Professorial Nuggets: The Overcommitment Edition

I have been extremely busy, hence the scarcity of posts. I have been wanting to post on a number of interesting topics, but the time just isn’t there… And then I forget or the impetus to write diminishes for whatever reason (mostly due to sleepiness), and then there are more pressing things to tend to anyway…

I have been overcommitted. I say no to a lot of things, but I am still overcommitted. I need to implement even more stringent criteria as to what I do and don’t do. For instance, I make a point of reviewing for journals where I often publish, but not much outside of those unless it’s the work of authors I know. Well, it turns out that I can get 5-8 solicitations in a single week from the journals where I publish often combined with others that consider the work of some of the colleagues from the field. Before you know it, instead of writing papers in my precious no-face-time blocks, I am spending all this time reviewing other people’s papers.

A lot of people request stuff from me, and the problem is that many of these people cannot be entirely ignored  if  I want to be collegial (which I do, mostly because I may need stuff from them down the road). Even if I end up not doing what they want, I often have to spend some time reading something or participating in some meetings or talking on the phone before I can say no lest coming across as a dismissive jerk. I wish people would try to filter when and why they ask for stuff. But self-interest trumps consideration, as is understandable.

There are some service tasks that I committed to, but they turned out to be time-wasters despite having started as interesting or potentially impactful. I think really hard, but end up not being able to find a single saving grace when it comes to doing these tasks; I really resent myself for having taken them up.

I have been teaching a new (to me) large undergraduate course. It’s been fun and challenging for both me and the students. It’s a considerable amount of work and I have no TA (I do have a grader for homework). A large number of adorable terrified undergrads means I have to hold a lot of office hours and I always have someone in my office. None of this has helped with my workload.

I have been privy to the information about some people’s tenure cases. While I knew of the following issue from research and diversity training, after the experiences of this year, I can tell you firsthand that people sometimes write really weird $hit about women in external letters of evaluation (letters are solicited without the candidate’s input from roughly a dozen prominent people in the field). I have never seen anything like that written for a male candidate. It’s not even necessarily negative, but it’s weird, overly personal, such as analyzing the inner workings of the (mysterious female) psyche.

I keep reading and hearing of people writing 10-12 grant proposals per year. How? To whom? I have 2-3 divisions at the NSF where I can submit unsolicited proposals, and they are all due at the same time, once per year, in the fall. I wrote two different brand new grants in parallel for the fall deadline and could not recover for weeks. I recently (a few weeks ago) finished a massive renewal application of one of my large grants to a different federal agency. I don’t think I can write more than 3-4 new, different grants in a year by myself; first of all, there aren’t that many places to send to, and second, there are only so many good disparate ideas I can write up per unit time; I suppose I could do more if they were revisions, but with so few places to submit to and so few submission windows per annum, I am not going to recycle a grant with a low chance of success just pro forma. Plus I actually have to teach and advise students and write papers… And travel, and do service. So writing 10-12 grants per year, is this a biomedical thing? Or an experimental thing? How is it even pulled off amidst all the other work? I don’t know many of my physical science colleagues writing 10-12 grants per year, perhaps only the NIH or DoD-funded folks with humongous groups.

Large center grants get on my nerves — specifically, being asked to participate in grants for large centers, which almost never get funded. These grant writing endeavors are always last-minute, dramatic, and not creative at all. I know all the cool kids participate in them, and I have done it a fair number of times, but I cannot make myself go through the pointless motions again. I am all for collaboration when it’s organic (first we realize we want to do something together, then seek funds), rather than how the teams are often assembled, which is scrambling in response to a funding solicitation.

I crave the time to work on my science. I reread one of my single-author papers from several years ago. It is really cool. I never get to do that any more.

What say you, blogosphere? How do you keep your workload manageable? What do you say no to? What frequency of grant writing is appropriate for your discipline? Center grants — yay or nay?


  1. I too do not understand how people can possibly write that many grants – just seems impossible. Space delete maybe they have an army of minions.

