What exactly do professors DO all day?
Brian T. Cunningham
May 31, 2013
When I was a graduate student, I knew that my advisor did not spend much of his time in the office, or even on campus. When I hear our state representatives complaining about how professors are paid so much to work only 3 hours per week (the hours that we teach class), I have to cringe at their ignorance of how faculty members really spend their time. So to give you an idea of what a typical “day in the life” of a professor includes, in this blog I will describe what I’m typically up to. I hope it does not sound like complaining, but it’s good for students considering the academic life to understand that it’s not all fun and glory – there are a lot of responsibilities and work that does not get much attention to go along with the fun parts – just like with most any job.
Teaching. During a typical semester, I am responsible for teaching one 3-hour class. While this takes three hours of actual lecturing in front of the class, I spend a lot more time in addition to this. It takes me approximately eight hours to prepare a single one-hour lecture for the first time. This includes the time I spend researching the topic, gathering and understanding the source materials, preparing lecture notes, making vugraphs look pretty, and reviewing/revising it to make sure the whole thing makes logical sense, and to make sure that I understand everything in it completely. If I have lectured on the same topic in a previous semester, I will still spend ~90 minutes per lecture to makes updates/revisions, and to study the lecture material to refresh and reload my brain. I’ll do most of my lecture preparation for the week during the preceding weekend. Before the semester starts, I’ll try to get ~50% of the homework assignments figured out. With the help of the TA, I will create new questions, go through a couple rounds of revisions to balance length and difficulty level, and work out the solutions. Each homework probably takes 3-4 hours total to create. I prefer to create and grade my exams without input from the TA, so I have a clear idea of how the students are doing. My preference lately has been to give a large number of short and simple quizzes, which are easier to create and grade than open-ended calculation questions, so each bi-weekly quiz takes ~90 minutes to make, and another 2 hours to grade. After factoring in office hours (~ 2 hours/week) and other administrative stuff related to teaching, that 3-hour class probably takes ~12-16 hours/week. While this is the level of effort for a 400-level class with ~40 students, teaching a big sophomore-level class takes much more because office hours are in very high demand, creating exams requires collaboration with other faculty, grading is much more elaborate, and there are always students who need extra help.
So, since teaching nominally only took 2 days out of my week, I should have tons of time left over to go bowling at the Union, exercising at the gym, and playing video games, right? Wrong!
Committees: To run an academic department, there are committees for everything, and their activities can take very large chunks of time during intense periods. For example, this semester I am on the committee for hiring new faculty in the ECE Department, the curriculum committee for ECE, and the committee to hire a new Department Head for the Bioengineering Department. Committees meet to determine what questions will be asked of each candidate, to review and discuss the qualifications of applicants, to decide on who to invite, to meet individually and as a group with each candidate, to listen to the candidate seminars, to discuss the inputs of everyone on how well the candidate performed on their interview visit, and to decide which candidates should receive a job offer.
I have served on the UIUC Faculty Senate, the committee that reviews student candidates for fellowships and scholarships, the committee that decides which faculty will receive special recognition for their teaching, the committee that reviews applicants for admission to graduate school, and the College of Engineering Executive committee. However, there are many, many more! Usually, a faculty member will serve on ~2-3 committees each semester, and their duties will rotate every year. Since I am a member of the ECE Department and the Bioengineering Department, I unfortunately have double the number of committee meetings to attend. These responsibilities can take between 1-8 hours/week, although it drops to zero during the summer.
Reviewing Stuff: I spend an extraordinary amount of time reviewing things. Since I serve on an NIH review panel, I am responsible for reviewing 10 proposals for each of three meetings per year. Each proposal has a “core” section that is 7-13 pages long, but each proposal also incorporates a lot of other information (investigator biographies, support letters, lab facility description, budgets…) that bring each proposal to ~75-100 pages. Reading each proposal takes me at least two hours, and sometimes more if I have to perform extra reading of published papers to get a good understanding of what is being proposed and to understand prior work. It takes me another 1-2 hours to write each review, so 10 proposals takes me ~40 hours of work. In addition to that, I have to travel to another city for a 2-day closed-door review meeting, where a group of ~25 scientists discuss ~90 proposals that includes the 10 that I was responsible for. So NIH proposal reviewing consumes 8x3 = 24 workdays per year. In reality, I spread out my reviewing so it is only 2 hours per day during the weeks leading up to the meeting, so I do not go review-crazy. I can only hold so much information in my head at one time, so I like to read a proposal on one day, and then write my review for it during the two following days.
