Am I still failing?

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.

Where my time went this past month.   (Incidentally, this was my first foray into using ggplot2 in R. Go me!)

Where my time went this past month.
(Incidentally, this figure represents my first foray into the brave new world of ggplot2. Go me!)

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.

14 thoughts on “Am I still failing?

  1. Thanks for this post! As a new professor, these posts have been super helpful for me. I have one question: how many hours a week do you work, if you don’t mind answering? You mentioned “taking an evening off,” and that you don’t like to work weekends. Hours-wise, what’s the breakdown to your average week?

    • It looks like I worked about 55 hours per week, though spring break was lower- 45 hours. Honestly, it felt like more. And the “evening off” is a bit deceiving- I tried to leave work early that day (~3) since I was at a low, but ended up there later because I was talking/sobbing in my colleagues office. So I should have said “taking the late afternoon and evening off” but that was a bit clumsy🙂 I usually don’t work effectively at night unless I have a very defined task with a deadline (like writing a lecture for class the next morning). But I do get sucked into the email trap at night, which I wish I could be better about avoiding.

  2. Seems like you have a plan, keep working at it! It also seems to me that, like many of us, you still need to practice saying ‘no’ more often.

    And is there any possibility of taking some personal time during the week when you have weekend field trips etc? Hairdresser, massage, long lunch, even just shutting your door and catching up on personal emails? something just for you that you enjoy????

    • Great ideas, all. I emailed a friend for a masseuse recommendation, and then ended up never making the appointment! But one of the nice things about owning a dog is having a built in excuse to get outside regularly. Even though I now live in a house with a backyard, my dog is firmly accustomed to the grad student/postdoc apartment life and is in the habit of two walks each day. So I get a walk first thing in the morning, and I get a walk at the end of the work day, and I love it. And yes, I need to practice saying no.

    • Yep, I realize this is way too much time on service. But I do see the light at the end of the tunnel- another day of grant review, a few more weeks of job search duties, and then I just need to practice saying no for the future, which will be the truly difficult part.

  3. Thank you for your very interesting blogs! Very helpful for me as junior research fellow. I was impressed by the 45 hours you have been working effectively! Or is it quite a robust tracking system that also includes unproductive time? I notice that of the 40 hrs I work I find it very difficult to work focused for such long effective hours, how do you increase your effectiveness and productivity? Thanks!

    • Thanks for your comment, Linda. My tracking system was not particularly robust (Estimates from my daily notes transferred over to an Excel spreadsheet), but I tried to include only actual time spent working. But, this is NOT all highly productive work- these hours are those spent on all work-related activities, which includes many different categories of things that are easier to do while unfocused (or that take a different kind of focus, at least). For example, under “Service” in Week 2, I included time spent with the candidates at dinner or breakfast- I was required to be there by my job so I consider it work, but it’s usually fairly easy to have a meal and chat with a fellow scientist, even when tired. Similarly, I considered “Research” to include meetings with my students about their research projects.

      I generally am not able to focus on productive work for too many hours per day- perhaps four at the most? Because of this, I try to block out time in the morning to work on research- generally 2-3 hours on MWF mornings where I can write, because I have nice blocks of time to do so. On the other hand, there are some kinds of research I can do more easily later in the day, like coding or analyses. I try to reserve my freshest time for the tasks that are most difficult for me.

  4. Apparently most humans cannot concentrate effectively for more than about 20 mins at a time – so when you have (even) a 4-hr block, you should take regular breaks to walk around or take a sip of coffee or just re-focus by looking out the window. We also should not be in the same position for more than about half an hour at a time – whether it is sitting or standing – so again, a few minutes or even seconds of a stretch or a walk around the chair or lab will help the next 20 mins of concentration.

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  6. Thanks so much for your follow-up and I’m so glad to hear that you are doing well! Time tracking is a great proactive tool and I’ve found it immensely useful when I have wanted to increase the hours per week I spend writing and editing and decrease the time I spend on secondary stuff. Also kudos to you re: giving up the secondary/tertiary stuff. Try to up your research time to the expected level of your time used – not sure what your institution is like but at our university, if the research goals are not met and exceeded, no amount of teaching, service or community outreach will help. Because many research projects do not work out as expected, I feel I have to invest more time in research and try to cut corners when teaching and doing the other stuff.

    Hope you will get some free weekends soon. I’ve been burned out as a post-doc and the most important thing I learned is that the strategy that I adopt has to work in the long haul – ie, for several years. It’s really easy to fritter the time away doing tiny things nobody will really appreciate…

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