Tag Archives: Academia

Mindful University Leadership

Academia, like many other sectors, is a complex work environment. Although universities vary in terms of their size and objectives, the average university in the United States, Canada, UK, and EU must simultaneously serve the interests of undergraduate education, graduate education, professional education, basic research, applied research, public policy research, and basic scholarship. Most research universities receive funding for operation from a combination of public and private sources. For example, my home university, The University of Western Ontario, receives its operating funds from tuition payments, governments, research funding agencies, and from private donors. Many other research universities are funded in similar ways, and most smaller colleges are as well.

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Looking west over Lake Erie, Port Stanley, Ontario

Faculty are at the center of this diverse institution, acting as the engine of teaching, research, and service. As a result, faculty members may find themselves occasionally struggling to manage these different interests. This article looks at the challenges that faculty members face, paying particular attention to the leadership role that many faculty play. I then explore the possible ways in which a mindfulness practice can benefit faculty well-being and productivity.

Challenges of Leadership in the University Setting

Although many work environments have similar challenges and issues (being pulled in different directions, time management, etc.) I want to focus on the challenges that faculty members face when working at and leading the average, mid-sized or large university. The specific challenges will vary in terms of what role or roles a person is serving in, but let’s first look at challenges that might be common to most faculty members.

Challenge 1: Shifting tasks

“Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.” — Donald Knuth

I love this quote from Donald Knuth, a professor of computer science, because it encapsulates the main challenge that so many of us have. We want to be on top of things (teaching, questions from students, cutting-edge research) but we also want to be on the bottom: digging deeply into a problem and finding a solution.

The average faculty member has, at a minimum, 2–3 very different kinds of jobs. We’re teachers, researchers/scholars, and we also help to run the university. Within these broadly-defined categories, we divide our teaching time between graduate and undergraduate teaching and mentorship. Research involves investigation, applying for grants, reading, investigation, analysis, writing, dissemination. And running the university can make us managers, chairs, deans, and provosts and as such, we’re responsible for hiring research staff, hiring other faculty members, and managing budgets.

These three categories require different sets of skills and shifting between them can be a source of stress. In addition, the act of shifting between them will not always go smoothly and this may result in a loss of effectiveness and productivity as the concerns from one category, task, or role bleed into another. Being mindful of the demands of the current task at hand is crucial.

For example, I find it especially difficult to transition after 2–3 hours of leading a seminar or lecture. Ideally, I would like to have some time to unwind. But many times, I also need to schedule a meeting in the afternoon and find that I have only a short amount of time to go from “lecture mode” into “meeting mode”. Worse, I might still be thinking about my lecture when the meeting begins. Even among university leaders that have little or no direct teaching requirements, it is common to have to switch from and to very different topics. One day you might start the day answering emails (with multiple topics), a morning meeting on hiring negotiations, a meeting about undergraduate planning, then an hour with a PhD student on a very specific and complex analysis of data for their dissertation research, followed by a phone call from the national news outlet asking about the research of one of your faculty members. Shifting between these tasks can reduce your effectiveness. The cognitive psychology literature refers to this as “set shifting” or “task-shifting”, and research has supported the idea that there is always a cost to shift (Arrington & Logan, 2004; Monsell, 2003).  These costs will eventually affect how well you do your job and also how you deal with stress. It’s difficult to turn your full attention to helping your student with an analysis when you are also thinking about your department’s budget.

As academics, we switch and shift tasks throughout the day and throughout the week. The primary challenge in this area is to be able to work on the task at hand and to be mindful of distractions. Of course, they will occur, but through practice, it may be possible to both minimize their impact and also reduce the stress and anxiety associated with the distractions.

Challenge 2: Shared governance

One aspect of academia that sets it apart from many corporate environments is the notion of “shared governance”. Though this term is common (and has been criticized as being somewhat empty,) the general concept is that a university derives its authority from a governing board, but that faculty are also vested in the institutional decision-making process. This means that most universities have a faculty senate that sets academy policy, dean’s level committees that review budgets and programs, and departmental committees that make decisions about promotion and tenure, hiring, and course assignments.

