How to be a good and sane professor in a crazy research world
May 23, 2007 9:49 PM   Subscribe

I am a new tenure track professor (research uni) in the US. I just finished my first year and feel barely competent in a lot of areas -- ok but not good teaching evals, 3-6 weeks late in paper "deadlines", so many last minute "preparations" for classes or meetings, no good ideas for future research. I need some help figuring out how to better play the game, or to be happier with just getting by. Fellow academics (or others in similar professions), to the bat phone!

This year has been harder than I expected. It's like going from one super Big Gulp of a responsibility to seven or eight Larges, and my tray can only handle three of any size. I need to figure out what responsibilities really are a priority, and what things people (in real life, not in hypothetical perfect world) put on the back burner. Right now, everything is falling apart because it's too much and I'm losing it. I have a major revision to do, but some review deadlines are sooner so those come first (can't disappoint important senior editors), but conference deadlines to get new stuff going are 3 weeks away, and meanwhile students are at my door and grades are due tomorrow and school emails are piling up and classes need to be planned for the Fall (already!) and I have to read the textbooks before that (so my evaluations are a little better next year) and promises for lunch with research contacts have been made and I still have email 'are you alive?' messages 3 months old already from friends to reply to, and my god this all just makes me wish I drank. I am mentally overwhelmed and so my mind is shutting down, and that's not helping much. How the heck do people do it? What are the right and wrong moves? What are the tricks? Is software or a magic gadget the answer? This is a trial by drowning, and I'm hoping that the Metafilter crowd can make it easier. For reasons obvious to any academic, I can't be too open and honest with the local crowd since they determine my future and image means a lot. Please help me create a competant, if not accomplished, image so in a couple years I will be one of those awing the new hires, instead of the cautionary tale I currently am reading Metafilter all day hiding in my office behind closed door with the lights off.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (25 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
It will get a LOT easier. The first time teaching any course takes twice as much time as the second, and that 1.5 times the third iteration, and so forth. You will also become more expert in your field, and less of a perfectionist in your work, and better able to extend prior work a little as opposed to starting from scratch.

Plus, you will start to drink.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 9:56 PM on May 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

Is there a more senior faculty member than you can befriend?

In my field there is a professional association mentoring program as well.
posted by k8t at 10:14 PM on May 23, 2007

1. It's this bad for most of us. Be sure you're at least feeding yourself and getting 6 hours of sleep a night.

2. Right now, just finish your grades and get them in on time. Be brief with students when you can; try to answer questions by email.

3. Where are your friends from grad school? Call one of them tomorrow and say "holy s**t I'm underwater here. How do you do it?". Chances are they'll say "me too". Give yourself some time in the evening to just talk and commiserate. You can also reply to some of those friend emails very briefly, just saying "I'm exhausted; sorry I haven't been in better touch. I'd love to hear what's up with you, and any positive thoughts you can send my way would be very welcome too." They're your friends. Don't let academic perfectionism bleed over into your communication with your friends - they like you, and they don't care if your reply message is witty or long.

4. Check out the Chronicle of Higher Education forums - that link is to the Tenure Track one. There are not a ton of active commenters, but lots of stuff in the archive that will at least remind you you're not alone.

5. Set aside an hour to figure out when all your (ostensible) deadlines are and put them on one sheet of paper, or calendar page, or computer screen. Put a ranking on them, something along the lines of
A =Of utmost importance to get done both on time and well (only a few things should go here!)
B =More important to get done on time
C =More important to get done well
D =Not all that important

6. Some things you can certainly get extensions on (eg reviews are often this way). Some things you can just put something together that is more or less adequate and send it out the door (conference abstracts are often like this). Start thinking realistically about how much of the stuff on your list you can get done. You may have to write to some people and just say that you can't complete what you've promised and you want to let them know now.

7. Your teaching prep work can wait until mid-July. Teaching won't get you tenure. From now until mid-July, it's all professional and research activities, no teaching (or, that's the discipline I try to force myself into). Seriously, teaching is a black hole that will absorb as much of your time as you give it. If you got ok eval's, you're doing fine. If you prepped at the last minute, good - that's normal.

