Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Things I learned as tenure-track faculty: Time is the new currency

When you are on tenure-track, time flies incredibly fast. It seems like yesterday that I started, and now, I am almost at the end of my second year. It has been an incredible few semesters of learning, failing, trying again, and succeeding, in an infinite loop. Being faculty is hard and being on tenure-track at a Research 01 institution, even more.

My most important learning is perhaps that time is the new currency. Although I had heard of “protected time,” it is only recently that I developed a full understanding and appreciation for the word. Although I have a 50% research position and my tenure and promotion will be primarily dependent on my research productivity, a hundred different things get in the way of me doing research. Committee meetings. Teaching. Advising. Keeping an eye on the students who have promised to do work for you but keep disappearing. Academic networking. IRB submissions. Accounting, budgeting and managing my research money. The constant buzz of emails. People randomly dropping by my office to chat. The list of interruptions is endless.

My best days are the ones when I can get to work and start doing research without interruption. But that’s utopia. Hence, I work on the weekends, because I am less likely to see another human being within a one-mile radius on the weekends. We are trained to see money as currency, but not time or energy. Time conservation as well as energy conservation are few of the many things I try to improve upon every day. As a PhD student, I spent a lot of time to earn some money. As a faculty, I spend a lot of money to earn some time. For example, I will spend research money to outsource some of my work to graduate students so that I can do the higher-level work. I outsource my interview transcribing to a transcription agency. I outsource my taxes to a tax consultant. Outsourcing my work frees up my time to focus on research.

Talking of time, I have only recently started being mindful of the difference between “urgent” and “important.” The urgent will camouflage as important and compete for time. For example, service committee meetings are urgent (which is why people will schedule them early). Signing paperwork every two weeks so that students can get paid is urgent. Completing IRB paperwork is urgent. Submitting my review for a potential PhD student’s application is urgent. Finishing a journal paper review is urgent. Preparing to teach a class every week is urgent. However, none of them are important (important being defined as anything that grants you tenure and/or helps you to live a healthy life). Going to the gym is important. Writing that grant is important. Submitting that research paper is important. Eating healthy is important. Sleeping and waking on time, irrespective of work, is important.

Talking of the different dimensions of time, it is also important to mention “structured time” and “unstructured time.” Structured time is everything that has been written down in your calendar. However, as a faculty, you will notice that most things written down in your calendar either constitute teaching or service, but not research. You make space for committee meetings in your calendar at the beginning of every semester. You make space for teaching courses and preparing for teaching. You make space for submitting your journal paper reviews on time. This is because a lot of these structured activities are where you are accountable to a group of people. You might sacrifice writing your paper over preparing for class, because you are accountable to your students to teach that class. However, as faculty, research is largely left to “unstructured time.” This is time we have not accounted for. As a result, unstructured time gives the wrong illusion that there is a lot of time. You think that you will be writing your manuscript for 20 hours in the weekend, and before you know, the weekend is gone and you have barely written a paragraph.

In summary, I have learned to be mindful of two concepts: urgent versus important and structured versus unstructured time. Getting invited to give a talk at Harvard University might seem exciting and ego boosting, but guess what? Even ten such talks every semester will not give you tenure. Yes, that talk you give at Harvard might indirectly help you by getting you connected with future collaborators and co-authors. But preparing for that talk should not occupy majority of your time. It might be urgent, but for a pre-tenure faculty, it is probably not important.

In any given day, I try to see whether each of my activity counts for research or non-research (teaching and service). What did I do today? I checked emails in the morning (not research). I replied to emails and scheduled some meetings (not research). I took a bus for an inter-campus visit (not research). I observed a class from 5-8 pm (not research). I had dinner with an old friend and colleague (not research). I booked my flight tickets for an upcoming conference and optimized my spending by getting a Sunday night flight back home instead of a Monday morning flight (flight research is definitely not research). I am writing this reflection post (not research). At the end of the day, I have a false sense of satisfaction that I have worked a lot. However, I haven’t done any research.

Moving on to a different kind of time, the need for downtime and quiet time has never been more important. A lot of the “doing” aspect of my job is based on “thinking.” It might sound odd, but I try to build some protected time in my daily routine just to think without distraction. This is the time without the distractions of popping emails, phone calls, Whatsapp messages, or looking for houses on Zillow. I usually make time to think when I am on the bus or walking back home. I know people who keep 2-3 hours of dedicated thinking time every day.  Those are some of the more successful people in the department. Also sleep time has never been more important. Because if I am not well-rested, I will be useless and non-functional the next day. A good night’s uninterrupted sleep is something to be thankful for. Naturally, if I have the luxury of some free time, I will disengage from the drama around me to either think or sleep. Being on tenure-track has helped me rethink my time as a finite, non-renewable and indispensable resource.


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