Won't bite the hand that bleeds me.
September 1, 2012 12:39 PM   Subscribe

"How do I prevent work schedule creep?" — Academic edition.

As a salaried, exempt employee, I am supposed to keep working until work is "done." However, my main responsibility is essentially piecework. No matter how much work I do, there is always more work.

I collect MRI data at a university. Researchers from various departments come to us with projects and I collect their data. My job is very hands-on. I have to be there when research volunteers are available. For a lot of volunteers, this appears to be early mornings, late evenings, and weekends.

Research coordinators keep testing my boundaries. "We really need this one guy, but he's only available on Saturday." "Our project is running out of time. We'd really appreciate it if you made an exception for us just this once." But exceptions quickly turn into patterns. If I stay late once, the coordinator will assume that I can stay late again and start offering regular late sessions to volunteers.

I am running ragged. I often come in before 9:00 and leave after 7:00. I'd feel better about this if I was working toward a goal, if there was some kind of end in sight.

There are several special projects I could be working on, but I have no time left for them. I often skip lunch. I have no time to identify and meet with a faculty mentor. I have no time left to keep up with the literature. I have no time to attend talks. No matter how long I work, there is never enough time.

How do I throttle back without becoming the bottleneck, without jeopardizing ongoing research?

More generally, how do I manage my tendency to give, give, give without realizing that I'm just digging a deeper hole?

If you're in academia, how would you advise I balance dutiful, time-consuming gruntwork with activity that contributes to my development, but isn't as vital? Academia enables workaholics, but I feel like I'm not even abusing the right kind of workahol.
posted by Nomyte to Work & Money (22 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Coming at this from an arts viewpoint, but would it be too much for you to set some hours when you'll be available, as in office hours? Make reasonable hours, where you'll be fully accessible, and post them/send them to all the parties involved. Don't be a jerk about it, but let people know you can occasionally work additional hours if available (please inquire to set appointment). You could even pencil your other, important projects into the schedule, itself, so people can see when you're working on other things. Seeing those blocks of "no appointment" time written out on the calendar might give them validity to those who see you as an inexhaustible resource. Just make others more conscious of your schedule. They're obviously making you conscious of theirs. Maybe you'll be surprised by how seriously they take this.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 1:18 PM on September 1, 2012

Just don't do it, simple as that. Get in 7:55am and leave at 5:05pm (assuming a one-hour lunch), religiously. Don't give in to the temptation to stay for "just another 15 minutes", which will lead to two hours.

If something absolutely critical comes up and/or your boss asks you to stay longer, hey, that happens and we need to accept it; but make a very visible point of coming in a proportional amount of time late the next day.

Your employers will abuse you as far as you let them. Don't let them. If your employer gives you crap, tell them bluntly to either reduce the workload or make you hourly (which amounts to the same thing since they won't want to pay OT).

As for the academia angle... Your studies/research come first, never forget that.
posted by pla at 1:22 PM on September 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

I wonder if there's any mileage in speaking to your supervisor about your standard working hours being tweaked to fit in with when your volunteers are available? Obviously this would be a negotiation since I doubt you want to work 12:00-21:00 every day but if you have (say) two days a week when you standardly work in the evenings then it becomes easier to say that that's what you offer. Plus if you end up staying late frequently anyway, coming in early is one way to acknowledge that that time is needed without going crazy with the number of hours you work.

I'm entirely familiar with the need to use your MRI scanner to the max and when I was the researcher I worked 12 hour days to fill my slots, but that shouldn't spill over to your job because you do it every day. Our radiographers worked very set hours and outside that time we just couldn't use the scanner.
posted by kadia_a at 1:30 PM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would tell the coordinator when you are available to supervise volunteers. Maybe you have already had that conversation, but in any case have it again. And then say no when they ask for extra time.
It's that simple.

They aren't going to fire you for saying no. You are doing your job, anything else is just gravy. And if they do, be grateful you got out when you did, because it is not going to get better.

