Summer Defenses

It’s summer, and work focus has shifted from teaching to close interactions with graduate students, writing and editing of papers, and early proposal drafts.

Also, this summer I have made a solemn vow that I will in fact have a couple of weeks of no work whatsoever, when I just veg out and watch movies and read and walk and maybe kick and punch a heavy bag a little bit. There will be some short trips on account of a member of extended family visiting, but other than that it will be mostly work.

Summer is also a time when some students wrap up their studies, defend dissertations, and go on to the next stage of their lives. Usually, they have a job lined up and a start date that should be met.

I understand that students need to defend and move on, so if I am in town and available, I really try to make the time and be on the PhD defense committee when asked.

But it seems some people overestimate the willingness of professors to do service in the summer (we don’t have summer salaries from the university, all summer time should be research time). This time around, I have been getting irritated with one student who’s been trying to schedule a defense of a thesis prospectus (thus not something that has to happen in the summer) for months now. It finally got settled several weeks ago, but now the student’s at it again because of some glitch or someone bailing.

Can there please be a limit on the number of emails that a student is allowed to send in regards to a single meeting? And the number of times an event can get rescheduled? I feel for the student, I know scheduling anything in the summer is hard with everyone traveling, but the kid is really bothering me with the barrage of emails (alas, there is a good reason for which I cannot just remove myself from the committee).

Students and advisors, please don’t schedule anything that is not time-sensitive in the summer. And please try to limit the number of emails. Students, if I send you my availability in a broad range, work with it and with the information from others — quickly and quietly! — until you find a time that works, and then send confirmation. I don’t need multiple weekly emails, for months on end, detailing the fascinating process.




  1. Just the other day I was thinking about how, at my institution, we are regularly asked to spend time during the summer – could be many hours- leading freshmen orientations, advising for the transfer students, and/or tours of the campus for incoming new students for the fall. And my mental response to the latest request was close to what you wrote above, “But it seems some people overestimate the willingness of professors to do service in the summer (we don’t have summer salaries from the university, all summer time should be research time)….”

  2. Also, students and faculty please stop sending out doodle polls with fifty options as a first pass – I refuse to spend ten minutes filling out your ridiculously long poll. Narrow it down to rough times of potential overlap with a quick call or email first and then go to the poll. Better, use, which is much less painful to fill out.

  3. A few years ago, big public university I was at got all worked up about reporting. The upshot of it was the technically faculty were supposed to do no service work during the summer because they are charging grants for summer salary and need to be doing that 100%. While technically correct, it is not not how academia usually works. Still, I doubt any student knows that summer service work is technically not paid for.

  4. I disagree with pyrope about doodle polls. I much prefer them to vague questions (like, are you available on Tuesdays?) or specific scheduling without checking availability. I had a really tight schedule spring quarter (about 20 hours of scheduled classes and office hours a week), with blocks of other time unavailable (like spending all Monday afternoon and evening grading assignments turned in on Monday that needed to be returned by the Tuesday morning lab). A Doodle poll with lots of options (preferably synchronized to the class time schedule) allows me to quickly mark the one or two open slots I had, with “if-need-be” for conflicts that I could reschedule.

  5. I am with pyrope here. I much prefer going from less to more specific than starting with a doodle poll with 74 options. I recommend that students ask, “How is your availability between xx/yy and xx/zz?” where the period is 2-3 weeks. Then I usually answer when I am absolutely unavailable [when I teach or have nonnegotiable service or am out of town], that I can make the time otherwise, but prefer not to be bothered in [other periods]. For instance, I definitely consider grading to be something that can be moved around if I need to free up 1.5 hours for a defense. But I know there are people who consider a much broader range of activities to be immovable than I do.

    gasstationwithoutpumps: What do you mean without checking availability? I don’t use the institution calendar at all. How would people know when I am available (except for checking at the schedule of classes when I teach) unless they ask me?

  6. has been a huge time saver for me. You can decide what meeting times you make available (and the length of the meetings). Send the person who wants to meet with you the link. The rest is up to them.

  7. I don’t use the official calendars either—mine is filled with “I don’t use this calendar”. Some staff and faculty believe that they can just schedule meetings with me without checking my availability. Part of the reason I stopped using the official calendar was staff belief that I was free at any time that I had not explicitly marked on the calendar, which was generally untrue. Now they know that they are being rude in not asking me, but they sometimes do it anyway. (Things like asking me to serve on a Senate committee, but not telling me that it has a fixed, unchangeable schedule that conflicts with the department research seminar.)

