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Work-Life Balance Through Working Efficiently (Part 1)

Let's face it, if you're a professional scientist the number of responsibilities you have will not decrease with time. As a postdoc, I looked back wistfully at the halcyon days of grad study, particularly the time I spent as an Nth-year. I had so few responsibilities! Now as a prof, I look back at those glorious postdoc years when I had so little I had to do. And if you want nostalgia, how about that first year as a prof when I didn't even have to teach?!

To look at it another way, I think of my ability to do more at each stage of my career as being like a telescopic camping cup, like the one shown in Figure 1. At each stage you don't think you can take on anything more, yet at the next stage you find a way to pull up the next segment and increase your capacity.
Figure 1: A telescopic camping cup. Right: your first year of grad school. Left: As you asymptotically approach tenure. 
But what allows us to pull up an additional segment? If the number of responsibilities is increasing, then it must be our ability to do more with the same amount of time; we must somehow become more efficient. This should be obvious. However, it's not the full story. Getting a large number of things done is important, sure. But what if those things are not all that valuable once they are done?

Allow H to be one's happiness, $\dot{S}$ the amount of stuff one can get done per unit time, R the number of responsibilities one has (measured in units of stuff), and $\eta$ the average scientific or career value of each unit of stuff accomplished, then we can use the well-known relationship

$H \sim \eta (\frac{\dot{S}}{R})$

(the $\sim$ symbol means "scales as" and is kinda like an equal sign). Note the similarity between the form of academic happiness and the one for productivity, P

$P \sim \eta_I \dot{A}$

Where $\dot{A}$ is one's publication rate (measured in ApJs) and $\eta_I$ is the scientific impact of each paper. It's not just your publication rate, but also the impact of your work. But I digress...

Figure 2: A spherical approximation of the astronomy community. This post is written under the assumption that you want to be a happy astronomer (yellow sphere) rather than an unhappy one (blue spheres).
The relation for H demonstrates several important things:

Learn when and how to say no

First, taking on too many responsibilities is detrimental to your happiness. You don't want to be so over-subscribed that you can't get anything done and you have no time to think carefully about your research. Thus, you have to learn to say no, when appropriate. But be careful that by saying no you aren't passing up things with large $\eta$. You may not have time to fly out and give a talk at Harvard. But the value of doing so likely outweighs the downside of taking on a big increase in R.

It's important to realize how hard saying "no" can be. You'll get very few emails that say something like, "Hey, I was wondering if you'd like to take on a huge amount of responsibilities with little value for your career." No, the emails will be deceptively flattering and enticing, involving things like compliments about your expertise in some field, the value you'd bring to the committee/ panel/ proposal, how really famous people have done this in the past, etc. The only way you'll learn when to say no is if you practice saying no.

This is especially true at the professor level. Junior faculty of the world, learn this important phrase: "I'm sorry, but at this stage of my career I must focus on getting tenure. I must therefore decline your very kind offer to [do something that won't help me get tenure and will bring me very little other direct benefit]." Just be sure to fill in the brackets appropriately after you paste this sentence into your email message.

That said, keep in mind that as a young researcher you will be applying for grants, if not as a postdoc then for sure as a professor. And when you submit a grant proposal, you want knowledgeable, thoughtful, friendly people on your review panel. The same goes for the referees of your papers. You don't want every potential committee member that meets these criteria to turn down the invitation to fly out to D.C. to sit on your review panel, or every young person in your subfield to turn down the referee job for your paper. So evaluating whether or not to increment R, remember that you are a part of the community and your active participation is needed to keep the field moving forward. Thus, it's not trivial to know when to say no, and when to bite the bullet to put in your service (In Part 2 I'll talk about how you can make use of the time during the flight to D.C. to make good progress on that paper you need to write.)

I think a good rule of thumb is to referee one paper for every one that you submit (I actually referee ~2 for every one of my first-authors), and you should sit on a review panel once for every N you submit. To be honest, I'm still figuring this out for myself ($N \approx 3$ for me), and I'm making up for my paucity of in-person review panel attendance for remote (online) reviews. I suppose the key is to be conscious of the need to balance service and keeping R comparable to $\dot{S}$.

Stay tuned for Part 2, coming to a blog near you!


Believe it or not, this multi-part blog post took only 2 thirty-minute sessions this weekend, and one was spent during an NFL playoff game (on TV, not at Gillette Stadium). Thus, $\dot{S}$ was pretty large, and R was constant because I've already decided to spend part of my time maintaining this blog.

Now the question to you, dear reader, is $\eta$ for this post large? Please sound off in the comments, or send me an email, or comment on the Facebooks. I met many of you at the AAS meeting, and you are all amazing people with good things to add to the conversation. Stop lurking and jump into the fray. Let's use this blog as a forum for how to change our field into what we want it to be.


Jason said…
I was actually just dealing with this issue, saying 'no' to an important duty that I just can't do this semester, when I read your post.

In my first year, I was just looking for good projects, and saying "yes" to everything. Now, I'm actively shedding projects so that I have time for my commitments.

I have a ambivalent view of the "trying to get tenure" approach to selecting projects. In terms of projects I take on, like research directions or committees, I try to ignore the "tenureability" of the choice and focus on whether it interests me. I know that if I'm engaged and stimulated by the project, it will ultimately be better for my career (and the project) than if I chase something that will end up getting back-burnered when I have to make hard choices about my time. If tenure and your interests pull you in opposite directions, you probably have the wrong job (granted, the right one may not exist).

But when it comes to my promotion and tenure packet (we have to do one at 2 and 4 years at Penn State, in preparation for the tenure review at 6) I feel very cynical about the process as I milk everything I've done for all its worth, no matter how small.

An important concept I pursue in a more general context is getting "credit" for your work. If you do some research, make sure you find a way to work it into a paper you're writing, or a conference proceeding, or something. If you sit on a committee, make sure you have something interesting to say about your time on it for your review.

Anonymous panels and referee's reports are tricky for credit (they're anonymous!), but your (private) tenure packets can mention the time you've put into them, and the program officers and journal editors will remember your efforts fondly.

With this mentality, I have found, looking back over 2 years of stuff put into my pre-tenure review, that I've accomplished a whole lot more than I remember. A lot of stuff that, when I was doing it, felt like a "distraction" from my real work ("I didn't get anything done today; I spent all morning working on X, instead!") ended up, looking back on it, being something I'm quite proud of.

Looking forward to the next installment!
Jason said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Caroline said…
I've always wondered whether this is one of the behind-the-scenes differences between men and women in astronomy/physics. As I understand it, women in general have to "say no" to committee work more often as organizers try to put together diverse panels and there are many fewer women. More intangibly, I think women are reflexively trained to want to help so they feel worse saying no.

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