Although I spend most of my proposal-reviewing activities for NIH, since I also receive funding from NSF, I typically participate in one more review panels on their behalf. The workload is typically the same (10 proposals + a trip to NSF in Washington, DC). However, that is not the end of my proposal reviewing responsibilities. Very often, I’m asked to review batches of proposals that are internally submitted within our campus, or other one-off proposals where a colleague at another school has solicited my written opinion.
But wait, that’s not all. Scientific journals require a pretty rigorous review process. If you think about it, every paper that is submitted requires an average of 3 reviewers. Since my research group is usually submitting 10-15 journal papers each year, that means we are generating a need for 30-45 reviews/year. Karma dictates, therefore, that my group and I should be reviewing 30-45 papers from other people every year. If I am very busy reviewing proposals, and I am requested to review a paper on a topic that one of my senior students is very familiar with, I will suggest that the paper be forwarded to my student for review. However, I still end up reviewing ~20-25 journal manuscripts myself every year. Actually, the good ones are interesting to read and easy to review, so it is not necessarily a painful duty. However, I have seen a lot of poorly written, incomplete, non-novel, or incomprehensible papers too. I refuse to correct grammar or spelling, except to tell the author that it needs more attention. Reading a paper and writing a thorough review for it typically takes me ~2-3 hours.
Recommendation Letter Writing: Students and faculty are in constant need of reference letters for admission to graduate school, consideration for a fellowship, consideration for promotion/tenure, getting a job, obtaining “Fellow” status in their technical society, and every other imaginable recognition. It’s just how the world rolls: nobody wants to make a decision without at least three “famous” people endorsing the decision. When I worked in Industry, nobody ever wanted my opinion, but now that I am a professor, people seem to think that a positive word from me will be the key thing that pushes them to the top of the pile! After having served on fellowship award committees and graduate school admission committees, I have a pretty good idea of what a recommendation letter needs to say, in order to flag the person as an exceptional candidate. I also know what to say if I think a person is just OK, or if I don’t know them very well! Let me say that I am very happy to write fantastic recommendation letters on behalf of my graduate students, graduate students for whom I have served on their PhD committees, undergraduate interns, undergraduate mentees, exceptional students in my class, former co-workers, and faculty colleagues. It bugs the heck out of me to be asked to write a letter for a student who I have barely met, but who just needs “someone” to write a letter for them because they never took the opportunity to make themselves known to a faculty member before. I am a softy, so I always say “yes” anyway. I have a folder on my computer that contains every recommendation letter that I have ever written, and it is a long list! A great letter needs to be detailed, obviously not a cookie-cutter cut/paste job, and approximately 2-pages long. These days, I can churn out a good letter in ~1 hour if I am already familiar with the person, and longer if I have to study their CV (for faculty promotion cases). For graduate school applicants, a typical student seems to submit their application to ~10 schools, so every Thanksgiving break I find myself uploading ~10 letters to ~10 schools/letter for ~100 web sites. Yawn. At least I can do that part while watching a football game. Next year, I’m going to see if my secretary can do the uploading part for me. I have been asked to write recommendation letters for people for whom I actually had a negative opinion on two occasions. I was honest and tactful. The person was hired anyway on both occasions, but whoever hired them cannot say that they were not warned!
Advising my Graduate Students: Since I do not have time to work in the lab myself, my graduate students are my hands, eyes, ears, and brain in the laboratory. My biggest opportunity to guide their tasks, to get them to think about new ideas, and to take an efficient path to completing a project is during the time that I meet with them in person. I have found that seeing a student nearly every week is the best way to keep them on track, and to avoid the phenomenon of going off into the “wilderness” of fruitless wheel-spinning activities. However, if I am advising ~12 students and if I meet with them for 1 hour/week, it will take nearly a 1.5 day/week chunk out of my schedule. Many of my research projects involve more than one student, and I have found that students that should be cooperating sometimes do not communicate with each other unless I enforce it in some way. So I have been using a system of meeting with students individually every other week for 30 minutes, while using the alternate weeks for 60-minute sub-group meetings of 3-4 students who are working on similar projects. I have found that 30 minutes is enough to get an idea of what a student has accomplished in the past week, and to give them an idea of how to address problems that they are encountering. The individual meeting does not allow shy students to “hide” from me in situations where another student may be more vocally dominant, and allows me time to discuss their particular situation and milestones without them having to worry about what other students might be thinking. The sub-group meetings allow each student to share their most recent results with the rest of the group, and allows us to take a higher level strategic view of the project goals.
