How to Protect Your Time

One of the most common common phrases that came out of my colleagues’ mouths as I approached the end of graduate school and began life as a tenure-track professor at a research-intensive university was “be sure to protect your time.” Or it was some variation of that: “don’t take on too many service obligations–protect your time for research” or “protect your time–be sure your teaching doesn’t detract too much from your research.”

I’ve been asked to sit on a few “how-to” advice panels for graduate students, too, usually focused on the What to Expect After Grad School theme or the How to Manage Your Time as a Young Professor theme. On these panels, too, the common sentiment from fellow panelists seems to be to “protect your time.” A dean’s promise to “protect you in your first year or two” is a common sales pitch for hiring, too.

I have never liked this whole idea of protecting oneself from other obligations. I don’t like the protection-from-threat metaphor, and I especially dislike what it implies about the value of teaching and service in the academy. Contrary to the title of this post, this post is actually about what “protecting your time” means, and why you should largely avoid the “protect your time” advice.

Protection from What?

As a professor, you have to balance the three-legged stool of research, teaching, and service (note: three-legged objects always inherently balance. Things with four or more legs tend to wobble when they are out of alignment…but anyway). In a research-intensive university, such as the one I work for, the expectation is that you should spend the majority of your time doing research, less time on teaching, and the least amount of time on service. At a regional state school, teaching and research obligations may be more equal, and at liberal arts schools or community colleges, teaching will probably take a front seat. At a research-intensive university, I’ve heard all kinds of percentages for how much time you should devote to research, teaching, and service, from 85%, 10%, 5%, respectively, to 50%, 30%, 20%.

Because so much of your tenure case at a research-intensive university is based on the research you’ve done, it makes sense to focus your energies in this area. It is true that you never really feel like your teaching is perfect, no matter how many times you’ve taught a course or how prepared you are for each lecture, and so in that sense teaching can come to dominate a lot of your time. And service is kind of a constant thing that you can get drawn into, as there are always committees that need members and journal articles to review. When people talk of protecting themselves so they can focus on research, they are mostly talking about the threat of teaching and service on their research time. Ick.

Say Yes, Because Yes Brings Opportunity

The actor Rob Lowe was interviewed last spring about his success. The stand-out point in the article is that he has learned that saying “yes” is the best way to open doors professionally. Here’s my favorite line from this interview:

“Yes is the beginning of the road. And the road hopefully leads to you staying relevant.”

When you say “no” to things, you’re turning down opportunities. You know that cheesy quote about how you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take? It’s true.When you’re asked to teach a new course, you may see it as a burden because you’ll have to do all this prep work to get up to speed on how to teach the course. But really it’s an opportunity to brush up on some stuff you may have forgotten about, an opportunity to teach a new stream of students you don’t normally get a chance to teach (i.e., different majors, underclassmen), and an opportunity to broaden your teaching portfolio, which will only make you more valuable to your department in the long run.

When you’re asked to serve on a search committee to hire a new professor, you may see it as a burden because search committees take a lot of time, require a lot of poise, and can sometimes lead to a lot of conflict through tough debates with colleagues. But, really, serving on a search committee is an opportunity to have a say in who your future colleague will be, an opportunity to shape the trajectory of your department long-term, and an opportunity to get to know colleagues at a deeper level, even if that does mean getting into some arguments with them over who to hire.

Teaching a new course, serving on a search committee, advising a student club, reviewing papers for a journal – all of these things require a lot of time, but they bring tremendous opportunities. They don’t eat into your research time. Rather, they can enrich your research if you know how to cull the value out of these non-research opportunities.

Ultimately, too, professors – like actors – are just hoping to stay relevant. They want to be seen by their peers as contributing in fair ways to a department culture and continuing to innovate in the classroom and publish groundbreaking research. Saying “yes” more often provides many more opportunities to stay relevant and useful.

