Thursday, March 06, 2008

About Time

Time is a perennial issue (<-- attempt at humor). How do we accomplish anything (or, at least, enough) in a job that could take infinite time, even if we didn't do anything else (e.g., spend time with other people, eat, sleep etc.)? The issue came up several times this week in the following ways: 1. I was, as usual, asked the oft-asked question: How many hours do you work/week?

2. A new assistant professor (with a minimal teaching and administrative load in his first year) asked: When do I get time for research?

3. A soon-to-graduate Ph.D. who already has a tenure-track position lined up asked: Now it gets easier because I can advise students who will do a lot of the work, right?

My answers to these questions, in reverse order to that listed above:

3. I don't know if it will get easier or not (it depends a lot on the person/situation), but it will not get easier for the reason stated.

2. You don't get time, you have to find time -- perhaps by an alchemical reaction that makes time out of non-time, but you have to find it somehow.

1. This is the most difficult question of the three to answer because I work a lot of random hours in addition to the standard work week. The short answer is: I work between 40-75 hours/week, but I rarely work 40 or 75 hours/week -- a 'typical' week, which probably doesn't exist, is somewhere in between.

At some point in my blog-past, I described our family system (instituted when the offspring appeared) in which I get 3 nights/week to do whatever I want (work, not work, do errands, sit in a cafe and compose haiku, make cat videos for posting on YouTube etc.), and my husband gets 3 nights/week to do whatever he wants (work). Also, if I so choose, I typically get some weekend time to work while my daughter is involved in various activities. Of course this system falls apart when one of us is traveling, but in general it works pretty well. If I need to, I can find a lot of extra time to get things done, or at least the 57 most essential things that need doing right away.


Ms.PhD said...

I would like the recipe for that alchemy!

I guess my only concern about your schedule is, how do you have time to spend with your husband? Do you only spend that one evening when it's neither your night nor his night to do 'whatever'?

mentaer said...

Mhm.. thats an interesting post and infers with my current decision making. I just started a Postdoc-Fellowship financed by an NSF in a foreign country. Thus I have nearly all freedoms and no responsibilities, except writing a final report.

However, I felt last week that I should apply on three posted Ass.Prof. positions, since they may be a unique possibility. Following that "idea" I had a long talk with my hosting Prof. He told me, that the PDF is the best time I will probably ever have, i.e. I have done the PhD., have time to explore the new city and country, can do research on whatever I wish. Ok; there is a also a research plan... but I can decide what I want to do for 1.5 years.
On the opposite: If I am applying and get a position things will become different, so my hosting Prof told me: I.e. building up a new course, adivising BSc/MSc, go to faculty meetings,.. will leave not much time for research. Furthermore he told me: good chances come more often than I can imagine right now.

So.. except the one position (which is truely a chance to go to a specific place which I may like - for friend/family reasons, and where I will be in a very good group), I will move on with the PDF to avoid the questions you just posted for the next 1.5 years ;)

it is good to have people that share their insights with others

Anonymous said...

Do you have outside help with the household chores? Maid?

Female Science Professor said...

I don't have to work (or go to a cafe and write haiku) on 'my' nights, but the time is there if I need it. My husband and I work in the same place and see each other often during the day, including having lunch together most days.

We have a house cleaner once/month.

Anonymous said...

As a finishing PhD student with a prof husband and a 6 month old daughter I read your blog both your commentary on academia, and in an attempt to gather suggestions on managing a dual career life with a child. Currently I have only about 40 hours of revisions to do on my dissertation between now and June so have the luxury of being a more-or-less stay-at-home Mom until Sept. I am, however, busy strategizing for next year when I will be starting a post-doc. All this is a preamble to my question: when you say that three evenings a week are "yours", I assume that starts after you've all had dinner, so may I ask what kinds of hours of the evening you're talking about? I am trying to envision your schedule (in the hopes of cherry-picking the bits that might work for us), but at the moment our daughter goes to bed at 7:30, we have dinner at about 8pm, and by the time that’s cleared up it’s about 8:45 and I’m not good for anything more strenuous than collapsing with a novel. Really, I’m trying to figure out if there’s any chance of getting 8 hours sleep a night after I start my post-doc (without which I rather fear for the success of my lab work).
Thanks, Dissertating Mom

Anonymous said...

I agree with you completely that you find time. We all suffer from things that seem urgent but are not truly important. The most important things rarely seem urgent, but we need to make time.

Anonymous said...

My comment is for mentaer... I personally think that you got some bad advice from your supervisor. 1.5 years go by very quickly, and you don't want to find yourself at the end thinking 'now what?'. If you apply for positions now, chances are that you wouldn't be starting for 6 months to a year anyway by the time applications are reviewed, interviews take place etc. I wonder if your supervisor is putting his own needs (to have an excellent post-doc, i.e. you) first. The opportunity to live someplace different and do whatever you want is great, but so is having a job with some security! Don't let good chances pass you by.

Anonymous said...


here is one opinion, take it for what it is worth:

TT jobs are very valuable and difficult to come by. If you have multi-year postdoc, apply for TT jobs every year.

You might get lucky. In particular, the right position could appear and it may not appear again during your terminal postdoc year. But, if you have more time left on your postdoc, you do not have to take a so-so position just because you need a job.

Even if it doesn't work out the first time, you will get experience preparing your materials, finding the positions, and doing interviews.

Anonymous said...

FSP, I suspect that your scheme works for you because you and your husband work in the same place (in addition to the fact that your 3 days "free" of family responsibilities don't necessarily get used all the time).

