compiled by Penny Gold (History)
August, 1995

One of the difficult transitions from graduate school to a first job is the switch from a primary focus on research to a primary focus on teaching. There's a big change in the amount of time and energy available for research. And there's a corresponding change in the focus of casual conversation with colleagues, which is more likely to be, "What sources do you use to teach about 'X'?" or "What strategies do you use for getting reticent students to speak in class?" than "Can you help me figure out this problem in my research?" The relative silence sometimes makes one feel that maybe other people aren't getting any research done, at least not in the school year. But that's not true, as one learns from the annual publication lists, if not from direct conversations. Over the years I've garnered much wisdom from colleagues, both here and elsewhere, about how to keep one's research agenda going during the year, and recently I put out a query to Knox faculty asking for more tips. I've put these together so as to share the wealth, and to encourage conversation. If you have further suggestions, please let me know, and I'll add them to a revised document.


I try to combine high expectations with realism and forgiveness. For example, while I might aspire to continue my research throughout the whole year, I'm satisfied if I get something done in two terms out of the three. I look ahead to figure out which will be the busiest term, and let myself off for that period. Another example: If I've set aside 1:30-5:00 on a certain day for research, and I just can't get home until 3:00, I still go, and do what I can in the time that remains. Mike Schneider comments: "For someone who usually works through big bursts of activity alternating with periods of reflection and recovery (and I suspect there are many who operated this way in grad. school), I realize now I need to mesh that approach with the rhythms of the college calendar. We need to be more satisfied with modest (but still perceptible) gains when the calendar does not allow huge blocks of time."


The most important strategy for me has been the setting aside of blocks of time during a couple of weekdays (about 3-4 hours long) that are designated research time. If one waits to do research until there's "free time," it never happens! Some years I've taught a morning schedule and gone home two afternoons a week. Other years I've taught afternoons, and stayed home a couple of mornings. In times of real urgency, I've squeezed out three blocks a week for a while. A key thing is to make the time sacred. If a meeting is being arranged, the research time should be as "unfree" as any other previously arranged appointment. (This is hard to stick to sometimes, but it's important to try.)


One thing I've always liked about our calendar (versus the quarter system I was on elsewhere) is the long break in December. I try to consider it like a "mini-summer," time to work full-steam on research for a few weeks. As opposed to spring break, which seems hopeless, and hence this wish from Mary Armon: "How about a longer spring break to help us keep or regain momentum on projects?"


Another key thing for me has been to find a place to do research that is separate from other school work (which otherwise calls out to me to get done) and where I am less readily disturbed. I work in a study at home. A spot in the library would also work. For artists, a separate studio. If there were no other place to do research than my office at school, I would forward all my phone calls and not answer knocks on the door. Mark Brodl suggests another strategy for managing student contact when working at the office: "I find it hard to work at my desk, but yet I don't want to close the door (unKnox-like and my office gets too warm). The problem is that students come in and park themselves and chatter on. Once they get themselves in the chair they're immobile objects. I stand as soon as they walk in. I, then, retain the power to decide whether they should sit or not."


Having a "research desk," devoted solely to research in progress, is very helpful. Work can be left spread out--easy to come back to, and always visible. Mark Brodl: "Maintaining a work space is definitely important. In the sciences we have our labs. I like the fact that this is dedicated space for interfacing with students. A desk dedicated to research is A MINIMUM. I would strongly urge that the Knox faculty push for work space for interfacing with students in every department. Ideally every faculty member should have their own research space to share with students. We push the idea of academia in the dorm rooms, but it doesn't seem to work in the other direction. Do students feel at home in the academic setting? Do they feel they have a place? If we want to do this undergraduate research in a big and national trend-setting way, let's work to enable undergraduate research. I think we'd all be better for it."


