I am failing.

OK, it’s probably not that dire, but that’s how I feel many, many days this semester. I thought it was all going so well, and in so many ways, it is.  I have a ‘lab’ now, with people in it ranging from undergrad to postdocs. I have settled into my job, and the class I’m teaching this semester is going fairly well.  Two papers will be submitted by the end of the month, and I continue to love my job. Most of the time.

However, I’m totally flailing with all of the extra parts of work, and I’m not sure how to fix it. For the first time since I started in academia, I feel like I’m dropping balls.  Nope, I AM dropping balls. And my own personal giveaway for pent-up stress has returned (for me, episodes of TMJ). Luckily, I have a very physical reminder that I need to take care of myself, and am good about heeding those reminders.  But these small things—stress, bad habits, unhealthy ways of coping—have a tendency to build up and become canalized, so I need to address the root of the problem.

A TSW reader recently suggested a post on what the day-to-day job of a professor looks like, and this post can partly address that, at least for a public research university. So what do I have on my plate that is causing me to feel like a failure? Well, all the normal things that professors do as part of their jobs. I am supervising students and a postdoc. I’m applying for research permits for new work and trying to wrap up older work. I am teaching a new class and leading our departmental seminar series. I’m working on revisions for one paper and a final draft of a second paper (both with hard deadlines at the end of this month, of course!). My students are applying for fellowships, so I have some letters of rec to write, and I’m trying to recruit some new students to my lab for next year. All of this is normal, and totally manageable.

But then there are the extras. Now that I’ve been around here a while, the demands on my time are ramping up. Again, nothing that seems outside the normal scope of what I know most other professors have on their plate…but gosh, how do you handle all of the demands and time sinks??  I volunteered (stupidly, I realize now) to give a talk next Monday. I need to put together a society newsletter, by last week. I have to review the >100(!) undergraduate applicants who want to work on my summer project. I have a few paper reviews to complete by next week, and I need to start reading proposals for a grant panel at the end of the month. I’m leading a new taskforce on pulling together the mission and vision for our grad program. And I’m on the committee for two new faculty positions, so we’ll start interviewing oodles of candidates soon- exciting, but also lots of work.

And then there is the even more mundane. Tracking down the cartridge of $60 ink toner that was supposed to be delivered and never was (thank you, staff, for dealing with OfficeMax!). Finalizing orders for my lab set-up (a seemingly endless task, and a huge time suck). Emails about this and reminders about that. And endless, endless demands for seemingly small pieces of my time and energy.

So what am I not getting done that’s causing me to feel like a failure? I’m not looking forward. There are a few upcoming internal grant deadlines that I’d like to use to pull together ideas for a new project. I’d like to start planning the next paper, and draft up paperwork to hire a postdoc, and push through a few projects that have been on the backburner. And I simply can’t find the time or the energy. Which is worrisome, because these are the things that really count for me…these are the things that will get me tenure.

So what to do? Work ferociously on the weekends? Been there and done that, and it doesn’t work for me, because then I crash and burn during the following week. Like most of us, my productivity plateaus at some point, so working more hours is basically like shuffling the deck chairs. Do I wait until spring break and slog through the backlog in the absence of seminar and teaching? Yep, that’s on the schedule but it doesn’t address the underlying issues. Plus, I need to actually (*gasp*) take a break on spring break to get me through the rest of the semester. Do I try to work smarter? That’s what everyone recommends; some days I manage it and some days I don’t. But as one colleague pointed out, this attitude also “normalizes overwork”. Finally, do I get better at saying no? I’ve actually been pretty good about this, but in the face of constant demands on my time, it’s fairly difficult to implement short of moving out of state and never answering emails.

Sciwo’s post last week on service resonated with me. My institutional context means that my service load is higher than it would be at similar schools, but I should still examine my existing commitments in light of her thoughts (for example, I probably can and should step down as the newsletter editor). But to really get back on track will take some quiet time and hard thinking about how to align my time with my priorities (this post has some great suggestions for how to get back on track). But time for hard thinking is a precious commodity at the moment, and that too will probably need to wait until a break. In the meantime, I’m writing this post and hoping for catharsis. Then I’ll go back to work, put my head down, and keep checking off all the items on my to-do list.


16 thoughts on “Flailing

  1. It really sounds like you’re doing pretty well. This isn’t to say it’s wrong to feel overwhelmed, but from my vantage point (first-year STEM TT assistant prof at an R1), you’ve got your stuff together. You’re submitting two papers at the end of the month! That’s what you need for tenure, and you’re doing it! I get the worries about the pipeline, though. I’m writing a grant proposal now, and I can *feel* myself not *really* thinking about what needs to be done and instead just trying to get some ideas on paper and off my to-do list ASAP.

    One thing I’ve been told is to be extremely careful taking on undergrads. They can be a huge time sink, even though the ones where I work are awesome as undergrads go. I’ve gotten in the habit of really ‘testing’ the ones who want to work with me–many of the eager ones who want to impress in meetings give up over small struggles with actual research. Obviously, training people and REUs are part of our job description, but I think with undergrads especially, it’s better for everyone if they’re joining a bigger lab with more staff to train them and projects that have a bit more room for failure.

