There are many challenges that university faculty, especially junior faculty, face on the job that keep them from doing their very best creative scholarly work — the work that lured us into this career in the first place. I focus on four facets of academic life: inspiration, motivation, attitude, and practice. But first, there are two axioms about faculty work you need to keep in mind: (1) we can think about whatever we want, which is truly fantastic; (2) our work is never done.
Although we each arrived at our interests by different paths, we are alike in that our areas of study do not merely interest us; we are passionate about them. When the mind drifts, it drifts there. Hearing about new findings makes us happy. Meeting like-minded people is a thrill. In short, our research has a deep emotional hold on us and it is absolutely vital that we remain passionate about it. If you ever feel the passion waning, do something about it; losing your long-range vision will undermine your success more than any single thing that can happen on the job.
Research is hard, often tedious work that requires intellectual, emotional, and physical energy. Academia can be a lonely profession and it is very competitive — even social encounters can have a competitive edge. So how does one do it every day and stay on course? You need a clear sense of how your daily activities are helping you reach your vision and, most importantly, you need to regulate your attention to keep yourself on track. Activities not aligned with your vision need to be examined closely and scaled back or purged. If they serve other functions, an exercise break or social meeting, keep them in check. Remember, most of your time and mental space is up to you, so you need to be extremely strategic about what you do every day. This is not time management; it is attention management.
Regarding time management, there are three findings from psychological research on planning you should know. Everything we do takes longer than we anticipate. Everyone overplans, and planning poorly on one occasion in no way guarantees you will not do it again. So how do you best manage your time? Remember the axiom, our work is never done. Therefore, the best defense is a great offense. Spend your work time as efficiently as possible. Know at the outset how long a task will take and allot the necessary time to do it. Otherwise, you may spend too much time on activities that do not need it and too little on those that do. You also need to recognize avoidance when you do it. Creative work can be emotionally intimidating; no one enjoys resubmitting a paper for the umpteenth time or facing a looming grant deadline. But putting off high-value tasks with purportedly “worthwhile” tasks (e.g., rewriting a well-written report destined for the file drawer) is not wise.
Before you take on a task, know the time it demands.
This will not only help organize your time, it will also help you succeed because you have adequate time to do it. When unrealistic goals are set and we fail, we feel bad about ourselves, and usually for the wrong reason. To illustrate, early in my career I made a calendar entry for summer break that read, “Write book.” What was I thinking? Fortunately I forgot about the plan. But if I had not, I would have failed and then felt like a failure at writing a book, instead of what I was — a bad planner.
An academic career is a tough job. Unproductive attitudes include anger, fear, frustration, and scapegoating. A sense of control, which health psychology has shown is vital to well-being, is important to a positive constructive attitude. Researchers feel control when their research is going well, which suggests that working on your research at a regular, steady pace, fueled by a positive attitude, is important for your well-being and thought processes.
If you have a bad attitude about the job, you need to figure out why so you can fix it. A faculty job is not a bad job, but bad things can happen at work and if they are happening to you, they are probably keeping you from doing your very best research. Sometimes the problem comes from the inside, perhaps in unrealistic expectations or disappointment. Constructive action is necessary and can be taken. Sometimes the source is external, maybe in how the institution works or the conditions under which you work. You need to identify and correct it. Clear understanding of your job responsibilities will help tremendously. Although the word transparency is usually associated with budget matters, I encourage you to seek transparency about your work responsibilities. That way, when your job gets too stressful, you can think clearly about what you are expected to and need to do.
If you do not practice behaviors that help you manage your activities at the day’s end, you will be setting yourself up for frustrating days that add stress to your life and thwart your ability to do your best work. What are some common pitfalls to faculty success?
Overdoing it. Do not spend more time on a task than is warranted. Set aside adequate time and when a task is done, do not go back to it. Rumination, or repetitively focusing on situations of distress, is not good for creative work.
Be sensible about communication, especially email. Regular and adequate quiet time to think is invaluable. Set aside a time to work on communications, limit the time, and stick to it.
Dealing with feedback. Do not get discouraged by negative reviews and rejections. Submitting creative work carries risk. Focus on content, take on useful information as advice, and move forward. Never let negative feedback erode your belief in your ideas or ability to do your work.
Be continuously engaged in scholarship. Many academics submit far too little of their work for review. Submitting more work increases the probability of success, provides valuable feedback, and offers practice and experience that can improve your work. To deal with this emotion-laden process, be dispassionate about parts of it. Evaluate and revise your work in a clear-headed and methodical way. In other words, reserve your passion for where it is most needed — the generation of knowledge. For example, know what publication outlet is suitable for a paper or what a granting agency is seeking in its call; misfires on these counts waste a lot of time. In short, a lot of what we do to get our ideas out there is business.
Now onto three of the most vexing problems faculty face today. First, content management. There is way too much content out there and it can be overwhelming; you need to figure out how to manage all of this information. Your “inability” to deal with it perhaps is less about you than it is about the unrelenting information landscape in which we live.
Second, the ongoing fiscal crisis. This “new normal” has changed our jobs considerably; classes are larger, students are unsettled, grants are harder to get, and the faculty has more responsibility. The reasons for these changes are larger than the university and the situation is unlikely to reverse itself soon. It is vital that administration and faculty work together to manage these changes. When faculty time is spent on activities other than teaching, research, and normal service, our creative work suffers, which is bad for us and for the university. Faculty and administrators need to engage in forward-looking and ongoing conversations about these issues.
Third, balancing work and personal life. Think carefully about the balance you need and seek resources to attain it. When you find good support systems, take care of them. Your success is a collaboration between you and those who support you. There are many good books and ideas out there, be open to them and seek help. You do not have to figure this out alone. And you might be surprised where the best ideas come from — a colleague from across campus, someone that you met at a conference, or a friend in a different line of work. Two guiding points: one, all human beings have complex and meaningful personal lives and we can learn from each other; two, we must never underestimate the contribution that our personal relationships make to our success.
Finally, it is important to remember that no matter how great the frustrations that come with being on a university faculty, it is a great job. Most adults in the world would do just about anything to have a job like ours. This point has surfaced in conversations I have had in the course of doing research in developing regions of the world. At the end of the day, people often ask about my family and job at home. In a recent conversation in Tanzania, a woman said, “That is nice work, and it is good work for your village, too.” She is so right. It is indeed nice work, for us and “our village” — our students, colleagues, and all who benefit from our creative endeavors.