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Time management as a new professor

Randall F. Clemens

During my first month as a doctoral student, one accomplished professor told a story to our cohort about what happens when tenure-track professors do not receive tenure. He used the provocative phrase “gypsy professor,” defined as someone who does not get tenure and then travels aimlessly from one job to the next. For some itinerant free spirits, the idea of wandering from place to place may sound appealing; to a group of hopeful, young graduate students, it was a wake-up call to the competitive nature of academia.

From my first semester until graduation, I continued to hear about professors and graduate students who buckled (either temporarily or permanently) under the demands of the profession. At the core of most of the stories—which sometimes seemed more like urban legends, except for the fact that many were told directly by the participant—was time, or the lack thereof. 

An imaginary clock ticks above academics’ heads. For graduate students, the timer counts down to graduation day and/or the end of funding. For professors, the timer is set to tenure. For both groups, there are all sorts of deadlines in between that add tension and anxiety. 

The rules for tenure are both clear and unclear. In general, most will get tenure through publications and grants. Teaching and service are important, but not enough. When I was hired, the dean and department chair were both explicit about what they expected. There are also university documents that outline expectations. In particular, what I do from day-to-day, month-to-month, and year-to-year and how my activities are rated is not as clear. How many publications do I need? How much grant money? How much time should I spend prepping for class? And, what about all the meetings, advising, and service? 

Because of all these options, flexibility—with all of its promise—becomes many academics’ undoing. Instead of writing for 30 minutes, the professor decides to read an article. Or, after a long day of meetings and teaching, he thinks he deserves a night off. “I’ll wake up early and write,” he promises himself. 

A blogger at Inside Higher Ed just posted a series about the dangers of procrastination and perfectionism. Bill wrote about the need for discipline. The punch line to all of the articles (including this one) is that time management—which includes a variety of strategies and requires constant renegotiation—is essential to success. All of those bits and pieces of time accumulate, making the difference between becoming a tenured professor or gypsy professor.