I’ve been on twitter now for a few years and have yet to step into the monthly “number of hours in the academic work week” flame wars 1. Instead of directly touching the academic Twitter third rail, I'd like to pivot the discussion. Let's say an academic works N hours. What percentage of that time should be devoted to research? Teaching? Service? Professional development?

It depends! This post is inspired by participating in the National Center for Faculty Diversity and Development’s Faculty Success Program this semester 2. Recently, the topic of the amount of effort we spend on different activities came up within the Program. Many of us don’t have a clue what percent we spend on research, teaching, or service. I would encourage anyone to track their activities for the next week (or longer). Divvy your day into 15-minute chunks and at the end of each day tabulate the amount of time you spent on each category. I’ll even give you permission to make a pie chart. Prepare to be stunned.

In the last couple of weeks Kerry Ann Rockquemore (NCFDD’s Prez and CEO) commented that when faculty track the amount of time that they spend on various tasks they actually spend X% on teaching, Y% on service activities, and Z% on research. In contrast, for tenure, their evaluation will be based on Z% teaching, Y% service, and X% on research. I’m not convinced that your percent effort on these activities needs to match the percent weighting of these activities for promotion, but they should probably be close. As a full professor, the need for me to worry about promotion is gone. Although there are some parameters I still need to fit into, I can put greater emphasis on the percent weighting that satisfies my personal and professional goals as I slog away towards emeritus. Balancing the effort extended to satisfy our obligations, increase our chances at promotion, and ensure that we remain happy is a real struggle. Junior faculty at least have some solid guidance, however nebulous, from their Dean, Chair, and promotion committees. Guidance for trainees is sorely lacking.

I would tweak these broad categories slightly for trainees to include research, coursework, career development, and service. As with any attempt to categorize an activity, the lines get blurred. I think research is fairly self-explanatory for trainees. Some coursework may overlap with career development, but it would apply primarily to students before reaching candidacy. Career development is anything a trainee does to position themselves to develop skills they will need for the next stages of their career. This might include taking a Software Carpentry workshop, pursuing a teaching certificate, participating in a local biotech networking group, or attending their departmental seminar. Service is any act of altruism. This could include reviewing manuscripts for other members of the lab, helping with a Girls Who Code activity, giving a talk in your lab meeting or departmental seminar, or having lunch with an invited speaker. Many of the activities I’ve listed could be assigned to different categories. How we bin an activity is largely personal 3.

Let me be very clear, all of these activities are awesome. What I want to emphasize is that you can’t do everything. Trainees need to think about how they are dividing their effort and whether that division aligns with their supervisor’s expectations. If you are a trainee and have a supervisor that expects you to do 100% research, that should probably disqualify them as a potential supervisor because they don’t see a need for you to develop your career or help create a community that you want to be part of. I would be very interested in reactions you get from faculty when you ask what they see as the ideal break down during your interview. It is also important to appreciate that the distribution of effort across these categories should be calculated over a year and not a week. As an example, in a recent week I spent two days teaching a Software Carpentry Workshop (40%) and a day and a half traveling to and participating in a meeting in my role as Chair of the ASM Journals Board (30%). Going forward, I will need to say “no” to teaching and service opportunities to drop those percentages to so that they are each around 15%. Just as we see faculty get upside down on their effort distributions, I see some trainees get upside down as well. The eager first year grad student thinks they have to be aces on their coursework when B’s will do in courses that aren’t critical to their training. There is also a structural problem in many departments where large number of grad students are recruited even though faculty don’t have funding. The result is 6th year graduate students TAing courses that are solidly in the bottom rung of the service category preventing them from using that time to finish their dissertation or engage in meaningful career development opportunities. There’s also the postdoc who is an excellent writer and becomes everyone’s personal editor. We need to be mindful of our own effort distribution as well as the effort distribution of those we mentor.

