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Academics (Graduate Student and Faculty)

Excerpted from Hillary Rettig's book The Seven Secrets of the Prolific

I. Managing Your Relationship with Your Advisor

1) My most important advice for graduate students is to never work for anyone who is cruel, exploitative or negligent. I don't care how brilliant or charismatic they are – and charisma, by the way, often masks narcissism. I also don't care how amazing their c.v. is, or how many doors they can open. Also, don't work for someone who is flaky, irresponsible or a tantrum thrower. Without a foundation of honesty, integrity, compassion and basic fairness in your relationship with your advisor, you are very vulnerable. (Hopefully, you'll get this advice before you've chosen an advisor, but if you've already done so, it applies throughout your career, and life.)

2) Delineate boundaries and expectations with your advisor. Honestly, it's really her job to do this, but she might not know how, or even that she should. So you should. Ask how she prefers to work and communicate with her students, and accommodate those preferences as much as possible.

Set up a regular weekly or biweekly meeting, and save as many of your questions or concerns for that meeting as possible. (Obviously, in cases where you truly need fast input, you shouldn't wait.) This is true even if you see your advisor all the time casually, since casual conversations are not a substitute for formal meetings.

3) Be a good colleague. Show up for seminars, and participate. If you're shy or otherwise inhibited, seek professional help, since that can hinder your career.

Join a committee. Forge ties with other faculty members, as well as postdocs, other grad students and admins. Don't isolate yourself, even if (especially if!) you're behind on deadlines. Building a broad base of support in and beyond your department is not only a good career move, but gives you protection in case your advisor becomes problematic. There are few people more professionally vulnerable than a graduate student locked in tight orbit around a dysfunctional thesis advisor.

Of course you will need good time management (Part 4) to ensure you're balancing your responsibilities properly.

4) Especially in times of crisis, give credence to your own thoughts and feelings. If you are feeling undersupported, misused, exploited or discriminated against, you probably are. Seek help, starting perhaps with someone outside the organization (e.g., a coach or therapist who works with other academics).

And remember: you didn't get this far by being weak or thin-skinned, so don't let anyone tell you you're being weak now. Anyone who says that, or that it's your job to grow a thicker skin, is ignorant, if not an active oppressor.

5) Especially, though not exclusively, for women: watch out for sexism and sexist critiques. Sexism remains rampant in academia, and I rarely meet an underproductive female academic who hadn't experienced serious – and, in some cases, devastating – sexism, sexual harassment or sexual exploitation. Again, your priorities should be to, (a) give credence to your own perceptions of, and feelings about, your reality; and (b) seek help.

If someone labels your concerns “complaints,” “whines” or “nags,” be aware that those words have strong sexist connotations, and are often used to deprecate women's valid concerns, and silence their voices.

6) Follow the advice in this book. Make a plan, with deadlines and deliverables, for getting your degree. Do your time management. Work to eliminate perfectionism. Ask for help early and often. Equip yourself with abundant resources. And, most especially, work in community. Community doesn't just provide support and grounding, but tried-and-true solutions to many of the problems you're likely to encounter.

7) Particularly when you're just starting graduate school, remember that graduate level writing requires a different process than undergraduate writing. Many graduate students I know could write a decent undergraduate paper in a single sitting without breaking a sweat, but when they tried the same trick in graduate school they ran aground (Chapter 2.5). When starting graduate school, adjust your writing process to handle the longer and more challenging assignments. Don't forget to ask your advisor and others for help!

8 ) Unionize. It's a fundamental tool of empowerment. Check out for more information.

When Researching and Writing Your Thesis

9) Professionalize, by which I mean invest time and money in tools and techniques that will boost your effectiveness, including not just a good computer and backup system (Chapter 3.6). Make abundant use of your university's writing center; and if you need counseling or coaching, go right out and get it. Your institution probably offers it for free, but if it doesn't or if it's not working for you, do your best to pay for it. Group sessions are cheaper1, or you might be able to find a therapist who offers a sliding scale. Your school probably also has some graduate student support groups, or you could organize one using – an empowering act that doesn't have to take up too much time.

10) Jettison as many other responsibilities as possible. Reducing commitments not only frees up time, but reduces stress, so get your family to take on as many of your responsibilities and chores as possible, or hire someone. Also, take a leave from extraneous projects, committees and campaigns. Be ruthless and “overdo it”: even if you think you'll be able to handle a certain commitment while writing, you'll almost certainly be glad later if you give it up now.

If you have a spouse who can support the family while you write, give up the teaching gig. If a family member or someone else offers a gift of money or an easy-term loan, take it if you don't think doing so will lead to uncomfortable family dynamics.

If there are responsibilities you can't delegate, understand that it will take you longer to finish your thesis than someone without those responsibilities. This point would seem obvious, but I talk to grad students all the time who are kicking themselves for not working at the same pace as less-encumbered colleagues.

11) Be cognizant of your work's activist aspects. Many research projects either intentionally or unintentionally challenge the status quo, and therefore can be considered activist as well as academic projects – and, often, graduate students get hung up because they don't realize what that implies.

When you add activism to scholarship, you add layers of intellectual, emotional, and strategic complexity. Intellectually and emotionally, your work could challenge not just you, but your committee members or others. Strategically, it could limit your career options.

It's wonderful if you want to combine academics and activism, but do so knowingly, and with abundant support from other scholar/activists. In particular, you will have to figure out how to balance your activism with your career goals, especially if you're hoping for a job at a leading institution - which is not necessarily a sell-out, by the way, since we need radical viewpoints inside the system as well as outside it. It's also not a sell-out to, (a) incorporate your radical views gradually into your works, so that your thesis might not actually be that radical; (b) collaborate with nonradicals; or (c) present a conventional / nonthreatening appearance that makes it easier for others to accept your message. In fact, those moves are often brilliantly strategic.

For more on what an activist mission entails, see my book, The Lifelong Activist; How to Change the World Without Losing Your Way (Lantern Books, 2006) at And, finally,

12) If you think academic writing is somehow special, and so the advice in the rest of this book doesn't apply to you, get over it. Academics commingle with other writers in my classes, and the advice helps them as much or even more than the others. (More, because of the huge amount of perfectionism in academia.) Thinking your work is too complex, intellectual, esoteric or otherwise special to follow the basic rules of writing productivity is nothing but perfectionist grandiosity.

You’ll find advice and solutions to all of the above in The 7 Secrets of the Prolific. For fastest progress, try coaching. If you want me to give a workshop for your department, click here. And don't forget to check out my Academic Success Catalyst Program for a powerful supportive community that will help you finish your thesis or book as quickly, and easily, as possible.


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