research

How long does it take to write a proposal?

For my professorial  readers (or otherwise readers with PI status):

How long does it take you to write, from scratch, a single-investigator grant proposal that will undergo peer review?

For physical scientists and many others, I am talking about a standard NSF 15-pager or similar. For biomedical folks, that would be an NIH R01 (however long it is).
I am assuming we are talking about a new proposal (not a resubmission), and I am also assuming that you don’t just drop everything and disappear into a cave to write, but rather continue to tend to other normal academic duties, like teaching or service.

 

 

Professorial Bits, the Somewhat Goofy and Girly Edition

— Blogging has been slow as I am busy beyond all reason. Not that I am complaining, though. Busy is good. Not busy makes me bored and restless, and I become a giant pain in the butt. Time-consuming are professorial duties such as teaching and, this semester, being my own TA (Why? Because reasons, as my kids would say; we don’t get TAs for electives, but students want and need discussions); I have two really meaty service assignments, one of which kicked in the minute the semester started.

What’t most important is that I am working on two NSF proposals simultaneously (note how much coffee that means I drink per day; for some reason, the coffee post seems to have resonated with a number of Twitter folks); worry not, the two proposals are on very different topics and will be submitted to two different directorates, so I am perfectly NSF-compliant. However, the bifurcation is kicking my butt a little (okay, a lot).

I feel good about past summer, it was very productive as I have managed to submit all the papers I had planned to before the proposal writing crunch (I didn’t really get to rest and relax, though, but perhaps it’s for the best). Grad students have their marching orders; they know we will be meeting less frequently than usual until the proposals are done. They also know what the paper writing timeline is and we have a first-draft schedule for a number of manuscripts starting early November, as I emerge from the proposal-writing hole. I usually do the “Here are the papers I plan on us submitting in the next six months” talks in group meetings about twice a year, and then the list also goes out via email, so everyone knows where they are in terms of priority, when I would have time to look at their stuff, and how much time they have to produce the first draft. Once a student’s up, I turn the manuscript around quickly; my rule is three drafts by the student (i.e. two rounds of my detailed comments which the student incorporates)  and then I take over and edit/rewrite/finalize with the student’s input. This way the student gets feedback and can revise in response, so they get a chance to write and edit and learn, but I don’t wait forever and papers get out in a timely fashion. This practice generally means that I spend a lot of time writing and editing papers, and the final edits by me can sometimes take a while to complete if they are still extensive or if we are going for a really high-profile journal, where things have to be written ‘just so’. We sometimes end up needing to get more data to illustrate a specific point that didn’t emerge until after the student and I had both been thinking about the text for a while, which delays things a little bit, but such is life. I go on to the next student draft in the pipeline whenever I am waiting for the first one to get more data or incorporate the edits.

— For one of the proposals, I have a title that’s a rhyme. Obviously I am not going to tell you the title, but its rhythm is similar to the following:

An awesome haircutting technique to make you look so stylish and chic

I kind of really, really want to leave the rhyming title, even though people might think it frivolous, that I am not a serious scientist. I want to get funding, and having a boring title is easy enough, but I wonder… I am really compelled to leave the goofy title, against my own better judgement.

What say you, blogosphere? Should I leave a seriously technical but rhyming proposal title?

— Which brings me to why I love teaching undergrads. I am not a cool person. A lot of people think I am stern, reserved, unpleasant, scary, or simply boring, all of which are probably true if I am not relaxed around you. But when I am relaxed, I am nerdy and goofy and I looove puns. Word play makes me giddy with delight, in any language I understand; the stupider, the better. Undergrads seem to be quite responsive to my general goofiness and puns, perhaps because they are so young and also because the silliness adds some levity to all the math that I routinely shove down their throats.

The goofiness doesn’t play quite as well with grad students, partly because they are older and more serious, and partly because so few of them are Americans. They expect respectable serious instruction from the luminaries in the field, and there I am, the anti-prof. It doesn’t help that the puns and culture-specific jokes are lost on many non-native speakers of English (as I am sure they were on me when I was in grad school and new to the US) who make up most of the graduate student cohort, in contrast to the largely domestic undergrads.

