February 18, 2018

An academic life is complicated. It comes with a lot of flexibility and freedom, but also a lot of responsibility. With great flexibility comes huge complexity and variety. Let me explain.

A professor has may roles. First, a researcher, working usually on several projects at the same time with many co-authors, usually spread out all over the globe nowadays. Second, teaching, which itself involves many activities, from preparing classes to teaching in class, to setting homework and exams, to meeting students, advising, dealing with co-teachers, scheduling, etc. Third, university service, which includes many activities such as department chair, program head, committees of all type, raising money, and several other time sinks—like P.R., which professors are terrible at—and many other administrative make-work tasks, that have no productive purpose, but which universities excel at perpetuating. Fourth, editorial and referee work, which in itself seems light but is deceptively time-consuming. Fifth, travel for conferences, requiring prep before and catch up after. Sixth, consulting work, to make ends meet, and then also, pro bono work. It’s multifaceted and crazily so, especially if you are a fully functional professor.

So, okay you say, even people in the corporate world have to do many things. The problem in academia is this—these activities are being performed all the time and one ends up trying to do all of them at the same time. It’s multitasking at an extreme—I call it “supertasking.”

This is not to say that school teachers are not faced with the same supertasking chaos—they are. It’s fewer activities maybe, but much more people handling because school kids are as chaotic as they come. Fortunately, we professors have less of that, and I am grateful for that.

There is this notion that all professors do is teach. Nothing else. When people find out that the average professor teaches about a 100 hours a year, they wonder what we do with all the free time! They just don’t know. A junior professor might spend more than half her time on research, but as you age in the profession, that becomes harder and harder and dwindles to a much smaller number. Sometimes to zero when you become a dean for example, and you become Chief Cat Herder, Money Raiser, and Complaint Box. For those of us who love our research, that becomes a source of burnout. It’s when the profession ages you if you do not learn to handle it well.

But many professors are able to find the right balance and keep up their research despite the arduous pressure of supertasking. They keep going, doing their research while aggressively guarding their time. And being unavailable and upsetting those who think they should be always available.

People assume that professors know a lot more than we actually do and that our calling in life is to be on call. Because presumably, everyone knows that all we do is teach. I get emails saying stuff like—“I found your name on an internet search and your research is exactly what places you in a position to solve my job problem. I will call you tomorrow to discuss this.” No. Stop. We supertaskers are already working on too much and have no time, like new parents, especially mothers. And we have our own students, who get priority. And in any case, assuming we know a lot about everything is wrong. Free advice is not cheap in the long run. Stop. I know it feels good to dole out advice, and we do get an ego boost, but it’s irresponsible!

Managing supertasking is the key to quality work. When one does, it’s a fantastic creative experience. It makes up for the lousy pay in our profession. In the end, all professors want is a downgrade from supertasker to multitasker. Hard to hope for much more.  We need help, leave us alone for a while. Promise we won’t get up to mischief!