Struggling to “Finish on Time’” is a common challenge among PhD students. Over nearly 20 years of supporting researchers, I’ve seen the frustrations stemming from time management and prioritization. This struggle isn’t confined to the realm of PhD studies but often extends as individuals progress in their careers, grappling with an increasing array of diverse responsibilities. That’s why meeting Dr. Åsa Burman was an absolute pleasure. As Reader in Practical Philosophy at Stockholm University and the mastermind behind Finish on Time, a consultancy dedicated to enhancing academics’ productivity through workshops and courses, Åsa brings a refreshingly practical approach to the table. Her methods provide much-needed support to those contending with the productivity challenges of academic life.
Here, Åsa shares insights on time and project management, healthy competition in academia, along with valuable advice for aspiring academics considering the pursuit of a PhD.
Please tell us more about “Finish on Time” – what inspired you to create this program?
I was passionate about my own topic, philosophy, from an early age. However, once I had gotten into the PhD program and started to work on the dissertation, I had a tough time and needed to regain some of my passion for the topic. I thought that I needed to work even more, or even harder, on the content of the dissertation or “the what” of the work. However, the solution was to pay close attention to the work process or “the how” of the work. I needed to learn more about what work-related things I should continue doing, what things I should do more of, and what things I should stop doing altogether. In other words, I needed to increase my academic self-knowledge.
I went to a workshop on this topic at the University of California, Berkeley and I decided to try the presented tools and strategies. It worked well! I got a new sense of control over the dissertation project, and my passion for philosophy returned. I managed to defend my dissertation on time, and I could not have completed it on time without these tools. It was a turning point for me, and I wanted to share the method behind it with other researchers so that more of us can finish our academic work on time and feel good along the way.
For students who are considering doing a PhD, what advice do you have for them?
Be clear about your values and motivation for wanting to pursue a Ph.D. Gain essential information about what conducting PhD studies is like. You can talk to people already in a Ph.D. program and ask about what a typical week looks like, the best and worst parts of being a PhD student, and so on. Read some good books about the academic world by authors such as Joli Jensen and Paul J. Silvia. Choose the department or lab you apply to carefully so that it is a good fit for you, both academically and personally, and aligned with your values.
We are much more open to discussing mental health in general and also within the academic community today. What else do you think needs to be done when it comes to promoting better mental health?
It is a significant development that the issue is now on the agenda. When I started working on this 15 years ago, it was not. We need to look at the individual, the organization, and the system level, too, to understand how these different levels reinforce helpful or not-so-helpful loops. That is, if you have had enough recovery, you usually gain perspective of what is most important, and if you carry out the most important things (the things that move you closer towards your goals), you get more progress. So, academic productivity and stress management are intertwined.
On the organizational level, senior people act as role models, so we need to think about what kinds of values and behavior we display to more junior people and our colleagues. And then, we as individuals and our departments and universities are part of a more extensive system of international collaborations and a passion for learning and gaining new knowledge, but also intense competition for research funding.
This is probably going to be a controversial question. How do you suppose competition in science and academia affects the mental health of researchers and is there such a thing as healthy competition?
It isn’t easy to answer in a short space. There needs to be some selection mechanism, and there is a recent debate around the best selection mechanism and some of the benefits and drawbacks of the current system in Sweden (and other places). Coming back to the system level and the organizational level, this is the setting that researchers operate in, and it causes negative stress and very high-performance demands. One thing concerning the individual level that my psychology colleagues point out about this is to focus on the factors that are within your control (vs. the factors that are outside your scope of control).
It is mainly within your control how good your own research application is in the end, but it is outside your scope of control who is on the committee and what other applications there are in the competition. Still, continuing on the individual level, perhaps coming back to one’s own values and passion and assessing whether the competitive environment is still in accordance with one’s values. There is a thought-provoking and helpful book by Annie Duke called Quit that offers hands-on strategies and tools for assessing when one should persist with a project and when one should not.
Regarding the organization level and the system level in Sweden, academia is often treated as an exception (concerning, for example, working hours, etc.). However, our universities and colleges are still governmental agencies as any others and governed by the same laws and regulations, for instance, about employer-responsibility.
Often people, including researchers confuse urgent with important. Balancing the two is difficult, irrespective of one’s experience and career stage. What would you recommend to researchers to this balancing act between urgent and important?
Indeed, this is a challenging and tricky thing. I would think about sequence and mental models. So I have learned about myself, and many academics agree that the order, or sequence, of things is essential. I can move easily from research to teaching, but it is more difficult to move the other way around. So I arrange my schedule by following this order.
When it comes to the mental model we use, it is often the case that we do not treat our own time and long-term goals, or ”the not-urgent and important activities” as being as valuable as “the urgent-and-important” more short-term activities with external deadlines. I thus think and plan for my “important-but-not-urgent activities in the same way I would for teaching (that is important and urgent). So there are certain things I would do when it comes to teaching (come well prepared and mentally ready) and certain things I would not do concerning teaching (answer emails or a text message in the middle of the lecture, schedule a meeting with a colleague, or go to the dentist). Nevertheless, sometimes, we do this during our research time. So, set time aside for “the-important-and-not-urgent” activities first thing in the morning and treat it as you would for any other “important and urgent activities”.
Thank you, Åsa, for your amazing advice and insights.