Meetings with my students are quite honestly my favorite part of the week, and I do not allow other priorities to infringe upon that time. At the start of each term, I ask each student to write a list of their goals, and we review the goals together – sometimes with me adding or subtracting items from their list. At the end of the term, we review the goals together to see how things went, and update as needed. My goal is to keep the students focused on activities that will help them move speedily towards completing their journal publications and thesis without too many unproductive excursions. Actually, a few excursions are OK, but I like to know about them!
Founding a Startup Company: Last year, I founded a new company, with the goal of commercializing some technology that has been under development in my group for the past several years, and is ready to make the leap. I had founded a company previously, so I have some idea of what to expect, but that first company was my full-time job responsibility, so I was not juggling anything else at the same time. First, I found that none of my senior students really had the burning interest to be an entrepreneur, so I felt that it was up to me to create the vision, understand the potential markets, develop a product development plan, and to build a team of experienced advisors who could help me consider all aspects of intellectual property, business development, investment, and government grant possibilities. There were also a lot of boring “nuts and bolts” administrative stuff to take care of, that could not be done by anyone except me. Over the past several months, I have spent a considerable amount of time meeting with mentors and advisors to discuss business strategy, markets, competing technology, intellectual property licensing, personnel, investment, milestones, and money. I have spoken with potential business partners, joint-development partner companies, potential investors, and potential suppliers of key services. Especially with potential investors and business relationships, it takes many hours of meetings to get familiar with each other, and to explore whether or not there is a good match. At this point, it is up to me to develop the manufacturing plan, to write the product requirements specifications, to raise the money, and to decide on the first few key hires. Many of the discussions with potential investors and potential commercialization partners end up going nowhere in the end, making the time seem like it was wasted, but really it is all part of the game. In theory, the University allows me to spend one day per week on activities like this. Honestly, I can’t keep track since so much of it ends up taking place in the evenings, the weekends, or in small bursts during the workday.
Administrative Responsibilities: One of my responsibilities is to serve as the Director of the Bioengineering Graduate Program, which means that I am responsible for what happens to graduate students in Bioengineering who are working across campus for ~13 core BioE faculty and ~45 affiliate faculty across campus. I’m responsible for overseeing graduate admissions, managing our qualifying exam process, assisting graduate students who have a wide range of issues, and developing new programs. I am also the person who graduate students turn to if they are not getting along with their advisor, cannot find an advisor, or who just want some advice on how to get by in graduate school. It’s hard to say how much time this activity takes, since it is not consistent through the year. I am working to establish a new professional degree program in Bioinstrumentation, which needs a lot of coordination with industry people, marketing people, faculty in engineering, and faculty in business.
Writing Journal Manuscripts: While I wrote nearly all the text and produced all the figures for the journal papers in the earlier parts of my career, I ask my students to do quite a lot of it now, and I serve in more of an editorial role. I will generally guide students towards what data they need to produce that will result in a convincing paper, and outline the sequence of figures and what data should be included in each figure. This process usually takes a few rounds of refinement, but the figures are the heart of the paper, and we work those out before doing much substantial writing. The student who will be listed as first author is responsible for preparing the first draft, and I ask them to write the abstract, introduction, results, discussion, and conclusion sections to the best of their ability before giving it to me. Depending on the writing skill of the student, I may rewrite the entire introduction and abstract, or I may just make a few organizational and grammatical suggestions. Usually, I edit the whole paper pretty heavily, except in a few cases. Most papers seem to take between 5-10 drafts before they are ready to submit. So many students have not yet developed good writing habits, skill with creating clear figures and plots, or even overall logical organization of a convincing argument. Although often the first paper by a new graduate student is a tough multi-multi-draft exercise, the final papers by finishing graduate students can be very close to finished after a couple of rounds of edits.