In terms of getting the other stuff done, I would devise an autopilot schedule, ala Cal Newport. Include your other 'special' tasks in the schedule in addition to your regular work.
posted by tooloudinhere at 1:32 PM on September 1, 2012

Yes, boundaries, especially for work hours. Perhaps a sign printed out and hung in an appropriate place with a healthy dose of disengagement. You may need to acquire a thicker skin, which you have my permission to grow. From another angle, the research habits you allow now will become part of their professional practice later on, so by instituting a structure more beneficial to you now, you're helping their assistants in the future.
posted by rhizome at 1:32 PM on September 1, 2012

I was going to suggest what kadia_a did -- if you are willing, talk to your supervisor about tweaking your hours a couple of days a week to accommodate research volunteers. Do you have a supervisor and have you talked to her or him at all about this?

If you've been bending to other people's schedules all along, no one may realize that there is a problem. So: boundaries, start saying no, and establish a schedule that allows for some "after hours" appointments for volunteers.

I often roll my eyes when people mention the Miss Manners "that's just not possible" trope around here, but this is actually one situation where it works. You have other job responsibilities besides doing what research coordinators ask of you. Enforce those boundaries! You can do it!

(And maybe your office/lab is understaffed? My last job, after I left, they had to hire a second person to support my replacement because I had been doing so much. Workplaces often don't realize this until that busy (stressed, and burned-out) person leaves ...)
posted by stowaway at 1:46 PM on September 1, 2012

Set up appointments that they can make to use the machine (and you) very explicit. 7am-3pm M-W and 11am-7pm Th and F. If they want anything outside of this timeframe that you establish, they have to pay time and a quarter or a half and get written requests from their chair or dean.

OR tell them that if they want those kind of hours, they're going to need to write in a funded MRI tech into their next proposal - salary, benefits, etc. - not contractual. And once there are 2 techs, you can be available longer hours.

But you also have to say no. I'm sure for special populations, they desperately need those participants, but if you keep on saying yes, they will have to listen.
posted by k8t at 2:18 PM on September 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

Another angle might be to only do these favors in exchange for authorship.... Even if you're low on the totem pole.
posted by k8t at 2:21 PM on September 1, 2012

You have a few things that your job description is for, I am gathering:

1. MRI data collection for other scientists
2. Other special projects

You need to figure out how much time you should be spending on each -- are you supposed to spend 50% on 1? 75%?

Then you need to set limits. I think that staying late one night a week and coming early one morning a week is probably sufficient, but you can discuss with your supervisor the exact schedule that is useful, once you know how much of your time should be spent not doing the special projects.
posted by jeather at 3:05 PM on September 1, 2012

As a salaried, exempt employee, I am supposed to keep working until work is "done."
You are also supposed to have the professional experience and authority to define the terms of your commitments and a responsibility to keep them aligned to what a reasonable professional in your position could do in a normal work week.

Lots of other folks have good advice here on how you need to learn to say no, and perhaps have some conversations with your supervisors regarding how much time you should be spending on MRI versus special projects. Just remember as you do this, that saying no is sometimes part of your job.
posted by meinvt at 3:13 PM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

First, set aside time in the near future (this week?) where you are completely unavailable to other people's demands. You will probably need three-four hours. If you have a job description/job posting then use that as a template. Otherwise, write down all the tasks/goals you should be doing as part of your job (and larger career). Is this the job you want for the rest of your life? If not, include what you need to work on to move to your next job/career/increased responsibilities (certifications/conferences/publishing/staying on top of new developments). Figure out what percent of your overall job should be each task. Divide the percentage by 35 hours and stick to your self imposed schedule. Since you seem to have a lot of last minute crisis appointments then give yourself a large percent of "unscheduled crisis" time (it sounds like it should be 25% of your time?). If no one "books" you during that time then you can use it for your other tasks; if in the next few weeks you are still consistently booking/overbooking that unstructured time then increase the amount of time devoted to it by reducing the amount of scheduled MRI appointments. (I am assuming the hierarchy is such that you can't refuse the emergency bookings). Keep track of your schedule like a lawyer looking after billable hours. You will probably get pushback from
someone and having documention of what you are doing will deflate their argument you aren't doing enough.

You have my sympathies, one of my jobs has two parts: CRISIS!!!! and long term tasks. Guess which one takes up most of my time to the detriment of both the job and the people I serve?
posted by saucysault at 3:31 PM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In addition to the good advice you've gotten here, I'll just add one more thing: don't feel guilt about not being available 24/7. This sentence in particular in your post caught my eye:
How do I throttle back without becoming the bottleneck, without jeopardizing ongoing research?
No research is so important that you should ruin your life for it. PI's might feel differently, but that's because so much of their ego is invested in their work--and I say this as a historian who often works evenings and weekends because so much of my ego is invested in my work.

