Getting things done in academia

In a couple of days I’m participating in a panel to help young faculty be ready for their 3rd year review (the halfway step to tenure, which is kind of a big deal at my institution). This is the sort of thing that I normally say no to, but I’ve been to a couple of these things and I just couldn’t bear the thought of another group of young faculty being told that what they really needed to do to get tenure is to have a really spiffy tenure binder… so I’m going to talk about what they actually need to do to get tenure – get stuff done – and I thought it would be worth posting my thoughts on this here for broader consumption. This advice is targeted at assistant professors at research universities, but folks in other situations may be able to adapt it to their individual circumstances (e.g., if you’re at a small liberal arts college or other teaching centered school try swapping research and teaching below). Since the goal of the workshop is getting through the first phase of tenure, this is about what you need to do to accomplish that goal, not what you should be doing in any sort of broader philosophical sense. This advice is built on the lessons that Morgan (my wife and co-blogger for those of you new to JE; in fact she was so instrumental in developing these ideas that even though I’m using the first person singular this will be listed as a co-authored post) and I have learned during our time as assistant professors.

Say NO!

You could easily spend your entire life as an assistant professor doing some combination of serving on departmental committees and student committees, going to seminars and workshops, checking email, sending email, meeting with students outside your group to “talk about their research”, reviewing for journals, etc. While much of this is technically within your job description no one really cares if you do any of these things. Seriously, they don’t. They will say that they do, they may ask you why you weren’t at the meeting on such and such, but when push comes to shove at the vast majority of research universities none of this matters. So learn to say No. This is hard for a lot of people, but it is critical to your success (and for me at least, happiness).

My approach to this challenge is that my default response to any request for me to spend time on anything other than research and teaching is No. This means that the activity has to be important enough to me to overcome the default response. A lot of professors that I know have the opposite default – they say yes unless there is a particular reason that they can’t participate. This typically ends up meaning that the only reason they don’t do something is because they already have something scheduled when it would occur. This is a great way to end up with a calendar that is chock full of things that having nothing to do with succeeding in the tenure process. A very successful senior colleague of mine once told me that every time someone asks him to be involved in something new he thinks about what he isn’t going do if he chooses to participate in this new activity. So, when someone asks me to do something my default response is no and if I then bypass the default because this new thing sounds worthwhile I then ask myself if I’d rather do it than the things that are already on my list.

Schedule time for your actual work

Most people will agree to schedule something as long as they don’t have a direct conflict on their calendar. The problem with this approach is two fold. First, it means that the only time you have to work on what really matters – conducting research, writing papers, and, to a lesser degree, preparing high quality classroom experiences (lectures, exercises, etc.) – is whatever’s left over after everything that doesn’t matter is scheduled. This is obviously a bit… backwards.

The second problem is that even if you have enough total time left over to dedicate to your primary interests/responsibilities that time will be chopped up into little blocks. The vast majority of scientists and other knowledge workers that I know do not work well with short chunks of time. That is because the real work of science and other intellectual pursuits requires serious thought and that often cannot be accomplished in thirty minute chunks.

My answer to this is to schedule large blocks of time on my calendar for research and teaching. I do all of my teaching during the spring semester so this means that in the fall I typically block out Tue-Thur mornings from 8-12 and all day Friday for research. In the spring I block out those same three mornings for class preparation and keep Friday reserved for research. When someone wants to schedule a meeting with me I give them a list of available times that does not include these reserved periods. It can be hard to stick to this system when someone is having a hard time scheduling a meeting, but I rarely make an exception and then only when the person who is trying to schedule the meeting has completely run out of options and isn’t trying to schedule things at the last minute (and frankly this combination is quite rare).


Even if you follow all of these suggestions, life will find a way to interrupt your efforts. Other faculty will stop by your office for a few minutes to chat, your graduate students or the staff or your department head will have a quick question or need a signature on something, a valued colleague will send you an email that you’d like to respond to quickly, a book vendor will stop by to tell you about their latest and greatest text book, and the next thing you know you’ve spent an entire day dealing with little things that have almost nothing to do with getting tenure. The only method that I have found for dealing with this is to hide. That can mean closing (and locking; seriously) your office door and not answering it under any circumstances, it can mean working in a remote corner of the library or some other hidden nook on campus, or it can mean working at home if the distractions there aren’t worse than those at the office. I aim for eight hidden hours a week, typically by working at home one day.

Prioritize your efforts (by focusing on your CV)

Of course in order any of this to work you need to know what is important when it comes to getting tenure. This can be difficult to determine because most institutions will basically tell you that everything is important. Research is important, teaching is important (and not just actually teaching well, but going to workshops on teaching, having a teaching philosophy grounded in cutting edge pedagogy, documenting your teaching, and your efforts to improve it, and your efforts to improve your documentation of it), service is important (and not just on committees, but educating the general public, visiting K-12 classrooms, helping the department recruit students at job fairs, and helping put together departmental packets for university awards). So, basically everything you can imagine is important… Except, of course, it really isn’t. If you are in position with a research role that is greater than or equal to your other roles (faculty positions have role statements associated with them that are typically broken out as percentages of research, teaching and service; e.g., 50% research, 40% teaching, 10% service) then what matters most is your research (and by a greater margin than your role statement indicates). I have a simple rule for prioritizing things when it comes to promotion and tenure considerations:

Things only matter if you put them on your CV and their importance is in proportion to the amount of space you dedicated to them on your CV.

