Thursday, August 7, 2014

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: Navigating Responsibilities as a young Faculty Member

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better - and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!


Once you finish your PhD, you might think that the busiest period of your life and the biggest project you'll ever do, are over. In a sense, that is absolutely true - especially because of the learning curve involved with a PhD. But, unless you join a large laboratory to work on a post-doc, chances are that you will be getting quite a different number of responsibilities once you get your first academic job after your PhD.

And there you are, fresh from the lab-bench, getting ready for a new challenge and trying not to get sucked in by academia's sometimes bitter surroundings. While the previous years you might have had your number 1 priority very clear (solve your research question), the priority of your responsibilities might become more blurred once you get your first faculty position.

All of a sudden, there is research, teaching, outreach, service, tons of admin work and what not in your job description. Not only do some of these new additions to your task list require a new set of skills, they also require a different way of looking at your time: you'll be needing to move a whole number of projects forward, simultaneously.

It's been more than a year since I got my PhD, and it's been quite an interesting year. Combining my faculty position in Ecuador with a research position in the Netherlands is not a 1+1 = 2 kind of experience. There was to moving to, and getting adjusted to Ecuador, the figuring out where to find a place to live in the Netherlands for my research stay, trying to learn Spanish, and getting thrown off by food poisoning too many times. My learning curve has been quite steep, and I'm glad to be able to present you with the lessons I learned this year in terms of navigating different responsibilities:

1. Use the urgent-important matrix to set your priorities

When you are confronted with a large number of tasks, it helps to first make a list of all you have on your plate, and then see which of these are urgent, and which are important. You'll end up with four categories:
- Urgent and important: obviously, you need to be working on these tasks
- Not urgent but important: the group of tasks that too easily slip to the background
- Urgent but not important: visits, emails, phone calls, administration deadlines and more of the stuff you wish you didn't need to do but have to do to avoid trouble
- Not urgent and not important: stop doing these things - or just them sparingly.
If you start as a young faculty member, it is easy to let that "not urgent but important" category slip to the background. And this category has one red hot flashing name - Writing Papers. Don't postpone writing your articles. Don't think you can write an article in a few days or weeks, because you'll never find 8 hours in a day to work on it. Instead, have a planning to move your articles forward slowly but surely.

2. Get a streamlined time management system

My current time management tools are Google Calendar and ToDoist, and I use a notebook and Evernote to capture ideas and takes notes. I've started scheduling my time, pretty much to the minute, on a weekly basis, to know exactly what I need to be working on in a given week. I also make an overview of my tasks on a monthly basis, combined with a review of the past month. No loose ends and no tasks that remain behind. Figure out what works for you, and consistently use your system. Bonus tip: integrate your time and task management systems with the way you process email.

3. Do a braindump when you need it

Even though you might have all your tasks and appointments in your calendar and on your to-do list, sometimes you might feel a mild to severe sense of panic coming over you as thoughts of everything you still need to do rush through your head. That's when it's time for a braindump. You can either take a pause and journal longhand about all the demands that are placed on you, or you can sit down and make a list of all you need to do, and then review what you are going to do and when you are going to do it.

4. Use chunks of time to move projects forward

Very closely related to number 2 from this list, but I can't stress it enough: the times of being able to sit down for a couple of days in a row and cranking out a paper are over (unless you want to work through the night on a weekend or something crazy like that). You can't pull that off a couple of days before a deadline anymore. It's time to gear up in terms of efficiency and being organized, and plan 2-hour chunks of time daily (or a few times a week) for a few weeks to move your writing forward. The same advice holds true for any (new) research project that you will be working on. And of course, you'll have to schedule in blocks for preparing your classes, grading, office hours and all that - so you'll end up with a rather scattered time schedule. Leave enough buffer time between tasks, otherwise you'll feel "behind" the entire day. Experiment with your optimum chunks of time. I haven't found out yet which chunk of time feel not too short to reach a state of flow and not too long to start slacking a bit.

5. Make smart choices

As you advance in your career, you'll be met with more and more opportunities. But at a certain point, you'll have to start saying no to some opportunities and learn to make smart choices. If your schedule is more than full, accepting to review a paper might not be the right choice to make. Sometimes, however, the exact opposite could be true: reviewing that paper might be just the right move. I'm not too much into 80s style career-mooching and salary-mongering, so let's not forget one very important aspect: the joy of science. Don't reach the point where you start to feel suffocated by all the "Have-Tos" and don't have any time left to fiddle around with ideas or play around in the lab. Stay true to yourself and what brings you joy in your work in the first place - and invest in those areas. These areas are your natural strengths, so ultimately it has a positive effect on your career as well.

6. Set an ending time to your day

With an endless task list, you might feel as if the day is never over and you are never done, and you can keep working every single day until it's bedtime, or even beyond. Don't - it's a bad idea. I learned this the hard way, and now I set a closing time at 6pm every day when I'm working in Ecuador. For my short research-intensive month in The Netherlands I've been going a bit later, but that's exceptional. When I'm in my regular routine, it's 6pm and schluss, tomorrow is another day. I also try to set a digital curfew at 9pm (in reality, somewhere between 9pm and 10pm) to have a relaxed end to my day. Try it out, I'm pretty sure you'll get better sleep.

7. Take good care of yourself

Here's Auntie Eva again saying the same things over and over again: eat well, exercise, get enough sleep and go outside for fresh air and sunshine (hello vitamine D!). It's so obvious, everybody always tells you, but you really need to start taking these things seriously if want to see your productivity soar. It's all about feeling better, and having more focus. If you currently are living on TV dinners, find yourself surfing the internet late at night and then go to bed too late, and are out of breath after a flight of stairs - do not despair. Just take it slowly, change one habit at a time and try to stick with it for 30 days before adding on something new. Slowly but surely you'll see the change - and then you'll never want to go back.

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