8. It might help to set yourself 2 hours in the morning (or whenever your good work time is) to work on the revision. Remember it doesn't have to be perfect, but you need to get it done. No matter what else is going on, you'll keep those 2 hours for the revision. No checking email. No answering the phone. Maybe get an office in the library if your school has them. This is your biggest scholarly responsibility, it has to come first. Once the revision is done, this will be your research time - thinking of new projects, etc. It's much too easy to backburner the research, because it's the one thing nobody is actively asking you for. Don't do this. Do whatever you have to, to make this rise to the top of the list.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:30 PM on May 23, 2007 [5 favorites]

The first year WILL be the hardest. There is a huge transition crossing from one side of the desk to the other, and no serious preparation for it. So yes, it is a trial by fire, but also, you have come through the worst of it. Some other points:

-- most likely, you are your own worst critic. Chances are, others see you as a good teacher with some good research going on. They aren't seeing all the little undone things, those things are a constellation that only you have full knowledge of. Sometimes try to focus on all the good things you do, not on your own private sense of un-done-ness.

-- you must learn to say "no". Do not take on too many things. Pace yourself. Don't over-promise. be transparent in your limitations. Say to your students, "I will return your papers in three weeks because X Y Z" , rather than "I will get them back next week" and then not doing so.

-- trim down some responsibilities. Five years from now, if you have done three reviews or two, no one will care. Prioritize and be ruthless about that.

-- put an auto-reply on your email to the effect of "I am working on a major project and will be replying to emails in a delayed manner". Cut off other people's sense they will get immediate gratification from you. People will actually be intrigued and respect such a message. Then use that psychological bubble to get caught up on your #1 priority.

-- do the same with your voicemail. "thank you for your call. I may not be able to respond for several days because of a major commitment." You create a bubble of lower expectation within which you can manoeuvre.

-- make sure you have an outlet. Play a sport, go hiking. Recognize when you are stalled and take an actual break rather than practicing "presenteeism" or non-productive attendance at your office. In this respect, going for beers with graduate students can be good because i. they are excited and enthusiastic b. they have energy c. they think you know a lot and you can get some positive vibes and d. it won't be too serious. Even better is some kind of sport you can do with grad students: floor hockey, ultimate frisbee, etc....

Anyway, what I am saying is, the first year is a lot about multitasking and coping with that can be done through managing expectations. Do not let yourself be nibbled to death by ducks. And the university will take EVERYTHING you can possibly give, and there is NO ONE there who will say "slow down, pace yourself, you've done enough, good job". So, it is essential that you make priorities, don't over-commit, prune, and manage expectations. It is hard, but you are through the worst of it. Best of luck. Email is in profile if you need it.
posted by Rumple at 10:33 PM on May 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

If you can do a program like GTD, it would probably help. I've found that it doesn't work for me (yet?), but I have academic friends who have used elements of it very successfully. It helps to keep the emails from piling up, at least.

A short-term fix for that would be to do a big purge once your grades are in. Then set one hour a day for going through admin emails etc. You'll act on each as needed, while it's open, then you'll file or delete it appropriately. So, you'll clear out the inbox each day, all in one big shot, and then you won't be disrupted by admin emails for the rest of the day (they can wait until tomorrow).
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:37 PM on May 23, 2007

Rumple's advice - to put off going through the admin emails for several days if possible - is excellent. I don't know what volume of mail you get; judge what time intervals you can use here.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:40 PM on May 23, 2007

I ask that you read lobstermitten's recs and take them seriously. You cannot be perfect, laudable or even (maybe) competent in all of teaching, research and service. The sad fact is that, if you're overwhelmed, trim back the teaching effort. Give multiple-choice exams. Don't write extensive comments on essays. Do what your colleagues do, but don't admit. Be selfish, for now.

You talk about manuscript deadlines- so are we talking about deadlines for returning an R and R? If so, don't sweat the deadline. Journal editors will be THRILLED if everybody returned revisions in the 4 weeks (or whatever) they request- never happens. If you got an R and R, they'll wait.

