shunning every request for service or refusing to attend meetings. Instead, it means seeking out opportunities for service, research, and teaching that will get you closer to your long-term goals and declining opportunities that do not move you in the direction you have decided you are going.

To take control of your career, follow these five steps:

  1. Develop your vision for your career. 
  2. Develop a five-year plan based on your vision. Check out Karen Kelsky's post on this as well as one here.
  3. Make a semester plan that will get you to your five-year plan. Check out this post as well on semester planning.
  4. Plan out your weeks so that you meet your semester goals. Here is another a great post on this.
  5. Execute your plan on a daily basis. For most of us, that means writing every day.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Ten Steps to Revising Your Article or Chapter

Many novice writers imagine clean, clear prose springing off of the fingertips of accomplished writers. Most writers will assure you that it does not work this way. We first write, and then, revise, revise, and revise some more.

Trying to write perfectly the first time around has three central problems. 1) It takes a long time; 2) It can be a waste of time, as you often can only see at the end of a paper what needs to be cut; and 3) Your writing will not be as good in the end because the best writing comes out of revising.

overcoming writer's block - crumpled paper on wooden floor - crushed paper
Image from:

Writing a spew draft of a chapter or an article allows you to work quickly, and lets you improve your writing through revising. Although you may be able to type very quickly – as quickly as a whole chapter in one week, revising it will take much longer. In their book, Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation Sonja Foss and William Waters offer a multi-step approach to revising an article or chapter. I present a slightly modified version of it below, that explains, in ten steps, how to revise an article or chapter.

Step One: Remove all unnecessary information. Take a first pass at your chapter to cut out any sentences or paragraphs that do not contribute to your main argument. To feel better about cutting liberally, save the rough draft of the paper as a separate document so that you don’t lose any writing that you may want to use later.

Step Two: Reorganize. Rearrange your paper to make sure you have presented it in the best order possible. Find the thesis sentence in each paragraph, take it out, and create a separate document with just the thesis sentences. Rearrange the thesis sentences to ensure they are in the best order.

Step Three: Check for missing information. Look at your re-arranged list of thesis statements and make sure that you do not need to add any more information. Pay attention especially to missing examples or underdeveloped arguments.

Step Four: Check paragraph construction. As you put your paragraphs back into your paper, make sure that each paragraph follows from the thesis sentence. Sometimes you may need to add new information. Other times you will have to split the paragraph into two, as you see that you have two main ideas in the paragraph.

Step Five: Check transitions between paragraphs. Make sure that your paper flows together. In places it does not, move paragraphs around or add transition sentences to ensure that the flow is evident to the reader.

Step Six: Review each of your sentences. Make sure the sentences are not too long and that you have some variety in your length. A rule of thumb is that no sentence should go on for more than two lines. Some sentences should be much shorter.

Step Seven: Check your word choices. Look out for using the same word repeatedly in a paragraph, on the same page, or in the document. If you use strong words such as “appalling,” use them sparingly, changing for words such as striking or unfortunate and save “appalling” to make a more forceful point.

Step Eight: Check for spelling and punctuation. Use, but do not fully rely on, your computer’s spelling and grammar check. Check for comma placement, semi-colon and colon usage, and quotation-mark placement.

Step Nine: Review a hard copy. Print out your document and read it over again, checking for style and grammar. Watch out for split verbs and infinitives, word usage (e.g. loose vs. lose), passive voice, dangling modifiers, and any other mistakes that you commonly make. If you are not sure what mistakes you are most likely to make, look back at your work that has been edited or proof-read by your advisor, an editor, or a colleague to see what your most common mistakes are.

Step Ten: Read your document aloud. Reading aloud forces you to slow down and ensures that you find errors that you might not otherwise see. Reading aloud also takes a long time. Once I have read my document aloud to myself, I know I am done with it, and ready to send it off. This final ritual signals that you are done revising and ready to submit your article or move on to the next chapter.

The best thing about having these ten steps is that you can move from rough draft to finished copy in just two weeks. If you spend between 30 minutes and two hours each day on each of these steps, in just ten workdays, you can be done!