Say Yes, Because Saying No is Selfish

I cringe when some colleagues say you should only put enough effort into your teaching so that you’re not a total disaster in the classroom. And I also cringe when colleagues say you should say “no” to as much service as you can, unless you are asked to serve in high-profile, powerful committee roles or if the scope of service work is ultra-specific to what your research interests are.

No one gets everything they want, and professors have a reputation as out-of-touch prima donnas already. Saying “no” to teaching and service obligations is outright selfish, in my opinion. It shows you think you’re above your colleagues when it comes to pitching in or doing your fair share of the work. It shows you think your research is more important and/or deserves more time and attention than everyone else’s work. And it shows you want to stay in your bubble and avoid opportunities to grow and develop and reach outside your domain.

But at a much higher level, especially for professors working at public universities, saying “no” is a waste of taxpayer money. Professors are civil servants in many ways. They are charged with the responsibility of educating the citizens of a state to be competent employees and critical thinkers. You can’t produce great students if you don’t put serious effort into your teaching. The taxpayers also expect professors to be collegial, to be efficient (as any government agency is expected to be), and to work hard. You can’t make the wheels turn in an academic organization if professors are always opting out of service. Professors are not independent contractors who have been blessed with a life of introspection and self-serving intellectual exploration. Professors are, at their core, teachers and members of cohesive organizations. They profess what they know, and they serve citizens as much through public service as through publication and the creation of knowledge.

Professors have very comfortable lives (well, the tenure-track and tenured ones do, at least. Adjuncts are still chronically underemployed, but that’s another post). They make good livings, they get summers off, they get to be around young people in well-maintained buildings and campuses, and, after tenure, it’s nearly impossible to fire them for speaking out in any way they see fit. For these great occupational comforts, professors owe it to the people to be productive, to burn the candle at both ends if they have a crunch of research to do in combination with a taxing teaching load and service obligations. They do not get to shake off these responsibilities. They are supposed to find ways to take on more responsibilities.

When to Say No, or, How to Protect Your Time if You Really, Really Need to

In two years as a professor, I have said “no” twice. It was painful and difficult to muster the courage to say no, but I did it – once to teaching a class and once to advising a student’s graduate thesis. I taught an online class once, then said no to teaching it again because I very honestly couldn’t take on the burden. I was set to launch a journal, travel a bunch for conferences, and pursue more than one book publishing opportunity. I very truly had a full plate. The “no” to the student was a similar case at the same time. Plus I had never met the student before and didn’t see even the slightest overlap in our interests or my abilities to advise the project. So…two “nos” in two years. I consider that a pretty good record, actually.

Sometimes you do need to say no. If your fate depends on having a certain number of publications on your CV and you’re far from reaching that goal, then it’s fine to say no just a little bit in order to pour more time into research. This still does not mean it is OK to say no to everything you simply aren’t interested in. It means that if you’re behind in your work, then you need to focus on your work. But there may be a deeper problem here. If you feel like you are running on all cylinders and saying no to teaching and service obligations and you’re still not being as productive as you need to with your research, then maybe you should reconsider being at a research-intensive university. Or maybe you need to start letting your work life eat into your personal life. I’m serious.

If you do need to say “no,” though, I recommend you be proactive about it rather than reactive. Let your dean or some more senior mentor colleagues know you’re struggling to get your research done and that you need to teach the same prep again next semester. Or that you can’t really take on anything else for the next few months. This lets your dean or your mentors know in advance you may be struggling, and it can spur them to action to figure out ways to help. It also demonstrates that you’re in control of what you’re doing, you’ve assessed your productivity, and you’ve come to a decision that you need to say “no” in order to stay productive on the research front. This is better than the reactive approach, which is you saying “no” when asked to do something and seeming like you’re complaining or weaseling out of something when the time comes.
As always, this is just my advice, not some set of rules that governs all departments out there. The point of this post is to start encouraging a healthier discussion of the “three-legged stool” of professor life and get away from the phrase “protect your time.” It’s also a call to consider your duty to your colleagues and the public when you decide what work you will and won’t take on, and how many opportunities you may be missing when you say “no.”

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