    Grading when I have a 1-week turnaround is generally movable (and tends to be mainly on the weekend as a result), but grading with a 22-hour turnaround is pretty inflexible—I do need to eat and sleep in the same 22 hours. I’m trying to restructure the class for next year so that all grading will be on weekends, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to make that work with the lab schedule.

    The assumption that open slots will reman open until the person selects one is not generally true, at least not for me—my schedule tends to fill up rather quickly. It also takes me much less time to check off boxes in a Doodle poll than to enter my schedule of odd times I might be available (if no one else fills those time slots). I have used SignUpGenius for having large numbers of students sign up for slots to talk with me, but in those cases the number of slots is fixed in advance—i don’t offer more slots than are needed.

    For senior exit group interviews, I use a Doodle Poll to find a time or times when almost all students can make the interview, pick the slots, then use SignUp Genius for students to sign up for them. On the Doodle poll, I often have to nudge students who are constraining the possibilities too much to add more possible times or have their input ignored.

  8. Honest question, asked with no snark: why do you guys not use your official calendars? I’ve worked at companies with tens of thousands of people and been able to schedule most meetings without having to do anything other than search the calendars of the people I needed to invite. There are exceptions (e.g., people who are always fully booked, and who you have to ask “which times can you make available?) but for the most part, meetings get scheduled with minimal back and forth. At smaller companies, I could even book the executives this way. Perhaps I could have at the large companies, too- I never tried, because I was never a big enough fish to be trying to schedule the CEO there!

    To me, Doodle polls and the like are poor imitations of the power of a shared calendar system.

    It seems that academics almost never use their calendaring systems, though. I assume there is some difference in environment that makes them unattractive. What is it?

  9. Hi Cloud, I am answering for myself, but I think much of this holds for many academics. As gasstationwithoutpumps says, one reason to not use the university calendar is that I don’t want people to assume that, because I don’t have a meeting scheduled in some slot, that I am free. I am never free; in fact, I need all the time I can get for solitary activities that require focus; I don’t need to schedule those for myself, because I know what I have to be working on. The worst possible thing you can do to an academic is to schedule a meeting in the middle of what looks like a large “free” block of time. There are many more meetings of little value that people want to schedule me in than I want to participate in; some department staff still schedule stuff for me on the university calendar, which I completely ignore. Basically, the core of our job (scholarly work) requires that we be left alone a lot and the ability for anyone to barge in and partition my time, which is a key feature of the shared calendar system, is antithetical to the nature of the work. (Academics can get extremely grumpy about meetings during the school year, when obligations to students already turn our work week into confetti.)

    I could block out hours for writing or just say I am busy, but that would not be for my benefit (i.e., I know what I need to do) but rather for the benefit of others so they know when not to bug me. Which brings me to the second point, which is more one of principle and with which I think most academics would agree: as long as I meet my teaching and nonnegotiable service requirements, it’s ultimately nobody’s business how I organize my time. This and tenure are among the main features of academic work and the reason why many of us in academia (such as STEM folks) work for significantly less money than in industry — so we would have nobody to answer to regarding our whereabouts and would have the flexibility as to how we organize our time. Thus, I personally resist even in principle having to reveal and/or justify my daily work schedule (outside of teaching and nonnegotiable service) to anybody.

    I use the calendar on my phone for both family-related appointments and for non-recurrent job meetings/deadlines. It’s easy to enter them, and entering them myself helps me also remember them.

    Fellow academics, what do you say?

  10. @xykademiqz… so I think the “what’s different” is that the ratio of BS meetings to useful meetings (e.g., meetings that actually advance your interests) is too high. Industry scientists value uninterrupted time, too… but we don’t usually have the equivalent of a random administrator scheduling us in meetings that we don’t consider part of our core work. Stuff like that happened occasionally at the large companies I worked at, but then I’d just decline the meeting invite and the meeting went on without me and no one really cared. If it was a meeting I needed to be in, it was almost always worth interrupting my day to go, because not going could cost more time than it saved.

    What I get from my calendar is that I don’t have to go back and forth with people to schedule something or be scheduled in something, which preserves more time to concentrate than it costs (in terms of BS meetings). It sounds like the balance is reversed for academics.

    Thanks! I’ve always been curious about that.

  11. Getting a group of academics together for a meeting is tough—everyone has different teaching schedules, different travel schedules, different research schedules, different grant deadlines, … . Academic administrators and staff value their convenience highly, and faculty convenience not at all, so giving staff even read-only access to faculty schedules doesn’t work.

    xykademiqz is right that many of our tasks (thinking, writing, programming, lab work, for example) need to come in uninterrupted blocks, but staff make the assumption that everything is microtasks that can be done in 5-minute bursts of activity. The two strategies that faculty use are to block out all their time on the calendar, so that nothing can be added to the schedule without negotiation, or just not use the organization calendar at all. Not using the calendar is less effort.

