Book review: Overcoming Perfectionism – A Self-Help Guide

Overcoming Perfectionism book review

Overcoming Perfectionism: A Self-Help Guide
By Roz Shafran, Sarah Egan and Tracey Wade (Robinson, 2010); £12.99.

As researchers we’re no strangers to stiff competition, to high standards, to hard work. By definition we’re the top of the class, the ones who’ve survived a rigorous selection process to get where we are today. But when does a desire for achievement become counter-productive and lead to a decline in our performance? Or worse still, to anxiety, depression and loss of self-confidence?

How to break the vicious circle of ‘never good enough’

In this powerful book the authors describe a mind-set and a personality type that many researchers will identify with: perfectionism. As a perfectionist you set yourself demanding goals, you work hard to achieve them, you enjoy being the best … so far, so good.

However, there’s also a risk of losing perspective and wanting to be too perfect. The authors use the example of the dinner party host who spent so long cleaning the house, the food preparation ended up being rushed. As a consequence the dessert came out looking wonky – and the host spent the whole evening feeling miserable about letting everyone down. Yet the guests didn’t even notice!

This cycle of setting oneself excessively high standards, inevitably falling short and then feeling bad about it is introduced sensitively, using personal testimonies we can easily relate to. Alongside the dinner party host is the student who’s reluctant to hand in work that’s less than perfect, and the employee who keeps quiet in meetings for fear of not sounding knowledgeable enough. You’re bound to see yourself in the book – reading that email over and over again before you send it, or putting off doing a big piece of work because you don’t have time to do it properly … we’ve all been there!

Having explained the characteristics of the condition, the authors then introduce a range of coping strategies for dealing with excessive perfectionism. It’s OK to be pragmatic and do just enough to get by. It’s OK to make some time for yourself rather than constantly working. It’s even OK to mess up from time to time.

So for instance, the perfectionist host decided to clean only two rooms ahead of their next dinner party – the ones the guests would actually use! After all, your worth as a person is not diminished if some aspect of your life isn’t quite perfect …

In fact, as the book explains, easing off a little helps you to become more productive in the long run. You’ll spend less time feeling deflated because you didn’t complete everything on your completely unrealistic to-do list. You’ll spend less time battling procrastination and putting off tasks until you’ve found the time to do them perfectly. Instead, invest in your own self care, go easy on yourself, and you’ll perfect the art of not being perfect!

How have you overcome your own perfectionist tendencies? What resources have you found most useful?

Book Review: The Professor Is In, by Karen Kelsky

The Professor Is In

The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job
By Karen Kelsky (Three River Press, 2015); U.S. $15; 438 pages.

I’ve been a big fan of Karen Kelsky for years. Here’s someone who cuts through the mystique of academia and absolutely tells it how it is. Someone who had the courage to leave academia mid-career to start her own business, using the skills and knowledge gained from her time in higher education. Someone who quit academia and whose post-ac life is a success, not the failure that many predict or fear.

I was pleased to hear that Karen was publishing a book and even better, that there would be chapters on careers outside academia. It was nice to open the book and see Jobs on Toast listed as one of the recommended reference websites (*blushes*). As you might expect, the book is heavily weighted towards academic job-hunting, with nine sections dedicated to this theme and just one section on careers outside academia.

I don’t write about or give talks on the academic job search, so I found it fascinating to read Karen’s insights on the topic, especially since back in the day I was interviewed for five lecturing posts without an offer. With the forensic eye of a trained anthropologist, Karen leads you through the entire fraught job application process, warts and all. Forget your ivory tower and dedication to the life of the mind: welcome to a world of spiraling tuition fees and graduate debt, shameful adjunct pay and working conditions, and outrageous interview questions (WAY too inappropriate to reproduce here)!

Although slim by comparison, the section of the book on the non-academic job search (entitled ‘Leaving the Cult’) is jam-packed with value. Some of the topics Karen covers will be familiar to my readers already: there are sections on transferable skills, finding your calling, dealing with your feelings, reinventing yourself and of course writing your cover letter and résumé.

