time management tips for assistant professors (and everyone)

I recently saw a short list of advice for new assistant professors by Chris Blattman [Link]. Chris is an Assistant Professor of Political Science & International and Public Affairs at Columbia University (soon to be tenured). His list is summarized below. Go to his blog post for the full discussion:

  1. Learn to say no to new projects.
  2. Have a higher bar for projects with big exit costs.
  3. Book chapters and reviews are a waste of time.
  4. Get your dissertation papers or book out.
  5. Seek out mentorship.

This list is not comprehensive. This is not a weakness, but rather an opportunity to add to the list. The above list solely focuses on research and publication for assistant professors at research intensive universities.

I have a few things to add to the list. My tips, however, narrowly focus on time management. Most aren’t just for academics.

I was on a panel at the 2012 INFORMS Annual Meeting about time management for assistant professors hosted by the Junior Faculty Interest Group. Other panelists included Mark Lewis (Cornell), Kathy Stecke (UT-Dallas), and Brian Denton (now at Michigan). The panel discussion was chaired by Shengfan Zhang at the University of Arkansas. I had recently been awarded tenure from my previous university, and Shengfan asked me to talk about how I managed to get tenure with three kids. I only had a few minutes, so I focused on four general principals of time management that I use:

  1. There are two basic rules for time management: Do less or do it faster. There are no real tricks. I recommend learning how to say no to superfluous department, college and university service that will not add value to a tenure case and to be careful with collaborations.
  2. 80% of success is just showing up.  Academics of both genders with kids married to working non-academics tend to be the “flexible” ones, who attend to children’s doctors appointments, sick days, and days off of school. It can add up unless a fair plan is in place.
  3. Be careful with how you work on the weekends and evening. This seemingly contradicts #2, but it really takes a different angle. It’s important to work “enough” but to also put in quality time. Parkinson’s Law: Work expands to fill the time available for completion, so set deadlines and give tasks less time.
  4. Make time for the important but not urgent things. I do this by getting things done before deadlines, staying on top of email (I’m learning this is much harder to do as a tenured professor), getting sleep so that I can focus on important tasks and every day. Yes, sleep is important. If I didn’t follow this advice, I would be constantly putting out fires for looming deadlines rather than working toward my research portfolio. You won’t magically have more time in the future—now is a great time to cross something off your to do list.  This idea is consistent with Stephen Covey’s “Big Rocks First” management strategy
    • Corollary: Never be so busy that you are not a good colleague—it matters for tenure (and for life).

If you want a comprehensive list, the best I have seen is Shane Henderson’s paper “Staying Sane on the Tenure Track” published in the 2008 Winter Simulation Conference [Link]. My favorite part:

Do not work 14 hours a day, assuming life gets calmer after tenure. It doesn’t. It gets busier

What would you add?

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2 responses to “time management tips for assistant professors (and everyone)

  • flippinnora

    How about one I learned the hard way. Only take on senior roles if you are chasing promotion. If you want promoted you are expected to already be working at the senior level, so it is a slam dunk to promote you. If you genuinely think you are too junior, say no, and keep saying no, right from the get go. It is more difficult to get out of things once you’ve already said yes

  • Advice to Junior Faculty | RKWRICE

    […] gave rise to several postings, including Tom Pepinsky’s plea for considering book chapters and Laura McLay’s posting that points to the importance of time management.  Of special note is the point that one should […]

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