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.

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?

2 thoughts on “Balancing responsibilities in academia”

  1. Thanks for (yet) another interesting and thought-provoking post, Veronika 🙂

    My experience sounds similar to yours – during my PhD I did lots of “other” stuff than research (organising conferences, planning and delivering teaching, reviewing, helping write grants, mentoring students etc.) – and that definitely made the transition away from the PhD easier.

    These days I don’t do any research – and don’t miss it at all – but am spending all my time on strategy, coordination, operational stuff. Balancing responsibility here is the classic challenge of dealing with the less-important but urgent stuff in a way that gives time for the very important but less urgent things.

    I now work closely with an assistant, and that is invaluable – not just for the ability to share work with her, but also as someone to generally discuss priorities with, and understand where we can both make the most impact on the overall goal of our shared work.

    1. That’s so interesting! Is there the same kind of understanding for what are the not urgent but important parts (like writing in academia)?

      Having an assistant also sounds really great, I am sure she is happy to have you as her boss 🙂

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