Looking back on my first year as an assistant professor

Almost year ago, I woke up early to drive an hour and a half from the place I was staying to the University of Maine campus in Orono. My housing had fallen through after I had driven across country from Oregon to Maine, and apartments were difficult to find as students were returning for the fall semester. I took my highway exit, and almost immediately joined a mile and a half long line of cars waiting to get to campus. This may not sound like a lot, but Orono is small – really small. There are three bridges onto the island, each with a single lane of traffic in either direction. It was 8 am, and I still needed to get to campus and find parking before my 8:30 am meeting with my new department chair, something I very much did not want to be late for.

View from the bridge in Orono.

After moving only 100 yards in 10 min, I was able to turn around in a side street and get back on the highway to the next exit, in Old Town, from where I could drive southward on the island. In another 10 minutes, I had made it back to the highway, onto campus, and had found parking. That simple detour makes a nice metaphor for starting out as new faculty: there is probably an easier way to accomplish your task, you just don’t know yet that that way exists.

Last September, I joined the University of Maine as an Assistant Professor. It’s my first academic faculty position, and with it comes a variety of new responsibilities (you can read here about the differences in academic positions). There’s a learning curve to any new job, but faculty positions, in particular, require a level of expertise in time management that you likely have never encountered.

I needed to establish a laboratory and order things for it, recruit students and develop career development plans for them; develop research plans spanning the next five years; propose and then develop new classes; learn a new institutional system for ordering, reporting, teaching, advising; meet new people; and the myriad other administrative tasks that go along with teaching, advising, and managing a laboratory.

There is pressure, some from external sources but primarily from ‘the thorn in your side which seeks accomplishment’, to advance each of your goals immediately and simultaneously. You need to show progress early on, but it is not possible to devote the time and focus that each of these goals demand to all of them at once. If you try, you will find yourself buried in unmet objectives and overcooked marshmallows.

Instead, plan well in advance and try to concentrate on one objective at a time. I’ve compiled some examples, thoughts, and advice on navigating the first year of a faculty position, which is hopefully entertaining if not also useful.

Bring a campus map

One of the largest draws on my time in the first few weeks was simply finding things: buildings, services on campus, my mailbox, where the faculty parking lots were, and where the best coffee was. Make sure you have a campus map handy. I learned the hard way not to run a generic search for building names to find addresses, when I went to the wrong building which shared the name of, and was across the campus from, the building I needed to be in for a meeting. Facilities buildings can be particularly challenging to locate as they aren’t always marked, but may store excess and available office or laboratory furniture, key services, chemical supply, and more.

In addition to physical resources, I also needed to find personnel resources: who handled my startup funds? Purchasing? Hiring students? To whom do I submit course proposals? I politely framed my emails to people when fishing for the applicable administrative staff personnel, and made sure to thank them for redirecting me to the correct person.

Do not neglect the mountain of paperwork

There are so many forms you need to fill out in the first year, and you keep finding new forms as you go. I needed to sign and return my contract, funds letters, health insurance, financial conflict of interest, and more. I needed to sign paperwork to hire students, get my travel approved and more to submit my travel receipts, paperwork to propose courses, to request approval to be listed as graduate school faculty (which is not automatically conferred), and request approval to be graduate faculty in other departments or programs to be able to advise students there. You need to fill out order forms to purchase supplies, and sign off on monthly expenditure summaries. I suggest finding access to a scanner or fax, and/or software that allows you to edit and digitally sign PDFs, especially if you’ll be remote while you are trying to relocate and find housing.

Also be prepared for hours and hours of training: you’ll need to know how to use the university online system for employees, online teaching software, advising tracking programs, and any other online systems the university uses. And you need an extensive amount of compliance or professional development training your university requires, including FERPA for working with student information, OSHA and CITI safety training for working in a lab (often annual), university-based safety training for working in a lab, and implicit bias or inclusion training. Many schools also offer training in course development, and many of the other basic skills needed by professors. And be sure to keep all that paperwork, just in case you ever get audited!