    Honestly, dropping a few balls now and then means you’re probably moving at a good pace. I had my stress and time buffers eroded by family medical problems over the holidays, and I’m now struggling with some interpersonal workplace problems that reduce me to tears a few times a week, and so I’m really visibly dropping balls too. But if you’ve got a functioning lab and papers coming out, you’ve really got 90% covered.

    • Thanks for the advice about undergrads. I am fairly strict about my time with them, especially since it’s mainly me supervising for now due to a few factors. So they can only work in lab at two times during the week, and we are using this semester as a trial run for whether they will be invited back next semester. This summer is an REU program, so that will be semi-structured, which will help.

      And as for the papers, they’ll only be submitted if I can get my sh*t together 🙂

  2. My perception is that you are doing too much of the extra, and that the only answer (especially if you know that you are not someone who can work to the outer limits of pressure — which I understand, because I am like that, but it’s wrong to imagine that there aren’t others who can tolerate workloads that do include working all weekend and never taking a break).

    The first thing I spotted is the review of undergraduate applications. You need to spend very little time on this. You cannot take the responsibility of imagining that their future lies in your hands — skim quickly, decide arbitrarily if there’s someone who excites you enough that you are willing to take them on.

    Review the rest of your activities for the things that you *enjoy* the most and the things you’ll personally benefit the most from and figure out where you can scale back. As an example, if you’re really 1st year, leading the mission and vision for a grad program is difficult to imagine as an appropriate project — that’s something to do later, unless you need the program for your personal program to succeed. The society newsletter — are you getting significant contact with people who are going to be important to you (potentially collaborators, tenure reviewers, etc.)? Or are you doing something that needs to be done, but will be seen as secretarial work? That’s a really worry for women, who tend to take on that kind of housekeeping work, but don’t get the right kind of credit for it. Reviews? review papers highly relevant to your field and for journals that are important to you. Do a good enough job, not the one where you try so hard to make the paper good enough for publication because you want to help the authors. I do believe one should usually say yes to talks, but maybe only if someone who will be important to you is likely to be listening.

    • Yep, I know I’m doing too much extra, and so the question is what to cut out. However, I’m also being asked to do even more (e.g., associate editor at various journals), and I hear very different opinions about this kind of work. I think, given where I am emotionally and practically, I need to get my own house in order before I commit to anything else, but that’s hard when people I consider mentors are strongly suggesting that I do this kind of work. Thanks for your assessment of different types of activities.

  3. When I get in this zone, I make two lists. One of what is due when. The other of what I care about (really care about, not just “should do”). Some of the “care about” is consequences of chores, but its the consequences – what I really want from the chores. (Like BJ says above — if you want an undergrad to work for you the goal is “find a good UG”. Not read 100 applications. You should also ask whether you want the UG to help YOU or them. The only thing on list two is stuff to help you. So it’s not “do review” but “do review to keep editor at GlamourMag X happy so they will look favorably on the paper I’m about to submit to them…” Also on list two is the stuff that’s never due. “Figure out whether that new mathematics of bunny hopping works or not…”). From these two lists, I can often work out priorities. And I often find that the “service” things I thought were critical aren’t. Not really. Not to anyone. Not even to the people who convinced me to do them because they said they were critical to the university.

  4. I absolutely sympathize and understand the feeling of flailing in your first year. It is so hard to prioritize those things that matter.

    There is nothing you describe in your “extras” paragraph that is going to contribute toward your tenure case. If you do not have a faculty mentor who will tell you that these things are a serious detraction from your career, you should get one fast.

    Some of those things are hard to say “no” to — especially the faculty searches, which will determine your future colleagues. These you probably have to do. But the other service tasks you should run away from, screaming. It is not too late to withdraw from some of them, even if you have already agreed to do them.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. It’s really difficult for me to figure out the appropriate amount of service. A lot of the “service” duties are things I arrived here with and that I need to get out of. But other ones are due to the unique situation at my school. My institution is rather small but growing, and service loads on junior faculty are in general pretty high. I have a faculty mentor, who I think is a pretty good mentor, and this person has actually recommended some of the service work, in part because of the institutional context. There is one big thing I just agreed to recently that frankly is ridiculous for a junior faculty to be leading, but that seems totally normal here. I initially thought it would fall into the “ugly” category, but am getting increasingly hopeful that it will fall into the “good” category.

      Anyways, I think a lot of this year (actually now my second year) is figuring out how to balance the institutional context with the larger career context, and I appreciate your perspective on what junior faculty at a normal R1 school should be taking on.

      • I’m impressed at how you are taking it all in stride! You have to work within the expectations of your university and general advice can only go so far.

        If I were mentoring a junior colleague at my institution, my advice would not be very different from some of the other commenters above, but possibly more extreme. I would have them step gracefully away from any newsletter editing with apologies, and immediately withdraw from doing reviews and grant panels. These things can be useful networking, and make you feel important. But if they have turned into looming deadlines, they aren’t fulfilling either role for you. No editor will ever write a tenure letter that starts with, “I only wish she had said yes to more manuscript reviews.”

