Philip Guo (Phil Guo, Philip J. Guo, Philip Jia Guo, pgbovine)

Preparing for Junior Faculty Life

The Postdoc Grind: Part 1

Before starting my faculty job in Fall 2014, I am spending the 2013–2014 academic year at MIT CSAIL as a postdoc in Rob Miller's research group.

My main goal this year is to prepare for junior faculty life. The Fall 2013 semester just ended, marking the halfway point of my postdoc, so I want to reflect on my progress toward this goal.

From single-tasking to extreme multitasking

Throughout the past seven years (during grad school followed by a brief unicorn job at Google), I've always been able to focus on a single project at a time. I loved diving deep and super-grinding day after day, night after night, till my eyes bulged out.

However, those days of intense single-tasking are long gone. As Ranjit Jhala described on Twitter, faculty life is all about deftly juggling multiple roles:

A professor at a research-intensive institution needs to be a

  1. Researcher – pushing forward on one's own research and advising students on theirs

  2. Fundraiser – writing grant proposals and traveling to attend funding-related meetings

  3. Teacher – teaching one or two classes per term

  4. Academic community citizen – reviewing papers and grant proposals, organizing professional events, and writing recommendation letters

  5. Department citizen – helping run the department, hosting visitors, representing the department at school events

From talking with dozens of junior faculty, many of them recall how transitioning from a single- to a multitasking workflow was the hardest part of their first year on the job. Back in grad school, everyone had large blocks of uninterrupted focus time; but as faculty, their days are ultra-fragmented as they shuffle from meeting to meeting, constantly deciding – as Ranjit says – when to drop which ball. For reference, here is one professor's weekly calendar:

From looking at schedules like this one, it seems like the main challenge for faculty is finding enough time and energy to do the meaningful work that we entered this profession to do in the first place.

When I got my job offers last spring, I knew that I wasn't yet ready to take on this immense scheduling challenge. That's why I'm so grateful to Rob for providing me with this extra postdoc training year.

Taking the plunge

When I started my postdoc, I forced myself to learn how to juggle multiple roles by overloading my schedule as much as possible. I sought out every single opportunity to fill up my days with activities that I would need to do as faculty next year – saying “yes” to pretty much everything without filtering. Thus, in the past semester, I have:

  • submitted four research papers with two sets of collaborators,
  • worked closely with two MIT undergrads and four Ph.D. students on their research projects,
  • traveled to 9 universities to give 14 invited talks,
  • spent a week at Hacker School and a day each at Hour of Code and a programming bootcamp (which also served as field observations for research),
  • met with over a dozen MIT students who emailed me to seek counseling or advice,
  • and averaged 10 to 20 meetings per week, both in person and over videoconferencing.

After almost four months of intensity, I'm completely exhausted and burned out. I haven't worked this hard since I was an undergrad, and back then I was a decade younger and infinitely more energetic. There's simply no way that I can sustain this pace for the next few years without going nuts.

Throughout college and grad school, I got pretty good at intensely single-tasking, but I have almost no multitasking or project management experience. That's why I purposely made this past semester a stress test to force me to develop techniques that will help me manage multiple tasks better in the future.

My main challenge in the coming years is to make consistent forward progress toward my career goals without burning out or getting sidetracked. As one of my mentors told me, “It's a marathon, not a sprint.”

Here are some important lessons I've learned so far, which should apply to any management-related job.

Scheduling meetings

The startup investor Paul Graham wrote an excellent essay about two predominant kinds of work schedules: In academia, grad students are usually on a maker's schedule, while senior professors (especially those who run large labs) are on a manager's schedule.

A junior professor must both be a maker and a manager. To prepare for such a dual role, one valuable skill I learned was how to carefully schedule meetings so as to give me enough maker time each day to march forward on my own research. Ben Kamens from Khan Academy wrote a great post called (surprise!) a maker-manager's schedule that expresses similar sentiments.

What works well for me is scheduling meetings in contiguous half-hour blocks in the early- to mid-afternoons, which leaves mornings and late afternoons free as maker time. If I can squeeze in four hours of maker time in the office – 9:30am–11:30am and 4:30pm–6:30pm – then I declare victory. That still leaves five hours in the middle of the day for meetings. (As I get busier in the future, I'll need to get into the office earlier and earlier.)

If someone wants something from me, then they need to abide by my schedule. However, if I'm seeking advice from others – especially senior colleagues – then I need to work around theirs.