Take time to generate new materials

Despite keeping copies of old protocols, lectures, and written materials that I might reuse, I found myself generating an immense amount of new written materials. While institutions often have templates available for safety materials available for use, they still require personalization to the hazards specific to the working conditions in your research location (lab, farm, field, etc.). Even the course materials that I had previously generated all needed to be reformatted and personalized to the student audiences I will have at UMaine. Here are a few examples of materials I had to generate this year:

  1. Lab safety training records (mine is a 2 page in-lab walk-through and spreadsheet linking to up to 15 other training modules)
  2. Chemical hygiene plan (how to protect yourself from the hazards in the lab)
  3. Updated lab protocols for every procedure and culture media recipe to be used
  4. Lab handbook on expectations, finding campus resources
  5. New curricula, which requires a draft syllabus, a course proposal form explaining learning outcomes and how they will be measured, not to mention the lectures, reading, assignments, and assessments to go along with it.
  6. Research proposals – by far the most intensive. I have written/co-written eight this year, ranging from one to several dozen pages in length and varying complexity.
A stack of papers facedown on a table.

Writing, especially technical writing, takes time, which was something UMaine gave me. I had almost no teaching obligation, and no undergraduate academic advising, for my first year. This gave me the opportunity to spend blocks of time focused on developing research plans that will guide me over the next 5 years, or create 15 – 40 lectures per course. This time was a luxury not afforded to all new faculty, and while you can often ask for it during job contract negotiations, many institutions pressure their new faculty to take on a lot of obligation in their first year. In that case, have as much written material ready before you begin the job would have been helpful. But, since I went from gut microbiology to soil to dust, and because I was teaching science to primarily liberal arts students, none of my old written materials were appropriate to use without some amount of revision.

Ask for help

As new faculty, you don’t yet know what to ask or who has the answer. Even finding your mailbox can be a challenge at first. Rather than waste your time trying to figure it out, doing it wrong, and then having to fix it, just ask someone for help. Portions of your funded research proposals will go to paying for administrative staff, you should use their services to help minimize the time you spend on administrative tasks. Especially since you may spend hours trying to order supplies through the university ordering system, matching receipts to expense reports, allocating expenses to different funding chartstrings, and setting up contracts with outside vendors, but you don’t get any credit in your tenure review for having spent all that time on it.

This also extends to facilities management staff, especially safety and environmental management personnel. They are the ones that have approval rights over the work you propose to do in the research spaces allotted to you. They are always incredibly enthusiastic people who value organization, preparation, and training in keeping you and your students safe on the job. If you are proactive about reaching out to them, they will generously give you their time to help you access the resources you need to be in compliance.

Ask for help even if you think you don’t need it

It’s worth putting that one twice, and it includes asking for help on course development and grant proposal writing. When you are focused on your own work, it can be difficult to review your own materials. Asking a colleague to check over your syllabus, lectures, manuscripts, or proposals can help improve their quality and save you time on revisions later. Be mindful of others’ time, but know that there are faculty who would be happy to mentor you and help you establish yourself.

Level up your time management

In part, this can be achieved by scheduling yourself in ways that make sense in the context of the academic calendar or department preferences. For example, in my current department, faculty prefer to teach Tuesday/Thursday and have meetings Mondays and Fridays. So, I asked to teach M/W/F, and will fill in meetings and advising around it. Teaching tends to interrupt the flow of my day, since I need to prepare before class and handle student queries after it. I find I work better if I stack my responsibilities which deal with communication, brain-storming, or large amounts of interaction into blocks or whole days. That leaves large chunks of uninterrupted time on Tuesdays and Thursdays to write papers, proposals, curricula, or work in the lab, while everyone else is busy with their own teaching.

Image source, Pixabay.

Leave yourself plenty of flexibility in your schedule

Avoid the temptation to schedule things as soon as possible and fill up your calendar. Especially in the first few months, you need to have flexibility in your time such that you can drop everything for a day or two in order to meet a sudden deadline you didn’t know about until it occurred to someone to tell you about it. This includes course proposals to curricula committees, which meet a year in advance of when you would actually teach the course, internal review reports, internal budget reports, and more. Don’t worry that you might delay networking with your new colleagues, people will be eager to meet and collaborate with you, you won’t have any trouble filling your dance card.

