Four weeks ago, I wrote that I was failing. Today, I re-read that post and cringed- partly because I know that, realistically, I’m not failing and partly because, even with the anonymity of a pseudonym, it’s difficult to admit weakness. I need to remind myself that my feelings then were authentic and reasonable; I was truly at a low.
I ended the post with this: “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.“ It’s now been one month, so how am I doing? Was the post cathartic? Have I checked off all the items on my to-do list? Am I still failing?
To answer the first: yes, writing the post was cathartic. The day after the post, I hit bottom. I was completely overwhelmed by work and I ended the day by crying in my friend and colleagues office after she asked me how I was doing. I simply couldn’t answer that question without losing my sh*t. Also, I skipped lunch, which I KNOW not to do. I went home that night completely wrecked and hollowed out, and took the evening off.
In the aftermath of that low point, I decided to make some changes. I stepped down from my position as the society newsletter editor. I put only a minimal amount of time into the service-ish talk I had agreed to give. I was pretty late getting some papers reviews submitted (which I feel bad about but is not the end of the world). And, I started tracking my time.
I have tracked my time at various points along my career and it’s an enormously helpful tool to figure out where the hours are going. In my case, I broke down my work into the three standard categories: Research (research related work, meetings, proposal writing, and lab-related stuff), Teaching (class time, prep, office hours, etc), and Service (outside service such as paper and proposal reviews, editorial work and internal service such as job search and leading the department seminar). How much time you should be spending in each category varies, but some estimates put the mix at roughly 60-30-10 for research-teaching-service (e.g., guidance from The Professor Is In). Given my institution, a 60-20-20 balance might be more realistic. However, I haven’t received any explicit guidance about this balance- just that I need to develop a high-quality, sustainable research program, which means spending the bulk of my time on research.
So, how did I do in the past month? Overall, I spent about 39% of my time on Research, 48% of my time on Service and related work, and 13% of my time on Teaching. But there is a lot of weekly variation. Week One is closest to being normal- 41% Research, 41% Service, and 18% Teaching, but there is still substantially more “Service” in the mix than is ideal. What made up the Service component that week? I gave a talk at a symposium on campus, work I consider service because my arm was twisted into doing it and it didn’t advance my research in any way. We also had one job candidate visit and the seminar speaker was a friend of mine, which meant I spent more time on seminar-related activities (though I also got some good personal time with my friend). Service went up in Week Two with three job candidates in town, and Research went up in Week Three with spring break and a research meeting for two of those days. Service is way up in Week Four due to proposal evaluation and discussion.
So what do I take away from this? Despite the grim numbers, I think I’m in good shape. Most of the service duties that contributed to the imbalance are/were one-time deals. Of course, these things will continue to come up, but in theory I have more control over this type of service. And I consider the proposal review a good investment of my time, giving me a better understanding of the funding ecosystem and what makes proposals successful. What the numbers don’t show is that the biggest ball that was dropped was my personal life. I worked for a large part of most weekends, which I try not to do, and that is simply not sustainable nor desirable. So, the past month was hard and April will continue to be difficult (I’ve got a series of Saturday field trips that kill my weekends). However, mentally I’m in a better place. I’m not overwhelmed on a daily basis and I feel like my schedule and time management is on the upswing, with a new set of “lessons learned” to add to my growing pile of cautionary tales.