Thursday, November 6, 2014

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: Finding an Academic Schedule that Works

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!


For young faculty members, the large number of tasks you need to juggle might feel overwhelming. You might want to postpone writing your papers until you "have time for it."

You might be thinking: "This semester I am teaching new courses, so I'm going to postpone writing that article until next semester." And then, your next semester is there, and you have yet another challenge that takes up all your time so that you need to postpone your writing again.

As a new professor, and teaching 3 courses per semester, I need quite some time to prepare all my new material. I learned as well that there is not only the time it takes to prepare courses (4 hours of preparation per hour of lecture seems to be quite the golden rule), but there is also the time it takes to grade homework and exams, the visits of students with questions, and the extra volume of emails associated with streamlining the course. In short, once you start teaching, you have way, way less time for research left.

With a faculty position also come additional tasks. You might be managing a laboratory or responsible for revising the curriculum of your department's program to meet new government requirements. This work too needs to move forward, and takes time.

To keep your many tasks and responsibilities all moving forward at a steady pace, I am quite a fan of using a weekly template, as suggested by Dr. Golash-Boza and Dr. Pacheco-Vega.

Last semester, I followed Dr. Pacheco-Vega's approach, but I found this "scheduling everything to the very minute" rather depressing - I never got done what I planned to do, because over the course of the day, random extra things always seem to creep up. I need more air or buffer time in my schedule, and I need to foresee more time for email. By now, my golden rule is not to plan more than 75% of my time. If you look at my schedule, my "boxes" for my different tasks seem to be back-to-back, but in reality I only put tasks in these boxes that take 75% of the allotted time.

Boxes? Tasks? Let me explain that by introducing you to the weekly template that I have for this semester:



As you can see, I'm using color coding for my different tasks:
- Green = workouts: Very important, I can't be focused on my work if I'm not giving some priority to movement. Time ago I wrote about exercise taking the backseat, but since then, I've been consistently making time for sports. Lots of work is not an excuse to sacrifice your health. Currently, I'm combining hot yoga classes in a yoga studio, with group workouts in the gym (body pump, spinning, yoga) and cardio and weight lifting in the gym. After trying out a number of different options, I've found that morning workouts work best for me here.
- Light blue = research. This category has different tasks: time for moving research projects forward (calculations, mostly), time for writing papers, and time for reading papers. This semester is the first time that I am actually blocking a few hours each week for reading papers to keep updated on the advances in my field. I especially like reading the recent issues of the ACI Structural Journal and the Magazine of Concrete Research.
- Yellow = personal time. A researcher's got to eat, and cook to get to eat said food. I plan sessions of batch-cooking to have food that lasts a couple of days. I schedule time to play music (singing or playing the cello), because that really rejuvenates me, and I have too little time for it. Groceries - ah, hate it, but it needs to happen. If you make your weekly template, think of all these personal errands that you need to run on a weekly basis, and safe time for them.
- Blue = Class preparation. For the course that I have taught before, I am not scheduling much time anymore. For my new course, I am scheduling 4 hours of preparation per hour of class. Luckily, I am teaching 2 parallels of the same course, so that saves me some time. The boxes of class preparation time can be moved around on a weekly basis, as I like to grade homeworks and exams right after receiving them - I like being punctual about returning work to my students, as a fair exchange for my being rather strict about the deadlines of their work (you respect my time, and I respect your time, and we all move forward).
- Indigo = Class. These are the hours that I am actually teaching. This semester, I am teaching in the afternoon (works well with my personal energy),
, I do not have gaps in between hours of teaching (last semester I had a Lost Hour on MWF in between two hours of class, and I never got any work done during that hour), and I am not teaching on Friday (research time!).
- Pink = Blog scheduling. Because writing these posts takes time, and if I don't schedule time, I can't find it.
- Orange = Office Hours. I only have 2 hours a week officially in my schedule as office hours, but my students can make an appointment and I'll gladly schedule them in. They know that I am in my office most of the time (I do not run a practice next to my academic position, I am more than busy with 2 academic positions), and that they can drop by if needed.
- Red = email and appointments. Also, my former "work" category (everything work-related used to show up red in my Google Calendar, but that has changed now). Appointments come in this category, and an hour on a daily basis goes in this category for plowing through my mailbox.

Now this weekly template is the basis for my week-to-week planning. I keep track of my tasks in ToDoist, and every Friday evening (as you can see in my template), I sit down to review what work I accomplished in the past week, and what needs to be done, per category, on a weekly basis. I fill in the boxes with the specific tasks that await me (using up only 75% of my allotted time, so I have enough buffer to catch up whichever fireball gets thrown at me during the day). An example of a recent week looks like this then:



As you can see, I moved some tasks around, added in some extra appointments, and generally filled in the specific tasks within their respective categories that I needed to accomplish.

For PhD students, you might like to implement a simpler version of this approach - you can find an example of what my schedule looked like when I was a PhD student in a different post.

With this system, I am able to move a number of projects forward at the same time, and I ensure I am not neglecting a specific category of work while favoring another category.

12 comments:

  1. Thank you for posting your schedule. What program do you use to create the schedule?

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  2. I want to be a researcher when I get my PhD in Psychology. Any advice on how to get a job in that field now as a student?

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    1. I'll put your question up for a Q&A post :)

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  3. Thanks for any advice you can give.

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  4. Interesting blog, but it struck me as odd that there was no "social time" scheduled (I checked your blog on your PhD schedule and there were no social events there either). Does that mean you do not have an active social life and are ok with that, or did you simply not write it down?

    I find that most of my free time goes into social events, which I like, but sometimes makes it harder to find time to do things at home. I am curious as to what your thoughts are about this.

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  5. Good question - I'm moving my answer to a Q&A post, as it will be a rather lengthy reply.

