Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Brett Say in the “How I Work” series. Brett is a Doctoral Student and Graduate Research Assistant in Michigan State University’s, Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education (HALE) program in Lansing, Michigan, USA. He has a bachelor’s degree in English from the Pennsylvania State University and a Master’s degree in Professional Writing and Rhetoric from George Mason University. His research interests include organizational process development and change in higher education as well as the human resource and talent management policies of colleges and universities.
Current Job: Doctoral Research Assistant (Doctoral Student)
Current Location: Michigan State University, Lansing, Michigan – United States
Current mobile device: Samsung Galaxy S4
Current computer: Microsoft Surface Pro 3
Can you briefly explain your current situation and research to us?
I am currently a 2nd-year PhD student at Michigan State University, in Lansing, Michigan (U.S.). I have a 20-hour a week graduate research assistantship for which I am paid and receive tuition benefits. In my assistantship, I am researching the role and operations of faculty and staff retirement organizations in higher education. My personal research interests include Organizational development, strategic planning, and talent management in higher education. A secondary interest is mentoring practices in graduate education programs. I am 33 years old and newly married.
What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow?
My computer is my primary tool. Essential software includes most Microsoft Office tools (Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook, etc.). I also am learning SPSS for statistical analysis and use Qualtrics software for survey development.
For recording interviews I use a Tascam DR-05 audio recorder and to transcribe interviews I typically use some form of dictation software (dictation using Google Docs is common).
What does your workspace setup look like?
I typically work in a quiet space in my university’s library or at home in a home office.
Alternate Space in Library:
What is your best advice for productive academic work?
Keeping mentally healthy and developing some kind of routine. Long, unpredictable hours can be very detrimental to productive work. Breaking work into digestible pieces, and making a plan as to how you will complete that work over a period of time is very important. Backdating projects can be helpful. I also create a daily “to do” list that is prioritized.
How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks?
A daily “to do” list that is updated every morning. I also keep a calendar that has important assignments or project due dates on it. I look at work in the months to come once or twice a week, then update my daily activities accordingly.
Besides phone and computer, do you use other technological tools in work and daily life?
I have a Playstation 4 that I use to watch TV or play games.
Which skill makes you stand out as an academic?
I feel I am a unique combination of a theoretical thinker who is very detail oriented. I often like to identify “big” problems or projects, then drill down into the details to determine what can actually be done on a smaller scale to find a solution to the problem. Once I decide on an approach, I am very detail and process-oriented.
What do you listen to when you work?
Nothing. I prefer relative silence.
What are you currently reading? How do you find time for reading?
Academically, I am trying to read organizational management literature. “Contemporary Strategy Analysis” by Robert Grant is a recent book assigned for a class that I enjoyed. Personally, I recently finished the Cormac McCarthy novel “Blood Meridian.” I am now reading a series of graphic novels called “The Fade Out.” I find time for personal reading before bed. I get into bed about 30-60 minutes before I feel I need to go to sleep, and reading helps me relax.
Are you more of an introvert or extrovert? How does this influence your working habits?
Introvert, though not particularly antisocial. I enjoy one-on-one interactions or small groups. This makes working in larger, group projects more difficult as everyone typically has a different idea of how best to work within a team. Some like the work to be more social (e.g. while getting coffee, dinner, etc.) or some like informal brainstorming. I enjoy meeting, breaking the project into individual parts, and then having each individual report back to the group. This, however, is not always the best way to approach projects as informal discussion can be very helpful.
What’s your sleep routine like?
I typically try to sleep by no later than 11:30pm and get a minimum of 7.5 to 8 hours of sleep. I find graduate school disrupts a regular sleep schedule though as you are not always required to get up at a certain time during certain days of the week, which may make you feel like you can stay up or get up later depending on the day.
What’s your work routine like?
I try to treat graduate school as if it was a typical 9am-5pm job. That is easier said than done. Typically, I work during the day and try to avoid working at night or on weekends whenever possible.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
Regarding academic writing: To make an outline and determine what story I am trying to tell. Place a post it next to the computer with that idea. Write your paper and then go back. Question everything you put into the paper. Does it tell the story or not? If it does not contribute to telling the story, it gets deleted no matter how interesting a point or how well written it was.
Regarding work-life balance: Make time for yourself. Determine how/when you are going to step away from your work. The coal-mining mentality of working hard, long hours to produce more does not translate well to academic work.