If we instituted a scheme like yours in our family, we would never get to see each other, at least if we used the time to get work done.

I think these details are important, because people are always trying to figure out how others do it, and the details matter.

Travel is the other big monkey wrench in our schedule.

So, in my family, things are kept from falling apart by 1) money, that lets us by things without worrying about them, including weekly housecleaning, day care, . . . 2) grandparents. Those are critical parts of my balancing equation.

In yours, FSP, I've deduced some we share, including 1) comfort with having others take care taker roles with our children 2) short commutes 3) liking our work and some we don't 1) only one child 2) a husband who works nearby both physically and mentally 3) a productive and organized work ethic (I waste a lot more time).

Anonymous said...

to mentaer -- if you are offered an assistant professorship position, you can often negotiate the start date to be a semester or more later than advertised. I am on an NSF PDF and am in the biological sciences. I have seen other postdocs defer starting their position for up to 18 months later than the projected start date, but these are people who have offers at top schools (the near-ivies, research 1, etc). You will be more constrained the smaller and more teaching-oriented the school you apply to, as they will need professors to teach courses in the advertised semester.

My advice would be to apply away. You can always postpone the start date or say no to a job -- a nice position to be in when you still have PDF money. I didn't think this would be my year when I sent out a few applications (for the same reason as you -- the perfect school had an opening), but I have interviews at ~50% of the schools, and they seem to be going well.

If you put together the application for one school, and your referees update their letters for you for this year, you've done most of the work that you would need to do for applying to multiple schools anyways. I still spend a lot of time tweaking my existing application materials for each school, but it's much less work than it was to write the teaching statement de novo, etc.

My only caveat is that you will lose a lot of time applying for job(s) that you could be spending living/traveling and researching now. You will be a better on-paper candidate next year for not having done the whole job search this year because you will have more papers. However, I know I am a better seminar speaker after having done interviews already this year, and my interviews are also helping me get better known in my field. Those 10 meetings with faculty members, if they go well, are 10 people who you now know personally, people with whom you can chat with more comfortably at conferences and these introductions can be the start of collaborations -- even if you don't end up at the institution.

Anonymous said...

On your second point, one of the most useful things I read was something incidentally mentioned on an article about teaching for junior faculty. The gist of it was essentially that people who spend less time on teaching get better evaluations (my obvious response to that was that people who are "naturals" have an easier time winging it, but that's beside the point). The article mentioned that successful junior faculty spent 3hrs/week writing. I was so amazed. 3 hours?!?!? I can do *that*! I'd been shooting for 20, writing maybe .5. Since I started trying to get those 3hrs in, I find I get much more. Sometimes unrealistic expectations have a way of backfiring.

Female Science Professor said...

It helps a lot that I am nocturnal, so I can still get a lot done after the family dinner and kid-bedtime. Some of my colleagues who are not nocturnal but who like to get up early do basically the same thing I do, just shifted to a different time.

Anonymous said...

So, when do the kiddies go to sleep? Unfortunately, in our household, we don't have a good sleep mis-match between adults & kids (so, perhaps I should have added that as another feature we don't share)

Hey -- perhaps, if it's possible without getting too personal, you could post a number of "typical" schedules? So that folks would understand how your days get filled in a way that you feel is balanced?

chemcat said...

I have the same problem. My kid goes to bed between 8.30 and 9, usually after one hour of struggle. By then, I am braindead. She wakes up at 6.30-7. I need 7-8 hrs of sleep, so the only available time is 9-11, but somehow that gets eaten up by chores, reading, etc. It works well for teaching or grants, close to the deadline, but I have an hard time getting work done in times of nonemergencies (I teach a lab course at the moment so there's very little lecture prep).
My hubby is out of town during the week, and I usually get a full day of work on weekends between sat and sunday. Again, that works mostly for emergencies... otherwise, given that we don't see each other much, it's easy to get distracted.... and there's always something (taxes, things to fix, etc).
This semester I should be able to do a lot of writing thanks to the light teaching load, yet I feel as I'm not taking advantage of the extra time. I am happier and more relaxed though!

Doctor Pion said...

On the topic:
Excellent advice on making time. That goes double for something you might not like to do (in my case, grade lab reports). I hope you share your observations with that Asst. Prof. If s/he makes up a plan based on a *normal* teaching load, then there will be lots of extra time for research. Sort of like saving for a house or car by making a virtual payment.

To mentaer:
Like "sessional" said, with an example. That advice is doubly bad if you are overseas and want a job in the US. A fellow grad student, female, with a very hot research topic and a good teacher as well, dropped off the radar after a 2 year fellowship in Switzerland. Despite being in a strong group there, her pub rate dropped due to taking up new projects and she was not at any US meetings.

Jobs in physics were nearly nonexistent then (see an incomplete series of articles grouped under "jobs" on my blog, but there were some that she could have gotten, and that approach is risky even in today's comparatively excellent market.

I am also concerned by "can decide what I want to do" and "things will become different" statements. Things are already different. If you want an academic job, you need to position yourself to (a) get it and (b) earn tenure in it. Part of that is building up the set of ideas you can publish now (to get the job) and finish up later (for your own research grant and to keep that t-t job). I said more on my blog last summer.

Post doc years are a great time, with 100% research production and exposure to new ideas at a new place, but it is not an earned vacation. A top R1 employer (within your scope if you earned an NSF fellowship) who expects 2 or more papers per year doing 50% research of t-t faculty will wonder about a post doc who did not exceed that number on 100% research time.