Your CV is the document that you use to characterize your accomplishments in your job. As such, things that you include on it are the things that really matter – publications, grants, some (generally brief) indication that you have taught classes and perhaps that your students didn’t totally hate you. You probably have a small section on service, but that probably has more to do with service outside the university than within it. From what I’ve seen promotion and tenure hinges almost exclusively on your CV so this is the right strategy. If you don’t believe me try asking your department head when the last time someone didn’t get tenure primarly due to their teaching or service. This strategy also has the nice ancillary benefit that if your university really is more interested in how many committee meetings you’ve gone to than how many papers you’ve published, then you’ll be able to use your spiffy new vitae to get a job someplace that’s a little more serious about research, or teaching, or whatever it is that you actually got into academia to do.

UPDATE: I forgot to add the credit for the title of this post that is of course due to Mike Kaspari’s excellent blog on the topic and that there is some other excellent related advice on this subject over at The EEB & Flow.

5 Comments on “Getting things done in academia

  1. Here’s the short version of your post from my perspective:

    To get tenure (the only thing that matters):
    1. be unhelpful
    2. be unflexible
    3. be inaccessible
    4. ignore/neglect some of your duties

    In other words, be a jerk.

    A lot of good, tenured professors are jerks, but in my experience at least as many aren’t. The strategy you advocate here is only one possible approach, and I don’t like it.

    For a comical take on this issue, view this work by Jorge Cham:

  2. I actually prefer to think of it as “do your duties in the percentages that you were hired to do them”. From my experience, despite the fact that service (which includes service to the department, university, scientific societies, journals, funding agencies, any outreach beyond the walls of academia) is only 10% of my job description, it would be trivially easy for that load to jump to 30-50% if I did not say no to anything. If I accept that service load then the only way to accomodate my other, higher percentile and thus more important, duties to the university is to work insane hours every week. This of course means that maintaining a personal life is difficult at best. I know this attitude that I would not be willing to selflessly devote 100 hours per week, every week, to my job is considered sacrilege among some quarters, but I believe STRONGLY that the perception that the only way to be a successful professor is to say yes to everyone and then work 100 hour weeks drives a lot of talented women out of the field. Unless they have a willing house husband (or for the Harry Potter fans out there: house elf), they cannot perceive of how they could possibly be a mother and balance that type of workload. In the medical fields, when you have more patients than you can possibly treat, you triage. I do not believe that triaging the myriad requests for my time makes me a jerk. However, my goal is to be a productive research scientist, a good teacher, a good advisor to my students AND spend time with my daughter at the end of the day. Triaging requests for my time is the only way that works for ME to do all of those things. If someone else has another strategy for doing this job well (which I do not believe means being everything to everyone), please share. Ethan and I (and I bet the other readers here) would love to hear it.

  3. Dan Binkley (Colorado State) lists 3 strategies used by successful scientists, which you can find in the workload section of his Prospectus on Graduate Studies and Advising: The strategy you advocate in this post in his strategy A: focused hard work. My point is that the other two strategies Binkley lists (B: clever and efficient, C: science as a lifestyle) also work- that is, they also allow scientists to investigate interesting topics and write high-quality publications, etc. Which strategy or combination of strategies a scientist uses should be the one that works for them (this is where personality and lifestyle come into play).

    I agree that it is incredibly unwise to try to be everything to everyone. I think it is equally unwise to be so focused on our own advancement that we are as little as possible to as many as possible. Somewhere in the middle is where I want to be.

  4. Hi Wes – first off, thanks for our first negative comment (though it’s possible that this was a negative comment, but I read it as a funny play on words). I was starting to think we were failing to get people to think.

    I think before getting into detail it’s worth noting this quote from the first paragraph of the post:

    Since the goal of the workshop is getting through the first phase of tenure, this is about what you need to do to accomplish that goal, not what you should be doing in any sort of broader philosophical sense.

    Regardless of whether one reads this post as being general guidance or a specific treatment related to getting tenure I, perhaps not surprisingly, see things somewhat differently than you. As Morgan describes in her response, this is about making decisions about what you are going to do and how well you are going to do it. One approach is certainly to say yes to everything and allow it to be scheduled any time that you are literally not in another meeting. I would characterize this approach (perhaps somewhat unkindely, but since I’m a jerk and all…) as the do everything badly approach. I at least, and I think this is true of academics in general, have far more to do than I can possibly accomplish (my To Do list after all of that saying No is 120 items long at the moment) so if I do everything I either have to do a shoddy job of it or take forever to get it done. I have chosen to take the approach of trying to do fewer things and do them better. That will certainly on occasion make me come off as a jerk to the people that I say no to, but it also makes the people involved with the things that I do focus on happier. For example I think you will find that the people in my lab and the folks I do research with don’t think of me as a jerk (well… at least not for the reasons you describe :)) because I regularly make time for them, answer emails quickly, and turn manuscripts around in a couple of weeks. When I review for journals my reviews are submitted on time and are far more thorough than the average (which incidentally leads to me being asked to review a lot and therefore having to say No more often). Likewise for the classroom I spend a lot of time preping every class period thus leading to a (hopefully) much broader experience than simply reading the book. None of this is intended to toot my own horn (I certainly wouldn’t want to be an arrogant jerk), the goal is to illustrate the fact that we are always making choices about how much we are going to do and at what quality. The fact that time is finite makes this a tradeoff by defintion. Everyone has to find their own comfort point along that tradeoff, mine is simply closer to the few things well end of the curve.

    If you’re interested in hearing what a few other folks have to say about this philosophy in some other contexts I recommend checking out Study Hacks and 43 Folders.

    …I wrote this before you’re second response, but just got it up because, relevently, I’ve been being constantly interrupted all morning.

  5. Pingback: Spring Break = Think Week for academic scientists « Jabberwocky Ecology

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