This year I transitioned from graduate school to the professoriate. I was one of the lucky few to get an increasingly rare tenure-track job in the Humanities. It’s been about six months since I started my new job, which has caused me to reflect on the transition and on how I spend my time. It probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me that, with a few exceptions, the demands post-PhD are harder to balance than the demands of graduate school. The economic precarity of graduate school may be behind me, but employment pre-tenure is still precarious and my time feels even more valuable. I’m sharing with you a few lessons-learned, to shed some light on how an assistant professor spends an average week. (The original version of this blog post is available at on Teaching Academia.)
Many brand-new tenure-track professors fool themselves into thinking they can “take a year off” from research and writing. This is a fallacy and if your graduate school faculty believe you can afford this time away from your scholarship, they are likely wrong. When I arrived at my new job, I got advice to hit the ground running with writing and publication. If you need a break from your dissertation material, take one, but work on something else instead of avoiding research altogether. Stepping away from research will turn it into a looming mountain in the distance that you want to continue avoiding. As you’ve probably learned at this point, getting publications under review and the subsequent peer-review process are long, drawn-out, waiting periods. To stay engaged with your research, I recommend scheduling appointments with yourself. Here’s how I’ve tackled it.
As you can see, I have a two-hour meeting with myself on Sunday afternoons. I look at the upcoming week and take stock of all that I need to accomplish. I make to-do lists and I set daily writing goals for the one-hour blocks Monday through Friday. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I meet with a research accountability group. The other days of the week I write individually but I really hold myself to the time I set aside and track my writing in a paper agenda. Over the course of last semester, these efforts resulted in an article currently under review and serious headway on a second one.
Perhaps the largest obstacle for me has been adjusting to the demands of teaching. This term I have 3 courses with 2 different preps. One of those courses is online, which means that I record lectures in a recording studio on campus to put on Canvas. By the time you add class sessions, office hours, teaching prep and online lecture recordings to my schedule, it looks like this…
Naturally, this is a typical week. The weeks leading up to the beginning of the semester are filled with syllabus prep. Final’s week also looks very different.
I lump grading, emails and work on the student portal (Canvas) all into one umbrella administrative category. I try to avoid emailing at other hours of the day, which is very challenging for me. I chose the middle of the day for cleaning out my inbox very strategically. If someone emails you before lunch, they usually expect a reply before the end of business. However, if they email you in the afternoon, the next day is typically fine. It’s also a good mental break for me in the middle of the day to do something less mentally taxing.
You’ll see that on Tuesdays my inbox cleaning happens during office hours. There’s almost always a 30-minute period in there somewhere when I don’t have students. I also only dedicate certain moments of the week to grading.
Assistant professors have varying relationships to the service piece of their jobs. I not only chose to participate in several committees, I’m in a leadership role on one of those committees. I find service work very fulfilling, but it still needs to be contained. In a given week, I typically have two committee meetings and a chunk of time set aside to work on commitments associated with service. As a first-year assistant professor, much of my service work has helped me to learn who’s who on campus and get to know people outside of my department. Professional goals aside, it’s also a great way to get to know your colleagues better and I’ve even made a few friends thanks to involvement in service.
Events & Lectures
For a couple of reasons, it’s important to make time for events and lectures hosted by your institution. Your colleagues put time and energy into creating a stimulating environment and I attend a few each month to show solidarity in their efforts. We get these digest emails each month/week with a list of all of the exciting activities on campus. I try to show up when possible, meet people, support my colleagues and, often, get some intellectual stimulation. This week, I have mixer event and a film screening I’d like to attend.
I was advised by a senior colleague of mine to have a category in my calendar for the sort of “soft labor” I do on campus. That might mean meeting with a student outside of office hours, writing a recommendation letter, or mentoring a graduate student. I code all of this labor in my calendar differently. While it may seem like overkill, it’s crucial to be able to make a case for everythingthat you do throughout the week, semester, or academic year. As faculty, we are evaluated on the basis of our work for the institution and everything we do counts.
I use my commute to and from campus to catch up on the phone with my friends and family or to listen to an interesting podcast. You’ll notice that my evenings are pretty free. Occasionally there are campus events that I attend, but I try to reserve that time for self-care, dinner with my partner, or a run with my dog. Usually by the end of the day on Friday I’m exhausted, so I need some time off on Saturday to sleep-in before I even look at the upcoming week.
If I leave you with anything, I want it to be this: stay organized. Maintaining a compartmentalized, organized week is extra labor. But it’s the labor of documenting your contributions to your profession. A year from now, there’s no way you’ll remember that you came into work early today to meet with a student outside of office hours, so it’s important that you track it now.
Ultimately, this kind of planning and tracking amounts to leaving a trail of breadcrumbs behind for yourself. One day, you’ll likely need to write a narrative about your time in your current job or provide some other “evidence” of your worthiness. These kinds of small investments will make the preparation of a large undertaking, like a tenure dossier, less overwhelming. I urge you keep track of your dedication to your job because you deserve to present that information to your supervisors (or tenure committee) when the time comes.