Remember how many papers you wrote as a student? I think it was only possible because of externally enforced deadlines. I find deadlines still crucial to getting work done and off my desk. But now I have to give them to myself. Some examples:

Propose a paper for a conference This is the kind of deadline I've used continually: proposing a paper on work I have not yet done (not on work completed). And somehow it has always gotten done by the time my session starts, even if sometimes the last pages were written by hand in the hotel room the night before. I try to give one paper a year, though I've occasionally done two and sometimes have done none--it depends on how urgently I need to get a piece of work done (or how badly I want to make contact with other people; see below). I try to propose the paper for a conference where there will be other work and people I'm interested in. (Or that's in a city where I have friends I want to visit. . .) Scheduling a show or performance has the same effect on people in art, music, or theatre-- pushing one to intense preparation in anticipation of a public display of one's work.

Apply for research funds Writing a grant proposal (even just the small ones for internal college funding), forces one to define a project and set goals. And if you get the money, you have to spend it before the granting period runs out. There were many years when the only thing that got me to make necessary trips to libraries out of town was the fact that I had funding for these trips from the Dean, and I didn't want to incur the ignominy of not spending it. Getting an external grant will also help build your profile in the profession, and will help you get future grants. It's a vicious circle, but the better track record you have (publications, grants), the easier it is to get more grants.

Schedule a meeting with an editor at your discipline's annual meeting (for people working on books) Believe it or not, editors at major presses are eager to meet and talk to people who have books in progress. Knowing I had such a meeting scheduled one December was what pushed me to finish the last major section of my dissertation. And one of the two editors I spoke with eventually accepted my manuscript. I could go on at length with suggestions for placing a book manuscript, but I won't here. Please feel free to ask me for more information on this.

Submit a manuscript for consideration for publication If it's accepted (whether by a journal or a book publisher), they'll give you the wonderful gift of a real, externally enforced deadline.

Have a goal of how much to write in each block of research time When I'm writing long-term on a large project, I have a goal of writing three pages in each research block (of 3-4 hours). Occasionally I may write more, but I rarely write less. Having the concrete goal really helps me. Even if I'm in the last hour, and haven't yet lifted the pen, I find I can write three pages in that hour. And if I finish the three pages with time to spare, rather than go on, I usually give myself a treat, like reading a novel. Here's a similar tip from Mary Gregson: "I put great faith in the maxim, 'Write a little every day.' I believe that it virtually eliminates the threat of writer's block. Even a half-hour of writing keeps those neurons in shape."


I got this idea from a teacher in graduate school, who interrupted our conversation briefly to scratch out a note and throw it in a drawer with other such notes--to be sorted out at a later date. When I sit down to draft an outline of a new project, I work from a pile of such "idea cards." Many of them get thrown out, but the rest can be sorted into sub-piles and shaped into an outline. (I make notes like this as I'm actively researching a project as well-- separate from notes on a specific source I'm reading, but rather an idea coming out of it-- something I think I might want to say in the essay.) From Mike Schneider: "My best ideas rarely come when I'm staring at the computer screen, fueled by a certain anxiety that I must accomplish something. Some of the central themes of my dissertation came to me at 3:00 a.m. after a night of singing karaoke at a bachelor party. (It was a mild bachelor party.)"


Linda Dybas: "When students are looking for topics for a paper or for independent research, I often suggest some aspect of my own research project. This helps keep me going on a project, but also serves as 1) a pilot study and/or 2) an update on the literature. It also motivates me to keep up with the new readings in the field." Mark Brodl on the same tactic: "I have students doing work directly related to mine. Granted this is easier in the sciences, but I think it works in any discipline. It is too easy to let the research slide. If you have students keeping you 'at the bench,' you really can't let them go unattended. In addition, though they aren't the insightful colleagues that another faculty or postdoc would be, they do get excited about the work, and maintaining a level of excitement is critical to maintaining ongoing work."


Since for many of us our research is not integrally connected on a day to day basis with what we're doing in the classroom, it is very helpful to establish a network of folks with whom one communicates about one's research. It helps keep the work "real," giving one gratification, and a sense of the work's importance. Contacts made through networking can also help in concrete ways to get one's work into a public, national arena.

On campus Find a colleague or two on campus with whom you can talk about your research. It doesn't have to be someone in your field--just someone who has a genuine interest in you and your work (and you in theirs). Ask this person how their work is going. It always helps to commiserate with someone else who is "stuck" for a while, and to share excitement with someone who's just placed an article or book manuscript. And then they'll ask you back about your work. Caesar Akuetey has another suggestion: "I think that the setting up of research groups, each comprising five to ten members that could meet regularly to expose works being undertaken and receive comments (negative or positive) from the other members of the group would help goad the spirit of research."

