Managing the Many Tasks in Academic Jobs

Original Content Developed by Dr Sarah Sheffield with additions from Dr Dominik Konkolewicz.

Congratulations on securing your new job. This post is for new faculty members in STEM fields, but could also be useful to new faculty at all stages of their career!

This is a (non-exhaustive) list of the tricks, resources and tools that can make your life a lot easier in this chaos job. This may not work for everyone, but these are things that can certainly help

1. Time, is your most precious resource!! You can get more grant money for any expenditure , even though it is hard, but you can’t get more time. Be fair with your time, but also it is totally ok to say, sorry can I get back to you at a time that works better for you. Prioritize where you will give your time, teaching, mentoring, research, service. Pre-tenure, service should be much less than teaching, research and mentoring.

2. Find an organization system before the semester starts.  Try a combo of todoist (to do list app) and a paper planner. You may also like the idea of keeping a running list of post-its (super rewarding to physically move those post-it notes to the done pile). It is a good duplicate most everything between the two. With so much going on, it is easy to forget everything instantly if you don’t get it written down. 

3. Set organization systems with students, too. Students have access to some shared to do lists like rec letters, editing manuscripts, etc.

4. Spreadsheets are your friend!!! They can be used to track student grant awards, number of rec letters written, how many students come to office hours, manuscripts and grants reviewed, etc. All adds up for showing impact for tenure. Set a to do list reminder to update it regularly, if you cant update right after you complete the task

5. Set monthly reminder to update: your CV and website. For your annual evaluation either add new content monthly and format it before it’s due, or if your CV/Website is updated you can move things annually a few weeks before due date, because your CV and website are up to date. In your first year, it is easy to forgot a ton of stuff you did because of the chaos, so keeping up to date should help.

6. Do you have an online system for tenure? You can start uploading stuff in advance often! DO THIS. Doing this for first time for mid tenure is a nightmare, and tracking down some of the info over several years is rough. It is going to save you time to update every ~2-3 months to prep for tenure. 

7. Teaching will swallow your life whole if you aren’t careful. It should take time because it’s very important but rely on others to help. Ask for help on Twitter! Other faculty! Get slides and assignments to modify!!!

8. Truthfully, after the first time you teach a class, it will be a lot easier- don’t beat yourself up over mistakes. You get better at adjusting and fixing on the fly. Write down everything that went great/wrong immediately after so you remember for next semester.

9. Same with syllabus. You’ll find policies you set cause a hot mess or aren’t specific. Make notes to edit it after semester ends so you are prepared for the next one. Where possible use language from your institution for general policies such as academic integrity, examination policy, etc. Only focus on developing things relevant to your course.

10. Teaching is the best part of the job. It’s also the most soul crushing sometimes. Save the kind things students write you in a folder and read it when the job sucks. (To our students-we save all of it and it means the world to me!) 

11. Don’t say yes to too many research students at once. Mentoring is a very important and also a time consuming and tough part of the job. It takes more time than you think. Don’t jump in w/ a giant group or you’ll have a hard time finding time for everyone. Also with limited resources, this can lead to huge fluctuations in your group size if you have many students graduate at once.

12. If you are at a research focused university (R1/R2), you will likely transition out of the lab within 12-24 months to focus on paper and grant writing, with grad students/postdocs doing the majority of the experiments. However, that first 12-24 it is crucial you spend as much of that time in the lab with the students to set up protocols and lab culture. Your students need to engage in the science for the group to be successful, and working with the PI early on is a big part of the buy in.

13. Service! Don’t say yes to everything. Please. But don’t say no, either. Sit on a request for a bit and ask ‘is this going to help me get tenure’? ‘Will it bring my soul joy’? Both are important questions to ask yourself. Make sure some of them bring you joy. 

14. More on Service! If possible be proactive in your service choices. Discuss with your chair/head of department about the types of service you could perform. You will do a better job if you proactively pick service that is meaningful, and you will be able to say no to service that is less interesting to you.

15. Meetings, So many Meetings! Stack your meetings if you can!! Can you stack them on teaching days, to be as efficient as possible with your time? This leaves lighter days free for research. Obviously, this isn’t easy & changes every semester. Do your best. 

16. When tenured faculty say ‘this is great for tenure’, sometimes…it isn’t. They may mean well, but they could also be adding to your work that won’t pay off. You might be asked to cover a lot of extra service- be careful before saying yes. Ask a trusted mentor first (they may be at your current or former institution). 

17. Make a few writing groups! You can sit on zoom with trusted folks to write in silence buddy system style. It’ll help you keep writing in your schedule. Alternatively see if you institution does writing boot camps, these can be helpful for you to carve out time to write.

18. Many of us struggle with this one, but please value your off time. Turn off e-mail notifications after work. Set boundaries. Tell students you don’t answer after X time. You need to take time off or you will burn out. 

19. Automate what you can! Students need rec letter? Send them a form to fill out so you can collect what you need. Make email folders to automatically sort stuff into needed piles. Check out an example of a letter of recommendation form here.

20. For women, & all underrepresented faculty- you may find students come to you for a lot. It’s an honor and also difficult to navigate, personally. It can be emotionally draining from being the support for so many- please take space for yourself and value off time. 

21. Ask for help from senior faculty. Ask ‘what do I do for travel forms?’ ‘Where do I send students for advising’ ‘how do I access my start ups?!’ and keep it all tucked away somewhere. It is a massive learning curve. 

22. Find mentors outside of your department and university, too. Best thing you can do is to have folks you can go to outside of my dept to discuss tricky issues, and also to get feedback on ideas as they emerged.

23. Find what you need for your mental health and do it. Exercise? Hobbies? Therapy? Medication? Your mental health is a top priority.