From a leadership perspective, this can mean that as a chair or dean you are always managing personal, balancing the needs of faculty, students, budgets, senior administrators, and the public image of your university. There may not be a clear answer to the question of “who is the boss?”  Sometimes faculty are asked to assume leadership roles for a set time and will need to shift from a collegial relationship to a managerial one (then back to a collegial one) for the same people. That is, one day you are colleagues and the next you are his or her supervisor.

The challenge here is to understand that you may be manager, colleague, and friend at the same time. In this case, it’s very helpful to be mindful of how you interact with your colleagues such that your relationship aligns with the appropriate role.

Challenge 3: Finding time for research and scholarship

One of the most common complaints or concerns from faculty is that they wish they had more time for research. This is a challenge for faculty as well as leaders. Although a common workload assumes that a faculty member may spend 40% of their time on research, most faculty report spending much of their time in meetings. However, promotion and tenure is earned primarily through research productivity. Grants are awarded to research productive faculty. That is, most of those meetings are important, but do not lead to promotion and career advancement. This creates a conflict that can cause stress because although 40% is the nominal workload, it may not be enough to be research productive. Other aspects of the job, like meetings related to teaching and service, may take up more than their fair share but often feel more immediate.

In order to be effective, academic leaders also need to consider these concerns from different perspectives. For example, when I was serving as the department chair for a short period, I had to assigned teaching to our faculty. There are courses that have to be offered and teaching positions that have to be filled. And yet my colleagues still need to have time to do research and other service work. These can be competing goals and they affect different parts of the overall balance of the department. The department chair needs to balance the needs of faculty to have adequate time for research with the needs of the department to be able to offer the right amount of undergraduate teaching. So not only is it a challenge to find time to do one’s own research, a department chair also needs to consider the same for others. Being mindful of these concerns and how they come into conflict is an important aspect of university leadership.

Considering these diverse goals and trying to meet them requires a fair degree of cognitive flexibility and if you find yourself being pulled to think about teaching, about meetings, and about the workload of your colleagues, it is going to pull you away from being able to be on top of your own research and scholarship. The primary challenge in this area is to create the necessary cognitive space for thinking about research questions and working on research.

Mindfulness and Leadership

I’ve listed three challenges for leaders in an academic setting: switching, shared governance, and finding time for research. There are more, one course, but let’s stick with these. I want to now explain what mindfulness practice is and how it might be cultivated and helpful for academic leaders. That is, how can mindfulness help with these challenges?

What is mindfulness?

A good starting point for this question is a definition that comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work. Mindfulness is an open and receptive attention to, and awareness of what is occurring in the present moment. For example, as I’m writing this article, I am mindful and aware of what I want to say. But I can also be aware of the sound of the office fan, aware of the time, aware that I am attending to this task and not some other task. I’m also aware that my attention will slip sometimes, and I think about some of the challenges I outlined above. Being mindful means acknowledging this wandering of attention and being aware of the slips but not being critical or judgmental about my occasional wavering. Mindfulness can be defined as a trait or a state. When described as a state, mindfulness is something that is cultivated via mindfulness practice and meditation.

How can mindfulness be practiced?

The best way to practice mindfulness is just to begin. Mindfulness can be practiced alone, at home, with a group, or on a meditation retreat. More than likely, your college or university offers drop in meditation sessions (as mine does). There are usually meditation groups that meet in local gyms and community centers. Or, if you are technologically inclined, the Canadian company Interaxon makes a small, portable EEG headband called MUSE that can help develop mindfulness practice (www.choosemuse.com). There are also excellent apps for smartphones, like Insight Timer.

