How many hours a week can you work on research?

img_1516What are my colleagues around the world doing on this Sunday, a brilliantly sunny February day too warm for a jacket in St. Louis? Are they out hiking, bird watching, or cooking a delicious meal? Are they playing with their kids, or kayaking? Are they skiing? Or are they working inside? The work could be grading papers, preparing for class on Monday, polishing a grant proposal or paper, or reading proposals of grad students. It might even be time in the lab, doing a little experiment, or running a complex model.

If ever a day is our own, it is Sunday, so we can view the way we spend it as a choice. So why are so many of us spending at least part of it working? I think the answer comes from the varied nature of our work. If we did one thing, I could well imagine being sick of it and spending the weekend doing something entirely different. But the job of a professor is a varied one. The big categories are teaching, research, and service, but each of these can be broken down into sub-categories. Teaching includes class time, preparing for class, evaluating student work, and consulting with co-teachers and others. It might also cover curriculum decisions and student advising. Research includes writing grant proposals, doing experiments, analyzing data, reading, planning, and teaching your team to do all these things and mentoring their efforts. Service can be to the department, the community, or the academic community. It includes writing letters of recommendation, coordinating different activities in the department, reviewing papers, outreach, and many other things. Really, you could fill your time with any one of these, or even one thing under any of these headings. But you cannot. Who decides how you spend your time? Mostly, you do. That is important to remember. Let no one take this away from you.

A particular challenge is that a beginning assistant professor has most likely come from a position of research. She is likely to have had to balance her time between planning experiments, reading, doing experiments, writing them up, maybe mentoring an undergraduate or two and applying for jobs. This is challenging, but there is so much more.

It is easy to feel the only real work you do is individual research. You won’t get much of that done during the week if you are a faculty member, new or old. There is too much, if you are at all responsible, so what to do? An easy answer is to work all weekend, balancing weekend time more toward what you want to do. But is that sustainable for long? Do you want them to put on your tombstone: “She got her work done?”

I don’t have any easy answers. I think everyone’s answer is different. Before you go crazy, remember that the things you didn’t used to count as work are work now. So if you spent the week teaching and mentoring, it was not a no work week. But also remember you will be judged at tenure time at most institutions on research output, funding, collegiality, and teaching only if it is terrible.

I started using a little app called Productive with which I can swipe right when I get something done. You can plan for 5 things for free, I think. No doubt there are other apps that do similar things. These things could drive you crazy if you put your whole life on there, but I use it for something specific: fun stuff that I don’t want to skip. It is a kind of mentality like pay yourself first. So I have several kinds of exercises I like to do, some nature stuff, and the languages I’m working on. I do not use it for work. That has its own urgencies.

I am vulnerable to completing tasks on time, so this little app gives the fun stuff a fighting chance. I don’t know what will work for you. Find a trick that does, but remember, as a professor the kinds of things you used to count as work, research, mostly, will seldom get more than 10 hours a week.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Daily routines, Follow a scientist, Life in a biology department, Managing an academic career and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How many hours a week can you work on research?

  1. Rebecca Duncan says:

    I decided to check your blog today just to see what you had written, and this post is very timely. I usually block my weekends off for myself (although, having a little one they are really not fully mine), but yesterday I was just thinking about doing some work today. I have been struggling with juggling everything lately, and it is sobering to read (and I know) that the responsibilities are only going to increase. But I have been thinking of scheduling my week so that I have dedicated time for research, reading, seminars, mentoring, etc. Anyway, it is good to be reminded from time to time of the importance of self care and not to fret too much over not being as productive as I would sometimes like to be 🙂

    • Great to hear from you! With a little one there are so many different priorities and demands on you. I recommend doing what is important to you. Life is long and research will always be there. I prioritized dinner for my family on the table every night and now my visiting kids all adult, are cooking for me!

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