Congratulations! You just got a revise and resubmit. The necessary revisions will be extensive, but nothing you can’t handle. Unfortunately, the editor gave you a strict deadline, and you’re working on your book proposal. You didn’t expect this revise and resubmit to reach your desk so quickly, so understandably, you feel a bit panicked. You know you have to give this book proposal your full attention. A book is necessary for tenure in your department, so you can’t delay working on your proposal anymore. What do you do?
In today’s publish or perish culture, it’s practically guaranteed that you’re working on more than one research project at a time. Even within a single project, you’ll have multiple articles, grant proposals, presentations, etc. We often imagine that there’s a clear pipeline that tells us how to prioritize projects, but that’s rarely the case. After all, some obligations can’t be predicted! It could be a revise and resubmit that lands back on your desk earlier than expected. Or, you see a call for papers that’s too relevant to your research for you to ignore. You might be working on one manuscript and come up with an idea for another that you want to start immediately (shiny object syndrome, anyone?). How do you decide what to work on, and when?
Not Just Deadlines
Nobody teaches you how to prioritize projects in grad school. As a result, most scholars just organize projects by their deadlines. But, there are other important factors to consider. Indeed, some of our long-term projects don’t have clear-cut deadlines. Also, sometimes we have to decide if a project is worth doing at all. That might mean deciding if your dissertation should be a book or a series of articles, or if you really want to keep working on a particular topic for the long-term. Luckily, there is a simple strategy you can use to determine how to prioritize projects.
When you’re deciding how to prioritize projects, you should ask yourself, “why is this project important to me?” You’ll find that your responses will fall into one of two categories: Passion or Professional. Sometimes, a project will overlap both categories. Here’s a simple table from a Twitter post I made a few days ago:
We often put most of our emphasis on the professional gains of our work. We think about the article that will help us get tenure or the deadline-driven writing we have to complete. In doing so, we end up overlooking those aspects of our research that bring us satisfaction and pleasure. Yet, satisfaction and pleasure help us maintain momentum. One of the easiest ways to get stuck in our work is to drag out a project for no good reason. Without careful consideration of why we’re doing a particular task or prioritizing a project, that project can quickly become a ball and chain.
Using this strategy can help with both short-term and long-term planning. It helps you determine how to react when projects unexpectedly land on your desk, and why you commit to longer projects. Even if you feel like your hands are tied when it comes to working on a particular project, you’re at least cognizant of the potential downside and rewards of the work.
Now, go make your own 2×2 table and get to work! You can also share it with a colleague who doesn’t know what they should work on next. Then, share in the comments: how many of your projects fall into each quadrant? Were you surprised by the results of this exercise?