How to manage your time, emotion, and research progress as pre-tenure faculty members?
Note: This article was first written in Chinese on April 19, 2017 and translated into English in 2021.
After graduating in the US with a sociology PhD, I became an Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC). This is a tenure-track position, meaning that the institution will appoint us for a few years followed by a performance evaluation. If we pass, we are granted tenure. If we fail the evaluation, we would have to pack our bags and leave. It has been nearly ten months since I started my position in July 2016. Reflecting on my first year of being a pre-tenure faculty member, I have gained some insight that I would like to share.
During my first year, I needed to teach three new courses. Therefore, I spent a great deal of time doing course prep. Given my previous training, I was more familiar with academic research on China and the US. Now that I am working in Canada, I hope to also teach my students about research on Canadian families. Hence, I spent a lot of time familiarizing myself with the current state of Canadian family research.
Evaluations of teaching only make up a relatively small fraction of our tenure promotion evaluations. Even so, in my view, teaching involves direct interactions with students that can have significant impacts. If we are not well-prepared, there is almost immediate—and oftentimes face-to-face—negative feedback from students, which can take a huge toll on our emotions and self-esteem. Plus, I enjoy sharing my knowledge, so I consider it an intrinsic reward to inspire students through the research I like. In my teaching, I also encounter many eager and thoughtful students with high levels of critical thinking, and it is always a delight to exchange ideas with them.
Our department head was very supportive of my research and accommodating of my work habits. In my second semester at UBC, I needed to teach two courses. The department had originally scheduled me to teach for 1.5 hours every day from Monday to Thursday. When I found out my schedule, I immediately wrote an email to the department head expressing some concerns I had. I typically need large chunks of uninterrupted time to conduct research, but teaching from Monday to Thursday would lead to a fragmentation of my time and thus a reduction of my research productivity. Subsequently, with the support of the department head, the staff responsible for scheduling helped me arrange my courses to be on Tuesdays and Thursdays only.
Before I graduated with my PhD, my advisor urged me that I should allocate at least two days a week to research while on tenure track. For this reason, my basic work schedule involved teaching and addressing other related tasks on Tuesdays and Thursdays while concentrating on research on Mondays and Wednesdays. I usually worked on my research in my study room at home instead of going to my office. This helped to reduce my commuting time, avoid other external distractions, and establish my spatialized rituals (as recommended by Helen Sword in her book Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write). I usually spent Fridays doing course prep whereas, on weekends, I tried my best to get some rest. Although the plan sounded well-structured, my Mondays and Wednesdays intended for research were frequently interrupted by other matters, so in reality, I had less time for research than planned.
In my personal experience, if I do not block out time for my research, I will easily be carried away by other matters, but everyone works differently. For example, I have colleagues who wake up at 5 AM every day, work until noon, and spend the afternoon taking care of other tasks. The key is to figure out what strategies work best for you and to stick to them.
Undoubtedly, there is a lot of pressure for pre-tenure faculty members. If we want to keep a sustainable lifestyle and remain highly engaged with research in the long run, we have to find a work-life balance. Otherwise, we will easily experience physical and mental burnout. When I was a grad student, I tried all kinds of stress management techniques: online shopping, exercising, playing the piano, binge eating, and drinking, to name a few. Some were healthy coping strategies, while others, not so much. After I came to Vancouver, I actually had little desire to shop or binge eat; I drank but only moderately. What is my new stress reliever?
At the end of every workday, whether I was teaching or doing research, I would inevitably feel exhausted, hollow, and ‘brain-dead.’ To counter this, I have started practicing hot yoga regularly, which always makes me feel rejuvenated after every session. I try to do one hour of hot yoga four to five times a week. I chose this exercise partly because I have always liked doing yoga, but mostly because a yoga studio is five minutes’ walk from my apartment. The convenient distance and the fact that I have already paid for monthly membership give me no reason to slack off. My hour-long yoga sessions are really a time when I can take my mind off other things. I also have friends who run, weightlift, or play tennis. The key to staying healthy is to overcome our inertia and get a fitness routine off the ground.
Challenges at work
I do not think I look particularly young among Asian appearances, but regardless, I am still relatively young as I went straight from undergrad to grad school and then to my current job. At the same time, I am an Asian immigrant woman. These demographic characteristics of mine make my work a bit challenging.
What bothers me most are the challenges of teaching. In one of the courses I taught, I had a five-minute quiz at the beginning of each class time to make sure students had read the assigned articles. I soon realized that out of the 75 students in my class, many (there always appeared to be 5–10 per class time) left either after handing in the quiz or in the middle of the class. These students did so without seeking my permission or even informing me. It also happened that the classroom door was in the front of the room, so every time they left during class, it was very disruptive to me and to other students listening to the lecture. Although roughly only a tenth of the class did so, their detriment to my mood and self-esteem outweighed the positive impact of the majority of the students who were well-behaved and engaged.
I was very troubled at the time, so I communicated with my colleagues to seek their advice. My colleagues validated my experience that, as a young female instructor, classroom management did sometimes pose a challenge. It was disheartening that sociology students, who learned about social inequalities in class, would perpetuate these “inequalities” based on age and gender (and, to some extent, race and immigrant status) in their daily interactions. I also spoke with a female colleague in the department who is an excellent instructor. She said she faced some of these challenges when she was younger, but one of the advantages of aging was that it became relatively easier to gain respect from students. Although compared to her male colleagues, she has more of mom-like authority than professor-like authority, being older makes it easier for her to manage her students.