The basic practice is one of developing attentional control and awareness by practicing mindfulness meditation. Many people begin with breathing-focused meditation in which you sit (in a chair or on a cushion) close your eyes, relax your shoulders and concentrate on your breath. Your breath is always there, and so you can readily notice how you breath in and out. You notice the moment where your in-breath stops and your out-breath begins. This is a basic and fundamental awareness of what is going on right now. The reason many people start with breathing-focused meditation is that when you notice that your mind begins to wander, you can pull your attention back to your breath. The pulling back is the subtle control that comes from awareness and this is at the heart of the practice. The skill you are developing with mindfulness practice is the ability to notice when your attention has wandered, not to judge that wandering, and to shift your focus back to what is happening in the present

Benefits of mindfulness to academic leaders

A primary benefit of mindfulness involves learning to be cognitively and emotionally present in the task at hand. This can help with task switching. For example, when you are meeting with a student, being mindful could mean that you bring your attention back to the topic of the meeting (rather than thinking about a paper you have been working on). When you are working on a manuscript, being mindful could mean keeping your attention on the topic of the paragraph and bringing it back from other competing interests. As a researcher and a scientist, there are also benefits as keeping an open mind about collected data and evidence which can help to avoid cognitive pitfalls. In medicine, as well as other fields, this is often taught explicitly as at the “default interventionist” approach in which the decision-maker strives to maintain awareness of her or her assessments and the available evidence in order to avoid heuristic errors. (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974) As a chair or a dean, being fully present could also manifest itself by learning to listen to ideas from many different faculty members and from students who are involved in the shared governance of academia.

Cognitive and clinical psychological research has generally supported the idea that both trait mindfulness and mindfulness meditation are associated with improved performance on several cognitive tasks that underlie the aforementioned challenges to academic leaders. For example, research studies have shown benefits to attention, working memory, cognitive flexibility, and affect. (Chambers, Lo, & Allen, 2008; Greenberg, Reiner, & Meiran, 2012; Amishi P. Jha, Stanley, Kiyonaga, Wong, & Gelfand, 2010; Amism P. Jha, Krompinger, & Baime, 2007) And there have been noted benefits to emotional well-being and behaviour in the workplace as well. This work has shown benefits like stress reduction, a reduction to emotional exhaustion, and increased job satisfaction.(Hülsheger, Alberts, Feinholdt, & Lang, 2013)

Given these associated benefits, mindfulness meditation has the potential to facilitate academic leadership by reducing some of what can hurt good leadership (stress, switching costs, cognitive fatigue) and facilitating what might help (improvements in attentional control and better engagement with others).

Conclusions

As I mentioned at the outset, I wrote this article from the perspective of a faculty member at large research university, but I think the ideas apply to higher education roles in general. But it’s important to remember that mindfulness is not a panacea or a secret weapon. Mindfulness will not make you a better leader, a better teacher, a better scholar, or a better scientist. Mindful leaders may not always be the best leaders.

But the practice of mindfulness and the cultivation of a mindful state has been shown to reduce stress and improve some basic cognitive tasks that contribute to effective leadership. I find mindfulness meditation to be an important part of my day and an important part of my role as a professor, a teacher, a scientist, and an academic leader.  I think it can be an important part of a person’s work and life.

References

Arrington, C. M., & Logan, G. D. (2004). The cost of a voluntary task switch. Psychological Science, 15(9), 610–615.

Chambers, R., Lo, B. C. Y., & Allen, N. B. (2008). The Impact of Intensive Mindfulness Training on Attentional Control, Cognitive Style, and Affect. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 32(3), 303–322.

Greenberg, J., Reiner, K., & Meiran, N. (2012). “Mind the Trap”: Mindfulness Practice Reduces Cognitive Rigidity. PloS One, 7(5), e36206.

Hülsheger, U. R., Alberts, H. J. E. M., Feinholdt, A., & Lang, J. W. B. (2013). Benefits of mindfulness at work: the role of mindfulness in emotion regulation, emotional exhaustion, and job satisfaction. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 98(2), 310–325.

Jha, A. P., Krompinger, J., & Baime, M. J. (2007). Mindfulness training modifies subsystems of attention. Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience, 7(2), 109–119.

Jha, A. P., Stanley, E. A., Kiyonaga, A., Wong, L., & Gelfand, L. (2010). Examining the protective effects of mindfulness training on working memory capacity and affective experience. Emotion , 10(1), 54–64.

Monsell, S. (2003). Task switching. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7(3), 134–140.