        Re: undergraduates, I agree with the advice above. Triage. If you are not mentoring them toward research that leads to publication, you are wasting their valuable time.

        The “task force” makes every mentoring alarm bell ring. This is the most unusual and highest-stakes service in your portfolio, and if it happened at my institution I would be convinced the department was trying to sabotage the junior faculty member. I understand it is a no-way-out request and hope it works out OK for you.

  5. I’ve been a professor at a large state university’s med school for 1.5 years now. I’ll share with you what my main responsibilites are… Basically, I’ve been advised that the first three years are when I should go as light as possible on service because research is what matters most.My colleagues suggest service duty for me that they think will be beneficial for my tenure package without having to commit too much effort. For example, I’m the advisor for a very self-sufficient undergrad science club that actually prefers that I don’t come to their meetings. I’m also represent my department on two university committees that each meet only twice per year. I also review all internal grants/fellowships that I’m asked to review which so far has been 4 applications at a time, three times per year. I also always agree to do poster judging for student research days or various retreats/events held on campus. I’ve been advised NOT to participate in several other university initiatives until I have tenure because they are too time consuming. I review papers for journals each and every time I’m asked (once or twice a month, and I’ve never been asked to review anything too far out of my expertise). My view on this is that it gives me interaction with journal editors who might be useful contacts in the future, and I also sign my name at the end of my reviews so the authors will know who I am as well. My teaching load is also light because, again, the main focus of our department is research. I do five or six lectures per semester in advanced courses for med or grad students, though this will certainly have to increase as the years progress. I’ve turned down the opportunity to write review articles for very low tier journals, and politely declining one of these actually led to a much better offer writing for one of their higher impact sister journals. My main workload comes from writing grants, doing lab work, and mentoring two graduate students and one med student. Getting grant money, getting publications, and helping my students to get awards and fellowships are my primary focuses for getting tenure.

  6. Hi, I’m a 3rd year tenure-track professor at a research university and I’m also doing as little service as possible. I’ve observed many female seniors over the years. If they dedicate a lot of time and energy to matters that are of secondary importance – in my institution, both teaching and service are secondary – they end up on a second or third tier career track. It’s logical and sad. I do the same amount of teaching as Jake and am very conservative about saying yes to a lot of things. I strategically pick things that have a light load but high impact (I say yes to editorial boards and paper reviews crucial to my field; I also do some public awareness rising and media liaisons but never newsletter level stuff – rather, press releases and media interviews.).

    Before, I did several years of very cumbersome service.stuff and committee work, that type that drains your energy and fills your inbox. But I’ve learned that I need to use my time much more wisely now! The majority of my time is spent on mentoring doctoral students, submitting grants and revising manuscripts. I travel a fair bit too, peer networking in is crucial for me. I have a few undergraduates but they are often very time-consuming and really unpredictable in their career goals (first you train them, then they decide they’d rather spend their summer surfing in Indonesia or they switch majors…), so I’m focusing more on mentoring doctoral students and post-docs who are already quite serious about their personal goals.

    I’ve had lots of stress related symptoms too in the past (they are super common among my tenure track peers) and that has taught me that I need to protect my health and thinking time. I think you should learn to say no and start delegating menial tasks like newsletters and time-sucking committee work. Otherwise you’ll be totally paralyzed by overwork. I saying no can be really hard for many women. The men in my department don’t have any qualms about dodging or delegating stuff that they think is below their level. I’m just trying to play their game. I’m in a great spot right now – I have a lot going on but it’s not overwhelming and I’m not stressed out. My research is progressing well. Oh, and I work a lot from home. I’ve learned that when I’m not around too much, people don’t bombard me with trivial stuff.

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  9. I want to concur with everyone else’s comments that you seem to be doing a great job. I also am in the midst of a time period when I feel both like I am flailing and failing. And I think this is a problem that parallels, but departs in one key way from what you outline, although it is probably a common enough problem.

    I have many of the same responsibilities you outlined above, though modified somewhat by being at an undergraduate-only institution (so swap some of the grad/post-doc work for more of that undergraduate work). And there are definitely times when you need to make choices and certain balls need to be dropped (if not lost altogether). The real challenge is when the “extras” are undroppable balls related to family and life and what you inevitably have to drop are work items core to your identification as an academic.

    Such is my life right now. Fortunately, I just received tenure, so I am in the enviable position of being able to drop some balls, but it doesn’t make the feelings of failing (and flailing) and less. There is a certain irony in the path towards tenure in that it tends to set people up for an escalation in not just work responsibilities but also life responsibilities, even as your own involvement/direction/urgency towards your research reaches a peak, as well.

    As one of my senior colleagues mercifully put it, “you can do everything, but you cannot do it all at the same time.” I take comfort in hoping that, at some point in the future, these balls I’ve been forced to drop won’t have drifted too far from me for me to pick them up again.

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