Find out what constitutes by rule of thumb adequate career progress and try to meet it. If they expect five refereed articles when you go up for tenure, then try to publish one a year. Try to have two papers in the pipeline at all times- that's not impossible- and you'll always have something coming out. Set concrete, reasonable goals like that. You have the luxury right now of being able to saw off dissertation chapters- do it!

Finally, to reiterate Clyde Minestra- it DOES get easier. You're in your trial by fire now, and bless your heart, the light is at the end of the tunnel. Your salary will get higher, you'll do fewer and fewer new teaching preps, you'll get pubs and you'll find your groove. These are EXCITING TIMES for you and we're pulling for you!
posted by ethnomethodologist at 10:48 PM on May 23, 2007

Suggested in other threads (I haven't read them though):
Advice for New Faculty Members
Professors as Writers
Life on the Tenure Track
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:48 PM on May 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

Lobstermitten's advice fits like a Lobsterglove, as does ethnomethodologist's. The best colleagues are good in all dimensions of their jobs, without necessarily being great in any of them, and certainly only freaks of nature are superb in all that they do in such a multifaceted job. Budget your time carefully, including time for yourself. Set small achievable goals, and be up-front if you have committed to too much. In a year or two, your head will be above water and you can polish your performance across the board. There is a reason the tenure clock usually runs for 5 or 6 years, and not for 6 months: it is a tough, tough job which can be severely emotionally draining, and there is often very little mentoring or training.
posted by Rumple at 10:54 PM on May 23, 2007

Yep, first year is the worst. The good news is that your first year is over! I second the recommendation to visit the CHE Forums. We actually do have a lot of posters there, just cut and paste your comments here.
posted by LarryC at 10:55 PM on May 23, 2007

The Chronicle of Higher Education is gold. You probably already read it, but if you dont, you should start. Read the essays and columns in the Careers section. You get free online access to the CHE archives when you subscribe to the print edition. There are tons of archived columns which address your concerns.

Academia is an insanely competetive and petty place to be. It's like high school in a lot of ways. You can't let members of your department know that you're hanging on by a thread. Don't plant the seed of incompetence. If there is someone you really trust, however, you should seek their guidance.
posted by HotPatatta at 11:01 PM on May 23, 2007

Re: CHE forums: All I meant is, if you were to post and only get a few responses, don't get discouraged; check out the older posts and you'll see there are lots of people with similar feelings/situations.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:05 PM on May 23, 2007

I couldn't agree more with the advice being offered here. One of the upsides to the profession is the tendency of many to spend their time in these kinds of random acts of generosity, despite the absence of traditional incentives.

As to the advice to consult with a senior colleague, I guess I would just reinforce that it should be someone you really, really trust. And I say that not just because they might conceivably betray you, but also because you may waste time worrying about whether they will, and whatever advice they give probably won't be worth it.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 11:10 PM on May 23, 2007

amyms, you actually can't help insulting someone who is asking for help? I just can't imagine your motivation here. Do you think someone without a PhD would be a better professor?

Being a professor is a hard complicated job with a lot of unwritten rules. There's a learning curve. There's a lot of anxiety, for a lot of reasons one of which is the fear that if you screw up, you won't be able to get another job -- there may only be a few jobs in the whole country in your specialty in a given year, and there will be a few hundred people applying for them. The internal workings of the system (publication, hiring, promotion, tenure evaluations all happen on the word of the people in your academic area) are such that it's hard to even speak to colleagues in your home institution about the learning curve. This is a perfectly reasonable question, one that nearly every first-year professor faces.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:36 PM on May 23, 2007

My partner is a relatively new academic and has recently come to this realisation: When you are submitting an article to a peer-reviewed journal, submit a decent first draft. You can spend weeks (or months) getting a paper into what you think is acceptable shape, and when you get the reviews back, inevitably there are (at the very least) a few revisions. Much more likely, you'll have to do major revisions based on reviewer comments, regardless of the quality of paper that was submitted in the first place. So, his strategy now, is to get the idea and write up something decent, but not spend too much time and energy on it. He'll just have to rewrite it to the reviewers' specifications, anyway.