Cancellations are the worst, since they leave half-hour gaps in my meeting schedule. When that happens, I try to plow through emails before my next meeting ...

Taming emails

Holy shit, emails can totally destroy you if you don't have a disciplined system for managing them. I'm not an email master, but I try to keep my inbox below 30 messages and reply to well-posed requests within 24 to 48 hours.

The first email taming trick is to remember that my inbox is not my to-do list or notepad. Whenever I process emails like a fiend (usually in half-hour or hour-long chunks of time), I copy and paste select snippets into the appropriate files on my computer, whether it's notes for a specific research project, career advice I received from a colleague, or a to-do list item. I also save attachments to the appropriate directory and then archive the email right away. Every piece of useful information from an email belongs somewhere else, not in that email.

Watch Inbox Zero for more details on this philosophy. I'm not super strict about getting my inbox literally down to zero, so I will usually leave 20 to 30 emails there.

Whenever I reply to an email, I toss the ball into the other person's court and give them a concrete action item. Doing so allows me to “fire and forget” – it's now their responsibility to take action and then get back to me. I can archive the email without guilt, since I've already done my part. (If I want to double-check with them later on this task, then I will add a to-do entry on my calendar.)

Finally, I ignore all nonessential emails, especially those that don't pass Student Fizz Buzz. I receive a moderate amount of email from website readers and used to reply to everybody. However, I can no longer keep up this habit without going nuts. So I now immediately archive emails that don't merit a reply. The consequence? Some strangers on the Internet might think I'm an asshole. No big deal; the world moves on.

Filtering attention

I wake up each morning with a limited supply of energy, which is determined by how well I slept the prior night. Everything I do throughout the day drains that energy supply. The only way to replenish my energy is by sleeping; coffee and exercise give the illusion of helping, but only a nap truly works. Unfortunately, I almost never get a chance to nap at work.

Thus, given my limited energy supply, I rarely waste time at work reading the news or other online time-wasters. Why? Because every bit of reading drains my energy and prevents me from focusing later in the day. Interestingly, I find checking Twitter and Facebook much less distracting, because I can quickly skim people's updates and casually reply; those activities don't require much concentration.

Another activity that drains my attention is social lunches. I love having lunch with friends but often feel exhausted afterward. It's not because I'm an introvert; on the contrary, I cherish those interactions and have a ton of fun, but the more fun I have, the less energy remains for my afternoon at work. It takes me a long time to regain mental context on my research after socializing during the workday. Therefore, now I try to arrange weekday social gatherings as late afternoon coffee breaks or dinners, not as lunches.

The sorts of distractions that I gladly welcome are serendipitous discussions with labmates about their research, my research, or random technical topics of mutual interest. These conversations sometimes spark new ideas, get someone unstuck, or improve overall lab morale.

Night grinding

Back in grad school, my friends and I relished the “night grinds” – we'd grab a quick dinner at 6pm or so, head back to the office to super-grind until midnight, and then walk back to our dorm in triumph, swapping war stories of debugging nasty C code! Ahhh, those were the days ...

However, I no longer have the energy to night grind at the office, so I always go home by 6:30pm or 7pm. I still often work at home on weeknights, albeit at a reduced pace. Most importantly, I don't start any intensive activities such as programming after 10pm or so, or else I tend to get obsessed and lose sleep, which leads to a bad start to the next morning.

On-the-spot decision making

To further reduce the “homework” that I need to do after each meeting, I try to make decisions on the spot and take care of errands live while the person is still standing in front of me. Forcing myself to make quick decisions prevents waffling.

Sure, those decisions might not be optimal, but really, the stakes aren't that high for most of my daily decisions. It's not like I'm running a multi-billion-dollar company or anything; I'm usually just signing off on student project proposals or TA forms.

If I can take care of something on the spot, then I'll do it. There's no point in waiting. Later might mean never.

Live paper critiques

On a related note, if someone wants me to read over a draft of their job application materials or short paper, I usually schedule a 30-minute meeting with them. During that meeting, I'll read their materials on the spot and give them live feedback. This has worked well for several reasons: It doesn't take any extra time out of my day, provides a stream-of-consciousness first impression that simulates what an employer or paper reviewer might think on first glance, and gives the person a chance to interactively refine their ideas with me.

