Saturday, November 08, 2014

This is Your Brain on Administration

Certainly I am not the first to realize that a proliferation of administrators at certain levels of academic institutions results in an increasing number of tasks passed down to lower levels. This year, it is like a fire hose spraying a deluge of new administrative tasks directly at my head (and at department staff, without whom I would collapse into an inert heap). It is causing me to face one of my greatest anxieties about being a part-time administrator: losing my research brain (not to mention my blogging brain).

There are many things in life that can encroach on our creative-thinking time and abilities -- babies and illness (to name just two) -- and over time can make it difficult to sustain an energetic research program. I have experienced those; now my major distraction is of a more mundane sort: administrative thoughts are taking over my brain.

It is not just that I have less time for research. Realizing this was a bit of a surprise. I guess I always assumed that administrators who complained about the negative effect of administrative duties on their research were talking about how little time they had for research. The lack of time for research is of course a factor. But now I think that a more insidious factor is what spending so much time on administration can do to your brain.

Administrative work (in my experience) can be broadly classified into two general (admittedly imperfect categories): Stupid Tasks and Other Tasks.

Stupid Tasks are classified as such by me because they are unnecessarily time-sucking. These tasks include things that:

- a robot zombie computer could do;
- are the result of shiny new policies that are meant to change but not necessarily improve anything for anyone;
- are the result of someone else doing something stupid, unnecessary, immature, or unwise;
- are involved in documenting that we are not spending federal, state, or any money on illegal drugs, yachts, massages or alcohol, and -- just as bad -- are not spending this research money on that research project instead of on this research project, and we can prove it by documenting how everyone spends all their time, 24/7, whilst working on this or that research project; oh, and by the way, the system by which we monitor all that is going to change every year or so and in between you will spend a lot of time figuring out the new system, which will have bugs, but there is training you can attend to learn the new system before it is superceded by the next one, which will cost the university a lot of money and will be bewildering;
- require lots of meetings but don't need to;
- involve people who work for the University Facilities unit.

Some Stupid Tasks are actually important, many are urgent, and all are annoying.

Other Tasks are ones that require some higher level of thought or decision-making than the Stupid Tasks. Some of these are stressful and some of them are the only reason why being a department/unit head is at all rewarding (examples: hiring, supporting faculty/researchers/staff/students in various ways, solving problems that are worth solving, being an advocate for the department in the university and the broader Science community, connecting with alumni, and just generally being helpful so that bright and hard-working colleagues and students can do their great work as well as possible).

Being an administrator requires some creativity, and that may help keep the research part of the brain from atrophying too much. But I have found that it is easy to let a focus on Stupid Tasks take over, narrowing my vision and withering my imagination (I fear). And again, it isn't just about time. I can make time for research (most weeks). It's just that during random times when I might previously have been thinking about research -- such as when walking on campus, exercising, or sitting quietly with a friendly cat -- instead of thinking about Science, I find myself thinking about all the Stupid Tasks I have to do that day/week and how to solve a certain short-term problem and so on. Not good.

I recently talked with some colleagues who are or were department heads for a substantial amount of time (>5 years) and whose research careers came to a crashing halt as a result. Talking to them was dispiriting. It helps to think of examples to the contrary (and I know some good ones), so this is what I try to do. Perhaps some day it won't be important to me to have a strong research component to my work and life and I will happily spend my days thinking about parking, plumbing, provosts, policies, and printers. For now, though, I will try to stop thinking so much about Stupid Tasks that don't really require as much brain-space as I have been giving them.


Alex said...

Sometimes I think that if they got rid of all the time-consuming, staff-intensive, and software-intensive processes used to document that we are not spending the money on hookers and blow, and instead let us just spend the money on hookers and blow, the system would be less expensive AND would run better because everyone would be in a good mood about their work.

Anonymous said...

Genuinely competent university administrators are rare and necessary. Imagine if all university administrators were good at it and really wanted to do it, instead of being corporate-management flunkouts or wannabes.

OMDG said...

This post is depressing me. I already feel that I spent too much time doing meaningless administrative BS work during grad school, and I am realizing that is only likely to get worse.


Grant said...

Another point to consider is the lack of understanding by many administrative personnel of what it truly takes to do great research. If people in financial and administrative roles were required to have some basic science knowledge and undergo hands-on research training, some of the red tape and stupid tasks might be taken off faculty members' plates.

Anonymous said...

I think it's more than just that the stupid and/or necessary administrative tasks fill your brain - it's that these types of things (often which arrive in crisis mode) teach your brain to think in small snippets - "how can I fix this leak NOW" - instead of the kind of months or years or decades-long time scales that conducting research requires. We are so barraged with administrata, and severely understaffed to boot, that research thoughts can barely break through the din, let alone keep your attention for a significant amount of time.

Anonymous said...

@Grant: Then maybe some of the administrative personnel could fix the references on my NSF proposal to include all the titles of the papers and all 100 authors of each paper cited and the links to those papers as required by the GPG!

Anonymous said...

The best thing my university ever did with regard to administrative oversight is have a professional administrator 'shadow' me for one whole day. Basically he sat in my office as people came and went, accompanied me to meetings, and I BCCed him on every (non-confidential) email that I sent. Before that, I don't think he had any idea how many different tasks I work on simultaneously, nor how quickly my day can become fragmented beyond belief. That experience completely changed our relationship. He is now much more respectful of the demands on my time, and goes out of his way to identify ways to reduce rather than increase my load of administrivia. He even wrote a report on what he learned by shadowing me and shared it with other administrators, although unfortunately I do not think the report made much of an impression.

EliRabett said...


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post, as it encapsulates a major barrier I am experiencing to moving my research forward. It isn't all the trivial stuff that needs doing that is science-killing, it is that my random, in between the raindrops thoughts are now about administrivia instead of how to formulate science-y questions or devise creative solutions to laboratory problems. Sigh. Please let me know how you are learning to let the science back in to those moments.

Anonymous said...

It occurs to me that managing a household causes me many of the same problems as your department chairship. My mind is endlessly filled with trivial things "my son's coat is too small", "we're out of apples", "need to put gas in the car", "need to schedule meeting with teacher", "need playdate for saturday", etc.

Anonymous said...

FSP, I miss you.