I often teach undergrads because I seem to be very effective at it — students like me and they get well-prepared for the follow-on courses, the department is aware of it, and I don’t mind.

Ironically, teaching undergrads so much means that this is now really my MO, and if you think graduate students are unamused by goofiness, you should see the grown-up bespectacled dudes who are my colleagues. I feel I am considerably more goofy when giving talks than the average talk-giving scientist in my area or related ones. This worries me somewhat, because I am a non-bespectacled, non-ancient, long-haired woman (see Figure), so I am sure I am,  at baseline, not considered as competent as a similarly-experienced dude. But I can’t turn it off now! I see a crowd and I put on a show! Everyone is engaged and smiling, because I presume people love clowns, or perhaps they feel sorry for me. Nobody is asleep. But I wonder how much it’s hurting my chances of getting elected a fellow of a professional society or getting into the National Academies.

ComicSept20_2014_SeriousFemaleScientist

(The poor lady on the left of the picture is probably still too young and pretty to be taken 100% seriously, despite the impeccable appearance exuding scientific respectability. My avatar is younger and prettier than me, so to counter the hair and the shunning of blazers, I have the ever diminishing attractiveness going for me professionally.)

Sometimes, it gets to me, being among dudes all the time and being so visibly different, in appearance and demeanor, both from them and from the occasional woman scientist who looks and acts as expected. I actually totally understand this post by PhDinindustry. And this one by Alyssa.

I love doing science and teaching. But being a female scientist and a female professor can sure be exhausting.

Workaholic Geeky Nonsense

The semester is about to start. Which means that the summer is over. Which means that, in order to fully get into all the fall proposal writing around all the undergrad course teaching and insane service, I have to get these last two papers done and submitted, like, yesterday.

So…

Over the past few days, I worked  12-14 hour every day. Really focused, high-productivity, long days. I fuckin’ loved it. I love working non-stop, and if it were possible to somehow forgo sleep, at least temporarily, without loss of sanity of productivity, I would love to be able to just go-go-go.

Man, I love working.

When I don’t waste my time and energy worrying about whether or not I am appropriately recognized and admired, the bottom line is that I love reading papers, looking at data, analyzing data, coming up with mathematical models and appropriate algorithms for their numerical implementation, troubleshooting, making graphs, writing papers, and talking with graduate student about every single one of these aspects of my job.

I love doing science.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, I am actually a good role model for inspiring people to leave academia. More than one student has said that seeing me and the insane schedule that I keep has convinced them that mine is a job they don’t want.

I read all the time all around the web about there being a surplus of PhDs who all think they will be professors, who are then all surprised when that proves impossible and are also for some reason oblivious to the fact that there are other things they can do. Apparently, I do my part — without even trying! — to discourage young’uns from pursuing an academic career ; the few who were not discouraged have done very well for themselves!

I don’t know what it is that other professors do that (supposedly) makes all of their students and postdocs think they want the professor’s job and there is nothing else. I bet the professors look really cool while doing their job. Luckily, I never look cool, especially not while doing my job.

How do I achieve this elusive goal of discouraging all but a few? You can do it, too!
Look sleep-deprived and incessantly drink coffee, having mild panic  attacks when a coffee cup approaches empty. Send emails before 7 am and after 11 pm. Respond to their emails immediately no matter what time of day or week. Share with them when the deadlines are and name all the things that depend upon certain grants being renewed (their food, shelter, tuition, and health benefits). Work with them closely on every paper and proposal and let them know how much effort goes really, truly into every piece that is meant to be read and understood by others while bearing your signature. Keep track of all the details of all of their many very different projects in your head and be able to give each of their talks at a moment’s notice with no prep whatsoever. Push them to do better and lift them up and don’t let them give up on themselves or their work. Forward them emails from industrial collaborators about job openings. Encourage them to attend all manner of professional workshops to broaden their soft skill set. Sleep less than any of them and take less vacation than any of them.