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Science, 185(4157), 1124–1131.

 

How do you plan to use your PhD?

If you follow my blog or medium account, you’ve probably already read some of my thoughts and musings on the topic of running a research lab, training graduate students, and being a mentor. I think I wrote about that just a few weeks ago. But if you haven’t read any of my previous essays, let me provide some context. I’m professor of Psychology at a large research university in Canada, the University of Western Ontario. Although we’re seen as a top choice for undergraduates because of our excellent teaching and student life, we also train physicians, engineers, lawyers, and PhD students in dozens of field. My research group fits within the larger area of Cognitive Neuroscience which is one of our university’s strengths.

Within our large group (Psychology, the Brain and Mind institute, BrainsCAN, and other groups) we have some of the very best graduate students and postdocs in the world, not to mention some of my excellent faculty colleges. I’m not writing any of this to brag or boast but rather to give the context that we’re a good place to be studying cognition, psychology and neuroscience.

And I’m not sure any of our graduates will ever get jobs as university professors.

The Current State of Affairs

Gordon Pennycook, from Waterloo and soon from University of Regina wrote an excellent blog post and paper on the job market for cognitive psychology professors in Canada. You might think this is too specialized, but he makes the case that we can probably extrapolate to other fields and counties and find the same thing. But since this is my field (and Gordon’s also) it’s easy to see how this affects students in my lab and in my program.

One thing he noted is that the average Canadian tenure-track hire now has 15 publications on their CV when hired. That’s a long CV and as long as long as what I submitted in my tenure dossier in 2008. It’s certainly a longer CV than what I had when I was hired at Western in 2003. I was hired with 7 publications (two first author) after three years as a postdoc and three years of academic job applications. And it’s certainly longer than what the most eminent cognitive psychologists had when they were hired. Michael Posner, whose work I cite to this day, was hired straight from Wisconsin with one paper. John Anderson, who’s work I admire more than any other cognitive scientists, was hired at Yale with a PhD from Stanford and 5 papers on his CV. Nancy Kanwisher was hired in 1987 with 3 papers from her PhD at UCLA.

Compare that to a recent hire in my own group, who was hired with 17 publications in great journals and was a postdoc for 5 years. Or compare that to most of our recent hires and short-listed applicants who have completed a second postdoc before they were hired.  Even our postdoctoral applicants, people applying for 2-3 year postdocs at my institution, are already postdocs and are looking to get a better postdoc to get more training and become more competitive.

So it’s really a different environment today.

The fact is, you will not get a job as a professor after finishing a PhD. Not in this field and not in most fields. Why do I say this? Well for one, it’s not possible to publish 15-17 papers during your PhD career. Not in my lab, at least. Even if added every student to every paper I published, they will not have a CV with that many papers, I simply can’t publish that many papers and keep everything straight. And I can’t really put every student on every paper anyway. If the PhD is not adequate for getting a job as a professor, what does that mean for our students, our program, and for PhD programs in general?

Expectation mismatch

Most students enter a PhD program with the idea of becoming a professor. I know this because I used to be the director of our program and that’s what nearly every student says, unless they are applying to our clinical program with the goal of being a clinician. If students are seeking a PhD to become a professor, but we can clearly see that the PhD is not sufficient, then students’ expectations are not being met by our program. We admit student to the PhD with most hoping to become university professors and then they slowly learn that it’s not possible. Our PhD is, in this scenario, merely an entry into the ever-lengthening postdoc stream which is where you prepare to be a professor. We don’t have well-thought out alternatives for any other stream.

But we can start.

Here’s my proposal

  1. We have to level with students and applicants right away that “tenure track university professor” is not going to be the end game for PhD. Even the very best students will be looking at 1-2 postdocs before they are ready for that. For academic careers, the PhD is training for the postdoc in the same way that med school is training for residency and fellowship.
  2. We need to encourage students to begin thinking about non-academic careers in their first year. This means encouraging students’ ownership of their career planning.  There are top-notch partnership programs like Mitacs and OCE (these are Canadian but programs like this exist in the US, EU and UK) that help students transition into corporate and industrial careers. We have university programs as well. And we can encourage students to look at certificate program store ensure that their skills match the market. But students won’t always know about these things if their advisors don’t know or care.
  3. We need to emphasize and cultivate a supportive atmosphere. Be open and honest with students about these things and encourage them to be open as well. Students should be encouraged to explore non-academic careers and not make to feel guilty for “quitting academia”.