    As to the refereeing, I decided a a few years ago on some rules which has served me well. In my field, most articles or sent to 2 referees.I decided that all I owed my field was the equivalent of returning that service, so I take on two refereeing jobs for every one paper that I submit with more junior colleagues, who are less likely to be reviewing themselves yet, and one refereeing job when I publish with colleagues at four above my level. if a paper comes along which is really relevant to my research, such that I will find it useful to read it thoroughly early, then I might take on one more but I am very firm with myself aboutabout keeping track and not going to far above my agreed minimum. It is enough. I think it’s good to encourage journals to draw on a wider field of referees so I often recommend a younger colleague, sometimes a post doc, Who I know isn’t getting the opportunity to referee – I think it can be very useful for early career researchers to see how other people write and to be noticed by editors as contributors to the field. Maybe that’s just us up to my conscience, But it works for me, and I just couldn’t take the amount of time I was spending on other peoples writing – it was beginning to feel very gender, that I was being punished with more reviews for doingA good job I’m not making a fuss about it. There has been no push back since I adopted this policy, which surprised me, but does help me stick to it.hope you can find some things that work for you.

  2. Apologies for typos I am dictating to smog phone smug phone, plus WordPress for some reason will not use the name JaneB consistently, preferring to randomly reverts to the first username I had on WordPress, fluffymogmug

  3. I hear you on craving to do some actual science. I wish I had a bat cave and the ability to stop time, so I could hide there and finish the five cool manuscripts that are sitting on my desk and everyone would just fucking wait with their incessant requests.

    I always review the papers or grant proposals that are in my narrow field of expertise (those are usually easy to review) and refuse everything else. As for service, if I can, I try to pick the things that are either a) not time-consuming or b) I actually care about. I avoid meetings like the plague and bring reading material if I have to attend. I write 2-3 proposals a year, usually last minute. Sometimes recycled. Center grants suck, I agree. Way too much time and energy, and usually not enough reward (both in terms of money and the results).

    I try to schedule one day a week when I am unavailable to anyone – no teaching, no committees, no students, no meetings – just science. Even if I don’t always use that day wisely, it goes a long way towards preserving my sanity.

  4. I decided to stop writing grant proposals. They were sucking up all my energy with no return (I was only able to write about one proposal a year, and there were 10 times as many people in my field as there was grant funding for).

    Now I focus my attention on teaching and curriculum, since someone has to do it and I can do curricular design better than most faculty (caring about it helps). I still do research in collaborations (someone else writes the grant proposals), but I no longer hire grad students, since I have no grant funding of my own.

  5. “I keep reading and hearing of people writing 10-12 grant proposals per year. How? To whom?”
    This made me chuckle. I don’t get it either. Couldn’t do it even if I wanted to.

  6. “I keep reading and hearing of people writing 10-12 grant proposals per year.”

    These are likely the same people who are always busier than you are and routinely work 80+ hrs/wk! 😉

  7. I am also so over-committed that it’s not even funny. I’m so tired that I can’t get myself to do anything but I need to push on.

    One thing that has helped my sanity is that I still write a little code most days. Not much, but something. It feels like I’m still an actual scientist rather than a person who’s too busy teaching and putting out fires and following up on service obligations and supervising research.

  8. I am a fellow “busy academic scientist” and associate editor of a major journal in my field- which gives me split feelings. I too get so many requests to review manuscripts, I can’t accept them all: I generally limit myself to being committed to having only one review to do at any given time, which leads to about one or two per month (15 to 20 per year).
    On the other hand, it’s very frustrating when I put my “journal editor” hat on: it’s getting harder and harder every year to find qualified reviewers in a timely manner. It’s getting to the point where I’ve had ten or twelve persons say “no, I’m too busy, I get too many review requests” before I can find even the first person to agree to review!- and some poor authors have had to wait months before their paper can even start being reviewed, which is really frustrating because it’s absolutely not fair to the authors. (Think about having the shoe on the other foot, so to speak).
    What a conundrum!
    On another issue, I know some people who submit 10-12 proposals per year: they work in multiple fields with multiple possible funding agencies/pots, are ALWAYS working on at least one proposal at any given moment 24/7/365- and, probably most crucially, they’re the people for whom an 80 hour week is a light week and can get by quite nicely on 3 hours sleep a night. I am not one of those people!