————————–

In life, there are various quantifiable aspects that change over time. More often than not, it’s not the value of the function that we care about, as much as the sign of the first derivative. Sometimes a positive first derivative is good, sometimes a negative one.

ComicAug28_2014_Derivative

If anyone tells you that calculus is stupid or useless, you can print this post, crumble it into a ball, and shove said ball into the mouth of the heretic spouting such nonsense. Calculus is an almost absolute goodness, only surpassed by complex calculus... And calculus on spheres, donuts, and other cool objects, also known as differential geometry… *geekgasmic sigh*

—————————

You know how The Oatmeal made me grumpy the other day? It’s all forgiven, as I came across an old classic — The Motherfucking Pterodactyl comic. And there is even a song (below)! It is hilarious,  but view at your own peril.

—————————

Lastly, among the comments to the last post emerged the awesomeness that is this guide to acting like a Minnesotan. It has a very Monty Python feel!

http://www.mnvideovault.org/mvvPlayer/customPlaylist2.php?id=15519&select_index=7&popup=yes#0

People Who Are Soooooooo Much Busier Than You

A colleague once told me this great Chinese proverb:

“Time is like water in a sponge; if you try really hard, you can always squeeze out some more.”

So very true. People will always find the time for the things they want to do, end of story. If you can’t find the time for something, that just means you don’t actually want to do it. At least, I am like that and I assume others are as well; after all, it wouldn’t be a proverb for nothing.

In professional communication, saying “I’m too busy” is often a perfectly fine euphemism for “I don’t really want to do this thing right now (or possibly ever), sorry.” After all, a lot of academic work is work for free (refereeing papers, partaking on conference program committees) or for absolutely minimal compensation (e.g. serving on NSF panels, proposal review), and just because I ask for something doesn’t mean that you have to care enough to try to find the time.

But when you are too busy to look at a paper on which you are a coauthor, to which you contributed infinitesimally yet don’t have the courtesy to take self off the author list?
That’s just being a pub-blocking douche. Know that I hate your guts for it. Either $hit or get off the can — comment promptly or say it’s fine to go as is.

I hate the people who go around bolstering about how busy they are and who generally busy themselves with the business of out-busying everyone. For some, it’s a way to show that they are superior and more in demand than you. Maybe for some it’s a way to hide the fact that they are not actually all that busy. And I am sure for many that means they don’t have their priorities straight and/or are inefficient; working with them drives me bonkers.

There is a guy I know from graduate school who has for years now been going progressively more and more on my fuckin’ nerves about his busyness.
A few weeks ago he sent me an email devoted entirely to how unbelievably busy he was; it was a full paragraph, multiple-sentences long,
but without a single punctuation mark. Apparently, when you get to be really truly busy, punctuation has to go. Before you think he had some unusual crunch at work, he didn’t. The email content was the same as ever. He works for a company, as do many other people, but he works from home, has no kids, and is part of a dual career couple; when he’s not whining about how much busier than everyone else on Earth he is, he takes long vacations in exotic places. So waaaaah, waaaah, cry me a fuckin’ river.

When I was in grad school, my PhD advisor had a big group. He and a few other faculty had an administrative assistant, C, who was the most efficient and organized person I had ever met in my life: Whatever any of the students or faculty needed, she did impeccably, never needed to be asked twice, and she never actually looked busy. In contrast, the department chair’s secretary was ironically one of the worst assistants in the department (so said everyone), and was constantly dying under the piles of paperwork; you routinely had to ask her twice or three times to get anything done, and things were often wrong. This was a perfect example of busyness being anti-correlated with doing anything useful.

I have some collaborators who are very difficult when it comes to scheduling anything, nominally willing, but each meeting requires me to endlessly wait to hear back from them and people exchanging numerous emails. If I say what everyone is thinking “You know, you don’t actually want to schedule this, why don’t I do it without you as I see fit, and you do whatever it is that you prefer doing,” then I am too impatient, too emotional, and generally not academic-politics-savvy. Some friends are like that too; it takes many weeks so schedule a dinner. WTF? Why is it such a big deal? Just pick a night and come over, why does it have to be so complicated? Or should I again assume you don’t actually want to do this, ever?