  12. My university calendar is not a reliable report of my time because I have a dozen different obligations (family, travel, lab, university, etc) which I do not want to mix up. I want to be able to see my family calendar alone to make sure that I have family obligations set correctly or my travel calendar alone because I have strict travel rules that I try to follow. But what that means is that any one group cannot assume that the one calendar they can see is my calendar.

    Also, my time is often negotiable. Whether I am available or not can depend greatly on what other things I was going to schedule at that time. Being available or not is not a binary state.

    And besides, I don’t want someone else looking over my shoulder knowing what I’ve scheduled when! Ask me if I’m available. I’ll tell you. I might not be available because I am out of town. I might not be available because I have set aside that time to write a grant. Or to take a day resting at home. And I might not be available because I just don’t want to go to your damn meeting on that day.

  13. Lol academia. When I was in industry we all used shared calendar (eg Google calendar). There are software solutions for pretty much all the problems the commenters have described.

    And the idea that academics are somehow more special and have to manage time differently than mid-level group leaders in basic industrial R&D is funny.

    One thing I can say in their defense: at my university the shared calendar software is antiquated crap. I ask everyone in my research group to use Google calendar I instead.

  14. grumpy: Yeah, one software solution to “It’s nobody’s business how I organize my time outside of the classroom” is to not use the university calendar.

    I am assuming if you are a researcher in industrial R&D and the company is reasonably well run, people don’t make you leave your core work in the lab/at the computer/similar without a good reason (that’s what Cloud seems to indicate) because that’s what you were hired to do and that’s the best use of your time in the service of the projects you are on. In academia, it’s like Bizarro Olympics, to see who can get most papers published and grants raised while the job of everyone on your support team (admins and staff) is to try their hardest to prevent you from having more than 10 min of uninterrupted time.

  15. GMP,
    Having experienced both mid-level management in industry basic R&D and now being a professor at an R1, I can assure you that I was less in control of my time and confronted with far more “mandatory, urgent” meetings in industry. And at least as many BS because-somebody-wants-a-platform- to-talk- and-feel- important meetings/interactions.

    Maybe it’s because the pay is so much higher that you haven’t heard as much about it from industry folks?

    (Huge fan of the blog please don’t be offended)

  16. grumpy: Not offended at all, no worries. I haven’t worked in industry, so I can’t say I know how it is. I definitely sympathize with anyone who has ever been subject to, as you say, BS because-somebody-wants-a-platform- to-talk-and-feel-important meetings/interactions. *recoils in horror at the thought of faculty meetings resuming in the fall* I don’t know if you are tenured, but academic time wasting gets much worse after tenure.

    It’s probably true that it’s easier to swallow this time-wasting crap when the pay is high… And of course, academics have tenure, so they can whine without fear of being fired, which a luxury industry folks don’t have.

  17. grumpy – Unlike mid-level managers in a large company, labs are much more independent. I am responsible for my own group. It is my responsibility to bring in my own support for my own group (there’s no sales team running a separate show). It is my responsibility to decide who works when in my lab (there’s no HR making decisions for me [although there are rules I have to follow, but that is true of any business large or small]). Most importantly, it is completely my responsibility to decide what projects I (and my lab) work on and where I publish etc etc etc.

    I would argue that university labs are generally much more like individual small businesses. For example, when I worked in industry (summers, admittedly, and a while ago – I’m not as young as I used to be), there were mandated rules for backing data up and IT departments that ensured that all data had to be stored in certain places in certain formats so that they could ensure that all data was appropriately handled. In fact, computers at some of those industries were centrally managed and were identical. There’s nothing like that here. Every lab is built individually by a PI to that PI’s specs. Some have backups. Some don’t.

    As a tenured PI in a university, my time is very much my own. There are very few meetings that they can force me to attend. If I don’t want to be the PhD mentor for a student, I can tell that student to go away. If I don’t want to attend a faculty meeting, I can skip it. I might regret skipping it because something may get decided that I don’t like, but there’s nothing they can officially do to me because I didn’t show up. I would argue that your point about having FEWER mandatory/urgent meetings is actually why university professors are special snowflakes that guard their time differently.

    Even though universities are very much large businesses, PI’s are really quite different from middle management in large industries. They are more like owners of small businesses.

  18. Qaz,
    We are in vigorous agreement. which is why to me it’s funny how academics have trouble with “simple” stuff like managing their calendars or giving their postdocs merit raises or figuring out what to do when a leader quits (which is what my Dept is going through now)….the lists goes on.

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