It gets busier.


clockI couple years ago, there was a careers-in-science discussion on an OTS field course. (I was visiting faculty — I am rarely asked, but definitely love to join up when I am available.) I honestly don’t remember if I was on the ‘panel’ or in the audience. I do remember when the topic came up about how busy you are as a grad student and beyond.

Some grad students have reported looking forward to finishing, so things get get less discombobulated and busy as they move beyond academia, or continue in academia.

It was pointed out — I believe by Neil Losin — that once you’re done with grad school, it just gets busier. He said something along the lines of, “Now is the least busy you will be for foreseeable future.” If I continue to recall correctly, one of the students asked something like, “Is that true for everybody on the room who is post-PhD?” And the half-dozen of us in there were like “Oh, that is so true, it hurts.” (If you’re reading this Neil, feel free to correct me if I’m misremembering.)

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t buy into the Culture of Busy. I am doing what I can to work around 40 hours per week. And when I go above it, it’s because I’ve wanted to do so, not because I felt like it was required to stay in the business. I think it’s quite likely that overwork can stifle creativity.

But am I a busy person? You bet I am. Does busy mean overworking? No, it just means that I’m getting a lot done. I wouldn’t want to not be busy when I’m working. That would mean that I wouldn’t be getting stuff done at the rate I’d like to. I can take breaks, of course.

I can’t reflect usefully about the non-academic career path, as I haven’t lived it. But as for how busy professors are compared to grad students, well, let me reassure (or disillusion) you, professors are really busy.

I think most grad students are doing the same things that professors do. We research, teach, mentor, manage people, deal with bureaucracy. I don’t see any fundamental difference between what I’m doing now compared to what I’m doing in grad school, it’s just that now I have a leadership role that I’ve grown into over a couple decades. Grad students are just doing less of what faculty members are doing, or they’re doing it on a smaller scale. Efficiency is developed with experience.

The amount of time it takes me to write a manuscript is a smallish fraction of the time it took me to write my first few manuscripts. The amount of time it takes me to prepare for a class, or to do a literature search for a new topic, or to write a grant proposal — is less than it used to be back in the day. It takes me less time to respond to emails, and less time to prepare a conference talk. It also takes me less time to cook a delicious and healthful meal. You do things for a couple decades, you can get pretty good at it. (By the way, that whole 10,000-hours-thing-to-be-an-expert popularized by Malcolm Gladwell is a bunch of hooey, I think.)

If doing each of these tasks takes less time than they used to, that means that I’m doing more of them than I used to. That’s reflected in my productivity (measured in a variety of ways), and the breadth of tasks that I’m expected to take on at work. Yeah, I’m busy. That doesn’t mean I’m unhappy or unavailable or harried.

Students often drop by and ask me, “are you busy?” I could lie, and say “no.” But instead I more often say, “Of course I am, but I have time for you.” If I don’t have time for others, then I close my door. Or I work from home.

I thought I was really busy in grad school. But in hindsight, I had a lot more leisure time back then than I do now. It’s not necessarily that I am working more hours than I did in grad school, but instead, my life has evolved so I have other commitments that take up more time. The hugest one is being a parent, and tied in with that is also a bigger role in my own community (like being a board member for the PTA). Also, as the sphere of my science grows, then the commitments to that grows. Like volunteering to help teach teach field courses, and giving talks and doing what’s needed to support the people who work with me.  (For example, I’m writing this post while traveling to support undergraduate students as a part of a collaborative research project. Spending two weeks away from home is pretty big deal for me now, with a kid in middle school and a spouse whose career has as many commitments as my own. So yeah, I’m busy.)

I don’t know how much of this increased ‘busyness’ comes from not being in my mid-20s and how much of it comes from my job experience and requirements. In my life these things covary. But I do look back on grad school and think, “Gosh, how did I have the time to crochet that blanket? How is it I watched all those movies? Wow, I used to have a Halloween costume every year, when I get the chance to plan for that?”

This year, after a long dry spell, I planned a Halloween costume more than a few minutes in advance. (I was the Swedish Chef. It involved Mock Swedish and fuzzy eyebrows and a rubber chicken. Thrift shops were visited and cooking implements were acquired. Oddly enough, many people asked, “Where’s Beaker?” Just because they sing “O Danny Boy” together doesn’t mean that they’re partners like Beaker is with Bunsen Honeydew, you know.) I think the Halloween costume is not merely coincidental with my promotion to full, and that I’m no longer parenting a kid in elementary school. I don’t think I’m less busy than I was, but chose to put a Halloween costume back into the mix.

Busy means you’re keeping more balls in the air at a given time. Which is no surprise because a more experienced juggler should be capable of doing so.

7 thoughts on “It gets busier.

  1. I agree with this! Indeed, each year since getting my PhD has been “busier” than the year before (the exception being a sabbatical, back in 2008). Everyone is in the same boat, so it really becomes less about “busy” and more about how you choose to prioritize. There’s no magic solution to all of this, except, I think, to recognize that the to-do list will never be done, and that’s ok. You just do your best! I must also say that a huge pet peeve of mine is those who wear being busy as a badge of honour. I wrote a post about this… “Please stop telling me how busy you are” :)

    • Thanks for the link, Chris! I had this in mind, and it was a mistake that I forgot to include it. I was so busy I missed it while proofing. ;)

  2. Totally agree – and as Chris says, in most cases we choose to be busy, unless you have the misfortune to work as I did before my move, at an institution where unless you had big grant funding you were given extra teaching and still expected to have a research output the same as those with less teaching :-( Now I am still busy but the pressures are self-imposed.

  3. Absolutely true. I now look at senior colleagues and think how glad I am to not have all their responsibilities. At the same time I don’t quite know how to respond when a junior colleague says something along the lines of ‘After this year it’ll settle down again’, which is usually once they’ve written their new module or completed a research project. I’ve never noticed a respite because the queue starts forming long in advance of any perceived gap. My new rule is, whenever I say ‘I’ll have more time in June’, to actually write the job in my diary. This helps stem optimistic over-commitment.

    The one question posed by your article is: where did you find a rubber chicken?

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