The thing is, the proverb above definitely works for me. When something is important, I will make the time. I have a small number of very high, ironclad priorities, and I will make time for them at the expense of a whole bunch of other $hit, probably more so now than before tenure. I have colleagues who have some sort of priority-insensitive pipeline; things just get into the pipeline and then get tended to when they get tended to. Nope, not here. Submitting grant applications is an intermittent but very important and time-sensitive priority, it bumps everything else. Not so time sensitive, but no less important, is editing papers to submit sooner rather than later; it bumps a whole bunch of other stuff down or off the pipeline. Seeing my students when they need to talk to me is a very high priority. In general, anything that’s instrumental to the careers of junior people whom I support is a high priority [e.g. promptly writing letters of recommendation for my trainees; promptly responding with my availability (or lack thereof) when someone else’s student needs to schedule PhD defense]. During the semester, teaching is a very high priority (emails, homework assignment and solutions postings, exam grading).

Also, I don’t procrastinate with the stupid $hit that is key to getting the important things done and off the table, like returning proof corrections. It drives me crazy when people sit on them for a week — just read through the damn thing and send it in! In general, our job offers plenty of busy work that is necessary to complete in order for the harder, intellectually demanding work to get done. A good example is doing the proposal boilerplate (biosketch, budget and budget justification, data management statement, equipment description, etc.); I kinda enjoy working on the boilerplate, as it’s like foreplay before getting to the hard stuff  (see what I did there?).

The tl;dr version of this post is — I kind of hate you if you constantly complain that you are busy. I think you are either not busy but lying, seeking to get the upper hand/admiration, or just don’t have the guts to tell me that you don’t want to do what I asked. In the off chance it’s none of the three, you need to get shit together and get your priorities straight and get organized. Especially if other people’s education and careers depend on you.

Busy

Funding Acknowledgements

Here’s a pretty common scenario in regards to coauthorship on papers from my group. Student A works on a certain project for which I have funding from a federal agency, grant GR1. I, Prof X, also draw some salary support from that grant, so you can say that I am funded for my work on said project by that salary on GR1. But, in addition to Student A and myself, there’s also Student B who does something else and is funded by grant GR2, but has given some code to Student A and has spent a fair bit of time training and troubleshooting with Student A by virtue of having related expertise and broad interests. Also, we have Postdoc, who again has his own projects, but has on many occasions shot the breeze with Student A and has contributed some key insights, again because they have related expertise. Postdoc is funded by GR3.

In my opinion, there is no doubt that everyone here should be a coauthor, and usually the author list will be: Student A, Postdoc, Student B, and Prof. X (or Postdoc and Student B change places, depending on who was actually more instrumental in the paper coming together).

Now comes the tricky part. How do you acknowledge the funding?

The reason I am asking is that there seems to be quite a tightening in the federal oversight to ensure there is no duplication of work, and several program managers have communicated that people have recently gotten into legal trouble for seemingly (or actually) getting money for the same work twice. As a result, program managers are being very specific in terms of how the acknolwedgements on grants are supposed to be written in order to avoid ambiguity.

In the case of the paper above, this is what I would write. “This work was primarily supported by Agency 1, grant GR1 (Student A and Prof. X). Partial support was provided by Agency 2, grant GR2 (Postdoc) and Agency 3, grant GR3 (Student B).” Apparently, this way of acknowledging funding is borderline OK, so I hear, so I am legally likely fine, but instead of separating by who is funded by what, they would much prefer it if we delineated by the work done under each funding string rather than the persons funded.

