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Work is never done

One of my main insights of the past years, and sometimes causes for stress, is the understanding that as a professor, work is never done. I don’t recall a day in the last ten years, when I closed my computer at the end of the day knowing that I simply had nothing else left to do.

In contrast, as a student, sometimes I got to the point where I was up to date with all the reading and had submitted all my homeworks. For an academic, there is simply not an equivalent for that.

This situation starts during the PhD years. There is no end to the papers on your topic. Your project will take four years (give or take), so for the foreseeable future, you will not finish your project. For many PhD students, it requires a fair amount of project management and time management skills to decide what to do and when.

As a professor, there’s a higher level of this constant confluence of work. There are many projects running at the same time, combined with demands on your time that include volunteering work as a peer reviewer or editor. Even keeping on top of emails may become a challenge. Again, a more than fair amount of project management and time management skills are important. Moreover, you need to decide who gets your attention when: your own projects, the work of your grad students, or the teaching of your undergrads – all of them require your time and attention, and you may feel that you’re being pulled from different sides.

My approach to this is to attempt to stick to a schedule (7am – 4:30pm with breaks and then 8pm-9:30pm) and to try and prioritize by color-coding tasks. It also helps to work towards meetings (i.e. reviewing the work of grad students before a meeting with them). But still, I’m often scrambling to get on top of everything since the covid-19 pandemic. I had never missed a deadline in my life until the pandemic (not even during pregnancy, childbirth and maternity leave), but I did fall behind on things during the lockdown. The transition to a different and completely unpredictable schedule has been quite a test for my time and project management skills, and I’m still adapting and learning.

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