Friday, February 12, 2021

Professor Starter Kit

I am coming to the end of my tenure track period at UofL and part of that is making me evaluate my systems for professoring. I’m also talking to students how to set up your research. So inspired by all that, here are the things to set up before starting to professor. 

Personal Knowlege Management System

This is a first critical setup. Pick your system wisely. I had Evernote already in use partly because it has mobile app as well. Something that allows you to “capture” ideas for student projects, notes on telecoms or meetings and is searcheable! One spot for it all. One system. I keep hearing about others. Omnifocus or Roam Research. It’s worth spending money on. I use Evernote for all this but the phone version is sloooow. And some notes I could have sworn were there are not. As soon as you don’t trust a system anymore, chaos descends. 

A university is a large organization that hands you pieces of paper to ask you about much later. This is the system where scans of all this dead tree nonsense is going to end up in. Grab, scan with phone, stick in PKM and shred. 

Tenure Box

BEST piece of advice I ever got. Make a Tenure box folder in email. Grab a box and write “tenure box” on the side with sharpie. Anything that could potentially make you look good, stick it either in the email box or the cardboard box. No need to sort, you can do that later! 


Inbox 0. This is the way. It’s the only way. Every possible request and task will show up as an email. So it’s best to distinguish between a few timeframes where you file ongoing email assignments and “done” (archived). Mine’s are today/this week/this month/someday/waiting. 

The waiting one is for stuff you’ve done your bit for but are waiting on others. After a while, go through that and send reminders. 

It does not need to get more involved than that but I file email more. Especially useful are folders for each grant application and each grant administered. Grants management at a university is chaotic at best. You can be the one providing structure. Optional folders are for each research student you have and each class you teach. Or not. 

Email is asynchronous. Unfortunately most of the University’s management will think of it as instant message or slack like, expecting an immediate answer. Students sometimes too. Disavow them from this notion immediately. Work email is from 9-5 on workdays. You can expect an answer within 24hrs if it reaches me during those times. IM it ain’t. 

State what action you need. I wish more people do this. The US army has a method for that: BLUF, bottom line up front. In brackets State what you need from the other person. So many academics come up to it sideways in a 3-page essay. The bluntness and utilitarian nature of bluf is appealing to my Dutch self. More of that. Start doing it yourself and ask others to do the same. The number of times I had to parse through several layers of forwarded emails with FYI to realize there was something I needed to do... rude really. 

Email is suck a timesuck that I started calling it “the churn” after the expanse. It still is and can be anxiety inducing but an organized inbox lowers anxiety levels substantially. Also: “meh I’m too late for that.” is also “done”. 

Task Manager

Email is NOT a task manager. Or tracker. You list for yourself what you need/want to get done today. I did paper todo lists forever and they are both demotivating and easily lost. I am trying a Bullitt journal and I’m liking it a lot. I’m working from home though so it’s easy to have this as part of the setup. There are electronic ones for todo lists. Fine. Pick one and stick with it if it works. 

Research structure

Parse your research ideas into projects for (a) you (in your rare spare time), (b) Postdocs and grad student projects and (c) undergraduate projects. 

The latter desperately need structure. So chuck every idle though with the latest data release from a survey into you PKM system. You’re gonna need those. Anything that just requires someone to read less than half a dozen papers and comes with a CSV file of data. Set up a dummy undergrad project: overleaf doc for the report, fileshare for the data, code, and papers. And a setup of the goals. 

Undergrad projects are a net time loss in most cases. The goal is not a paper. But with enough organization and clear goals you may come close to breaking even (it would have taken you just as long on your own). And let’s not compare here with professor-at-full-speed. 

Teaching and Service structure

These are time sucks. Teaching is fun and a primary responsibility and inspiring students is so rewarding yadda yadda. It’s a perfect gas of efffort and time, taking up every minute you’ll let it. 

Odds are that your colleagues don’t care. And underestimate the amount of time it takes to set up a new course. And all your courses are new. So ask about which of your friends has taught the course. Grab their stuff. Steal their slides, their assignments etc etc. 
Once you get there, see if there is a teaching track prof who taught this class. Get their take on the class. Buy them lunch. Steal their stuff. 

Service is often “light” because you’re on tenure track. But it’s considered “light” by those who have been at the place in question since forever. No one left a record on how to do the thing you’re supposed to do for the department. So you have your Task and since you’re the new guy it probably officially Sucks. Parse out what needs to happen. Pick the brain of the last victim and then write it all down in the order it’s supposed to happen in a google document. 

Your future self or the next hapless Service victim will thank you. Share. Make their life easier. Easiest favor ever. 

Grants Management 

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. Another part of the University that will get mad at you for “not doing things the way we always do them” despite never telling you how to do them in the first place. Tip 1. Identify the grants you really want and identify a (tiiiiny) grant you don’t give a shit about. Do the tiny and/or bullshit grant proposal first. This is your tryout of the grants management system. How long does everything take? What’s a good padding before the deadline? Which parts of Grants Management are responsive to email and which only to threats of physical harm? How many different versions of the proposal clearance form does it take? Who gives you this year’s budgeting numbers? Build a note with how to do what and when. Use this forevermore but be prepared that GM will get revamped and renewed into something even more Byzantine and you’ll have to adapt once more. 

If you’re feeling animosity towards the GM people and their litanies of why laptops aren’t a real computer or why a student can’t have one, remember they are already working with the University and Funding agency’s budgeting management systems every day. They already are in hell. Possibly for years. Take the time to let them tell a story. Patience, politeness and a kind word will get you far far more than impatience and frustration, even if that is what you're feeling in great spades. 

You’ll identify the one person that actually knows what they are doing. This is your new friend. Ply with alcohol and gifts. Bribe outright if you have to. 
GM isn’t there to help you write a grant. This was a major realization of mine. They are there to ensure that the University gets its cut from your grant. Nothing else. 


Academia is chaotic. On purpose or not, it’s where all the noise of a large organization comes together with all the organizational skills of a bunch of people that never took even so much as a class on spreadsheets. So you need structure. 
Are you a morning or evening person? Do you have a family or no? There are a LOT of variables here and basically none are your employer’s business. You need to decide. With a family it’s pretty much proscribed: you need to get them to school. That sets the starting point to your day. And it’s finish. Do not let others pressure you into working long hours that you’re not optimized for or do that stupid burning of the midnight oil. Business hours are 9-5 people. Workdays from Monday to Friday. I took public transport for a while and it provides a wonderful excuse: “I need to catch the bus sorry.”
Decide when your day has a beginning and an end. Decide when they are. Or it will be decided for you. And then a STEM professor will end up telling you to work 200 hours a week because they’re so fabulous at maths. 

Ranting aside, by having a routine (check astroph, write for an hour) you can make steady and relentless progress towards the stuff you’ll be judged on. 

Design your rest and downtime

This goes with the above. There is an underlying “of course you’ll work 100 hours a week” attitude which guarantees just shoddy performance and sloppy work. You’ll be judged on the result and not the process. No one can really tell how long it takes anyone to do some on the things you do. Play up that they were “laborious” or “very hard”. Practice your “I’ve got so much to do rant”. Paint dark circles under your eyes. Academia is horribly toxic work culture. STEM doubly so. 

No one by you will say enough. Don’t let your body do the talking and set rest times and rest activities (like running or reading the murderbot books for the Nth time). Whatever restores. Saturday is off limits. Sunday is ok for some light reading or prep for class. 

And if you need a quip to shut the all-nighter people up: “I don’t work 70 hour weeks, I did it right the first time.”

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