Balancing responsibilities in academia

In this post I discuss how I divide my time as an assistant professor and whether it is any different from being a postdoc or a PhD student. This is inspired by this tweet by @jayvanbavel (the plot is from this presentation), that got quite a lot of attention. Since I also had a few questions from readers about how I balance my responsibilities, I thought this would be a good topic to talk about. Spoiler: I do not identify with the message of this plot.

The categories in the plot are very fine-grained, but I will just talk about the larger categories: research (which for me includes manuscripts), service, grants, teaching and advising.

https://twitter.com/jayvanbavel/status/980071519505338369

As a PhD student

It’s true, as a PhD student I spent most of my time doing research. I would have whole days just for my exploring papers, drawing things on paper, trying out things in Matlab, meeting with my supervisors and writing down my findings. I suppose that going to talks also counts as “research” in this categorization. But more often than not, I did spend time on other categories than research and manuscripts.

First there is teaching. In my department, PhD students did not have to do a lot of teaching, but would be expected to help out with practical exercises in various courses. I did that, and volunteered for other teaching opportunities. I gave a few lectures about my research topic – the first took me approximately 30 hours of prepare. I’m quite shocked at this number now, and think I must have miscounted, but I did blog about right when it was happening, so I should probably trust my past self. I also had an opportunity to help redesign a module of a course, which was very insightful, but was also time-consuming.

Then there were activities in the “service” category. I had started reviewing papers, organizing workshops and giving outreach talks. I also organized the lab meetings for a while and kept various websites up to date. I enjoyed these activities and never consciously thought of them as “taking time away from my research”, which is probably why my grant reviewers are complaining now about my publication record.

The only category I didn’t spend a lot of time on was “grants”. But even so, I did manage to get a few rejections in that time.

As a postdoc

Most of the activities I was doing as a PhD student, continued into my postdoc, so it definitely wasn’t mostly “research”. While teaching decreased a little bit, service definitely increased – not because of the obligations of my contract, but my perceived obligation to the community, for which I was reviewing etc.

The big difference was “grants”. I had a two-year position, but given the low probability of getting funding, I started applying for things 6 months into the position. Since most things were rejected, this did take a lot of time away from research, and further worsened my position with grant reviewers.

Sometimes I hear the advice “only spend time on research during your postdoc and don’t worry about grants”. It’s nice to think how things would be now if I did have more publications from my postdoc. But at the same time, if I didn’t do what I did, I probably would not have the job I have now.

As tenure track faculty

In my current position, I am for the first time expected/paid to do all the things I was doing before  – research, teaching, advising, service and grants. I think if I had spent the previous years doing only research, this would have been a very difficult shift. But having a bit of experience in each area has helped the transition a lot, even though my research did suffer compared to my PhD.

I am not sure what % of my time I spend on each category because this varies per week. But I do – for the first time – consciously think about it.  I say no more often now (especially in the service category – while still doing my fair share). I try to group meetings, so that I have a few days without meetings, which I can then dedicate to research (although I do get distracted by other things I’m involved in).  My weekly review, where I write down what I did in different categories, also helps to see whether I’m spending too little time on research.

All in all, balancing responsibilities is difficult, but I feel that it’s possible to learn to do it better, which is one of the things (I realized) I’m exploring on this blog. I feel very fortunate to have the support – from colleagues, mentors and the community on Twitter – to do so.

I would love to hear from you – how do your spend your time, and has this changed throughout your career?

5 strategies for saying no more often

5 strategies for saying no

“I should say no more often”, I often say to myself, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. For me the hardest part is not actually declining the request, but deciding whether to do it. There are just so many interesting opportunities and I would love it if I could accept all of them! As a result, often other projects (cough writing cough) tend to suffer. Then I start feeling anxious and guilty about all the things that I need to do, and it’s a vicious circle from there. Since the demands on my time are increasing, I have been (proactively) thinking how to approach this. This post covers a few strategies I have found helpful so far for saying no.

5 strategies for saying no

 

1. Does it help or hurt my goals?

Sounds logical, right? If you can do this well, you wouldn’t even be reading this post. But for me this is the most counterintuitive strategy. The things I say yes to always end up being helpful, perhaps even in ways I cannot imagine at the time of the request. By that logic, I should say yes to everything, which is of course not a viable strategy.

I’ve started realizing that the problem is that my goals are not defined clearly enough. I recently read “The Productive Researcher” by Mark Reed, where he gives several examples of his goals. One goal is something along the lines of “[important research thing here] while not being away from home more than 2 evenings a week”. Very specific and actionable, so I’m definitely adopting this one.

 

2. Data, data, data!

Keep track of how much you are doing already. For example, I always felt I couldn’t decline a review request – it was an interesting paper, an important journal, a nice editor, etc. Then I realized I was reviewing WAY more than my “share”, roughly defined as three times the number of papers you submit yourself. Now that I’m aware of this number, it is easier to say no.

It hasn’t been an issue yet, but I imagine that in future I might impose similar quotas on other types of activities, such as committees or travel.

3. Keep a list of things you’ve said no to

Next to my CV of Failures, this year I have also started keeping a list of opportunities I have said no to. This includes things I didn’t feel I should do (such as too many reviews), but more importantly, things I wanted to do but decided not to overschedule myself.

Just as the CV of Failures felt rewarding to put together, this list too helps me feel better about declining opportunities. Now, it is just a list of things I declined, but in the future, I might add “did I regret it”, to convince me myself it’s OK to say no.

 

4. No Committee

Get a few people together to join your own personal “no committee”. When you are doubting about something, your committee votes whether you should say yes or not! For a more in-depth explanation, see the post on Get a Life, PhD, where I first found out about this concept.

I find that it is not actually necessary to interact with your committee about decisions. You just have to imagine talking to them and think about the advice they would give.

 

5. If it’s not a hell yes, it’s no

Heard this one through Tim Ferriss (either his podcast or  “Tools of Titans”, which I highly recommend). Basically the idea is that if you are doubting already (it’s not a “hell yes!”), you should say no.

 

***

That is all I have so far – do you have any other strategies you find helpful? Leave a comment below or get in touch on Twitter!

%d bloggers like this: