This month marks 4 years since I entered the tenure track (TT) at a research university. I have learned a lot, and this landmark caused me to ponder on what skills I’ve picked up along the way. Here I share my advice on what I wish I would have known from day one on the tenure track. I hope it will be helpful to new assistant professors (APs), graduate students, or anyone else out there.
Never stray from what is essential: publishing research in the best possible journals
If you want to get tenure and be promoted to associate, you have to publish and create a robust future research pipeline. Publishing standards differ by department — and you should make sure you understand what your department’s standards are. Different departments reward quantity and quality differently. But one thing is clear: if you want tenure, you will need multiple publications and a productive future outlook. As one senior economist once told me, “promotion (to associate professor) is backward-looking, but tenure is forward-looking.”
Alongside mastering the publishing game, you will also have to teach classes. Teaching loads differ, but at most places you should expect to teach 1–4 courses per year with 1–4 new preps during the tenure clock. Teaching can be a major distraction to the essential activity of publishing, but again, you should always remember that if you want tenure your primary job activity should be publishing.
You will also be asked to provide service in various ways. This may include departmental committee work, serving as a peer reviewer of articles and grant proposals, and in general being a good citizen by attending faculty meetings, meeting with invited speakers, etc. This can marginally help a tenure decision, but a distinguished service record will not get you tenure.
What follows are suggestions for how to optimally manage all of the (often competing) demands on your time.
Find good coauthors
Working with the best possible coauthors is the easiest way to ensure that you will publish well. Why is coauthorship valuable? Because everyone has a different skill set, so there are gains to comparative advantage. Knowing your comparative advantage will help you immensely in finding coauthors. Coauthorship also can be a useful mechanism for pooling against publication risk. This brings me to my next point.
Know what your strengths and weaknesses are
What skills are required to publish a scientific paper? According to William Shockley, a Nobel laureate who figured out how to use semiconductors to create electronic transistors, scientific research requires proficiency in no fewer than eight different dimensions:
- ability to think of a good problem
- ability to work on it
- ability to recognize a worthwhile result
- ability to make a decision as to when to stop and write up the results
- ability to write adequately
- ability to profit constructively from criticism
- determination to submit the paper to a journal
- persistence in making changes (if necessary as a result of journal action)
In empirical economics, I would add two additional dimensions:
- ability to procure good data
- ability to code
Different researchers are endowed (or have developed) different levels of each of these skills. Solo publication requires a sufficient level of each, since productivity is multiplicative in each one. But coauthorship allows for gains in productivity through comparative advantage in each category.
Enlist the help of senior mentors
Every young AP needs someone to help them navigate the TT. Each of us has weaknesses in at least one of Shockley’s eight categories, so enlisting the help of a senior colleague (either in your department or elsewhere in the profession) is critical. In many cases, multiple senior mentors are necessary.
I’ve found senior mentors most useful in helping me navigate responses to reviewers for journal revisions. But I expect that any good mentor would be happy to dispense wisdom about any pertinent topic (and probably many impertinent ones as well!).
Get serious about managing your time
There are many competing philosophies about coauthorship and mentoring, but one thing is certain: an expanded time endowment will help you publish more frequently and/or in better outlets.
There are lots of time management tips out there, but I have gravitated towards the methods of Cal Newport. He has a few books on this topic, as well as an excellent podcast that discusses timely strategies (like how to stay productive during a pandemic lockdown).
Newport’s approach relies on different planning horizons: you have a semesterly plan to help you focus on which big projects you’ll tackle, a weekly plan to help focus which steps in those big projects you’ll be working on, and a daily plan to block out the time in a specific day that you’ll devote to each activity. Newport calls this method “time blocking” and he even sells a planner to help people execute this approach. Here is an example from a past blog post of mine showing an example of time blocking (as well as discussing similar topics as in this post).
Time blocking involves being intentional about how you use your time. For a professor, a natural strategy would be to make sure you spend time in research, teaching and service that matches the ratios in your contract. Tracking your time in these areas can help you make sure you aren’t losing focus on what is essential. I’ll include at the end of this post the specific tools I use for this and other methods I’ve discussed or will discuss.
You should also keep in mind that time management is not the same as overworking! A big component of time management is making sure you take breaks at appropriate times. I recommend taking off at least one day each week where you don’t check email, read papers, write, or do anything else work-related. Try also to go easier during semester breaks and especially over the summer.
With adequate time management, you should be able to get done everything you need to in less than 45 hours per week.
Make the most out of conferences by networking and meeting new people
Conferences are a part of academic life that may cause you to lose focus. However, they can also be highly productive. You want to actively attend enough conferences so you can meet potential coauthors, get exposure to your research, and learn new things. On the other hand, at some point the value of attending an additional conference diminishes.
I recommend making a list of everyone you meet at conferences. You never know when you will run into them in the future! In the event of a future meet-up, you can remember more about them by having kept a list. This kind of a list will also be useful when you need to produce a list of potential letter writers for your tenure review.
Along these same lines, you shouldn’t be afraid to introduce yourself to anyone. In my profession (economics), there are some jerks, but almost everyone I’ve met has been nice. Only about 1% of the time have I been rebuffed by someone who thought they were too good for me.
Make processes for each of your routine tasks and then optimize them
Because publication is so crucial — yet there is much to the AP job that is not research — it is helpful to optimize the execution of routine non-research tasks so that they take up as little of your time as possible.
A few examples include (but are certainly not limited to):
- Creating lecture notes and problem sets for a course you’re teaching for the first time
- Writing and grading exams or term papers
- Creating and updating course syllabi
- Preparing slides for a research presentation
- Onboarding an RA to a research project
- Reviewing a manuscript for a journal
- Keeping track of your research/teaching/service accomplishments (for performance evaluations)
- Filing required paperwork (IRB forms, data agreements, expense reimbursements, performance evaluations, etc.)
How do you make a process? It’s an iterative exercise, so it applies only to tasks that are repeated. But starting each new task with a process-oriented mindset will make it much easier to optimize its execution. This will free up your time for more essential pursuits.
As an example, here is my process for peer-reviewing manuscripts. I don’t have these written down yet for all of my routine tasks, but I do inherently have processes in mind because I find myself following the same process for later iterations of the same task.
Minimize the amount of time you spend in your email inbox
These days it’s easy to spend multiple hours per day on email without a second thought. I’m here to tell you that if that’s what you’re doing, then you’re not setting yourself up for success.
Why is it bad to spend lots of time on email? Because email is where distractions randomly appear. Moreover, if you make email your central workflow, you will spend lots and lots of time checking your inbox over and above the amount of time you will spend reading and responding to messages. Constantly having to check your email is the perfect way to disrupt your ability to produce high-quality research. (This idea is heavily discussed in Newport’s A World Without Email)
The best way to solve this issue is to create workflows that don’t rely on email. In academic research, most teams have regularly scheduled calls to talk through issues and how to continue making progress on a project. A regular call is a perfect example of a workflow that doesn’t rely on email.
Here are some other examples:
- Use a virtual task board to divorce task tracking from your email inbox. Many such services (e.g. Trello) allow you to easily create a task card from an email by forwarding it to their server. This is a handy way of cleaning out your inbox.
- Use Calendly or YouCanBookMe to automate appointment scheduling, rather than sending 5 emails back and forth. The appointment automatically shows up on my calendar.
- Try not to correspond with others via long emails. If you find yourself writing a long email, consider holding a meeting instead.
- If you must write long emails, write them in a text editor or elsewhere, not in your email inbox. This will reduce distraction from other emails arriving while you’re writing the email at hand.
- Add filters to route unimportant messages from your inbox.
- You should always be near “inbox zero” because you should be capturing obligations outside of your email inbox.
- Remove email apps from your phone
These strategies jointly add up to me typically spending about 45 minutes per day in my email inbox during the semester and even less during the summer. (Although I have a difficult time keeping it under 1 hour per day during the first two weeks of a semester.)
Specific tools I use
The points I’ve discussed above are (and should be) “tool agnostic.” This is because the real key to success is intentionality about goals and execution, not a particular tool. That said, if you are looking for recommendations or want to know what an example setup looks like, here is a summary of the tools I use.
For producing replicable empirical economics projects
- Command Line Interface (CLI)
For separating tasks from email inbox
- GitHub issues
For not getting distracted
- Remove social media and email apps from mobile devices
For automating appointments
For general time management
- Time Block Planner
- HoursTracker mobile app
- Regularly listening to the Deep Questions podcast
I’d be happy to answer any follow-up questions you might have about how to implement these ideas or how to grapple with a particularly challenging situation. You can email me at the address on my website.