“How Do You Work?”: An Interview with Sean Kheraj

As part of our efforts to connect the graduate student experience to the professorial experience here at York, we are interviewing several professors about how they manage the work/life balance and how they do their work. Sean Kheraj behind the micToday’s interview is with Dr. Sean Kheraj, an assistant professor in the Department of History at York. He is also the producer and host of Nature’s Past, the Canadian environmental history podcast. His research focuses on the historical relationship between people and animals in urban environments. He also maintains a blog that discusses his ongoing work.

1. Between research, teaching, conferences, and administration, what techniques do you use to manage your time ‘on the job’? (Do you use a set schedule; do you allot a number of hours for each task; do you work during your commute; etc?

Time management has always been a challenge for me. When I was a graduate student, and during my early years after graduation, I operated on a very flexible work schedule. Most of my work time was spent at home with a limited number of hours in the classroom and no administrative responsibilities. I also lived on my own and kept to a peculiar schedule (something more akin to a vampire). I worked days, nights, weekdays, weekends, whatever. Since joining the faculty at York, my responsibilities have expanded and I have had to adjust my workflow to make better use of my time and cut back on late-night work sessions. To help, I have made use of some cloud-based productivity software, including Google Calendar, Google Keep, Dropbox, and a Network-Attached storage drive. Calendar is obviously a simple way for me to keep my appointments and Keep is a note-taking and to-do list application. Dropbox and my network drive allow me to maintain a single repository for all work files so that I don’t have to bother with keeping duplicate copies of work on my home PC and my office PC. Because these applications sync to the cloud, I can access them from any connected device, including smartphones, tablets, or PCs. This has really helped simplify one of the main challenges of splitting time between a home office and a campus office. As a faculty member, my responsibilities are divided between teaching, research, and administrative work (or service).

During the Fall and Winter semesters, teaching occupies most of my work time and during the summers I am primarily focused on research. My service work is ongoing throughout the year. In general, I try to keep to a Monday-Friday (and Sunday) 9-5 work schedule as best I can and I typically reserve a day off on Saturdays. I try to keep one weekday exclusive for research work during the Fall and Winter semesters, but research work is always limited and challenging during teaching semesters. Email correspondence can be time consuming, but it is a very important part of my work day. I try to be a prompt replier, but I have increasingly moved away from answering messages after 5pm or 5:30pm (occasionally I will push this to 6pm or 7pm because I often work with folks in the Pacific time zone). Sometimes I have to turn off the push notifications on my smartphone in order to resist the urge to reply to a message that arrives in the late evening. I make replies to colleagues and students a priority.

Finally, I do work on my commute. Like many of us, I have a fairly lengthy ride on the TTC to York. I usually use this time to catch up on reading (and occasionally some marking and sleeping).

2. When and where do you work best?

I am an itinerant worker. I probably picked up several bad habits over the years, but I usually like to move to two or three different work places throughout the day. On days when I’m on campus, I usually just work in my office, but I am occasionally spotted working in York Lanes at La Prep or Indian Flavour. This is a habit I picked up as a graduate student when I lived in a basement apartment that had no windows. During that time I regularly worked outside the house in coffee places and it is something I still really enjoy. When I work from home, I usually work in my home office, but I will also head out to a local coffee place or library.

3. Do you use any tools or software for your research that you find particularly helpful?

I use a handful of software applications in my work. Here are the top five:

  1. Microsoft Word – Word processing continues to be the greatest software need of historians. We do a lot of writing.
  2. Power Point – While I have experimented with other presentation software, I still find Power Point to be the most useful for lectures. It may not be as flashy as other applications, but it is a no-nonsense (but still elegant) approach to presenting information.
  3. Dropbox – This application is best known for its cloud storage function. It allows you to store documents in the cloud and retrieve them from any internet-connected device. The killer function of Dropbox, however, is its synchronization software. Dropbox is nearly flawless when it comes to sync and for those of you who have used other sync programs, you know that this is no simple task.
  4. Gmail – Again, the benefits of cloud computing have been evident in web-based email for many years, but Gmail continues to do it best (IMO). After years of juggling numerous clunky and ugly university email systems, I finally gave up and consolidated all of my email correspondence into Gmail. It was pretty simple to set up and I’d be happy to share how I did this with you during my office hours. Gmail also saves me the time I would usually spend voluntarily forwarding all of my correspondence to the NSA.
  5. Adobe Acrobat Professional – Many of us now take thousands of photographs whenever we do archival research. To manage all of these images, I recompile my documents into PDFs that I can read in one file. This helps me to keep all of my records in order and it makes it easier to read my documents. Adobe Acrobat Professional can compile hundreds of JPEG images into a single PDF. I also use this program extensively on my PC for reading journal articles.

4. How do you juggle between your family life and your career? Do you face or have you faced particular challenges in this regard? How do you overcome them?

Like time management, work-life balance is a regular challenge. I try to be strict with allocating time off to spend with friends and family. I travel to British Columbia two or three times a year to visit family and regularly spend evenings and weekends with my spouse. I have no good suggestions on how to achieve a good balance because I do not think there is a magic bullet for this issue. It will be different for everyone. My only advice is to be cognizant that some kind of balance is necessary.

5. Are there any aspects of your work that you were surprised to encounter when you embarked upon your career?

I am surprised that I was lucky enough to join the Department of History at York. I was a graduate student in this department and it was very unlikely that I would become a faculty member in the same department. Weird.

6. Is there any piece of advice that you wish your professors had told you when you were a grad student?

Graduate school gave me a fairly clear understanding of what an academic career would look like. However, I was quite unprepared for the difficulties of the academic job market. It was a very steep learning curve and I sought a lot of additional advice from numerous other people. Do not be afraid to ask questions as you move forward with your academic training and careers. I still find myself confused or baffled about academia and the funny thing is that this is probably true for most everyone else. Or maybe it’s just me!?!

Thank you again to Dr. Kheraj for finding the time to answer our questions! If you have a professor you would like to recommend for an interview, or if you are a professor and would like to be interviewed, pleased let us know!

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