  9. know some people who submit 10-12 proposals per year: they work in multiple fields with multiple possible funding agencies/pots, are ALWAYS working on at least one proposal at any given moment 24/7/365- and, probably most crucially, they’re the people for whom an 80 hour week is a light week and can get by quite nicely on 3 hours sleep a night.

    Now I totally feel like a lazy-ass loser.
    Are there really people who can only sleep 3 hours per night and routinely work 80 hours per week? I could buy 6 and 60 (80+ in a crunch, but not routinely). Neither sounds like an option for people with families who don’t have a spouse at home to hold the fort 24/7.

  10. Supposedly there are a handful of people like that. Apparently they have something really, really weird in their metabolism.

  11. I’ve met a few persons like that. Went to grad school with one. Started a company on the side while she was working for her PhD in physics. Another one was a visiting scientist from another country. He could do most all of his research in the middle of the night while his family was sleeping, so had a full family life. No one ever needs to try to compare themselves to someone like that, they are the true freaks of nature.

  12. I know people who work a lot and who are very organized and successful, but nothing like 3 hours a sleep and 80+ regular week. Actually, I know a few people who do work non stop, but one is quite unhealthy on account of too much stress (was hospitalized a few times) and two others I know are healthy and getting a lot of sleep, but basically don’t do anything other than work when not sleeping (married, no kids). I do know a number who probably work 60+ hrs in a regular week and have a nonacademic spouse shouldering most of the kids/home workload; they even make time to exercise! But I guess I haven’t meet anyone like what you describe.

  13. I don’t know that the 3 and 80 numbers should be taken too literally (though I’ve heard a few stories…), more that there are people who are super-organized, never procrastinate, and on top of all of that somehow have the energy to work more hours than the rest of us with less sleep than the rest of us.

  14. I wouldn’t compare myself to any onther person. You have family, certain committements, which I guess these people do not have to worry about. Apart from that, some people just are unhumanely full of energy all the time, which is not the case for 99% of population (don’t quote me on that). I can see it is frustrating, but that’s the way it is…
    I was wonderin though, wehteher you “regret” going into scienc for a career. I mean, I am thinkin about academic career but only because I like solvin puzzles, doing SCIENCE,rather then dealin with paper work and teaching. And it seems there is not a lot of doin actual research, plus you are not paid a lot. I was wonderin whether you think you might have been better off, had you chosed to do something else.

  15. Alex from 12:22, 12:17, and 6:06 here.

    One factor with some of these freakishly successful people is that they get energized by things that the rest of us might find exhausting. A day of schmoozing and networking and presenting might exhaust some of us, but to them they haven’t started “working” yet; they’ve just been having fun.

    Also, they are often morning people, so they can get up super-early, spend a couple hours on something that they do consider work, then spend a day mostly schmoozing or networking or whatever, which builds their little empire, then they are charged and so in the evening they can spend a couple more hours on something that they do consider work. But they feel as relaxed as somebody who worked four hours and spent the rest of the day having fun.

  16. There is a movie called “Limitless” ( Bradley Cooper is a loser writer with writer’s block who takes some pills that give him full access to his brain – he can suddenly remember details of every single book he’s ever read, he can learn incredibly fast and he achieves full clarity of every situation. He goes home and washes the dishes piled up in the sink, takes a shower, sits down and just writes the book that he has been struggling to write.

    I have days like that sometimes. On other days, I am overwhelmed by the amount of dishes piling up in the sink, even though it is pretty obvious that I should just get off my ass and wash them and get on with my book.

    Some people can focus better and use time more efficiently (not reading blogs would probably add a few useful minutes to my day), and some people have different priorities
    (I like spending time with my kids and would rather not work 80 hours per week, except maybe around proposal deadlines). I do what I can, but sometimes I really wish I had Bradley Cooper’s pills.