Track everything you do

Start immediately, and keep a running list of your efforts and accomplishments. All of them, no matter how small. At your annual reviews, and in particular your three-year and tenure reviews, you need to show what you have been up to and that you have been using your time effectively. You’ll never remember it all trying to write the report all at once, and you are liable to forget the smaller things. For example, in no particular order, here are the heading from my tracking list so far: advising (subset into as primary adviser and as grad committee member), publications, press releases/interviews, presentations, guest lectures, courses developed, courses taught (with number of students), professional development activities, research initiated (including student projects and things under my startup funds), proposals submitted, proposals accepted (a much shorter list), service efforts, and reviewing efforts (manuscripts, grant panels, etc.). When it comes time for me to justify myself, all I have to do is hit the “share” button.

Be kind to yourself

Despite the fact that you have been intensively training for this job for years, when you begin a faculty position you are, in a sense, starting from scratch. Most faculty have to relocate long distances to their new institution, which in itself is very disruptive and time consuming. Your laboratory space is almost always inherited from a previous lab which very likely was not specialized in what you study, and needs to be rearranged, renovated, restocked, and reenvisioned to fit your needs. This can delay your lab work by months, and if you were not provided with a lab space immediately, for years.

Most new faculty also expand their range of methodology and propose to incorporate other aspects into their research. Or, like me, have come from previous positions that were relevant, but perhaps not exactly in the same field, and need to re-acclimate and reassemble current laboratory protocols, which is time consuming. I was trained in rumen microbial ecology, but took detours into soil and indoor/building microbial ecology, as well. Even though I was returning to my primary field of experience with my position at UMaine, I still needed to remind people that I was not, in fact, an indoor microbiologist or even a soil scientist. I addressed this in the opening lines of my cover letter:

How is a rumen, a rhizosphere, and a room like a writing desk?
I have written on all of them.

You are also dropped into a thriving community of people and need to build an entirely new social network. While many faculty and graduate students will know you have arrived and reach out to you, you will need to actively recruit undergrads to your classes and your lab, as undergraduate students are not commonly involved in the interview process and won’t have an idea of your reputation or expertise before you arrive. And social interaction is tiring! You are creating new neural pathways by trying to assimilate to a new social group.

Being a new faculty member is extremely rewarding, but can also be exhausting, especially for those also trying to establish a family as well as a laboratory. Many academics report that they meet their deadlines, but fail to take care of themselves and their health and family suffers as a consequence. Take the opportunity to slow down, even if it’s just taking your laptop to a location with a better view.

View of a wooden deck with forest behind it.

Work-life balance: the unicorn that is the 40 hour academic work week

In the first installment of the work-life balance discussion, I discussed the different levels of employment for university faculty and gave general information on the different functions they performed on a daily basis.  I also talked about how many of them work longer than 40 hours a week, including nights and weekends, and may even work summers without compensation.  For example, in a 1994 report, the American Association of University Professors reported that professors worked 48-52 hours per week, and this had increased to  53 hours by 2005.  Other sources over the past five years have reported more: 57 hours per week at a Canadian research institution, 50-60 hours per week in the UK.  But like with anything, work quantity does not equate to quality.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy

For one thing, working long hours without sufficient weekly time off, or vacations, can significantly increase stress.  And this stress can lead to all sorts of different mental and physical problems.  Working long hours can interfere with our normal circadian rhythm– it can disrupt our sleep cycles, throw off our eating times and appetite, and make it difficult to exercise regularly.  Longer hours have been directly correlated with incidence of hypertension and other cardiovascular problems (also reviewed here).

Moreover, long work hours and work stress can negatively impact mental health (12, 3, 4), and increase the use of legal and illegal substances (reviewed here).  A study of work hours on over 330,000 participants in 61 countries found that working more than 48 hours a week was associated with heavy drinking in both men and women.  Stress, lack of sleep, and a subsequent difficulty paying attention can also increase the frequency of injury at work, and this injury rate directly relates to the increase in hours.  Jobs with overtime hours have been associated with as much as 61% more work-related injuries than those without.  In fact, there is so much research on stress, health, and occupation, that there are numerous journals solely dedicated to reporting on those findings: The International Journal of Stress Management, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, The Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, just to name a few.