If ongoing research is so important, and one tech isn't able to do it while maintaining sanity, a private life, and keeping up with professional development, then you need another tech. It's that simple. Tell it to your supervisor, and to the PI's who are taking advantage of your good nature. You can always quit if your work conditions are below your limit; if you're doing a good job and people like your work, then you have a trump card there. If you can handle all the work, but only with limits on when you're available, make that clear as well.
posted by brianogilvie at 6:04 PM on September 1, 2012

Ask explicitly for flex time for work (MRI supervision) outside of standard hours. Work done outside of standard hours to count as 1.25-1.5x for flex time. Document everything. Of course, when its busy, you'll need to do the work, but you can bugger off during slow seasons or schedule extra time off ahead of time (typically, at least a week or two ahead with the understanding that it isn't busy season or something).

That is, assuming that your data analyses/special projects work is done in an adequately timely manner.

How "grunty" are you - are you entry level research tech or are you several tiers up or even a research associate? Your best bet is to have a frank discussion with your immediate supervisor, and perhaps shop around for similar kinds of jobs at a different school/department/hospital on the down-low in the meantime.

In industry, job descriptions (ought to) have responsibilities broken down by percentages. In some organizations, rouinte meetings alone take 5-10% and higher grades are afforded 'literature review' which can include seminars and conferences. See if you can get something similar in writing.

Letting good people go is typically kind-of difficult. Identifying/hiring and training good people can be a nightmare. If you're a good employee and funding isn't particularly tight, you should have decent leverage as long as you ask for it.
posted by porpoise at 7:28 PM on September 1, 2012

Response by poster: The university has only had the scanner for a year. My "division" has a staff of five whole people. I am the only tech and the first one the university has had. I have no official job description, no breakdown of duties by percent, nothing like that. On the other hand, we don't need to have official meetings.

I am classified as a full-time research assistant. I've been with the university for four years. We do not promote, the state is broke, there are no tiers or pay grades, and "research associates" are a very rare exception. Basically, I do what I can to keep the place afloat.

My supervisor (i.e., one of the five permanent staff in the building) is on my side. However, it's hard to keep saying "no" when we have to stay revenue-neutral. Every request we decline is money lost.
posted by Nomyte at 8:09 PM on September 1, 2012

Can you charge the grants extra for time outside normal 9-5 hours? (Time and a half from 7-9, from 5-7, double past 7pm or on weekends, whatever makes sense for your school.)

Also, how many hours a week do you need to run the MRI to be revenue-neutral? You want to aim for that. If revenue-neutral is more than (about) 32 hours a week, you're not charging enough.
posted by jeather at 8:19 PM on September 1, 2012

Best answer: Check your me-mail.
posted by synapse at 9:06 PM on September 1, 2012

The university has only had the scanner for a year.

Sounds like growing pains.

No way you should keep doing this unless its to prove the competency of the new resource (the new scanner and its attendant technologists) in order to demand more future funding. The habits that you've shared with us are "graduate student problems." As an associate, you should not have to deal with these things - unless you want to, in which case, you make a case for (at least) higher paid positions, if not positions where you can make decisions on how to arrange MRI appointments.

You need to have a frank talk with your supervisor. Basically, what you've told us, and hopefully backed up with some of what we've shared with you.

In most academic environments, research assistant positions range from I to IV (or higher), and are definitely above research technician levels. Are you still a I (ie., base salary) or have there been promotions? If you're going way way way above and beyond, as it sounds, your output suggests that you need promotion and the hiring of underlings. If not actual hires, then undergraduate volunteers - or better yet, undergrad work study students who get most of their pay from the university rather than from your deparrtment/supervisor's grants. There are definitely downsides to this (you'll probably end up having to train a never ending stream of stupid and clueless undergrads - most of whom will be absolute SHIT - but possibly identify candidates to take on for more permanent/paid positions), but you can get lucky if you can recruit the right people.

However, it's hard to keep saying "no" when we have to stay revenue-neutral. Every request we decline is money lost.

Not your problem. It's your supervisor's. It's above your paygrade.