As for getting the research ideas in the first place, I have no idea.

Good luck.
posted by naturesgreatestmiracle at 11:37 PM on May 23, 2007

Here are a few threads from the Chronicle forums to get started with.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:42 PM on May 23, 2007

'are you alive?' messages 3 months old already from friends to reply to

That one is simple. Just write them back and say "Yes, but I'm unfortunately too swamped to right a fuller reply right now. I hope we can catch up soon!" Cut, paste, repeat.
posted by grouse at 12:55 AM on May 24, 2007

My advisor and I talk a lot about what it's like to be a new academic, as we're close in age and she was still newish when I decided to be her student. When she started, the department matched her up with a senior faculty member in her area to be her mentor, who luckily for her is a straight shooter who's not into department politics. The mentor was the one who told her things like what the priorities were in terms of tenure in the department (teaching comes second to research), and what to take out of student evaluations (don't take them too seriously, but do pay attention to negatives that get mentioned frequently). She also ended up learning a lot of survival tips just by going to lunch with other faculty members. My particular university also runs workshops specifically for first-year faculty members, addressing the issues you bring up. Maybe your school has them, too?

What I notice a lot of the professors doing is they set aside a particular time for email, and deal with it at that time - reply to it, file it away in a separate mailbox or folder, just delete it, etc., but it's not dealt with outside of those times. What I also see is some kind of prioritization scheme sketched out on a whiteboard in their office: upcoming conference / journal deadlines, projects in priority order (along with relevant deadlines and collaborator names). It's not tasks mapped to a calendar or schedule, but rather a daily visual reminder of one's priorities.

Just to reiterate what others have said, you're not alone. Also, there is no silver bullet. You have to figure out your own working style and come up with a system that works for you. But of course you don't do this from scratch, as a good academic you examine the prior research, like you are doing here.
posted by needled at 4:59 AM on May 24, 2007

[a few comments removed - please don't comment just to say something you know will be deleted.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 5:35 AM on May 24, 2007

A big help for me: have a time tracker running on your computer. Use it religiously. (I like gtt, but any tracker should be fine; you are not going to need really complicated features.) Make sure you're spending a large share of times doing the things that are going to get you tenure (which is to say, your research.) It's incredibly easy to spend a lot of time on things that offer more immediate feedback and satisfaction (preparing lectures, answering e-mail, writing referee reports.) You need to do these things; but they need to come second. And you need to know how much of your day is going towards them.

lobstermitten's It might help to set yourself 2 hours in the morning (or whenever your good work time is) to work on the revision. Remember it doesn't have to be perfect, but you need to get it done. No matter what else is going on, you'll keep those 2 hours for the revision. No checking email. No answering the phone. Maybe get an office in the library if your school has them. This is your biggest scholarly responsibility, it has to come first. Once the revision is done, this will be your research time - thinking of new projects, etc. It's much too easy to backburner the research, because it's the one thing nobody is actively asking you for. Don't do this. Do whatever you have to, to make this rise to the top of the list.

is so wise I have to repeat it. The book The Academic's Handbook is very good on this, and makes the following point. Teaching and research are both part of your job. If you are teaching from 10 to 11, you show up. Even if you have a lot of e-mail to answer. Even if you have to cut short a conversation with a senior faculty member. If you've allocated 10 to 11 as research time, you've got to treat it the exact same way.
posted by escabeche at 5:59 AM on May 24, 2007

I'd be more concerned if you weren't feeling overwhelmed in May of your first year. May will always suck. You've signed up for two jobs, both of them have learning curves, and either of them could take up all of your time. Amyms' comment nothwithstanding, in some sense what you need to learn is to become incompetent, or at least more selectively competent. Academia seems to select for perfectionists and you simply cannot do all parts of your job the way you would like to.

Print out the advice that LobsterMitten and Rumple have given above and tape it to your desk. Rumple's suggestion about exercise is especially important when you feel swamped -- it actually works better to walk away and go work out or ride a bike for an hour. Counterintuitive, but I've found I end up getting more done when I get back. I'm going to try the suggestion about doing this with graduate students.