 

Having a life makes us better employees

But for all that personal sacrifice, mounting evidence shows that a reduction in work hours is what promotes productivity, not a 24-hour work day.  Reducing weekly hours increased productivity as employees were less likely to be absent from work due to poor health (reviewed here).  Taking scheduled breaks instead of skipping them was also responsible for improving cognitive function in students.  Even brief diversions were shown to improve focus and cognitive function. Besides giving us a rest from our current task, or engaging our attention with something novel, taking a break allows us to daydream.  While this may seem like a waste of time, letting our minds wander activates different parts of our brain- including those involved in problem solving and creative thinking.  If you’ve ever come up with a brilliant solution while doing mundane tasks, then you’ve experienced this.  For my part, I tend to think of great ideas when I’m washing dishes or biking home.  Daydreaming, or taking a break, also helps release dopamine, a chemical neurotransmitter involved in movement, emotions, motivation, and rewards.  It’s very helpful in the creative process, as explained in a discussion of creativity in the shower.  Restful thinking also seems to be involved with promoting divergent thinking, emotional connectivity, and reading comprehension.

Going on regular annual vacations was correlated with a lower risk for coronary heart disease: not only are vacations great for reducing stress, but they also provide opportunities for more exercise, mental downtime, and creative outlets.  Mandatory time-off during nights and weekends for consultants resulted in a reported increase job performance, mental health, and attitude, though many said it was a struggle to enforce “time outs” from work in the beginning because they felt guilty about not working during their personal time.  This was seen again in a study of Staples managers who did not take scheduled breaks out of guilt.

It’s this persistent feeling that you should be working at home, and that you could be doing more, which is largely reported by “driven” employees and workaholics.  This feeling has lately been coined “tele-pressure“.  It’s particularly invasive these days as you have access to work emails and other communications via smart phones, laptops, or tablets.  In fact, by syncing many of these devices, your attention is compelled by multiple simultaneous electronic signals and vibrations whenever someone contacts you.  It’s no wonder we can’t shut off at the end of the day. (And for the record, I wrote this on a Sunday evening.)

More important than knowing that taking regular breaks and vacations will help manage your stress and improve your productivity, is remembering that you are entitled to it.  We have labor laws for a reason, and you are entitled to your nights, weekends, and your X number of weeks a year.  You are entitled to stay home when you are sick, or whenever you feel like it.  It’s your personal time, take it.

So, if you’re in academia, what do you do to unwind?  Leave me some comments!

 

Photo courtesy of Lee Warren.

Work-life balance: what do professors do?

Outside the academic world, there is a lot of misconception about what faculty and university personnel actually do and when.  While this varies by position, university faculty have a variable mix of teaching, research, advising students, grant writing, administration of grant budgets and workloads for persons working in the lab, being on institutional committees (curriculum planning, graduate student committees, candidate search committees), and community outreach (presentations, generating informative publications for the general public, etc.).  As universities have sought to increase student populations while decreasing faculty, this has led to an ever-increasing number of hours spent working.

The Academic Ladder

To understand the problem with workloads, we must first understand the positions generally available.  It’s taken for granted that graduate students will work more than 40 hours per week.  Graduate teaching assistants are paid a stipend to teach a certain number of credits per semester, and generally their tuition is covered by the department they are teaching for, although this does not always include university fees and health insurance.  At the University of Vermont as a GTA, I still paid around $1,200 per semester, despite having my tuition and some of my student health insurance comped.  As a graduate research assistant, a research grant pays your stipend and, potentially, your tuition.  Either way, you are taking classes and expected to do your own research, and it is very difficult to excel at all aspects while try to only work 40 hours per week.

