Academic Conferences and Children

I’m excited and slightly overwhelmed by all of the planning currently going on in my life. I have been invited to present at two awesome conferences this summer and am preparing to move to a new city to start my first tenure-track job. Very exciting, but also extremely stressful because I am in charge of organizing everything and I am also getting ready to defend my dissertation at the end of the month (also amazing but stressful).

Regarding conference planning, the biggest stressor for me is figuring out the best plan for my child while I’m away. Sometimes it makes sense to bring him along but that requires an additional responsible adult to come with me so that I can actually present and attend some of the conference. It’s obviously more expensive to do that but it can also be more fun in the end, even if it requires more coordination to plan.

When it doesn’t make sense for him to come, I have the glorious fun time of organizing child care for him. I am fortunate to have lots of social support – in London. Now that I am moving to a new city it’s going to be a little trickier to navigate all this. I am closer to family but they are busy with their own lives and I feel guilty asking for help. I feel ALL the mom guilt – guilt for spending time alone/with other grown-ups. Guilt for having a career that is important to me. Guilt for not making my child the centre of my universe at all times. Guilt for not having a significant other. Guilt for not enjoying my time away as much as I could because I feel guilty about all these other things. Enough with the guilt already, right!

For better or worse, research dissemination and staying current is part of my job. It’s not like you finish your PhD and that’s the end of learning and scholarly work. I feel very fortunate that travel is part of my job but it’s not like it’s an all-expenses paid free-for-all! Unless you are a well-funded researcher (which is the exception rather than the rule), there is little funding to assist with the expenses of conferences. It also takes a tremendous amount of time and energy to prepare an abstract and a good presentation, a fact that often goes unacknowledged.

Sure, you could go to one conference a year but that might be a career-limiting move because fewer people will see your work. It also limits your exposure to interesting research across disciplines which may provide valuable insights and generate new ideas. I value the professional memberships that I have in nursing and management and conferences are an important part of these organizations. Increasingly, there are more and more conferences to go to as well! For example, APA puts on an excellent Work and Stress conference where every presentation is something I am interested in. Obviously you can’t go to everything, but it is not easy to choose or to say no.

So I’m left asking myself the question: “what’s a sane number of conferences to attend each year?”

Not sure that I have an answer yet but I will figure it out 🙂



Sitting is the New Smoking…


So apparently, sitting is the new smoking…and therefore, I am probably going to die.  Not really (I hope), but there has been a whole lot of attention to the “sitting epidemic” recently, highlighting how much time most of us spend sitting during a regular work day.  (Clearly, they have not spent any time with a staff nurse lately!).  The solution? A standing desk, of course.  Or a treadmill desk. Or taking frequent breaks. Making sure that you have an ergonomically designed work station….

On perhaps, we need to start asking different questions about how our work is designed. For example, in academe, we do spend a lot of time sitting at our computer working on all kinds of things from research grants to articles, powerpoints, data analysis, etc.  Some of this work is unavoidable I think but I also wonder if some of this time could be used more effectively. For example, do we really need to write 20 research articles using one dataset?  Do we really need another book chapter on such and such that a handful of people will read?  What if we publish one really strong paper and then talk to people about our ideas instead?  How much more fun (and time effective) is it to interview people, record a podcast, or share a conference presentation on YouTube?  Obviously, none of these things completely eliminates computer time but I am guessing that the impact of one really great Ted Talk is much broader and valuable than a research article buried in an academic journal that mostly only other researchers are going to read.  Unless of course, more research articles = more tenure points.

Sometimes collecting tenure points feels a bit like being Mario trying to get all the gold coins within reach (and apparently research activities that require copious sitting are as likely to kill you as sitting on your butt playing too many video games).

mario coins.jpg

So let’s assume that you just have to accept that your job requires some sitting.  What can you do to make it less bad?

