Emailer, PhD

Today, I received 156 non-junk, directed, relevant-to-me work emails. I composed and sent out 102 distinct emails. I booked three trips for myself (panel, invited talk, program review), made itineraries for two visitors coming in the next couple of weeks (which included herding faculty cats to meet, as well as booking restaurants for meals and rooms for talks/meetings with student groups). I rescheduled a meeting that was very complicated to move because it involved many very busy people. I assigned about two dozen tasks for the committees I am chairing, emailed regarding the interview postmortem for the faculty search I am involved in, and discussed the procedures for the disbursement of certain department funds.

My typing speed is becoming enviable while spiders are spinning webs between my idle neurons.


  1. Yep. This is what I went to grad school for. So I can plan events and schedules. And file committee reports.

    Let’s not tell anyone, though. They might give the job to someone cheaper, someone without a PhD.

  2. Isn’t it interesting. In a world of “automation”, more and more senior people are doing smaller and smaller jobs. In my parents’ day, there was an administrative secretary for every two professors. Now, there’s one for our entire department.

    We see this a lot throughout our automating world. You now check yourself in at the airport and check yourself out at the grocery store. In my department, they’ve cut all the TA-ships because they “can’t afford them”, but now I’m grading every entry for my lecture class of more than 100 students and my colleagues are doing scut-work to prepare labs for their classes.

  3. Ugh. At least it’s not grant report season? One of the soft money scientists at my grad institution always asked (semi-seriously) about which grant she should charge for the time she spent filling out grant reports and applying for new grants.

  4. qaz, your department has a secretary? Are you at a fancy-pants private college? (A couple of our faculty have secretaries, but they hire them out of grant funds, as state funds provide only enough for one department manager shared by a couple of departments. Of course, the dean’s office gets to keep hiring staff because heaven forbid that the dean do the job he was hired for himself.)

  5. lyra211, the rules for soft-money grants are clear, but silly. Grant reporting is paid for out of the grant being reported on. Grant writing is not allowed to be paid for out of any grant—it has to be done either on non-grant funds (which may not exist) or entirely in unpaid time. It is a brutal system, and there should be a prohibition on institutions having any PI who is 100% grant funded. There should be a requirement that all PIs have at least 10% of their salary paid by the institution out of non-grant funds.

  6. Go ahead and require 10% of salary from non-grant funds. The institutions will figure out what portion of the typical grant is salary, then take 1/9 of that and add it to the overhead rate.

  7. Nevermind that our group (ranging from 12-18 at any given time) doesn’t have any sort of personal administrative assistant, our department chair (a socialist in the worst sense, and very ineffective) is now on a mission to reduce any and all extra tasks for the two AAs in the department (one fiscal person and one general person). So anything that can possibly be put back on the faculty, he is trying to do. This could be reasonable if they were completely overworked and things were falling apart, but they are clearly not. They are totally fine and already have plenty of idle time and breathing room. I personally don’t ask them to do anything extra, only things that I literally can’t do on my own because it is their specific job (like dealing with HR or the purchasing department). It’s like he doesn’t realize that the faculty are probably doing AS MUCH as the AAs in terms of admin work in addition to the entirety of their actual job. He has even insinuated that our group is using up too much of the department administrative resources, merely by virtue of being big (????) (of course there are going to be more HR issues and purchasing issues and expense reimbursements to deal with when there are simply more people and more research dollars being spent). Like, please only have two grants and four students instead of three grants and six students because otherwise you’re using up too much of the department fiscal officer’s time??? I have never felt exceptionally supported at this institution, which is okay really, but this is the first time that I have actually felt suppressed.

  8. @gasstationwithoutpumps – It’s a state school, but we are a pretty successful department. They are called “administrative personnel” and they do what secretaries really used to do. (I think they get paid more – I hope they do, cause they’re worth a lot.) For example, we have a person who is in charge of keeping the classes straight and another person who makes sure that the grant that gets submitted is correctly formatted. That second person also interfaces between us and the internal grant administrators (who have a bunch of arcane rules that faculty will never understand). We also have budget people and accountants. We can ask some of the departmental people to do booking for visitors and the like, but we have to be careful not to overburden them. But each of these people is shared across 30 faculty. I don’t think that’s so unusual.

    Our departmental people are wonderful and do a great job. I’m not sure I need a secretary personally – although it would be nice to have someone in charge of filing these damn reports I have to do all the time. (I’d kind of rather do my own travel arrangements because I’m kind of persnickety about it. And I don’t mind checking in at the airport or out at the grocery store.) But it’s all part of the same process. Where I’ve really seen it be a problem is in the kinds of things that xyk is talking about, and in classes, especially in classes, where our department has no money for TAs, which just kills us.

  9. totally unrelated, but i was watching a bob’s burgers episode yesterday (“food trucks”) and one of the characters talked about his “blook” – a blog he’s turning into a book. automatically thought of xykademiqz

  10. @qaz: I sympathize. We also had our TAs removed almost completely. All the 100+ classes that had a 20-hr/wk TA are down to 3 hr/wk TA, so all I can use the TA for is to hold extra office hours (in addition to those I hold) and to help me proctor exams. Otherwise, I am on my own for lectures, discussion, exam grading, all the stuff that is a ton of time the first time you teach, like writing all the problems and solutions, and with a large class there are always a million emails.

    The department staff is probably 1/3 or even just 1/4 of what it was when I joined the department a little over a decade ago. People retire or resign and are simply never replaced, and those who are left absorb the work. The department staff we have now are all wonderful and very competent, but I can tell that several of them are unbelievably overworked (e.g., the one person doing everyone’s pre and post-award department-level checks for the entire department, and we are not small).

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