Off campus Establishing a network of colleagues in the region and around the country takes time--years--but is well worth the effort. You can begin with graduate school teachers and fellow students, but the further you branch out the better. Here are some other ways:

Conferences Go to one or two conferences a year. It's helpful to be immersed in current research, even if it's just for two to three days. And you may meet people with whom you can talk about your work. I've found that the most effective way to meet people at conferences is to give a paper. If you're lucky, it will be scheduled early in the conference. Some people may come up to talk to you afterwards. Others will start up conversations in the hall or at meals. (If they seem interesting, get their name and consider keeping in touch. Many academics carry business cards these days--an easy way to keep track of contacts. The Office of College Communications can print some up for you.) And even if none of this happens at the conference, someone who heard the paper might later ask you to join them on a panel at another conference, or to contribute a revised version of the essay for a collection of articles. Or they may ask you to come give a talk at their school.

Ask for help There have been a few occasions on which I thought a certain scholar could give me particularly helpful feedback on something I was writing. In each case they were prominent people in the profession, and it would be good for me to have them familiar with my work. In two cases I had never met the person. In each case, I wrote a letter asking if they would be willing to read some work in progress. When they said yes, which they all did, I sent the work, and they all were very helpful. These contacts then paid off later. When I saw the individuals at conferences, they knew who I was and we could talk further. They knew enough of my work to talk of me to others, and to suggest me for panels, etc. And they became people I could use for letters of recommendation. I may have been very lucky, but I have heard from others as well that most scholars are generous with help to colleagues, particularly to junior colleagues just getting established. It's called "professional courtesy." And as the years have passed, I've been able to return this courtesy to others. Don't be shy! The very worst that can happen is that your inquiry won't be answered.

Ask others to join you on a panel It's always easier to get a paper accepted at a conference if you propose a whole panel, rather than just your individual paper. While you're at it, extend your contacts as well. Ask a person whose work you admire (but whom you haven't met) to chair the session, give comments, or deliver a paper. Organizing a panel is more work than just proposing your own paper, but the payoff is high. Sign on to an e-mail discussion list in your field This is a great way to "meet" a wide variety of people, and the informality of e-mail seems to encourage helpfulness. I recently posted a query about a textbook to use in a particular course, and got a response back from a major person in American Jewish history whom I had been meaning to contact "cold" for a while, but had been too shy. This gave me an opening to tell him about my work.

Consider getting active in a professional organization This is another great way to meet colleagues off campus, at the same time that you're making an important contribution to the profession. I particularly like the smaller scale of regional associations, but even national associations are often looking for people to help out in one form or another.


This is the hardest thing of all for me to do, but it is important for a variety of reasons. Mark Brodl: "I also find that I'm stimulated to maintain my research when I know what others are doing that is at least tangentially related. I TRY to maintain Friday afternoons as my library reading time. I will go to scan the journals. Sometimes I actually have enough time to study some papers, but even if I just get a chance to read the abstracts and make xeroxes, I find I'm much better for the experience."


This advice is for people who are already heavily booked up with committee assignments, task forces, outside lectures, PTA volunteering, etc. When someone asks you to undertake an additional task, and you're inclined to say yes, answer: "Could you let me think about it for a day or two?" I've never had anyone refuse to give me the extra time, and this allows me the chance to fully consider whether or not I should take on the new obligation. Often I do, but sometimes I don't--even if it's something I'd very much like to do.


If you find yourself not interested in a current project, move on to something else. I settled for a conference paper on one subject I found myself losing interest in (instead of the article I'd planned), and an article on another (instead of a book).


I have a lovely Laura Ashley dress from the time I gave my first paper at the annual meeting of the Association of Jewish Studies. 


N.B.  Here are a couple of books that are helpful on the specific subject of publishing books:  Robin Derricourt, An Author's Guide to Scholarly Publishing (Princeton University Press, 1996); William Germano, Getting It Published: A Guide for Scholars and Anyone Else Serious about Serious Books (University of Chicago Press, 2001).