Third Year is Kicking My Butt

In which @Scitrigrrl realizes that time is not stretchy and cannot be extended simply by adding hours at the beginning and end of each day.

I’m a little over halfway through my second semester of my third year, I am totally overwhelmed, and really feeling the pressure to do everything: Get funding! Publish papers! Teach with excellence! Be a good department/institutional citizen! I feel torn with the constant demands on my attention and time. I am tired, but I also still love my job, I finally feel settled in the job and in the town, and overall, I am happy. But between third year review (!), a dramatic increase in demands on my time compared with the first two years, and increased anxiousness about money, I am feeling overwhelmed. I know, in theory, what I need to do to get to where I need to be, I’m just not always convinced that I will get there.

There has been a running joke this year among some of my peers that now they have forgotten how long I’ve been here, I can no longer claim to be new. On the one hand, I love this. It means my colleagues feel like I belong here. In fact, I feel like I belong here, that this is not just the department I’ve landed in, but it’s *my* department (1,2). On the other hand, not being new anymore means that people have started to expect things of me. I can no longer claim ignorance (3) and, while there is a general expectation that things take a long time to get moving, to set up, to get used to teaching. But now, although there is some understanding that I’m still figuring stuff out, that there ARE limits on how much should be expected of junior faculty, there is also the real-world effects of a high administrative load on faculty, and not enough people, especially if some are out on leave, is that this doesn’t always happen. There are starting to be expectations about productivity, teaching, and funding. To be clear, many of these expectations are self-generated, which doesn’t necessarily make them easier to deal with (4).

It’s not only the expectations (from self- and other-) that have increased this year. It’s also the sheer amount of stuff that is going on. There is more of everything. I’m not teaching more classes, but I have more undergraduate students in my classes, and in my lab, and more grad students. I have been doing too much service – despite saying no to at least as many things as I took on. In part because some things are important to me (5) and in part because in feeling like I belong here also makes me feel some responsibility for what happens next (6). The amount of research-related activities has increased.

In terms of research, the increase and the momentum is a good thing. It is, in fact, THE thing. We, as a lab, are doing more (or at least more experiments. Many of them fail, as is the way of experiments). There are more people, we have projects running and data trickling out, and right now I have hope that at some point we will even understand what the exciting stuff means! It also means I have cool, if scattered, pilot data for grants! And incomplete data sets for papers. All of this is fantastic! And it means that I am spending a lot more time talking with my (awesome) lab people (7) about science and experiments and statistics and where it fits in to published data. It also means that I’m spending a lot of time (just like everybody else) writing grants and writing papers and dealing with rejection.

The rejection is starting to feel more and more personal. The grant writing feels like more and more pressure. As we churn our way through my startup funds, the thought of running out of money is increasingly present, which makes me feel like I should be writing MOAR GRANTS, which  in turn prompts me to do some completely unsustainable things – like attempt to submit to a deadline almost every week for a month (8). Meanwhile, I also need to get papers out, stay on top of teaching, deal with the committees I am on, be available enough to my students to help out when they run into difficulties, or are writing papers, or abstracts…

On top of all of this is something that is a little more subtle, and something that I find very hard to deal with: more people ask for things. More undergraduates ask for letters of recommendation or advice about science or research. More people in my lab are doing things and need more support. More colleagues ask about techniques I am using. Graduate students outside my lab ask me for advice. More requests for “in-house” seminars, guest lectures, and participation in student activities. More requests to review papers. These are all good things, but the volume and the sheer amount of time these things absorb has, all of a sudden, really taken me by surprise.

Outside of work, I am also busier. I moved to this job alone, I knew only a couple of people in this town, and because of that had a limited social life for the first chunk of time here. Now (9) I know enough people to have a support network! Friends! A trivia team! This is fantastic – and a lot healthier than my first year here. It also means that I’m completely unwilling to ditch my social life entirely in order to get everything done.

Now, the question that I’m trying to answer for myself is how do I make this manageable? How do I get everything (10) done – including having a personal life and interests outside of work – and still sleep? How do I become one of those super efficient people that I admire so much? There are several very specific things I am working on in this regard.

First, I’m working on what to prioritize. This differs depending on department, career stage, and a lot of other things, but here I’m going to defer to my faculty mentors (and the wonderful @pottytheron here) and prioritize papers. Papers over grants. Papers and grants over service.  I have data, I’ve just got to (a) sit down and churn it out as a paper and (b) get my postdoc to do the same.

Second, I’m tracking my time (inspired by the amazing @duffy_ma and this post in particular ). Tracking time is challenging and enlightening. So far I’ve realized that I’m somewhat more efficient than I thought, but SO MUCH TIME goes to people asking for things! That has just got to change.