  1. Take care of your body. Exercise. Eat nutrition food. Go easy-ish on the coffee (mostly). Get enough sleep.
  2. Plan ahead for the ebbs and flows of the school year. Midterms? Exam period? Research grant deadlines?  These are busy times, but they are not unexpected!  Get a calendar and plan ahead. I like to make extra healthy meals and stick them in the freezer to reduce cooking time. Having some exercise equipment in the basement is also really awesome for saving time when I am busy.  There have also been times when I have had to hire my babysitter to give me an extra morning or afternoon to do work on the weekend. (Fingers crossed that being a professor is more awesome than being a grad student working full time!).  Do I always get to do a full workout? No. But sometimes 10 minutes of exercise is better than nothing 😉
  3. Be super organized. You can waste a lot of time trying to simply locate documents, references, and sort through different versions of things.  Having a logical way to organize files and name documents will save you a ton of time. I even get my students to name their documents in specific ways so that I don’t end up with 25 versions of “Assignment 1”.  Using a reference management software program is also a really great way to save time with citing and reference lists, especially when you need to use different referencing styles for different journals. No more wasted time seeking and downloading the same reference articles over and over!  Lastly, using tags and folders in your email inbox is another strategy that saves oodles of time. If you can use the same main categories as your main files on your computer, that is even better!  I like to use gmail and get all of my other emails forwarded to that one account.
  4. Be reasonable. Sometimes I struggle with this. (e.g. “Of course I can have a baby and do my PhD and publish and compete in powerlifting and work at the hospital and teach, etc. at the same time…).  I like to set big goals and have a tendency to say yes to everything but I have learned that this usually leads to burnout. A better strategy is to take on a few things that you can really focus on. Reading (and re-reading) the Power of Less  is a helpful place to start.  Academia seems to reward people who work hard and do a lot but I think another point to consider is that learning and teaching is exciting!  Research and teaching are (should be) both about learning new things and understanding more about the world around us, as well as sharing that knowledge and excitement about learning.  It is hard to say no when you are excited about learning and sharing ideas!   Is it reasonable to spend 20 hours a week preparing for a class you are teaching for the first time?  Maybe not if you are teaching 3 courses and have other things on your plate.
  5. Aim for excellence, rather than perfection. I don’t think there is such a thing as “perfect”. The pareto principle, or 80:20 rule comes in handy here too. It states that 80% of your outcomes/effects will come from 20% of your work. Do you really need to make 50 slides for a 10 minute presentation?  Or, would 10-12 slides, well-designed, be more captivating and effective in getting your point across?  How much time are you spending sitting, working on things that have little to no impact?  After all, sitting is the new smoking….

Why Tenure isn’t Everything

Many doctoral students think that getting published in a top journal and getting tenure are the only things that matter in their career.  While I think those things are valuable achievements, I believe that this task-focused approach to doctoral education is dead wrong.  Here’s why.

1. Relationship-building is more important than you think.  Are outcome-focused type A overachievers who leave little time for “unproductive” things like spending time with other people or having fun really more likely to be successful in life?   Admittedly, the academic pursuit of tenure and endless productivity can make you feel guilty for spending time doing something unrelated to your work.  Relationships are inherently inefficient but they certainly aren’t useless, even if they don’t have an immediate outcome or “accomplish” anything.   Co-students and supervisors, other faculty members, and colleagues you meet at conferences make your career more rewarding and more fun.  They also provide you with support, constructive feedback, a sounding board for new ideas (which often sound better in your head than they do out loud), and occasionally, a shoulder to cry on.   On the flip side, you will also be able to contribute to others’ projects and provide feedback to help others.  My experience as a nurse has made it pretty obvious that relationships are one of the most valuable aspects of our lives and that we need to value them more.  Building positive relationships takes time and energy but at the end of your life, are you really going to regret the time you spent with other people?  Not likely.

2.  Burnout prevention

Sometimes we are overambitious and take on too much.  I have done this more times than I would like to admit.  During my first undergraduate degree I refused to take a student loan so I worked 10 part-time jobs while taking a full course load and having an active social life.  My schedule was crazy! After final exam period I slept for almost a week straight to recover from the burnout.  Don’t do this to yourself!  I have learned that a much more sustainable method is to limit the number of projects and commitments you take on and do them well.  If you take on too many things at once you are probably going to do a mediocre job and end up exhausted.  I also don’t advise doing things just because they look good on your CV.  If you invest your time and energy into things that help you learn and grow and that you are interested in, you are going to excel at them and have a lot more fun.  I truly believe that if you are engaged in the learning process and doing work that gets you excited the publications and tenure-track position will follow.  Enjoy the process and pace yourself – this is a marathon, not a sprint.

3.  Today is the only day.

As much as we plan and dream, the only day we ever have is this one.  Take advantage of it.  Sure, there may be times when you have to stay inside on a sunny day to meet an urgent deadline and you will spend many many many hours sitting in front of a computer screen working with data, writing, and picking at powerpoint slides.  Take breaks. Spend time outside.  Take care of yourself physically and mentally.  Most importantly, make time for the people you care about.  You really never know when your time will be up.

Tenure is a good goal for many of us and it is something that I am working towards but right now being a doctoral student is pretty darn amazing.  Every day is a learning adventure and I am building my research toolkit.  I get to work with smart people who have a lot of knowledge and ideas to share and who are passionate about nursing and health care.   I get to ask questions and think about ideas.  I am also working with the best supervisor, committee, and research team I could ask for.  Tenure will be nice but it can wait.