This is what really bothers me in regards to the type of the work I do. Maybe it’s not quite so dire in lab work, or I could be imagining, but in experimental work people can actually perform parts of complicated experiments for one another, so you could say “transmission-electron microscopy was funded by grant 11, crystal growth was funded by grant 22,” because the student who’s an expert in crystal growth of that particular compound grows materials for everyone and is funded by 22, while the transmission-electron microscopy whiz is funded by grant 11. But when you do theory and computation, all the actual work is done by you. It’s not like anyone will sit down and write a thousand lines of code just for you. They may give you chunks of their code if appropriate, but how do you acknowledge that? Maybe I should write “the work on adaptive meshing for Complicated Partial Differential Equation was funded by grant 33,” when all that means is that Student B gave his routine to Student A and spent some time discussing how it would be implemented for Student A’s project. Also, we talk and draw on the board and look at figures a lot. When you do theory and especially computation, literally nothing can happen unless you really, really know what you are doing — there is no simulation unless you actually write the code; there is no physical system to probe, you first have to (reliably!) create it on a computer, only then can you play with it — so it is absolutely critical to read and talk and scrutinize and brainstorm and test and test and test… And finally build some intuition. If talking with someone has helped you dramatically to build your intuition, and they have contributed key insights into your project, how do you acknowledge that? “Coming up with the explanation following Figs. 2-4 was funded in part by grant GR2?” “The work that led to us all finally understanding why that curve had a crossover was funded by 44?”
(And don’t even get me started on having short papers and having to devote a whole paragraph to elaborate acknowledgements.)

Now, you could ask — why aren’t your postdoc and Student B actually compensated for their time spent on this project from the grant that funds it, GR1?
Because I have better things to do than track every second of every group member’s mental activity. Also, it’s completely insane and at odds with how science is done. My group members each have their own projects to which they devote most of their time, and those projects have funds associate with them, which are acknowledged as primary support on papers where the appropriate group member is first author. But they should be able to talk to whomever they like, and they should definitely be able to talk as much as they want about work with their fellow group members. That’s what team science is all about — we are smarter and more productive when we work together.

I don’t know, maybe there are people who double- or triple-dip. I certainly don’t and I think most people don’t. I really don’t see how I would even get funded for work with too much overlap anyway, there are multiple points during peer review to make sure that doesn’t happen; we certainly scrutinize overlap during NSF panels. It really irks me that now I have to think about creative ways to convince some new layers of federal bureaucracy that we are not abusing their funds, lest we get into legal trouble.

What I Do All Summer

Comic13_WhatIDoAllSummer

I absent-mindedly sketched this with a marker, with the intention of doing a clean version later (pencil first, then ink). But I actually like the rough version; it captures the frenzy.


For nonacademic readers: NSF, DOE, AFOSR, and ONR are federal funding agencies that fund research in the physical sciences (NSF also funds biological and social sciences).  SPO stands for Sponsored Programs Office, the university staff that work on grant administration. The F&A rate is the so-called overhead rate and is anywhere between 40 and 70%, depending on the institution. It means that on top of every dollar  you request for research, you need to request an additional 40 to 70 cents, which go directly to the university in order for it to help you do research (at least in theory). PRL, PRB, APL are reputable journals in the physical sciences (PRL is very prestigious and publishes papers across all physics). Nature is a high-profile magazine that publishes research across all fields of science.

Potential and Ambition

A few weeks ago I chatted with a colleague. One issue that came up was this colleague’s frustration with a student whom the colleague recognized as very talented, someone with great potential in the colleague’s area of study, but also someone who had no interest in applying themselves towards achieving excellence. I understand where the colleague is coming from: when you are someone who works in the field that has always been your passion, it is indeed quite disheartening to see a person who has what it takes to succeed but who simply does not care.

It took me a while on the tenure track to accept that most students didn’t share my ambition. They just want to get a well-paying job, no matter how much potential for this or that they have. The colleague’s student simply isn’t interested in doing research for a living, irrespective of how good he could be at it. Research doesn’t float his boat. I am not sure what else does; perhaps nothing at all. There are, in fact, a great many people who go through lives without developing an overwhelming passion for any activity. This is a hard truth to fathom for the intense, perhaps obsessive overachievers, such as myself and my colleague; I cannot claim to have fully internalized it.

