Monday, September 17, 2007

What Do Professors Do?

A number of times I've had undergraduates ask me, essentially, "What else do you do?", which sometimes is an honest interest in what else my job entails and sometimes appears to be a concern that when I'm not teaching them, I'm just sitting around my office thinking up new ways to torture them via problem sets or soaking up tuition money.

At a high level, I know what else I do: research, write papers, give talks, go to conferences, manage and work with graduate students, advise undergraduates, seek funding, sit on department and university and theory-community committees, review papers and grant proposals, act as editor for a few journals, serve on program committees, write letters of recommendation, deal with standard administrative paperwork, and... well, I'm sure there are a few other things as well that I've forgotten. Let's count blogging as part of my job, too. And I consult on the side. Come to think of it, it's a wonder I have time to teach. (That probably explains the students' question. They're wondering if I have 40 working hours a week, why isn't this class better?) Of course, I'm know I'm not unusual; all this seems like standard faculty stuff.

What I've been realizing lately I don't have a good handle on is how much time I spend on these various activities. It has seemed to me that in the last few years -- since getting tenure -- a lot more of my time is going to administrative duties than to research-style activities. If true, that fact along with my poor time-management skills seems like a recipe for disaster. So this semester, I'm going to try a little experiment, and try to track my time in a spreadsheet somewhere, to start getting a better handle on what's going on. And figure out what activities to cut.

Of course, I'm curious -- what are others experiencing? How much time do you think you spend on various activities, and is there a pre-post tenure change? What's the biggest impediment to research time?

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Mike, yes, I think getting more administrative work is often a consequence of being promoted/tenured. In terms of time-mgmt, I observe my efficiency increase whenever I follow Knuth's approach of batch-processing (e.g., one or two days per week devoted fully to certain tasks such as handling paperwork backlog, writing recommendation letters and referee reports etc.). I would be very glad to get other useful tips on time-management. A related issue is that a PhD doesn't offer any training in management, which I think is a useful skill in mentoring students, and even more so for people becoming Chairs of their dept. etc. Advice on this would also be most useful.

aravind

Anonymous said...

I was told a story from some colleagues in Europe that their university administration had make some claim that professors spend x hours a week doing research, y hours a week doing teaching/education, and z hours a week doing administration. The faculty decided to test this claim by keeping track of their hours. What they found was that the teaching and research hours were reasonably close to accurate, but the administration's estimate of the time faculty spend on administration was wildly low.

Suresh said...

This is almost certainly a function of my being a new professor, but I find that I spend much more time chasing money to do research, than actually doing research.

I'd be consoled by the thought that this would stabilize over time, except for the fact that I have had numerous people with stable funding inflow complain about the same thing, and that managing their research program takes far more time than they have to actually DO research.

It seems like there's a natural tradeoff between building a large research program and doing research yourself, and most universities (at least pre-tenure) tend to push one in the direction of the first.

Anonymous said...

I find that in an average week during the semester I have essentially NO time for "my own" research. I am talking about actual research, not writing up results, preparing talks, attending talks, or helping graduate students with "their" research.

During the summers, on the other hand, there are weeks when I can spend virtually all my time on research.

Funding is a bitch. For a theorist, it is extremely difficult to get even 2 months of summer funding, and doing so seems to take lots of time.

I don't think you can complain about consulting -- this is your choice (and you make money from it), not part of your job.

Aaron Striegel said...

I've definitely noticed an uptick in administrative work but our department is a bit on junior-heavy side meaning that such a shift is a necessity as tenure time approaches. I'd also be curious to see tips on time management as while I think my research group management has finally settled, the recent rash of meetings/management work makes me feel some days as if research is on hold at times. There are some days now that are total losses for any research whatsoever which makes the "business" as I felt several years starting as an assistant professor now seem quaint.

Anonymous said...

are you trying to get us to do your effort reporting for you?

Claire said...

Q: "What's the biggest impediment to research time?"

A: Email

Anonymous said...

Mike: please post the spreadsheet when you finish it!

Anonymous said...

Q: "What's the biggest impediment to research time?"
A: Email

Q: What's the best excuse for not getting research done.

A. Too much time spent reading blogs.

Anonymous said...

I'm not tenured---just a grad student in my last year of studies---but projecting to the end of this year, I think my time spent on actual research will be less than it was for the last two years. On the other hand, having defined a research program, a framework in which to work, and milestones for success, I can do my research a lot more efficiently than I could in the past.

What's taking up my time now? Writing up old research projects, TAing, reviewing for journals and conferences (suddenly doing a lot of that), writing "release" code from old research code, watching over some undergrad lab assistants, helping out first-years in the lab, going to conferences, writing up invited articles, and of course, writing my dissertation and applying for jobs :) In the two weeks since the semester started, I've had almost no time for actual research.

Paul said...

The bane (and joy) of academic life is the high rate of context-switching required. (Why joy? If you are stuck on some painful task there is likely to be something else that will interrupt you in a few minutes.) E-mail is just one source of context-switching.

I find that being effective in solving research problems is not always a matter of having uninterrupted blocks of time but rather of having enough state, enough data still in my memory cache that the context switch is a low overhead one. Once enough cache lines are overwritten, something that takes a few weeks of not looking at a problem, the overhead of getting them back is quite high and I need that uninterrupted block of time.

For me, the acazdemic task that is the least compatible with context-switching is refereeing. The difference with research is that instead of trying to keep your own models in your head, you have to try to adapt your thinking to that of some other author and keep their models in your head, which is much harder to do.

Prof. Secretary said...

5 years post-tenure, I find that, predictably, my administrative duties have increased. But what I wouldn't have predicted when I began teaching in 1996 is that I have become my own secretary. Copying, printing, conference reservations, paper jams, scheduling meetings: all my responsibility. And because every damn thing in the world being online rather than on paper, it's more "convenient" for me, which means that all kinds of things that were done by other people ten years ago, from filing to mailing to ordering books, etc. have become my responsibility. It's always only 5 or 15 minutes here and there, but when you add it up, it's easily an hour or more a day that I could have more productively spent on research, had I the choice. Where have all the secretaries gone? Are other institutions like this? I guess somehow it made sense to pay a Ph.D. to do this stuff rather than paying health insurance for a qualified clerical worker?

Anonymous said...

Hi Mike,

In your old post from September about your time schedule, you mentioned:

> So this semester, I'm going to try
> a little experiment, and try to
> track my time in a spreadsheet
> somewhere, to start getting a
> better handle on what's going on.

Any chance to see the record of that experiment? Any interesting new thoughts?

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Of course, I never had time to track my time. :)

But I will follow up on this at some point...

Anonymous said...

i bet this varies substantially from professor to professor so it would be much more interesting to get a larger sample size.