If I need to spend an hour or more reading someone's paper, then I won't do it live. But I'll still schedule a 30-minute meeting to give them feedback orally instead of typing up all of my feedback, since that's usually more engaging and informative.

Grouping related tasks

Another way that I've become more efficient is by minimizing mental context switching between neighboring tasks. For example, next month I need to make a poster for a funding meeting and also write a grant proposal (for a different funding source). However, since both the poster and the grant are about a similar topic, if I work on them within the same week, then my mind will be constantly churning on that topic even though I'm doing different tasks. That makes switching between those tasks less jarring than if they were unrelated.

Selectively procrastinating

As a student, I prided myself on rarely procrastinating. I hated waiting until the last minute on homework assignments and then pulling panicked all-nighters.

Those work habits served me well throughout school. But in the past semester, I started getting so many tasks on my queue that if I didn't procrastinate on some of them, then I would literally be working all the time – nonstop. So I had no choice but to selectively procrastinate ... and low and behold, the world didn't end! In fact, I felt better and less stressed, and still got all of my work done on time.

In general, for most non-time-sensitive tasks, I usually wait until a few days before the deadline to do it. And I let my requester know that if they need it sooner, then they should give me an earlier deadline.

Working on weekends

I've already accepted the reality that I'll be working on weekends. Very few junior faculty can avoid such a fate, unless they are super amazing. So given this reality, how can I come up with a sustainable weekend work regimen?

Earlier this semester, I plowed through my weekends as though they were simply weekdays. Then I would wake up on Monday mornings feeling completely exhausted since I had grinded hard up until Sunday night. It was terrible. I felt like I never had a break.

Now I've come up with a better policy: I only do work that I want to do on weekends, not work that I need to do. In other words, I pick only tasks that I'm genuinely interested in doing, not those that I need to do out of professional obligation. As a result, sometimes I work a ton on weekends, and sometimes I barely work at all. But no matter what, I'm always doing what I want to do, not what I need to do.

One corollary is that if there is some work-related errand due on Monday, then I try my hardest to get it done by Friday night, so that I don't have to wake up on Saturday morning with a feeling of dread that I need to work on it over the weekend.

A related rule is no talking about work on weekends. This means no work-related emails or phone calls, except for quick clarifications or dire emergencies. Weekends are my time to rest and to possibly get some work done, not to talk about work-related errands. So I usually wait until Monday morning to respond to emails. Of course, I make exceptions, especially for senior colleagues or anyone who wants to give me funding ;)

As a result of these two rules, I often get my best work done on weekends because, unlike on weekdays, I have complete freedom to work on what I want without getting interrupted by tasks that other people put on my queue. At the same time, there is never any pressure to make real progress since, after all, it's my weekend! Any progress that I do make is a bonus.

I end up trying out more unconventional approaches to my research on weekends. If whatever I attempt doesn't pan out, then that doesn't matter, because I was just playing around anyhow. Or if I'm in the mood, I skim through papers, browse technical websites, test new open-source software projects, draw concept sketches in my notebook, and do other vaguely research-related things for fun. The important thing is that my weekend work doesn't feel like work. I'm convinced that this sort of “playful quasi-work” is essential for making creative leaps.

Letting go

Finally, recall Ranjit's tweet from the beginning of this article: “prof=5-jobs-in-1. Can't do ALL well ALL the time. Key: figure out which ball can be dropped when...”

I've begun to learn to let some balls drop sometimes, although I'm not always happy about it.

I used to get mad at myself and feel unproductive if I didn't at least make a bit of forward progress toward my research goals every day. However, now I've learned to let go a bit and acknowledge that there will inevitably be days that are completely filled with administrivia and errands that don't advance my long-term goals.

Also, I realize that as I get more senior in my career, I will spend more and more time communicating about work – writing grant proposals, design docs, and project plans, giving critiques, brainstorming with students on the whiteboard, leading meetings – rather than doing the actual, hands-on work. As someone who loves, loves, loves to super-grind, this is something that's hard to let go of. But I need to internalize the fact that enabling other people to do their best work is a form of productive work. (However, I still want to carve out enough personal grind time to keep myself happy!)

I think that I'm experiencing the first step in transitioning from an individual contributor to a facilitator of research, of transitioning from a grad student to a faculty mindset. I still have a ton to learn, but this is a solid start.

Created: 2013-12-22
Last modified: 2013-12-23
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