You've already figured out one very important and valuable trick -- lights off with the door locked. Or just go home and work from there. Even if you have a careful list of priorities, office traffic can sidetrack the best intentions. (I just ordered a chess clock, and I'm going to put it on my desk and keep track of time on task/time off task. I don't think I'm going to like what I find.) So be scrupulous about being there for office hours, and have some flexibility for students who make appointments to see you. But your colleagues and students should think twice about just popping in.

I have an alternate version of LobsterMitten's point 2: More and more, I am asking that my students telephone my office instead of emailing -- I may even put this in my syllabus next year. That way, whatever needs to get done happens right then, and I don't spend a lot of time composing. And I think that often students who would think nothing of sending an email are a bit intimidated by talking to me on the phone, and may actually check to see if their question might be answered in their notes, or by actually reading the syllabus, or by talking to a TA. I'm not suggesting that you should be unfriendly or intentionally scary -- when I am on the phone with students or they are in my office, I try to put them at ease. But I also want them to know that my time is valuable.
posted by Killick at 6:09 AM on May 24, 2007

I am not into complex organization systems and would never keep up with one. I have a white board with three categories on it: short, medium and long. All my upcoming work is listed under one of them, depending on how far off the deadline is. I erase and re-categorize as necessary. If the short-term category is empty I can work on something in one of the other categories.
posted by cushie at 8:46 AM on May 24, 2007

posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:51 AM on May 24, 2007

Thirding advice from lobster and rumple.

The following things are required for transformation from postdoc/grad student to professor.

Establish your absence. You need to make a time when you are not available to other people. For emails. For comittee meetings. For students. For phonecalls. It can be 2 hrs in a morning, or a whole day. YOU DO NOT EXIST TO THE OUTSIDE WORLD DURING THIS TIME. Exception: actual life threatening issues. Like a heart attack of a spouse. It's during this time that you do the important material (see below): like figuring out ideas for research or doing high quality writing . It also means people are USED to you not being there, and will come to expect it. No-one calls a govt agency like the Senate for a vote at 11pm on sunday night: they're not there. Their job is complex and important too: but their time is parcelled off. You should do the same. You will occasionally piss people off with your non-availability: this is OK becuase....

Don't be afraid to say NO
You are no-longer a grad student or postdoc. You are an independent academic who manages their own time. This gives you many responsibilities but it gives you the right to REFUSE to do things. You will not get fired by refusing to do things: you just have to couch the refusal appropriately, calibrating it to the person you need to say no to.

You have to be able to delegate or just put a limit on people's demands. If someone asks you for comments on a grant, tell them you dont't have time this week. If a student wants a chat outside of office hours, tell them you are too busy: look at another textbook for an explanation or talk to the TA. If the lecture would look nice with snazzy graphics but you're facing a grant deadline: you don't have the time: you can give a reference to students and they can see a picture on a website or a textbook.

I despize managment systems. But Coveys quadrant helped my old boss (chair of best chem dept in europe) manage his life: he can and you can too.

Draw a quadrant like the one shown. Divide tasks into urgent and important.
Q1 Do it Q2 Delay it Q3 Delegate it Q4 Dump it.
What academics spend their time doing is putting out fires in the urgent column, without tending to important things that appear not to be urgent.. but become urgent. This is why you need to establish your absence so you can work on the important things and why you need to be able to say no so you can work on the urgent things.

If you're a scientist: When you have a nanosecond, read Tomorrows Professor by Rick Reis and At The Helm by cathy barker. Both are incredibly useful resources.

It WILL get easier. Good luck!
posted by lalochezia at 10:47 AM on May 24, 2007

Establish your absence.

This is a really good suggestion.

I assume you also are a member of a few univeristy committees. If your university is anything like the one where I work, those meetings always go longer than they are supposed to. One way to ensure that you don't spend any more time at these meetings is to schedule student meetings for immediately after the nominal end to the meeting. That way, you have a really good excuse to leave when you should have been able to leave in the first place.
posted by naturesgreatestmiracle at 11:51 PM on May 24, 2007

« Older Help identify my mystery aroma!   |   Feel my heartbeat Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.