Last semester I taught a great undergraduate class. There were several kids in there who I think would do splendidly in grad school. I spoke with a couple of the best, and neither wanted  to do grad school. One is a wonderful, laid-back kid, who reminds me of my eldest offspring; this student appears to be paired up with a very intense young woman and is very happy to just go with the flow and follow her. Another feels very strongly that he has to get a job and start earning money right out of college, and he will do great wherever he lands. Of this cohort, the most intense kid, one with passion and focus, is an AB student; very good indeed, but not the absolute best technically. He really knows what he wants to do and is voracious about learning more. We could lament the fact that the best students won’t become career scientists, but so what? They are smart kids, they can do whatever they want with their lives. Besides, what does “the best” even mean? Potential and talent are very nebulous; they just mean you could do well in a certain broad field, but if you don’t actually apply yourself, talent doesn’t mean very much. However, the student who is very good and very focused can indeed get far, potentially as far as his passion carries him.

In the US, there is a prevalent “singular-focus” mindset. You have only one talent, only one outstanding thing about you, and you have to embrace it, have it define you, and hone the related skill with all your might, if necessary at the expense of everything else. This singular-focus mindset, which is quite foreign to most of Europe, is why there are also so many achievement-related stereotypes.  That’s why we have the dumb athlete stereotype — of course you can only be athletically blessed, you could not possibly have other ambitions or talents, because being able to throw a football somehow precludes being able to do math, sing, or paint. Then there is the stereotype of the socially-clueless, athletically-hopeless geek, as if one could not possibly be able to understand calculus, swim fast, and have a girlfriend. Based on my experiences, most smart kids have multiple talents; there are several things they could do quite well, even if not prodigiously. For instance, I know a number of kids who can write very well, sing, play an instrument, play a sport, and who also excel academically. Who’s to say which one of these avenues should the kid pursue? Some are very passionate about one of the things they can do, but many are lukewarm about all of them. In fact, based on a lot of time spent around geeks, and having taught at a high school for the gifted in math and physical sciences, I would say that most kids don’t have strong passions early on. I am sure someone somewhere has done research on this topic, but my gut feeling is that the following happens: when you have a very smart kid, things come easy to them, and everything being easy may be an obstacle to developing a keen interest in anything. I think to develop a passion for something there needs to be an equal mixture of awe and challenge;  but perhaps this is BS and it’s all about personality — you are either A-type or B-type personality. and however gifted you may be, you won’t drive yourself insane trying to overachieve if you are B-type and you will be irritated by the perceived ambivalence of others regarding their talents if you are A-type. [I am talking purely based on my own experience (a.k.a. out of my a$$), people who follow the literature on giftedness may have different views.]

Anyway, having been a professor and a professional scientist for a number of years, I can safely say that there are a many more kids with the potential to do science than there are those who actually elect to be scientists or even purse any career with a strong science component. Many of these kids have other talents and interests that they may prefer to focus on. Many have a number of talents and they never really decide what it is that they are pursing, and are rather satisfied just dabbling in variety. I think what the A-types among us professors have to realize is that we are talking about these kids’ lives, and that they are completely entitled to spend them however they like, even if that means not using their science potential or any other potential at all. To us it may seem like a waste, but to someone who never thought of science as cool or enticing, just something they can easily do if they have to, it probably doesn’t seem like a waste at all. Being free to make choices means you are free to excel at whatever you want or not excel at anything.

Maybe the people who are not tightly-wound overachievers have a point. One day, we’ll all be dead and most of us will prove to be completely inconsequential in every way imaginable, except for perhaps having left a little bit of DNA. Instead of focusing on achievement, which for most of us appears to be just smoke and mirrors, why not enjoy the people around us,  the connections for which we are apparently wired, the sunsets and good books and the giggles of our kids and grandkids?  I can answer for the likes of me: because there is an internal engine that does not allow us to sit idle and just take in the world and the people we love, because the awesomeness of life and people does not scratch the perennial brain itch. But we should also learn to live and let live, and find ways to work productively with our smart and happy but itchless students, and not consider their lack of ambition to be anybody’s failure.

