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.