If I know my ideal distribution and how I am budgeting my time, then it makes it far easier to accept or decline opportunities 4. “Sorry, I would love to meet with the invited speaker next Friday, but my schedule is already booked” may be code for, “I’m already engaged in 8 hours of service next week and one more hour will keep me from submitting my manuscript”. “Gee, I would love to review your fellowship application for you, but I’m behind on several things already” may be code for “Sorry, I’m already committed to reviewing a manuscript for Chris and I spent a lot of time on one of your manuscripts two weeks ago”. On a more positive note, “I’d love to participate in this scientific writing workshop” might be code for, “If I were a better writer then I might be more successful in getting my papers and proposals accepted. This will take up an hour a week, which I can take from attending the departmental seminar series.” I would encourage any trainee to be sure that they have completed an Individualized Development Plan (IDP) and have discussed it with their mentors. This plan will further distinguish good and mediocre career development and service opportunities.

I don’t know what the appropriate distribution for trainees is. After talking with people in my research group, I would propose (and be happy to support):

  • Pre-candidacy: 50% research, 40% coursework, 5% career development, 5% service
  • Candidacy: 75% research, 10% career development, 10% service, 5% coursework
  • Postdoc: 75% research, 15% career development, 10% service

Again, what one does to fill the career development and service pools should be aligned with your IDP. If you are a postdoc who wants a career at a primarily undergraduate institution, then you should pick activities that you can distribute across that 25% that will improve your portfolio rather than doing activities that are meaningless to your career and taking an extra 25% out of your research effort or require you to work an extra 10 hours each week. If you struggle to balance work and your personal life, you could also include effort for self-care, social engagement, sleeping, exercise, etc. - but this is the distribution that I hope to see from my trainees for their N hours each week that relate directly to their professional lives.

I want to gently suggest that many trainees and faculty find themselves working 60+ hours a week because they are upside down on their effort distribution in the first 40 hours of the week 5. Let’s assume that we do our best work in 25 hours each week (these are my data and are backed up by that great source of scientific data). If we work beyond that time, we’re running on fumes. To push someone’s teaching effort down to a bearable fraction of their effort, they have to add hours to the week. Not only can they never get that effort to align with how they will be evaluated, but they will also now be doing what’s most important - research - while working on fumes.

Thinking about my distribution and effort and how I spend my prime and non-prime hours of each week has had a major impact on how I structure my day. Over the past few months I have moved nearly all “low brain function activities” like emails, meetings, and conference calls to the afternoon. This has opened up large blocks of time in most mornings for “high brain function activities” like writing, research, and thinking. By making blocks in my schedule that align with my desired effort distribution and fuel level, I’ve created a structure in my calendar that makes me far happier and productive than I was beforehand. There are many research, teaching, and service opportunities that I would love to engage in. But I know that I have about an hour each day to engage in service and an hour for teaching. I must also remember that several hours a week are already dedicated to service and teaching because of my department’s expectations and needs.

To close, your calculation of your effort distribution should be a tool for you to measure how much time you spend on the things that are important to your personal satisfaction, your career advancement, and those that will determine whether you take the next step.

  1. Disclaimer: I am a full professor at a Research I University Medical School where I am expected to engage in ~20 contact hours of teaching per year and support at least 50% of my salary on grants. I also have a bunch of kids, a wife that is at home, and a farm. YMMV. 

  2. If you aren’t familiar with NCFDD, you should definitely check it out. Many universities have a subscription that gets you free access to archived webinars and discounts on these longer programs. There is a program for postdocs that I believe is free for them if they are at a member university. The programs emphasize having a daily writing habit, aligning actual effort with effort needed for advancement, creating mentoring networks, being held accountable to ourselves, and work-life balance. All good stuff. Here’s an article in Inside Higher Ed that nicely encapsulates many of the themes in the program. 

  3. I count teaching a Software Carpentry workshop as teaching, but organizing and facilitating our monthly Software Carpentry meetings as service. My department likely sees all of it as meaningless service. You might see them both as teaching or both as service. 

  4. I honestly don’t know what the distribution should be for me or what I want them to be. See the disclaimer above. I’m working on this. 

  5. Some mentors are also pricks and only care about advancing their own careers at the expense of your health.