Writing Grant Applications – To keep the money coming in to support all the ideas we come up with, it’s necessary to write grant applications to companies, NIH, NSF, and other foundations. It’s hard for me to estimate how much of my time is spent on grant writing, but I need to have several hours of uninterrupted time to make much progress on them. Holding all the various pieces in my head, thinking about how the reviewers will understand what I write, making a logical and convincing argument about why our idea is significant and innovative while developing an approach that makes it all look feasible takes a lot of concentration. Every time the phone rings, the email pings, or someone just decides to pop into my office probably sets me back by 10-15 minutes, as I try to regain my train of thought. So I have found that my office is probably the absolute worst place to get any proposal writing done. My practice is to take my laptop to any location where people cannot find me, and try to get my writing done. It takes quite a while to work up figures like Gantt charts, and concise descriptions of the technical approach. Sometimes I ask a student to help me with specific drawings, but generally never with the writing. Most proposals require collaborating with other scientists, so getting their inputs and making the whole proposal merge together takes a lot of time. Some proposals require meetings to discuss/debate the plan, or even to meet new people who I have not worked with before. Mostly, I try to get proposal work done over the summer, but I always have something in the works. The process of having to write a proposal is actually an excellent way to organize my ideas and to develop a workable plan of attack.
Meetings, Meeting, Meetings: I’ve discovered now that more people want to talk to me than I actually have time to meet with. However, face-to-face interaction is important, especially for mentoring students and making personal connections to other scientists. Every semester, I mentor ~30 undergraduate students, serve on ~15 preliminary or final exam committees for PhD students, and participate in ~10 PhD qualifying exams. I meet with my graduate students every week, and we have a weekly group meeting. All the committees in the department meet every week, and I meet with the Managing Director of my NSF center, and the coordinator of BioE graduate studies for an hour every week. Sometimes, all the hours between 8AM-6PM are completely filled with meetings, so I end up answering my email for 3 hours after dinner in the evening. If I can find a way to save time by NOT meeting someone, I will certainly try, but it is not always possible.
Administrative – getting bit by a million mosquitos = being sucked dry by one big vampire! While no single administrative task is so burdensome by itself that it is worth complaining about, sometimes it seems like there are so many of them that combined, they add up to real amounts of time that I would frankly rather be doing something else. I understand the necessity for it, but it seems like there is always more of it to do every year! An incomplete list includes performing yearly performance reviews for all graduate students, performing yearly performance reviews for university staff who I supervise, progress reports (technical and financial) for every grant, university ethics training, university safety training, university child-molestation-reporting training, accreditation reporting, ranking of students in my classes, graduate student RA appointments, travel expense reimbursement forms, purchase orders… We have forms and documentation for everything we do.
Travel: I hit Platinum status on American Airlines last year, and I am not totally proud of it. The benefits are nice though. I seem to travel somewhere at least twice per month, whether it is for a review panel, a conference, a meeting with a collaborator, or even just for vacation. Actually, when I am on travel, I cannot attend all the meetings that I talked about earlier, so I find that I actually have more time. I can get a lot of writing and reading done in the airport, on the plane, and in the hotel that otherwise would actually take much longer. I refuse to do much more than monitor my email (and not answer unless it’s an emergency) while on vacation. I’m old enough to remember the days before laptops and smartphones, when you could really be gone from work. It was pretty good, so sometimes I still like to pretend that there is no internet.
Answering Email: Email is the bane of my existence. I receive 100-150 emails per day, and sometimes I cannot answer them faster than the rate at which they arrive. While I sit in meetings in my office, I can hear my computer softly announcing the arrival of a new one very few minutes, and I am terrified to see that I got another 40 to deal with while I was interacting with people in the real world. The analogy that I use is a soccer goalie who has to stop a dozen balls coming at him at once from all different directions. No matter how hard he tries, one is going to get by once in a while if he lets his guard down for an instant! I can delete about half of the email immediately after looking at it, but a lot of stuff requires me to think and read before immediately reacting. A lot of it ends up putting a new item on my to-do list (a report that is coming due, a meeting to attend, a paper to edit, an administrative requirement, some new form of “training” that is required by the University… the list never ends).
Since I am 48 years old, I remember having my first email account as a graduate student at Illinois, and there were only ~15 other people I knew who had an email address. I remember being kind of happy when someone sent me something, before there could be an attachment with 90 pages of things to read. Now I hate email from the core of my soul! I must spend at least 2-3 hours per day dealing with it, but honestly I can’t keep track. I must admit that I am part of the problem by sending people so much email myself.