Overcommitment is a constant problem for working academics who wear ‘busyness’ as a badge of honour. I think the overcommitment problem tends to start duing the PhD. This post from Evan Hayles Gledhill has real insight into why the problem happens in the first place – our own reactions to the hyper competitive research culture. Evan is a PhD student in the English literature department of the University of Reading and the founder of the amazing Logan Institute for the Study of Superhero Masculinities (which is well worth a visit!).
I first saw the film of David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), as an undergraduate pursuing a degree in literature and film, around 2004. It chimed with my ideas about the sort of working future I didn’t want to have, and the meaninglessness of labour under capitalism, but otherwise I thought little more about it – until I started my PhD in 2013.
Glengarry Glen Ross is a film about stress, pressure, and the achievement of seemingly impossible targets, in a competition that will see only the top two workers retain their livelihoods. You might be surprised to hear that James Foley’s film is about real estate agents, not adjunct lecturers or post-doctoral researchers.
The catchphrase of the awful office culture portrayed in the film is ‘always be closing’: it’s no good having leads on potential investors, and properties to sell, if the deal between the two is never completed. This constant recap of the relation between supply and demand reminded me of advice given to PhD students and early career researchers – what is the use of all their hard work if
a) no one knows about it or can access their results, and
b) they can’t show how their results answer a question anyone wanted to ask in the first place!
From the first year of my four year PhD project, therefore, I have been looking for opportunities that answer both parts of that equation. However, the injunction to ‘always be closing’ isn’t a friendly reminder to always be alert to the gap between your research results and its audience. It’s a sales mantra, a pressured demand to always have a deal in hand.
I took this a little too much to heart in year two of my PhD, and at the start of my third year I landed myself with ‘the month of hell’™. It’s tempting to apply for any and every call that might give you an opportunity to publish or present. If the conference or the publisher is prestigious enough, it might be worth putting in the extra work to tweak your research, or even explore that odd tangent you keep on the back burner, if it fits neatly into their topic area. BUT I am here to warn the unwary of the dreaded deadline pile-up that Glengarry Glen Ross-ing will inevitably lead to…
At first, ‘always be closing’ meant that as I reached a deadline, and submitted my copy, I made sure I was simultaneously submitting an abstract or waiting to hear back on one. I maintained a steady ‘one in, one out’ policy. So far, so good. Until this summer, I ended up attending three conferences back to back. I had, foolishly, forgotten that although abstracts and opportunities flow in across the year, very often conferences fall very close together, scheduled outside of term dates. I survived June, but I had not learnt my lesson.
The thing about academic deadlines is that they are very often moveable feasts. The initial cfp will say that editors expect full articles/chapters in August, which becomes September after negotiations with the publishers, which becomes October after you have recovered from that nasty bout of flu/laryngitis/food poisoning/malaria that inevitably strikes when you have an important commitment. I realised at the start of August that my autumn looked like this:
|September 4||Return edits on completed book chapter|
|September 19||chapter due for different project, 7500 words|
|October 1||Another chapter due, 8000 words|
|October 22||Conference presentation, 3000 words plus slides|
|October 28||Another presentation, 3000 words|
|October 31||Edit and resubmit an accepted work|
|November 4||Journal article due, 7000 words|
I was also due to tutor a module I have never previously taught, to continue work on my actual thesis, and work three days a week in a support role for the Europeana Sounds project.
As I write, I am just days from the end of this nightmare, the light is at the end of the tunnel – and it might turn out to be a train! I have not yet alienated all of my students and colleagues, and my housemates have been very patient about my tendency to microwave endless bowls of tinned pasta. I have missed only one deadline by a significant margin (apologies to those editors), despite the aforementioned laryngitis, and a stinking cold this last weekend. But my bedroom looked like this:
Internally, my headspace looks similar.
‘One in, one out’ is a great way to plan your publications and presentations, as long as you note not only the deadline for the original submission, but also the date of the conference itself or the final publication timeline. If you get an acceptance without a clear timeline, ask! At least one of the above publication projects on my list didn’t provide this information up front, and I was foolish enough not to check. And, as much as this goes against everything modern work culture tells us, sometimes you just have to say ‘thank you for the opportunity, but it’s not possible for me to meet that deadline right now.’
I bet some people are wondering ‘where is this idiot’s supervisor??’ He is, very sensibly, looking at me with a very clear, and smug, ‘I told you so’ expression on his usually friendly face. Like all good mentors, he offers advice, and then allows his tutees to make their own decisions, and their own mistakes. If I had not lived through ‘the month of hell’™ I wouldn’t have believed just how tired, messy, and exhausted I became. Some of us need to live it to learn it, so see some you later, in hell!
Thanks Evan! I hope that month in hell was worth it – what about you? Have you ever found yourself this over committed too? How did you cope with it?