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

How I've been spending my time as a first-semester assistant professor

I just finished the first month of my first semester as an assistant professor, so I want to reflect on how I've been spending my time and think about how I can improve in the future.

Thankfully, I learned time management fairly well during my past year as a postdoc (recap Part 1 and Part 2), so I've been pretty happy overall with my time management.

Here is my estimated weekly time breakdown:

  • Teaching: 15 hours
  • Solo research grind: 18–25 hours
  • Research meetings with students: 4 hours
  • Random-ass meetings (RAMs): 5–10 hours
  • Service work: 3–6 hours

This brings my total work time to around 45–60 hours per week, which feels sustainable at this point in my life. I tell my college friends that this new job feels somewhat like back when we were undergrads at MIT, although slightly less intense. (My friends and I usually worked anywhere from 60 to 80 hours per week back then, but we were much younger and more energetic! There's no way I can work more than 60 hours per week nowadays.)

In addition, I spend an additional 5–10 hours per week on “shadow work” such as tending to emails, paperwork, scheduling, logistics, reimbursements, and other errands. Surprisingly, this doesn't seem too burdensome since I usually do these tasks during inevitable gaps between meetings.

I'm curious to see how these numbers change in the coming years.

Here are some reflections on each specific category of work:

Teaching: 15 hours per week

I'm teaching two courses this semester so that I don't need to teach in the spring semester, thus freeing up 8 contiguous months for research (spring and summer 2015). I originally expected teaching to kick my butt, especially since it's my first semester here. But my prior teaching experience has prepared me phenomenally well, so I'm having a great time on this front.

I batch most of my teaching-related work from Monday to Thursday, thus leaving Friday to Sunday mostly for research. I give a 75 minute lecture each day, which is 5 hours of in-class time per week. I spend roughly 2 hours of prep for each hour of class (including logistics and light grading), which brings my total teaching time to 15 hours per week. I've heard that a 2:1 prep-to-teaching ratio is very low, since some of my peers have 4:1 or even 8:1 ratios, especially during their first semester.

(On some grading-heavy weeks, my teaching workload jumps to around 20 hours per week, and seeps into weekends.)

Solo research grind: 18–25 hours per week

Solo research grind means me sitting quietly by myself working. I'm either working toward writing a grant proposal or a paper submission. At this point, my main professional goal is to maximize this portion of my work, since it's when I make forward progress toward what I'm most passionate about, and also what matters most for my career advancement (grants and papers).

Although Monday through Thursday are dominated by teaching and meetings, I still try to squeeze in 2 hours of solo research grind each day, for a total of 8 hours. Friday is my meeting-free day, so I can usually get 5–7 satisfying hours. And then I try to do whatever I can on the weekend, which can be another 5–10 hours, thus bringing my weekly total to 18–25 hours.

(Sadly, I rarely hit my ideal of 25 hours per week. Sometimes I dip as low as 10 or 15 hours if it's a teaching- or service-heavy week.)

It will be a struggle to maintain this relatively high number of hours per week as my career progresses and other responsibilities increase ... but I'll go nuts if I don't at least try. All of my other work activities are primarily to serve others; this is time for me to grind till my eyes bulge out.

Research meetings with students: 4 hours per week

I currently spend around 4 hours per week meeting with students to advise their research projects. My main job during meetings is to provide motivation, momentum, and marketability for my students' work. We do a lot of brainstorming on the whiteboard and also some pair programming on their laptops. Working with students exercises different skill sets than my solo research grind, since I now get to play the roles of coach, mentor, constructive critic, and cheerleader.

I'll spend more time on research meetings as I get more students in the coming years, but I think it's still critical for me to reserve enough time for solo research grinds. I feel like solo grinding improves my advising relationship with students since they see that I, too, am grinding hard on writing grimy code, so it's not like I'm just sitting there sipping soy lattes and pontificating all day while they struggle to debug nasty JavaScript all night long.

Random-ass meetings: 5–10 hours per week

Random-ass meetings (RAMs) are those that aren't directly related to my current research grind, but aren't service work either. These include attending obligatory meetings, taking Skype or coffee chats as favors to colleagues, and seeking potential research collaborations by reaching out to new people. It feels very much like the “business” or “networking” part of my job.

RAMs, by definition, have highly variable outcomes. Oftentimes I end a meeting feeling like it was a CWOT (Complete Waste Of Time). I sometimes know a meeting is a CWOT within the first minute, but I have to sit there politely smiling and nodding like a buffoon the entire time. However, in rare occasions I get a burst of tremendous serendipitous insight that propels my research forward by leaps and bounds. That's what makes it all worthwhile, and why I keep attending RAMs, even though most will end with no tangible outcome. RAMs are one of my main strategies for getting unstuck from local maxima in my daily research grind.

However, it's important to set a limit to how many RAMs I attend per week, since I could easily fill up my week with them and not get any of my own work done. 5–10 hours feels about right, so I want to maintain that level throughout the next few years.

Included in this total are 2.5 hours of regularly-scheduled office hours per week. Office hours are a great time for all sorts of students to come chat with me about basically anything they want. This setup has worked extremely well since I don't need to spend time scheduling individual meetings with most students who email me; I just direct them to office hours. Students come to me with the most random and wild ideas for projects or new initiatives, which often make for fun whiteboard discussions. And I sometimes get deeper insights from those interactions, especially when several students who come in with unrelated questions start an impromptu discussion amongst themselves.

Service work: 3–6 hours per week

Service work falls into three categories: volunteering to serve my department, to serve my university, and to serve my research community. I don't have much service work at this early stage of my career. But my responsibilities will gradually increase as I get more senior, so I'm under no illusions that it will remain at this unusually low level throughout my career. I'm expecting at least 10–15 hours per week in the coming years.

Postscript: My projections for spring 2015

Just for the heck of it, I'll try to make some projections for next semester (spring 2015) when I'm not teaching:

  • Solo research grind: 20–25 hours
  • Research meetings with students: 5 hours
  • Random-ass meetings (RAMs): 5–10 hours
  • Service work: 10–15 hours

Total: 40–55 hours per week

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Created: 2014-10-01
Last modified: 2014-10-01
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