Things I've learned from my semester

i-9dc84d4d9156dccb30d5f62466b4219a-swblocks.jpgMy students tell me that there are only 20 days of class left this semester. I've been too busy to count. Unfortunately, it's been too-busy-with-things-that-don't-make-a-compelling-tenure-case. But, maybe, just maybe, I can salvage this mess of a semester by learning some lessons for how now to conduct future semesters. So in RBOC-fashion here's what I've discovered.

  • Loading up my teaching on Mondays and Wednesdays did not actually produce "free" days for research. First Tuesday got filled up with student meetings and class prep for my marathon Wednesdays. Then Thursday got filled up with other meetings, supervising student lab work, and digging out from my marathon Wednesdays. Then Fridays got mangled by yet more meetings and needing to have stuff organized for Monday's classes. I think I actually get more done teaching three days a week (huh, my senior colleague was right!).
  • My most productive work hours are from 9 to 11 at night - because there are no meetings and no students. But I can't do everything at home because I don't have access to programs, etc. Working past 11:30 pm doesn't really work because I'm too tired the next day and Minnow still wakes up then and wants to come to bed with me.
  • My most productive daytime work hours are 4 to 5 pm, especially if I shut my door. something about the urgency of the next day really motivates me to get stuff done. Plus, I'm pretty well through my procrastination options by that point.
  • Given my productivity from 4 to 5 pm, having a class that ends at 5 stinks.
  • There's a huge difference for me between having to be on campus at 9 for a meeting or 9:30 for a class. I typically come screeching into campus about 8:55 am. That gives me time to check email and get ready for a 9:30 class, but it leaves me off-kilter if I've immediately got to be in a meeting.
  • Even if I am not teaching new preps, teaching large introductory classes or classes with large field components still takes me quite a few hours per week.
  • Online office hours rock.
  • Search committees are a LOT of work. Very important, very time-consuming work. (At least one more post brewing on this topic, when I settle on how to safely write it.)
  • Meeting with undergraduate and graduate students on a weekly basis is very time consuming. I know that helping them with their research IS doing research, but it still feels like a giant time suck. I've been much happier with the biweekly meetings I've been doing with two students. They make more progress in between so there's more to talk about, and I don't find myself resenting the time as much.
  • I need to structure undergraduate research projects so that the students are able to work independently as much as possible (or under the supervision of a graduate student, I suppose).
  • I still need to find a way to effectively prioritize my own research into my calendar and make the time as inviolable as other more urgent activities. I'm thinking that 3 to 5 pm a couple of days a week might be the ticket.

Any tips or tricks you could suggest?

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SW, can you describe how online office hours work again? Do you do them by email, or by Skype/similar?

so much of that sound familiar! I am also most productive from 9pm-midnight, and often end up closing down the computer as the kid is crying for me to come to bed.

I also agree with biweekly meetings between grad students and advisors, it's better for the student too.

we've had quite a few undergrads work in our lab these last few years, and although the usually don't work on a grad student's project, us grads are the ones who spend the most time with them and train them. We attend most of the meetings with the PI and undergrad so we can have some input on the project or let them both know what's working or not. It is a nice model in some ways since I get the experience of working with undergrads, but don't have to worry about them "messing up" my data, but it's also a lot of time and energy going into something that doesn't move my research forward (and the undergrad gets lots of kudos for being so productive, even though I had to hold their hand the whole time)

By soil mama (not verified) on 09 Apr 2009 #permalink

I just went through the tenure process (successfully ! Hurray!) and I never found any successful formula that ended up working for me more than one semester at a time. There are always interruptions like searches, curriculum revisions, programs reviews, blah, blah, blah. At least here there are. Just as soon as I thought that I had a handle on something, either the semester was over or a new problem dropped on my lap.

One trap you do not want to fall into is the "I will do this differently next semester" because before you know it - the year or a couple of years have flown by. I saw two colleagues not get through the tenure process for pretty much that reason - one spent so much time revising and working on a paper (yes - one paper that was being treated like a thesis or something) that when review time came, that was all they had. It was a great paper, but the bean-counters in administration want to see three/four/five+ first author papers, not one tome.

My most productive time is actually in the morning, so when I do the best, I have just one hour a day that I block off (9-10 or 8-9 or something) where I shut my door and write, read journal articles, work on grant applications or something for me. The morning generally works best because the students do not tend appear until after 10. I can't work at home really - I have a one year old and a six year old who will not be denied, so I have to pack as much into each day as possible so that the night is family time.

BTW - now that I have tenure, there has been no significant change in my schedule - I am still overworked and unappreciated.

@ #1

We (no relation to SW) held "on-line" office hours by having a TA operate a chat room (run through our course management software) for several hours per week. Peek time were in the evenings, presumably when most students were attempting their homework. Good times to run chat sessions are before homework due dates, and just before exams. Other times usually result in nobody showing up.

