Percent effort measures are a bunch of bunk


Many jobs come with an official “percent effort” job description, indicating how much time to spent on different kinds of tasks. Typically, effort in faculty jobs is divided among teaching, research, and service. There might be additional categories, such as “extension” in an agricultural department, or “administration” for those who have been suckered into taking on that kind of role.

It’s no secret that these percent effort numbers are mostly hooey. It’s not like we’re lawyers who bill time in fifteen minute intervals.

Not only do “percent effort” guidelines fail to correspond to how we spend our time, I don’t even think they correspond to how our job performance is evaluated. For instance, at a research institution, if the job is 25% teaching, does that mean that 25% of the tenure decision really banks on teaching performance? I doubt it, because teaching really doesn’t matter at research institutions.

In my last job, at some point we needed to formally decide on a percent effort allocation within the department. We had to decide how much of our job description was “teaching” and how much was “research.” Oddly enough, this was either a chair-level decision, or a chair-level decision that was delegated to the department for consensus.

It was expected that our research percentage should be smaller than teaching, and greater than zero. There was a lot of leeway, as I recall. I don’t even remember, exactly, what my department decided. I think research was set to 25%, but it could have been as high as 30% or as low as 15%. I do remember being disappointed at the lack of interest in upping the research fraction, but as an untenured faculty member I didn’t speak up, much, on this particular issue. (I probably said too much, nevertheless.)

Things are weirder in my current institution. The way our faculty collective bargaining agreement is constructed, there is absolutely no research in our formal workload, even though there is a clear research expectation of all tenure-line faculty. Somehow, without any workload allocated to research whatsoever, faculty members with no genuine research agenda may have trouble attaining tenure or promotion. How exactly does this works, I don’t understand.

The way I do understand things (which might an under-understanding), we are responsible for working 30 work units (WTUs) per academic year. Six of these WTUs are advising and service: three per semester. There is a set of formulas that are used to calculate how many WTUs are assigned to each kind of task. In general, an hour of instructional time in a lecture course throughout a semester is a single WTU. (Labs are worth less; that’s a whole ‘nother post.) A typical lecture course is worth 3 WTU.

So, a typical courseload is four lecture courses each semester. There are ways to reassign some WTUs away from teaching and towards other administrative, research or service roles. Anytime we need to shift out workload from the classroom, dollars need to be identified to purchase the time connected to those WTUs. How much does a WTU cost? Well, that depends on the source of funds. That part I do understand, and it still doesn’t make enough sense.

How is it that our formal agreement with our employer, to work 30 WTUs per academic year, necessarily requires research when none of these 30 WTUs are tied to research? We aren’t even expected to bring in external grants to buy out WTUs for research, though they’re quite welcome and we are expected to try to get external grants. I just don’t understand it. The only explanation that makes sense to me is that the formal percent effort allocation in our job is out of touch with reality.

If you’re teaching well, even if you’re doing it efficiently, 12 WTU of teaching and 3 WTU of service is a mighty big full-time job. But we are all expected to do research, somehow, in our spare time outside of employment. That’s the only explanation that makes sense given our current system.

This is why percent effort formulas are a bunch of bunk.

3 thoughts on “Percent effort measures are a bunch of bunk

  1. Have you ever tried keeping a time journal? I started one this summer – just keeping track of exactly what hours I work each day, and how I spend every minute of that time. I’m going to blog about it eventually, I think, but it has been REALLY helpful. I’m splitting my time between a bunch of projects, but I was having a hard time keeping track of whether my time commitments for each project reflected the priority level of each project. I might spend three days working on one thing, then two on another, etc., and I couldn’t tell in the long term what percent of my time was going to each one. Also, keeping a time journal can give you a surprising account of how many hours per week you truly work.

    I’d be really interested to see how the percent time stuff falls out for ecology faculty.

    • I never tried to keep a time journal – but I have intermittently kept a journal in which I wrote down everything I did in a given day.
      And then I stop. Probably because my desk was messy enough that i didn’t failed to discover the journal at some point. Then I uncover it, and restart, and then stop. It’s silly.

      This would be interesting to see how it would work. For me, I think the bulk of my non-teaching time would be spent on working with data and manuscripts, and meeting with students. And now, sadly, senate meetings :(

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