Post-doctoral researchers have attained their Ph.D., and are specializing in an area of research.  Often, PhDs go from post-doc position to post-doc position waiting for a professorship in their field to open up.  Depending on the positions, post-docs also have to write their own grants, and may have to teach, although this is often unpaid.  In 2005, post-docs in the US reported working an average of 51 hours per week, diluting their salary until their effective hourly pay was lower than Harvard janitorial staff.  As reported in the study, average post-doctoral salary ($38k/year) was also less than the average salary of someone working outside of academia with only a bachelor’s degree ($45k/year), and much less than those with professional degrees ($72k/year).

From there, a variety of academic positions available, but these generally fall into three tiers: assistant, associate, and (full) professor.  For example, if you are a research professor, you do not have to teach and often do not mentor students outside of your graduate students, and you can be at the level of assistant-, associate-, or (full) research professor depending on your years of experience.  These are almost always non-tenured positions, meaning you work by contract, and you often have to fund your own salary through grants.  There are also adjunct professors, as well as lecturers or instructors.  Like research professors, they perform fewer functions (generally just teaching and advising), and have short-term contracts.  Adjunct positions are part-time with no benefits, while lecturers are full-time and come with benefits, and their prevalence in research universities is increasing.

Traditional faculty positions, on the other hand, have salaries paired through the department, and are contracted for longer periods of time.  You can also be at the level of assistant, associate, or (full) professor, and you may also apply for tenure.  Tenure is a permanent contract with the university, and it is a grueling review in which all of your career moves are carefully examined by a panel of your peers.  The idea behind tenure is that once it is awarded, you cannot be fired except under special circumstances, allowing you to pursue less trendy and more daring research topics.  Tenure is not awarded lightly, and assistant (or associate) faculty spend years trying to accomplish as much as possible, such that they are driven to work longer hours. Faculty without tenure reported working an average of 56 hours per week, which is likely driven by assistant professors that reported working 56 hours per week.

All of these positions may be offered as 9 (September to May) or 12 month appointments, meaning you are only paid for working that many months.  There is a perception that faculty don’t work in the summer, and that’s because those 9 month appointments are not required to work.  However, most take the opportunity to catch up on research or generating teaching materials, and many academics report working longer hours in the summer.  While you might be awarded grant money to pay salary for the three months of summer that you spend catching up on research, many academics will end up working uncompensated just to keep up.

Responsibilities

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In a preliminary study by anthropologist Dr. John Ziker, called Time Allocation Workload Knowledge Study (TAWKS), 30 professors from Boise State University were asked to recall everything they had done over the past 24 hours.  Participants reported an average of 61 hours per week spent working, including about 10 hours on the weekend.  The breakdown of their job functions is below:

1b
TAWKS preliminary data, Dr. John Ziker

 

Other studies report similar findings, with an average 53 hours per week spent on all activities, and a breakdown as such:

Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 9.07.18 AM.png
Link et al. 2008, Economics of Education Review

This seems to be skewed towards assistant professors:

Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 9.09.59 AM.png
Link et al. 2008, Economics of Education Review

as well as non-tenured faculty:

Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 9.14.14 AM.png
Link et al. 2008, Economics of Education Review

 

As I mentioned, professors are responsible for teaching, research, advising students, grant writing, administration of grant budgets and workloads for persons working in the lab, institutional committees (curriculum planning, graduate student committees, candidate search committees), and community outreach (presentations, generating informative publications for the general public, etc.).  Here is a very long list that one professor made of their responsibilities.  Enrollment in college has increased over the past few decades, but faculty hires have not kept pace: there are an average of 16 fewer staff members per 1,000 full-time students in 2012 than there was in 2000.  While the number of faculty positions in the US has increased numerically, this growth has been overwhelmingly in part-time hires, with a 121% increase from 1990 to 2012 as compared to a 41% increase in full-time hires.  The increasing number of students, expansion of faculty responsibilities, and the rise in part-time employees who often travel to multiple universities in a day for work have pushed staff and faculty to work longer hours, yet this does not always translate into better quality of work, as some work functions take priority over others over time.

In the follow-up segment, I’ll discuss the importance of time off and finding a work-life balance (as I write this on evenings and weekends), and how this contributes to reduced stress, as well as improved health, productivity, quality of work, and quality of life.

If you’re in academia, what do you do on a daily basis?  Leave me some comments!