  17. I was on a couple of search committees this year and saw some of that weird sh1t in letters for female candidates, and (worse?) heard some bizarre comments from my colleagues. Female candidates’ accomplishments were qualified or questioned, and the men were given a pass. I can’t believe this is still going on.

  18. Could some of the people who are writing 10-12 grant proposals per year be delegating large portions of that work (to senior grad students and postdocs)? I certainly wrote sections of grants in graduate school, and so did the postdocs in my lab. Essentially, we wrote the sections for our projects once we were fully in command of those projects. My adviser still reviewed, collated, etc., so I don’t know if this actually saved him any time or not. It was great experience for me, though.

    You know what I think about people who claim to be working 80+ hours/week. The more quantitative ways of measuring people’s work hours indicate that they are at best extremely rare. People who *think* they are working 80+ hours/week are much less rare, and so when you see studies that rely on retrospective reporting you see a group with huge hours like this, but when they actually track their time they essentially disappear. And that doesn’t even consider whether or not they are productive for all the time they were “working.” The human brain is a huge consumer of energy. I don’t know why we act like it can just keep producing without rest, when other energy consumers (such as muscles) cannot. Personally, I know from a time period when I was a consultant and authorized to charge overtime that I literally could not do so ethically beyond about 55 hours/week. I simply wasn’t producing anything of value past that. Obviously, other people will max out at higher hours… but I am always extremely skeptical of people who claim 80+ hours, particularly over extended time frames.

    I tried to dig up the studies on this, but I don’t have time right now for a deep dive. The closest I found was this old article by Laura Vanderkam, which references one of the studies about the disconnect between the number of hours people think they are working and what they are actually working:

  19. I think Cloud pretty much nailed it with regards to claims of extreme work hours. Of course, there’s the issue of what constitutes “work”. In grad school when obtaining my dissertation data, I would have periods of a week or more where I was taking data 14 hours a day. A 98-hour workweek sounds impressive, but other than monitoring the equipment and making occasional adjustments, there wasn’t much cognitively going on after about 8-10 hours into each day and I had zero other responsibilities during those times.

    I know that when it comes to real work, the times I’ve been most overwhelmed as a professor and closest to suicide have been about 55-60 actual hours of work per week, none of it very enjoyable (developing multiple upper division classes on the fly simultaneously, heavy committee work, etc.).

    On the sleep thing, I’ve heard people “brag” about how little sleep they get, but then conveniently forget to mention that they totally crash on the weekends. Of course, I’m teaching about 8 hours from now and will be at work for about 13-14 hours tomorrow – I will gratefully state that I haven’t done the latter in quite a while!

    I can’t even imagine getting so many reviewing requests!! In my case it’s usually for single-reviewer journals where it’s not so much about rejecting tons of papers. The papers are mostly data-driven and deal with non-living subjects, so if they’re fudging data they will get caught. I publish so little that I get few reviewing requests and I’ve never needed to turn one down. I’ve never reviewed anything interesting and haven’t benefited from it, but I suspect my reviewers have felt the same way!

  20. I’ve come to think of my need for 8 hours of sleep per night as a disability I just have to tenderly accept. Same goes with my need to do something other than science for a good chunk of each weekend. I’ve also learned that I just can’t go to back-to-back conferences on two different continents without being a depressed, narcoleptic zombie at one. This means I’ll be turning down speaking invitations when I’m not “supposed” to (as a female on the TT), but it’s what I have to do to stay reasonably healthy.

    The comment about super energetic people schmoozing all day and not feeling like they’ve worked made me think. Work is a lot harder when I’m feeling down about what I’m doing, which occurs pretty often while writing manuscripts (which often don’t “read right” until the end and seem to take forever), analyzing data (where I’m often unsure I’m doing the right thing, or it takes forever to get the code to work), or reading the literature (which often makes me feel behind or scooped). I could stand to develop a more positive attitude so work doesn’t feel like such a drag! When I’m not worried about the outcome so much, work is more easy and fun.

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