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  6. Dear Eva,

    first of all, thank you so much for keeping the blog and for the very good posts. Whenever I feel the need for a motivation boost or am looking for inspiration or academic strategy, your blog is the place to go to.

    I need your advice! My question is: How many writing projects and research/admin projects at a time do you think would be best to keep being productive? I realize people are different, but I would really appreciate your opinion.

    Here is a little context:

    I am currently in the process of adjusting to a new lab and city, as I have started a postdoc abroad. On top of all the new things I need to learn and set up here, I also need to finish some old or ongoing projects from my old workplace.

    I am feeling a bit overwhelmed, but I made a plan, read your posts, such as "What I wish I'd known one year ago when I started as a professor " and "Finding an Academic Schedule that Works " and started using Google calender and Todoist. It's going really well for about two weeks now. I'm thinking of keeping a document to track the progress of my publications, similar to you.

    But because I have so many projects, I get to work on them for only a short amount of time per week, until next week comes again and I get to work on it again. I currently have 4 major writing projects and 2 small ones, as well as 3 research/admin projects. For the two most important major writing projects I get to about 4 hours per week, for the other ones, 2h. It certainly is going forward, but I also feel I might be merely trying to fill a swimming pool with a spoon. The other options would be using all slots for writing one project which alternates each week, or prioritizing and leaving some projects for only after I finish the first ones. However, I really feel that those are no real options for me.

    I would be happy even with a oneliner from you (I realize you must be really busy), saying what you found a healthy workload in terms of "projects" at a time would be. In the second picture I notice you use most of the writing slots for only one project? Thank you very much in advance for your help!

    Alexandra

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    1. Hi Alexandra,

      Thanks for your kind words on my blog :)

      My situation is a little different since I have teaching duties; typically 3 courses per semester, and this semester a reduction to 2 courses.

      I typically work on one paper at a time, and try to write 2 hours a day on the paper. Then, I try to work 2 hours on research. I've had times in which I am juggling more than 1 research project, but usually I have one that is my main project. For the other projects, I could be just supervising students, and not be doing the number crunching myself. But in terms of really pushing the boundaries in my field forward, I try to limit myself to maximum 2 research projects at the same time. Then, depending on the day, I might be able to squeeze in another hour of research, but that's about it.

      The rest of my time goes into teaching, and email. I do am involved with a number of collaborative efforts, so my comments and work on that get lumped into my email time. I try to set aside a few hours a week as well for reading, and in that time I also do the reviews of papers that I get assigned.

      And thinking of it - when I say that I work on 1 paper at a time, I mean the first draft. Once the first draft is off to my co-authors, I wait until I get their feedback, and then might use one 2-hour time slot in the morning to implement their comments before submitting. I also have the papers of my students that I spend a fair amount of time on, especially since often they have never written a paper before. So, just as with my research, I have one main paper (new draft) that I am working on, and then smaller loose strands that are on the backburner.

      I hope that gives you some ideas! Feel free to shoot me more questions.

      Eva

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  7. Dear Eva,

    thank you for the long and extremely helpful comment!

    I think your workload seems like a whole lot but at the same time your judgement is absolutely sensible. I also have the luxury of not having to teach, but I do have four students to supervise.

    I like the schedule and working in slots very much. In fact, even with a whole lot of projects, I find such a schedule really beneficial, because it prevents me from getting bored and it helps me see even the smallest progress in each domain, which otherwise would have hung like a heavy shadow over my head. It also gives me a long breath and doesn't get me bored of any one task, because there is a lot of switching throughout the day. Like you, I realized that trying to schedule to the minute or making slots that are too long or too short are not good ideas.

    So you made me realize that what I was planning was not very efficient (filling swimming pools with one spoon, haha). So I decided to give that priority matrix a try and see whether I can find a importance/urgency hierarchy for my projects. It was difficult, because, in addition to importance and urgency there is another factor which is called maybe "feasibility". This involves for example some projects depending on other people or resources that are out of my control. Therefore, even though such a project might be important and even urgent, I might choose to prioritize a project that is important and not urgent, just because I am the sole participant or maybe even have some previous work to build on, therefore knowing I will finish it much sooner (getting publications out atm is the main goal). I am not sure how to judge when this "feasibility" (maybe not the best name) comes into the matrix. Nevertheless, you helped me realize that I should prioritize two writing projects and once they are finished, I should then start the other two. Since I could not really do the matrix strategy, I went by intuition. Let's see how it goes. I am feeling motivated!

    Another good idea I received from a friend was: to work in the morning for projects for myself, after that for projects where I collaborate and only in the evening for other people's projects (e.g. students). I have come to realize that this indeed is also a sensible way of prioritizing (if applicable - in my case, it is :)

    Best,
    Alex

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    1. P.S. When I said "I also have the luxury of not having to teach, but I do have four students to supervise" - I meant the sentence without the "also" ;)

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    2. Hi Alexandra,

      Sounds like you have some good plans and ideas in there :)

      I have a few projects in which I collaborate with others. For these, I do my share on the work during my allotted time for writing or research, and then put it on the backburner of my imaginary stove while I wait for my collaborator's reaction. If your focus is indeed to get your papers out, I would give that all the attention it needs. Do keep in mind that it looks better to have published with different people from different institutions (my current "weakness" - all my publications are with the same coauthors who supervised my PhD).

      I guess your "feasibility" factor comes down to making smart choices in what to work on first. I think it is indeed an important factor.

      The tip from your friend resonates with me too: I keep my mornings for my writing and research and try to avoid getting teaching duties or meetings in the morning. So far that works out, because most of my colleagues prefer to teach in the morning, but it all depends on the goodwill of the Authorities (as they call themselves, including the capital letter ;) ) of my university.

      Best,
      Eva

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