I’m trying to manage these things in my own lab. It is not always easy because I was trained to all but expect that the PhD would lead into a job as a professor. That was not really true when I was a student but it’s even less true now. But I have to to adapt. Our students and trainees have to adapts and it’s incumbent upon us to guide and advice.

I’d be intersted in feedback on this topic.

  • Are you working on a PhD to become a professor?
  • Are you a professor wondering if you’d be able to actually get a job today?
  • Are you training students with an eye toward technical and industrial careers?

 

The Professor, the PI, and the Manager

Here’s a question that I often ask myself: How much should I be managing my lab?

I was meeting with one of my trainees the other day and this grad student mentioned that they sometimes feel like they don’t know what to do during the work day and that they sometimes feel like they are wasting a lot of their time. As a result, this student will end up going home and maybe working on a coding class, or (more often) doing non grad school things. We talked about what this student is doing and I agreed: they are wasting a lot of time, and not really working very effectively.

Before I go on, some background…

There is no shortage of direction in my lab, or at least I don’t think so. I think I have a lot of things in place. Here’s a sample:

  • I have a detailed lab manual that all my trainees have access to. I’ve sent this document to my lab members a few times, and it covers a whole range of topics about how I’d like my lab group to work.
  • We meet as a lab 2 times a week. One day is to present literature (journal club) and the other day is to discuss the current research in the lab. There are readings to prepare, discussions to lead, and I expect everyone to contribute.
  • I meet with each trainee, one-on-one, at least every other week, and we go though what each student is working on.
  • We have an active lab Slack team, every project has a channel.
  • We have a project management Google sheet with deadlines and tasks that everyone can edit, add things to, see what’s been done and what hasn’t been done.

So there is always stuff to do but I also try not to be a micromanager of my trainees. I generally assume that students will want to be learning and developing their scientific skill set. This student is someone who has been pretty set of looking for work outside of academics, and I’m a big champion of that. I am a champion of helping any of my trainees find a good path. But despite all the project management and meetings this student was feeling lost and never sure what to work on. And so they were feeling like grad school has nothing to offer in the realm of skill development for this career direction. Are my other trainees also feeling the same way?

Too much or too little?

I was kind of surprised to hear one of my students say that they don’t know what to work on, because I have been working harder than ever to make sure my lab is well structured. We’ve even dedicated several lab meetings to the topic.

The student asked what I work on during the day, and it occurred to me that I don’t always discuss my daily routine. So we met for over an hour and I showed this student what I’d been working on for the past week: an R-notebook that will accompany a manuscript I’m writing that will allow for all the analysis of an experiment to be open and transparent. We talked about how much time that’s been taking, how I spent 1-2 days optimizing the R code for a computational model. How this code will then need clear documentation. How the OSF page will also need folders for the data files, stimuli, the experimenter instructions. And how those need to be uploaded. I have been spending dozens of hours on this one small part of one component of one project within one of the several research areas in my lab, and there’s so much more to do.

Why aren’t my trainees doing the same? Why aren’t they seeing this, despite all the project management I’ve been doing?

I want to be clear, I am not trying to be critical in any way of any of my trainees. I’m not singling anyone out. They are good students, and it’s literally my job to guide and advise them. So I’m left with the feeling that they are feeling unguided, with the perception that that there’s not much to do. If I’m supposed to be the guide and they are feeling unguided, this seems like a problem with my guidance.

What can I do to help motivate?

What can I do to help them organize, feel motivated, and productive?

I expect some independence for PhD students, but am I giving them too much? I wonder if my lab would be a better training experience if I were just a bit more of a manager.

