22 November 2013

Resurrected post: Academic jobs are “laid-back”? Not exactly.

Posted by Jessica Ball

Note: This is a draft from back in May that I never finished – it’s my thoughts on that Forbes article which dared to suggest that academic jobs were the most laid-back, based on the assumptions that they ‘only’ teach a few classes and (presumably) get summers off. Other people did great rebuttals, but at the time I thought it might be interesting to describe what my typical day looked like, based on my teaching duties that semester. It’s not meant to be a scary post if you’re considering graduate school, but I did want to highlight what a possible routine for a grad student with teaching duties might be. Obviously since I completed my thesis defense and moved away from Buffalo, I am no longer attempting to keep up this schedule. However, since I still have many of the committee responsibilities I mentioned and I am attempting to edit/publish portions of my thesis and get ready for the Fall AGU conference, my schedule looks pretty similar in terms of how time is allotted. Just without the student interaction…

Doubtless those of you who are interested in science careers have seen the many offended blog posts prompted by that fairly ill-considered Forbes article about how professors/academics have the most laid-back jobs because they only teach one or two classes a semester. After getting my hysterical laughter under control, I started thinking about all the comments where people describe how their typical academic day. I’m certainly not surprised by the long descriptions of everything that has to get done (and often doesn’t) during a professor’s day, but I did notice that there wasn’t much there from students.

Grad students occupy this odd in-between space; we’re not just students anymore, but even though we take on a lot of responsibilities that our professors also have, we’re not quite working at their level yet. But it is important to remember that being a graduate student is definitely NOT like being an undergrad. When you’re an undergrad, you have to take responsibility for your own time management, but for the most part you are provided with instructions and objectives to achieve. As a grad student, you often set the objectives and teach yourself how to achieve them. That’s part of what being an independent researcher is about.

Still, it’s hard to realize what it’s like until you actually get to grad school. So I thought I’d outline a typical day for me (though bear in mind that I came to grad school from a 9-to-5 job and I’m used to that schedule – many people don’t work that way – and that I have slightly more advanced teaching duties than most grads.)

I live close to school, so I wake up at 7 and I’m usually there between 8 and 8:30. I use the first half hour of my day to check email, answer urgent messages from my students or my advisor or the department office, update my calendar, and read a few geoblog posts so I can keep up on current events. I try to reserve my mornings for research and writing and my afternoons for teaching prep, so I’ll spend an hour or two running models, analyzing the results, taking notes and outlining bits of my thesis, and looking up articles I need to answer research questions. Bear in mind that I’m usually doing two or three of these things at the same time, because I don’t have the luxury of sitting down and finishing just one thing at a time (unless it’s the weekend).

I’m on several committees for professional organizations, so sometimes I need to respond to emails with comments/suggestions on whatever we’re working on at the time, or submit notes for a newsletter, or occasionally participate on a conference call. Sometimes a student will wander in with questions about a homework or a test, and if it’s during my posted office hours I’ll take time out to talk with them.

If it’s a teaching day, I will spend my lunchtime looking over and editing the presentation and my notes for the class. I don’t teach until the evenings this semester, but I attend both sections of the course so I can make my lectures match as closely as possible with the other professor. This is basically my prep time; it’s easier for me to give a lecture if I’ve seen the other prof give it first, so I know what to emphasize. There is usually a homework assignment or exam to create (which can take several days, as they need to be commented on and revised), or a grading rubric to write, which takes a few hours. Sometimes I have to grade exams for students who have missed the in-class sitting, or take part of the afternoon to allow them to make up the exam. If the exam is that day I have to make photocopies of it, which (with about 300 students between the two classes) can take a while.

After I attend the early session of the lecture and take notes on the other prof’s presentation, I have an hour or so to wrap up any research or writing I was trying to finish that day. My lecture meets from 5-6:30, so by the time I have finished lecture, dealt with any students who want to talk to me after class, gone back to my office, uploaded the lecture files and attendance records, and packed up my computer, I may not leave campus until 7PM.

When I get home, I have to cook dinner for myself (the only way I get away with not exercising regularly is by making all my own food from scratch, which is less expensive anyway). By the time I’ve cooked, cleaned, made sure the cat is fed and played with, it’s 8:30 and time for me to finish up whatever thesis work didn’t get done during the day. I’m working on a grant application and getting ready for my technical defense, so I don’t really have much time to relax. If I don’t have something from school to finish, I can maybe fit in some time on my violin (I’m in a couple of musical groups to give me something to do that isn’t geology, because otherwise I’d go insane). If I’m lucky I get some time to read before I go to bed at 11 or 12.

And then I lather, rinse and repeat until the weekend, when I basically do the same thing that I do at school, only without the students and with laundry going in the background and an irritated, neglected cat trying to sleep on my keyboard. Weekends are pretty much the only uninterrupted writing time I get to work on my actual thesis. If it’s a nice day I’ll try to go out and do something other than errands, but seeing as I live in Buffalo, nice weekends don’t happen that often until May.

This is a typical day for me, so there may be days when things are slower or days when I’m really frazzled. But I don’t even have the responsibilities of a full professor, who is writing grant proposals, supervising grad and undergrad students, serving on faculty committees, and trying to do their own research, as well as reviewing and editing other people’s articles for journals, working on professional society committees and maybe once in a while trying to lead a field trip. This is, for many, in addition to taking care of family obligations and dealing with homeowner responsibilities (which some grad students have to do as well!)

So when undergrads ask questions like “when are your office hours” or forget to mention that they’re going to be missing an exam because of a sports competition/religious holiday/family trip – or when writers put together articles without actually researching their subject matter sufficiently – it shouldn’t be surprising that it elicits a less-than-pleasant response from a professor/TA/instructor. Teaching at the college level is a rewarding job, but when you stop to consider how many other things have to be juggled at the same time, it’s clear that it’s not for the faint-hearted (or poor organizers!)