As I later reflected, Max Weber proposed three kinds of authority: traditional, charismatic, and rational-legal. If traditional authority was harder for a young immigrant minority woman to attain, I needed to establish rational-legal authority. For example, I will include “arrive no more than five minutes late and no early departures” in my syllabus next year. In addition, when I teach in the future, I plan to do pop quizzes—sometimes at the beginning of the class, sometimes at the end. In this way, I can check not only whether students have done the readings in advance but also whether they have paid attention in class. Hopefully, I can rely on established rules and expectations to promote positive student behavior and create a better classroom atmosphere.
As I transitioned from grad school to work, one of the biggest changes I have noticed is that suddenly there is no one else at the same stage as me. Demographers have always placed great emphasis on the concept of “cohort,” meaning that there are some commonalities among people who experience the same event at the same time. During grad school, there are usually five to ten students admitted in the same cohort. When we had to write a paper, prepare for PhD candidacy exams, or look for jobs, there was always someone to exchange ideas with and we could encourage one another. After we graduated and start working as faculty members, almost all of our colleagues are in different life stages and at various points of their careers. Everyone’s life and work priorities also differ. All of these make it difficult for pre-tenure faculty members to find a companion to forge ahead with.
If there are any regrets from my first year of work, it would probably be the fact that I did not take the initiative to greet others or make friends since it takes time for me to get comfortable around others. As a result, I had hardly talked with several of my colleagues despite having worked in the department for nearly a year. Before I started working, my mentors shared their experience with me and advised me to take the initiative and try inviting every colleague out for coffee or lunch to increase my visibility in the department. However, such advice is difficult for introverts like myself to follow.
Still, I do communicate frequently with my colleagues who are near my office. I have never been one to be afraid of asking questions. If I had a teaching or administrative question, I would immediately communicate with the department head, my assigned faculty mentor, or my colleagues in the adjacent office.
Don’t forget about your past social support system! When I had questions or felt confused, I still sent emails to my mentors from grad school. They always replied to my lengthy emails with patience and helped me through many difficulties.
In addition, I keep in touch with my former friends, especially those who have just started their tenure-track job. Although we live far apart, we are at similar stages of our careers, facing similar pressures and worries. Now, I am sharing my experiences in the hopes that you can feel the social support of the larger academic community.
In my first year at UBC, I spent a considerable amount of time and energy doing course prep, teaching, and managing the classroom. On top of that, I moved across the border, was adapting to the new environment, and had to deal with all kinds of administrative procedures and immigration paperwork. Because of all these things, I did not publish any new articles.
My takeaway is that it is a major challenge to start any new projects in the very first year of the tenure track. After starting my job, I submitted a paper and received a “revise and resubmit” request. Following a long period of revision, it was finally accepted. All of my papers that are currently under review and the ones that I am currently writing were initiated during my grad school days. They were “work-in-progresses” from back then, and now I am just starting to wrap up these projects. I feel that the “research pipeline” often mentioned by my mentors is quite important. It is crucial to plan well in advance and decide which papers need to be published before we are on the job market as well as which papers we need to write, submit, and get published as soon as possible while on tenure track. The peer-review cycles and processes are out of our control, so the only thing we can do is to keep writing and submitting, and to submit again if our paper is rejected.
Besides, I think writing a sole-authored paper is an extremely lonely endeavor. In a sole-authored project, I will be the only person who knows the research thoroughly. Thus, it is difficult to discuss with others when I come across problems during the research process. Without a collaborator to keep me accountable, I often lack the motivation or the self-discipline to continue my work. For example, one of my sole-authored papers was rejected, and it has been almost half a year now, but I have yet to start revising it. So in reality, “keep writing and submitting, and submit again when rejected” is easier said than done. It is even harder to put into practice when it comes to working on a sole-authored paper.
All things considered, I am fortunate to have many reliable and compatible collaborators whose research interests overlap with and complement mine. At the same time, they also are my friends and form my social support network. I have collaborated with them to publish various papers. After receiving my PhD, I have collaborated less with my advisors. Now, my primary collaborators are almost all friends of mine who, like me, are in the early stages of their careers (or towards the end of completing their PhD). We are all similar in terms of our work habits and work pace, and we share the same pressures of earning tenure. Moreover, everyone’s moral sense is very similar, so there are not any disputes or estrangements stemming from the division of labor or authorship. We should cherish collaborators who are compatible with our work abilities, research interests, and professional ethics. They are my collaborators but above all, valuable friends. Of course, the issue of how many articles you should work on alone and how many to collaborate on with others also needs to be adjusted and planned according to your institution’s standards and expectations for tenure and promotion. If you are at a university that discourages collaboration and places a lot of emphasis on sole-authored work, you will have to stick it out and do your own research no matter what.
This is what I have learned so far. Inevitably, personal experience has its limits. For example, since I started my job, I have had less contact with my family and friends (especially those in China). Oftentimes when I called them, I tended to rush through the call. I am aware of this fact and feel very guilty towards them. However, as a single and childless person, I still have more time and freedom at my disposal. By contrast, assistant professors who are parents face the pressure of earning tenure on one end and the struggles of parenting on the other. They cannot control when their children cry or how their children behave, so they face different challenges in balancing work and life than I do.
That being said, it would be such an honor if anything I have shared resonates with you.
Here is the link to the original article in Chinese: "在加拿大当助理教授的第一年：如何管理时间、情绪和研究进度？." The author, Yue Qian, would like to thank Doris Li for her assistance with translations from Chinese to English.
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Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of British Columbia