Yet within these few chapters are deeper insights which really get to the heart of the post-PhD career-change process. For instance, Karen uses the metaphor of the university as the teat from which everything of value appears to flow, and from which we have to wean ourselves post-PhD. As with much else in the book, the characterisation is brutal, apt and thought-provoking, all at once.

Unsparing even of herself, Karen recounts the expletive-laden rant which led to the idea for her consulting business in the first place. By channeling her feelings of anger and learning to trust her own personal sense of worth, Karen overcame the need for the approval of others, finding her calling as an entrepreneur, crafter, consultant, blogger and author.

All in all, I found it fascinating to have the two distinct career paths discussed side-by-side. By the end of the book, I couldn’t help feeling that one path is all about claustrophobic conformity, while the other path is about finding your freedom. If you still want to take the academic route after reading the book, Karen’s advice will keep you on the straight and narrow – but beware of the serious congestion up ahead!

If on the other hand you’re intent on leaving academia, you’ll get a knapsack of provisions, a rough compass bearing and the occasional signpost, but it’s really up to you to make your own way. That’s the challenge – and the joy – of becoming post-academic.

I also recommend you check out Karen’s website and consulting business over at The Professor Is In, where there’s a whole section on post-academic career support.

2 e-books to help you finish your PhD

How to Tame Your PhD
by Inger Mewburn; 122 pages

How to Tame Your PhD, by Dr Inger Mewburn

Inger Mewburn PhD, AKA @thesiswhisperer, will be familiar to many of you from her great advice on the excellent blog The Thesis Whisperer. This book compiles more than 20 posts from the blog into a single volume, preserving her inimitable chatty and informative style. Inger has excellent credentials for writing this book, having finished her own dissertation on the gestures used by architects in just 3 years!

The structure of the book closely follows the journey of writing a dissertation, without feeling mechanistic. There is lots of fantastic help plus ideas to get you through each stage, backed up by full references. One great advantage of the e-book format is that you can follow the links to explore a subject in further detail.

I really like the points where Inger explains how your feelings are related to your progress along the PhD track, and don’t necessarily reflect your overall ability! So if you’re feeling confused, that’s because you haven’t gone through the ‘threshold’ yet (I could definitely relate to that). And I recognise this feeling about my own writing even now: ‘The first time you put down your ideas, they will always look stupid.’ Yes, and that’s where a writer needs to be patient, and develop their ideas through reflection and feedback.

Whatever stage you’re at in your PhD, you’ll get great value from this book, as the price is so very low and the standard of advice is so very high!

17 Simple Strategies to Survive Your PhD
by Julio Peironcely
E-book; 35 pages; available to download from Next Scientist.

17 Simple Strategies to Survive Your PhD

Julio Peironcely PhD, AKA @nextscientist, is another blogger with an e-book – and this one is free! The e-book is really a collection of a short one or two page articles, which makes it great to dip in and out of. Although aimed at scientists the straightforward language and common-sense nature of much of the advice means that anyone can benefit from reading it.

There are some really good chapters: the chapter on prototyping is relevant not only for PhDs, but for any job where you are building products for a market. I also like the chapter in which Julio recognises how you start off your PhD with grandiose plans (‘cure cancer’), but how you ultimately need to scale back to get some results and complete. The chapter on productivity software covering Evernote, Dropbox and Mendeley is also very helpful.

Finally, the importance of having a social life and not spending too much time in the lab is nicely summed up in Julio’s observation that ‘The goal is to have a purpose to finish your work today’. This is a very simple but powerful reminder to keep your work and personal life in healthy balance, and have someone or something to look forward to each night. Note that in signing up to receive the e-book, you also subscribe to a marketing mailing list – you can unsubscribe by clicking on the link in the first marketing email you receive.

Get 17 Simple Strategies to Survive Your PhD free from the Next Scientist website.