  • Should I require students to be in the lab every day?
  • Should I expect daily summaries?
  • Should I require more daily evidence that they are making progress?
  • Am I sabotaging my efforts to cultivate independence by letting them be independent?
  • Would my students be better off if I assumed more of a top down, managerial role?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. But I know that there’s a problem. I don’t want to be a boss, expecting them to punch the clock, but I also don’t want them to float without purpose.

I’d appreciate input from other PIs. How much independence is too much? Do you find that your grad students are struggling to know what to do?

If you have something to say about this, let me know in the comments.

Dealing with Failure

When the hits come, they really come hard.

I’m dealing with some significant personal/professional failures this month.

I put in for two federal operating grants this past year: one from NSERC to fund my basic cognitive science work on learning and memory and one from SSHRC to fund some relatively new research on mindfulness meditation. I worked pretty hard on these last fall.

And today I found out that neither were funded.

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Port Stanley Beach, ON 2018

This means that for the first time in a long number of years, my lab does not have an active federal research grant. The renewal application from NSERC is particularly hard to swallow, since I’ve held multiple NSERC grants and they have a pretty high funding rate relative to other programs. I feel like the rug was pulled out from under me and worry about how to support the graduate students in my lab. I can still carry on doing good research this coming year, and I have some residual funds, but I won’t lie: this is very disappointing.

The cruelest month, the cruelest profession.

It’s often said that academic/scientific work loads heavily on dealing with failure. It’s true. I’ve had failed grants before. Rejected manuscripts. Experiments that I thought were interesting or good that fell apart with additional scrutiny. For every success, there are multiple failures. And that’s all just part of being a successful academic. Beyond that, many academics may work 6-8 years to get a PhD, do a post doc, and find themselves being rejected from one job after another. Other academics struggle with being on the tenure track and may fail to achieve that milestone.

And April really truly is the cruelest month in academics.  Students may have to deal with: rejection from grad school, med school, graduate scholarships, job applications, internships, residency programs. They worry about their final exams. Faculty worry about rejection from grants, looking for jobs, and a whole host of other things. (and at least here in Canada, we still have snow in the forecast…)

Why am I writing this?

Well, why not? I’m not going to hide these failures in shame. Or try to blame someone else. I have to look these failures in the eye, own them, take responsibility for them, and keep working. Part of that means taking the time to work through my emotions and feelings about this. That’s why I’m writing this.

I’m also writing, I guess, to say that it’s worth keeping in mind that we all deal with some kind of stress or anxiety or rejection. Even people who seem to have it together (like me, I probably seem like I have it together: recently promoted to Full Professor, respectable research output, I’ve won several teaching awards, written a textbook, and have been a kind and decent teacher and mentor to 100s of students)…we all get hits. But really, I’m doing fine. I’m still lucky. I’m still privileged. I know that others will be hurting more than I am. I have no intention to wallow in pity or fight with rage. I’m not going to stop working. Not going to stop writing, doing research or trying to improve as a teacher. Moving forward is the only way I can move.

Moving on

We all fail. The question is: What are you going to do about it?

From a personal standpoint, I’m not going to let this get me down. I’ve been in this boat before. I have several projects that are now beginning to bear fruit. I’ve had a terrific insights about some new collaborative work. I have a supportive department and I’m senior enough to weather quite a lot. (thought I’m not Job, so you don’t have to test me Lord!)

From a professional standpoint, though, I think I know what the problems were and I don’t even need to see the grant reviews or committee comments (though I will be looking at them soon). There’s only one of me and branching off into a new direction three years ago to pursue some new ideas took time away from my core program, and I think both suffered a bit as a result. That happens, and I can learn from that experience.

I’ll have to meet with my research team and students next week and give them the bad news. We’re going to need to probably have some difficult conversations about working through this, and I know this will hit some of them hard too.

It might also mean some scholarly pruning. It might mean turning off a few ideas to focus more on the basic cognitive science that’s most important to me.

Congratulations to everyone who got good news this month. Successful grants, acceptance into med school, hired, or published. Success was earned. And for those of us getting bad news: accept it, deal with it, and progress.

Now enjoy the weekend everyone.