April Showers Bring May Semester End and Thoughts on Learning New Things

For faculty on the semester system, there are only a couple of weeks of teaching left. This is probably the busiest time of the year, due to the sinister convergence of the semester ending and the conference season approaching. Program committees of many conferences are working hard these days to evaluate the abstracts; I am on three. On top of it, I am about to go to DC, again, for the third time in the last six months. This year has, so far, been very busy for me.

With perpetual busyness, how does one find the time to learn new things? I mean, where does the time come from to learn new techniques or the tenets of new fields of inquiry, but learn them really, really well?

I am working on topics that are somewhat but not far removed from my core expertise. You pick up related stuff along the way, as you work with students and postdocs, listen to talks by others, read up on papers in order to write proposals. But I feel I am not really an expert in any of these topics, as what I know about them has been acquired in a non-systematic fashion, by assembling the bits and pieces from various sources over time. I always worry that there are things I am overlooking, the literature I am missing.

There is something to be said for being introduced to a topic through taking a class or reading a textbook. Yet, the only way I have the time to read a textbook is if I teach a class based on it, and even so I may not get to read the whole thing. There are several topics that I find interesting and where I could potentially have something new and nontrivial to say, but the time to properly learn about any of them is just not there. I am itching to venture further out, to learn more and seek challenges and connections with fields that are more foreign to me.

I have been asking people how they find the time to learn new things, and the answer they often give me is “sabbatical.” I don’t see that happening with me; having small and school-aged kids and a working husband, I don’t see us leaving this place for a real sabbatical any time soon. During my previous sabbatical, I had a kid and also organized a major conference; I wrote several proposals, of which a major one got funded; I worked with students and wrote papers, and I think I did quite well keeping my head above water on all fronts, considering that my brain was mush due to no sleep and out-of-whack hormones. My next sabbatical is years away, and I need/want to learn and do some new things sooner than that. But there is just never enough time to pick up a book and work through it, for real. On top of teaching, I continually have students to work with, papers to edit, grants to write, service, travel. Summers are prime-time for conference travel, writing papers, and preparing fall proposals (this fall is really important for me grant-wise, I really need to do a good job with the NSF). There always seems to be something more urgent. Yet learning new things that can support your long-term research vision is important, like investing in education and infrastructure is important for long-term economic growth.

Now, I have a pretty good system for getting uninterrupted blocks of time. There is one day of the week when everyone knows I am MIA, and I have been successfully blocking out a second day in recent years; this also means that the other three days are chock full of teaching and meetings and I feel positively drained after them. My 1-2 blocked-out days are spent on writing papers or grants or whatever else needs tending to urgently; for instance, I spent a whole day grading last week, because that was the most urgent thing to do.

Being a working parent means that your time is always maximally obligated. Becoming older, I find that I can’t keep the pace of little sleep and burning the candle on both ends, which I used to be able to pull off when I was younger to squeeze some extra time for work out of the stubbornly 24-hour-long days. For instance, after a day of wrangling the Littles, like today, I can barely blog, let alone read something technically challenging.

How does one find the time to learn new things for work? I suppose this somewhat extends to — how does one find the time to exercise or have a hobby? People will offer answers that I have always found irritating: “You just have to make it (or yourself) a priority.” When you have kids, that means (1) you take the time from your work, (2) you take the time from your sleep, or (3) you take the time from your family time, which means your partner or additional caregivers bear the brunt of you taking the time for yourself or your new endeavors. I want to learn new things to do my job better, so I don’t think I should be sacrificing too much from (2) or (3), because I don’t have the stamina to skimp on sleep any more and the kids are only little once and my DH is entitled to weekends too. I want to find the time during my work day to accommodate more learning.

What say you, blogosphere? How do you find the time to learn new things for work, and learn them well?