International New Graduate Nurse Research Colloquium

On June 20th, 2013, my supervisor, Dr. Heather Laschinger, hosted a wonderful research colloquium with invited researchers from around the world who all have a special interest in gaining a better understanding of the challenges facing new grads during their transition from student to professional nurse.

I feel so fortunate to have been invited!  It was a fantastic day of sharing ideas and research results, as well as thinking about what we can do moving forward to help nurses transition into their new roles.  I also had a chance to share a poster of my recent work about correlates of workplace mistreatment (i.e. incivility and bullying) directed towards new nurses in Ontario.   I wish that kind of research wasn’t needed to begin with but I think a lot of it has to do with structural factors of the work environment (e.g. leadership, workload, resources, support, etc. available to do your job) and personal factors that individuals bring with them to their job.  It is challenging to be kind and happy when you’re working overtime, have a heavy patient load, and are exhausted!    Nurses are valuable health human resources and we definitely have some work to do in supporting them/us and in particular, during transitions to new career roles (new grads or otherwise!).

Overall it was an inspiring day and I am so thankful that so many knowledgeable and fabulous guests were able to attend!    Christine also did a terrific job putting the event together and making the day run seamlessly 🙂  Nicely done everyone!

emily poster 2013

STTI Conference Reflections

I just arrived home from the Sigma Theta Tau International (STTI) conference in Indianapolis about creating healthy work environments.  It was a full day of driving there and back from Ontario but well worth the journey!   Everyone I met was so positive and inspiring – I wish we could spread this positive energy to the four corners of the earth and remind our colleagues that healthy workplaces are possible.  Are there barriers?  For sure.  But without a vision and passion for change, we are going to stay where we are, which unfortunately isn’t always  ideal.

Some of the highlights of the conference for me were listening to the panel discussion that kickstarted the conference on Friday morning, hearing Dr. Cindy Clarke speak later that day, and having a discussion about some of the challenges of having an academic career in nursing.

I had a real “light bulb” moment on Saturday when we were discussing the importance of recruiting and retaining doctoral-prepared nurses in academic positions and the value of  staying current in our clinical practice in addition to balancing the demands of teaching, research, and service while pursing tenure.

It dawned on me that the academy was not built with practice disciplines in mind, therefore clinical practice is not valued at many institutions in the same way as the traditional tripod of responsibilities (i.e. teaching, research, and service).   How can we be expected to prepare undergraduate students to become professional nurses if we are not up to date on our nursing skills and current best practices?  On the other hand, how can we possibly become and remain experts in all domains and still have a life?!    I’ll be the first to admit that I work 50-60 hours/week on research and schoolwork and the remainder of my time is spent with my son, working out, squeezing in other activities (like writing and grocery shopping) and sleeping.

Although I love my job as a staff nurse I am dreading going back to work in September when my maternity leave ends.   I know from experience that spreading yourself too thin takes a toll on my body and my mental health.  Not to mention that when quantity of activities increases past a manageable level, quality often suffers.   Having to choose between spending time with my son (which I will never get back) and running around like a crazy person trying to build my CV and establish my career is not easy.   I care deeply about nursing and I want to contribute to our profession in a meaningful way.  I also love my son and cherish all the time we have together.

Women already face enough challenges pursuing academic careers without the added obstacles of pursing one in nursing.  How can we expect nurses to give up their high-paying (and often unionized) staff nursing jobs to go back to school and still support their families?  Moreover, how can we expect nurses to complete their doctoral work while teaching or working full-time and often working the second shift at home as a mom and house manager?   Yet, so many do.   If we are going to successfully recruit and retain nursing faculty, we need to be more supportive of talented nurses who want to become educators and researchers.  We need to recognize and appreciate that as individuals we cannot and need not be experts in everything.  Every nurse has different gifts and strengths to offer that bring a wealth of knowledge and ways of being that enrich our profession.

For me, valuing, respecting, and embracing diversity is fundamental to creating a healthy profession and a healthy work environment.  Just because I have a passion for research and teaching and a few extra letters next to my name doesn’t mean I don’t admire and value the experience and expertise of seasoned staff nurses.  It would be completely ignorant of me to think that I know more or better than others; I simply know differently.  I would be gravely mistaken if I thought that what others have to offer makes me “less than”.  I can only hope that my colleagues in practice embrace the same attitude: I might be pursing an academic career but I am still a “real” nurse.

Thankfully, my nurse colleagues in academia have been so supportive and encouraging!   I have so much to learn and a long way to go but I am inspired by the courage, wisdom, and strength of the nurses who have led the way before me.   I am so fortunate to be surrounded by such wonderful scholars and nursing leaders.   Together we are all going to accomplish so much!