Do you have ANY IDEA how much of a pain in the ass it was for your supervisor to identify and hire you, you who has been doing at least a reasonable job and has gone above and beyond? Unless you're grossly mis-analyzing your position, you're a valuable asset. There's the passing possibility that you might be. I've seen people in similar situations who make similar complaints, but it's their fault; Dunning-Kruger effect in real life. I've known DK effect people, you don't scream that defect, but how do you think your coworkers think of your output?

How many of these special projects and "odd hours subjects" are for colleagues of your supervisor and not subjects specifically covered by your supervisor's grants? You're being pimped out to do free work to increase your supervisor's social credit. You definitely are entitled to be reimbursed, and it's completely ok to claim "it's not part of my job description to do that."

Unless your extra efforts ensures your future compensation, it's not your problem. You need to talk to your supervisor about your concerns and propose potential solutions.

Personal advice - take your experience and try to get a job somewhere else. But bringing up these concerns with your supervisor and getting their feedback is key information on how you want to proceed from this point.

Your education level might make a difference; if you have a BSc, you might not be taken as seriously as if you have a MSc although experience and respect is typically much more important than your terminal degree. When you're applying for other opportunities, you want to emphasize your previous extra-regular-work hours contributions, (for industry - play it as an 'exceptional service;' for academia, phrase it as 'personal passion' but be prepared to do all that extra overtime) but you don't want to tell that you dislike it until after they offer you a position.
posted by porpoise at 10:53 PM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: We are definitely trying several of these suggestions.

We failed to win a FWS student in the campus lottery. The campus is under a hiring freeze and a salary freeze. As I mentioned, I'm not even aware of the existence of tiers or pay grades for most positions here. I have the same nominal title and salary as when I was hired by the university over four years ago. We will not be getting raises or promotions anytime soon, the way the state is heading.

I'm not sure I want another scanner tech position (or another kind of research grunt job), and my experience doesn't really qualify me for anything else. This is not an environment where hard work pays off in tangible ways. I'm putting my remaining energy into maximizing my chances of getting into grad school, for what that's worth.
posted by Nomyte at 11:39 PM on September 1, 2012

Re: "unscheduled crisis"

Sometimes you have to drop the "failure to plan on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part" bomb on people.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 6:11 AM on September 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Disclaimer: I am, in general, completely clueless about professional academic work.

That said, I am confused by your statement about revenue-neutrality. If you have to work uncompensated time that is outside normal working hours to keep the scanner revenue-neutral (not even profitable), then it sounds everyone here that suggests you upcharge out-of-working hours time is correct. In other words, your scanner group is not charging enough for your time if you are essentially required to play scheduling gymnastics just to keep the place revenue-neutral.

If you are held to a business standard of revenue-neutrality, but are not given the tools to maintain revenue-neutrality (ie, the ability to hire staff as needed and set pricing as appropriate), then you are in a catch-22 scenario that cannot be resolved. In scenarios that I've heard about like yours, the group in question has the ability to go outside the overarching institution's hiring guidelines if they are able to independently pay for the exceptions they make. If you can't make said exceptions, this is an intractable scenario for you and you should be planning your exit, not how to "fix" something that your higher level management won't allow you to fix.
posted by saeculorum at 8:51 AM on September 2, 2012

I'm no academic, but if it's really a free-for-all with the various departments against your central scanning service, would it be possible to stay revenue neutral by charging for the MRI work, either against the departments or the grants under which the research is being done?
posted by rhizome at 5:13 PM on September 2, 2012

Mrs. underflow is an admin at a planning office at a large university.

They've found it necessary to put well-documented rules in place to prevent this kind of abuse. The rules are linked on every email they send, and are posted on just about every available surface in their offices.

The rules provide for penalties for late engagements, late notices, and general asinine behavior from clients. Clients are required to sign off that they have read the rules. That being said, the rules are often waived, because they want to make the clients happy. But, all of the verbiage makes it clear that the onus is on the client to have their act together.

Also, getting paid hourly is a huge blessing in this situation. It really prevents overtime abuse. Perhaps it's not an option, but you could look into it.
posted by underflow at 10:09 AM on September 3, 2012

« Older Where can I find information about the demographic...   |   Need an electronic filing cabinet. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.