With the start of the new academic semester comes the inevitable influx of tweets/posts on social media about the appropriate number of hours an academic should work and how to manage the competing demands of your work life. First major caveat to start out this post with is that it’s become clear over the past five years that I’ve had a very well-protected lecturing career to date (read: limited teaching duties compared to many of my peers). I’m not entirely sure why this is (my track record is ok, but not amazing). Perhaps it stems from landing in a lectureship with a decent amount of momentum following a productive postdoctoral fellowship in North America (again, due to having complete freedom to do what I wanted and unlimited resources), and starting my lecturing role at the exciting end of a REF cycle. In short, the start of my career has been the very embodiment of early-career academic privilege, and the focus of this post is thus certainly not to tell you that you’re working too hard and that you can take your foot off the gas. All that being said, I typically work a 40hr week, and have done so at all stages of my academic career (lucky me). A lot of this is down to working in a discipline without much time-consuming baggage attached it it (cf. neuroimagers, developmental people, or the poor trainees from animal labs). There’s certainly heavy weeks when things are due and I’m doing stuff in the evenings, and light weeks when the sun is shining and I’m leaving early to hang around with the kids after school. On the whole, however, I don’t usually have the energy for any serious work on the evenings or weekends (this was true even before I had kids) – if I’m working outside of my normal hours, it has to be something I’m really motivated to do.
Compared to the typical life of a postdoc or PhD student, the days of a lecturer are a lot more varied. My typical day is filled with teaching, supervision, administrative stuff, and email-jockeying, all of which shifts the balance of time away from actual research. I have noticed that as my roles in my respective institutions have become more ‘serious’, I’ve had to change the way in which I work at completing various tasks. This is shorthand for: you will have to do some things a lot more rapidly and probably with a lot less care than you’re happy with. This is particularly true for writing – I’m no longer able to agonize over the clarity of the writing in grant applications like I once did – it’s usually sent off for internal review shortly after the first draft (there’s a degree of self-protection here as well – no one wants to have their perfect document rejected).
Your workload will fall into three categories – research, teaching, and admin. You might be tempted to rank them in that order of importance (because your promotion case likely will), but I’d argue this is a mistake for a junior academic. For one, the teaching deadlines are typically more fixed than the research ones, and if you miss some of these deadlines, all hell will break loose. The times of your lectures and seminars are not something which can be easily changed. The coursework deadlines exams will be fixed, and there will be (at best) a 3-week deadline to have all the marking done. The knock-on effects of missing teaching and/or marking deadlines reverberate further than you might imagine, and cause a lot of stress to students and the administrative team behind the scenes who are trying to organise exam boards and external examination etc. I routinely seem to cause myself untold stress and drama by scheduling my holidays to clash with the exam boards, and thus have to rush a ton of stuff to meet my newly-shortened deadline.
Similar to stand-up lecturing, you have to be on-the-ball with the supervision of dissertation students – arguably the most difficult part of your first year. This course is usually the most valuable (in terms of % of degree) for students, and they get understandably annoyed about not receiving quick responses. There’s some ways to manage this – set the ground rules about what kind of emails you want from them (bulletin-style emails are better than a lot of single queries), and use a meeting-management solution to avoid wasting too much playing scheduling ping-pong (I use Calendly, which has genuinely changed my life as an academic). Identify when you work best, and schedule meetings to occur in the other times so as not to interfere with your reading and writing too much. I like to arrange all these meetings for after my lectures, when I’m typically too exhausted to read anything but can just about manage some one-on-one human interaction. Stay on top of it though – if you fall behind in this aspect of your teaching it’ll cause you more grief than it’s worth – final year students know who to complain too about this and are usually under a significant amount of stress themselves. Of course, these dramas are often not one way traffic – if you find a relationship with a dissertation student heading south, flag it up with your director of teaching (ideally making sure that you have emailed the student at least as much as the student has emailed you…).
Administrative duties are hard to quantify. They typically fall into two categories – roles which are focused strictly on your department (programme director, year coordinator, library coordinator, admissions officer etc) or roles which are more outward facing (international, research etc). Typically at the entry level to admin, you’ll be given administrative duties which you can’t ‘break’ (read: not too important) until you get the hang of the ins and outs of your workplace. As administrative roles often swap around you will, however, rapidly find yourself in a position where you are ordered to do something by a more senior member of your department/college. Probably best to act on these requests rapidly though, at the very least to be a good colleague and make a decent impression early on. And, as you administrative responsibilities become more important, the merits of completing the work rapidly only increase. Take on external responsibilities such as reviewing, external examining, or editorial duties with caution – my advice would be to review only what you are certain you would read anyway (i.e., scale this part of your life way way back), and save the more visible external service for closer to promotion.
Research, by contrast, has few fixed deadlines. Papers are sometimes due on a particular date for special issues (but these are few and far between). Grants often have deadlines, but there’s usually another round in a few months (although be aware that you will probably have an internal deadline well in advance of the actual deadline, especially for bigger calls). The firmest deadline you’ll likely have to deal with would be those associated with conference abstract submission, but until you get some grant income that’s unlikely to be a problem as soon as your startup funds dry up.
With so few deadlines, it’s easy to let the research side of your portfolio slide away. But it’s important to keep up momentum and publish new work to show that you are an independent scientist. I’ve never really had a strategy for segregating research from other duties because I naturally lack the focus to stick on a task for any serious length of time. I’ve also been pretty lucky to have all my teaching fall in a single semester, so my unbroken period of research runs from May until January (and this is certainly long enough for me!). This coming semester, as I’m teaching, I’m going to try to keep a dedicated research day for myself (a quick look at the diary suggests that Tuesday is the only feasible day for this) – I may well blog about whether this has been feasible and successful.