Third, I’m working on having a more realistic idea of how long things take to get done. I reliably underestimate this by an embarrassing amount. Time tracking is helping, scheduling is helping, but accurate estimates of how long it takes to do small chunks of tasks (writing an introduction for a paper, for example) is something I’m still just not very good at.

Fourth, I have a social life and I am committed to outside activities, and I actively use these activities to limit the hours I spend working. I spend time with the people important in my life. I play trivia. I go to concerts. I am training (hard!) for a half marathon. I blog here (!). And I sleep (11).

I am not always doing fantastically well at any of these things, but I am getting better (slowly). I am also very mindful of the fact that despite feeling incredibly overwhelmed this year, despite the constant battle in my mind between “ZOMG! I AM DOING THIS THING!!!1!11!!” and “I am failing”, there is a lot about third year that I am really enjoying. I love feeling like I am a part of this place, and not an alien being that suddenly arrived. I am extremely grateful for the support I have within my department (see 1). I love that my lab people are more productive and are getting deeper into the science and generating data that is super cool…and that we can’t yet explain. I am really happy to have friends and a broader social network, to walk into the coffee shop and chat with the barista – because they are part of my community. I love having my favourite places in town and no longer needing to think about where to get what, and at work, I know who to ask for specific things. Most of all, I’ve just started to feel like I know what I’m supposed to be doing. I might not be succeeding at everything yet, but I know, at least in theory, what I need to do to get there.


  1. I am very, extraordinarily lucky I am in this.
  2. This also means that I feel more responsinle for
  3. Or I can, but it’s not very believable.
  4. Although having mentors around that normalize where my expectations should be is extremely valuable and helpful.
  5. And in part because I’m a sucker for punishment. But I have cut down and will soon be doing (almost) none.
  6. Okay, I’m a control freak.
  7. This is my favourite part of my job- talking with students about their science.
  8. Don’t do it. Just don’t.
  9. Despite academic nomadism
  10. Or some re-definition of “everything”
  11. Still not always great at getting enough of this one.

11 thoughts on “Third Year is Kicking My Butt

  1. It sounds like you are doing a great job and are very realistic about your time constraints, while still being productive and putting good effort into all of your tasks. I am a second year postdoc (so I have no where near the workload or responsibility of yourself) but I definitely get it. Science is one of those cool jobs, that sometimes does not even seem like a job. Sometimes I am amazed that people (as in people, I mean the government) pay me to do this. It is definitely an ongoing battle to balance workload with life in general. I have a bit of the same outlook as yourself. I try and limit my workload with my social life or other activities. I love running, so that generally limits my time at work! But it sounds like you are being super successful and have found your niche!

  2. With regards to the “more people asking for things more frequently issue” I found it was very helpful to book 30 minute meetings once per week with each of my trainees. This massively cut down on the number of random interruptions that I experienced from them during the week because they knew that I had dedicated a specific time to meet with them regularly. My department is also very friendly and collegial and I found that sometimes you need to close your office door when working on something that requires a lot of focus and not feel guilty about it.

    • Closing my office door was a revelation to me. It sounds ridiculous, but it is amazing what a difference closing the door (and closing email/turning off notifications) makes for uninterrupted time!

      • for me, the revelation was saying “can you come back at XX o’clock please, and I can give you 30 mins (or 15 mins if that is all that was required). People seemed to respect me more than if I just dropped what I was doing when they asked!

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  4. I’m in my 3rd year, and …. it does feel like there are so many more people who want a piece of meeeeeee. The people-managing thing is on the top-5 list of hardest things about this job, for sure.

    I closed my office door more last week than ever before, as I was dealing with NIH rejection (again) and my chair’s suggestion that I should go up for tenure early. I’m not sure how to mesh those two, but the swing between ‘I’m doing this!’ and total failure … keeps on swinging.

    Like you, I landed in a pretty darn good fit (1,2), and it feels good. I don’t know how I would do this if it wasn’t a good fit.

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  6. To me it sounds like you are doing really well and that you are well on your way! I really enjoyed your post – I’ve just started my fourth year and have felt the same steadily increasing pressure for my time and attention. It can get really overwhelming at times. I’ve also decided to prioritize papers and research networks (=where other do some of the paper and grant writing for me) over everything else and have scheduled blocks of time for writing. I’ve started doing short regular Skype meetings with my trainees to save time (meetings and email are such a time drain – having an agenda really helps). I work from home a lot to stay focused. I’m also saying no to more and more things. I got a teaching award and will cut back a bit on lesson planning.

    I’ve listened some audiobooks on time management and leadership. Although they can be a bit cheesy, they have helped me to understand how to manage people more effectively. They have also helped me to understand that I cannot always be on top of every detail (yes I order toners too!) and that I have to choose what matters most for me.

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