We had the luxury of several TAs who were each responsible for one hour per week.

It's also possible to maintain on-line forums (again through course management software) where students can post questions, while other students post answers. These need to be monitored, of course, but I've never experienced any problems such as people posting answers to the homework problems, say.

The perk of having on-line resources like these for the students is that the students can lift the educational burden off the professor by answering other student's questions. There is almost always one student who has enough understanding to quickly provide the right answers. Usually if one student has a question, many more have the same question, so having the answer located in a central location where everyone can access it saves the professor from answering the same question multiple times in office hours.

Having a TA to monitor the situation helps ensure the quality level (i.e. students circulating bad information).

Just a small question - why don't you have access to all your programs from home? Whether you're using linux or windows, there are options for having access to your work comp as if you're at work from home (remote desktop for windows). Unless your IT department has decided that keeping the network safe is more important then actually being able to do work, that is. But really, unless they are really crazy they should give you a way to connect to your work machines.

Lock the door.

If you want to be productive in a non-event-driven task, you need to enter a "flow" state, and that takes between 15 and 30 minutes. One non-trivial interruption blows it and you're back to Square One. Barring spending what should be deceleration time [1] on work at 22:00, you have to lock the door and simply (as one of my profs many, many ago put it) not be there. The phone is off, the door is locked, and barring a fire alarm or ambulance you're not there.

I've worked in offices where the management put yellow caution tape across corridors at set times of day: no interruptions allowed, period. Dang, we got a lot done.

[1] Skip that and you'll pay too -- just longer term.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 09 Apr 2009 #permalink

I heard about online office hours at a recent teaching institute. It sounds like it could be productive. If nothing else, you can shut your door and if no students show up you'll have had a productive hour.

Our lab is run on the premise that the faculty advises the grad students, and the grad students advise the undergrads. It's (theoretically) completely voluntary on the grad student's part; we can have a student when we need one, and be free when we don't. So far there have been enough of us that we can always find something for any interested undergrads to do, although I'm sure there will come a time when none of us want another student.

I've found mentoring undergrads very helpful for running side projects I can get undergrads interested in, and I'm assured (by people other than my advisor) that it will be very helpful when I start looking for faculty positions, because I'll have demonstrated mentoring experience. The only downside I've found is getting frustrated at how my advisor gets all the official credit for mentoring. I can live with it, because the undergrads know me and have barely met her.

As a highly successful scientist told me, figuring out what works for your productivity is a significant step forward. We all work differently. Sounds like you're doing a good job identifying your needs and strengths...

In grad school, if the prof's door was closed, even if we knew she was in there, we did not knock on that door unless something exploded or you knew she wanted those results as soon as they were ready. Best to just send an email or jot it down on my list for the next time I planned to meet with her. Usually my issues were not as significant as I thought at the time or I figured out how to deal with them on my own.

Thanks for sharing and it sounds like you're doing a great job of prioritising and learning from experience. I'm always in awe of how people with a lot of teaching responsibilities also get research done. It sounds like your schedule is packed more or less all week and I'm curious how you prioritize the few hours a day you do have available for research. I almost feel bad for admitting that I have way more time for research during the semester than you have, but still struggle with fitting everything in. Do you spend your research hours writing papers, starting new research, applying for money, getting students started, doing actual research (fieldwork, labwork etc) and is it possible for you to do all this with a few hours a week? I feel it's barely possible with at least half my working time available for research.

I can empathize a great deal with the balancing act you are performing and, despite what sounds like exhaustion, you seem to be doing a really great job of keeping things in order (as much as humanly possible!). I'm just setting out on my own now, and I have to agree with what some others have posted about finding your most productive time and protecting it fiercely, and finding ways for undergradutes to work as independently as possible. I'm also finding a trick I learned from my thesis advisor about the office door quite helpful. Open = feel free to stick your head in. Closed all but one inch = stop, think twice, and if you still think it's uber important, knock. Fully closed = I'm not there.

By New Asst. Prof. (not verified) on 10 Apr 2009 #permalink

Our University (alas!) requires 10 (yes,ten) office hours a week. I discovered that if I schedule 2 or 3 days a week office hours from 4-6 pm, hardly anyone ever comes in, although I got an occasional email. This turns out to be the most productive hours of my week. The 4-6 PM hours started by student requests, but those same students almost never came in anyway. For mid-day productivity, I sometimes close and lock my door and refuse to answer the phone, answer a knock on the door or look at email. Another method I use during office hours sometimes is to leave a prominent note on my office door announcing that I am in my lab, and am available there.

@12. Holy crap Carol, 10 hours? That's insane.

Thanks for sharing all this ScienceWoman! It's so important for all of us to be honest about our time management, work/life and teaching/research balances. I also admit to feeling a bit better when I realize we ALL struggle with this at times, and that we all need to adopt our own strategies for survival.