Prioritizing research time

Dear PhysioProf,

You're wrong. Here's why.

In the comments on a post about a forth-coming paper and it's possible impacts on my own, you said:

Getting completed work out the door should always be at the absolute top of the to-do list of junior tenure-track faculty, without exception. It should come before teaching, administrative, doing new studies, eating, sleeping, or even taking a ... whizz.

In the comments section, I defended myself by playing the mommy previous paper was submitted mere days before Minnow was born. And I'll grant that you conceded that babies come first. But I've found myself still mulling over the comment because it is so antithetical to the way I've carried out my first year as a faculty member.

First, you suggested that research come before teaching. I'd argue that it depends a great deal on where you work. Administrators have told the new faculty flat out that at Mystery U, it doesn't matter what sort of research superstar you are, if you are continually sh*t in the classroom, you won't get tenure. Maybe that's just lip service, but I suspect that if I were to routinely show up to classes and announce that I didn't have any lecture material prepared because I'd been writing a paper, I wouldn't even make it through my current three year contract. So, let's agree that there is some non-zero level of time and effort that must be put into teaching, ahead of research. We might disagree on what that level is, but I think we can agree that it exists. I'd argue the same holds true for administrivia/service. I'd also argue that eating, sleeping, taking care of bodily needs, and not neglecting my child are also necessities that will, at the very least, allow me to continue to function as a researcher (and keep me out of jail). I think here you were making a rhetorical flourish.

Those points put aside, let's talk about the real issue on which we seem to disagree. In the finite amount of research time available, how does a junior tenure-track faculty member prioritize their time? You suggest that writing the papers comes ahead of any other part of the process. I'd advocate for a more holistic approach that recognizes the importance of publishing completed work, but also respects the research pipeline.

In my field, I don't write a paper by sitting down at a computer and starting to write out of the blue. First I design a project, then I do it, then I analyze the data, and then I write the paper. Usually there's also one or more rounds of begging for money, reading the relevant literature, revising hypotheses, doing additional experiments, pondering what the whole thing means, etc. I'm no expert on physiology, but I suspect that it's broadly similar.

Given that writing a paper depends on having done most or all of the previous steps, I think it's an awfully dangerous approach to ignore the rest of the research pipeline while cranking out a couple of papers left over from previous work. For a tenure-track faculty member, we not only have to show that we can publish our research but that we are developing a research agenda independent of our PhD and post-doc advisors. In my limited experience, I've found that it is usually a two-year+ process between forming the research question and writing the paper. (Maybe it's faster in some fields, but the moment you introduce field work into the equation, everything slows down.)

If I had spent my first year on the tenure track writing and revising papers from my PhD and post-doc, in my second and third year I would have had nothing to publish. I go up for contract renewal in my third year, and personally I'd rather appear to be gaining speed than coasting on the laurels of my PhD.

So what did I do with my time this year? Fall semester, I wrote two proposals (one successful, one that got good reviews and will be resubmitted), made major revisions on a paper from my PhD (now in press), finished data analysis from a post-doc project and presented it at a meeting (a paper-writing trip is on the horizon), and did my initial lab set-up. Spring semester, I've revised the last chapter from my PhD (waiting on co-authors), networked like crazy to generate ideas and funding local to Mystery U, pushed pushed pushed to get the rest of my start-up money and get my lab really going, and made substantive progress on a new research project (including recruiting a student). Oh, and on top of that, I've taught 10 credits with two new preps, carried a substantial service burden, raised a wonderful daughter from 6 months to 15 months, and dealt with some serious crap in my personal life.

As a result, I'll have two-three 2008 papers from my PhD work (one is a low-order authorship), two 2009 papers from my PhD and post-doc, and by 2010 I'll be publishing stuff produced in my time on the tenure track. That should easily be enough to get my contract renewed, and if I can keep up the pace, it should be enough to get me tenure.

I'm not out to be a research super-star, I'm out to be a good mother, a good mentor, and a good person while doing a job I love. I'm betting that slow and steady will win the race and that taking a holistic view of the research pipeline will serve me just as well as only focusing on taking care of drafts in the word processor.

But, physioprof, thanks for prompting me to really think this over. And, hey, I guess in a few years, we'll see who's right.

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I think that maintaining a balanced pace is really important. If you publish all of your work, then wait to get new work started, process all of the new work, and publish again, then there is going to be serious gaps in your publishing record. Thanks for sharing about how you are balancing the load.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 19 Apr 2008 #permalink

Dear Superwoman (formerly known as Science Woman).

I couldn't agree more. You seem to have a very sensible approach to your research work both past, present and future. You sometimes give the impression on blog that you are just scraping by timewise from day to day and I suspect to some degree you are. It is good to read about what your overall goals are in terms of time management (and reading yours help me cement mine). Like there is a plan through all the madness of teaching and marking and the like.

Thanks for writing this.


Propter Doc

Love the blog. I just wanted to come to physioprof's defense. It is very easy to let teaching and service demands fill up your time. I think his point is that you have to put writing first, and let teaching and service happen in the time you have left. Amazingly (and I was skeptical myself) the teaching and service will get done about as well as if you hadn't put them first. Your point about the research pipeline is good, but in general people get denied tenure not because they didn't collect data, but because they didn't publish them. That's why publication always takes priority over other work.

By anonymous assi… (not verified) on 19 Apr 2008 #permalink

I think here you were making a rhetorical flourish.

Moi? Never!

And, hey, I guess in a few years, we'll see who's right.

It's not at all important to me that I be right. What's important to me is that I give people an impetus to think. So I am exceedingly pleased with your post.

Good for you, Science Woman!
I haven't read the post that inspired this one, but I think that your approach sounds perfectly good. I think there is always a danger to let research slide, because teaching and service are things that always have to be done immediately, whereas research can easily be put on the back burner. It sounds to me like you are putting plenty of effort into your research- both writing and getting future projects set-up, so that is great. Hopefully, your annual reports will also provide feedback from the senior faculty (& higher) to give you a better sense if you are on the right track, too. You sure sound more productive than I am! And with a little one to take care of, it's really amazing to me that you've accomplished so much this year (I have no idea what I've been doing in all this time!) Keep up the great work!

I think there is always a danger to let research slide, because teaching and service are things that always have to be done immediately, whereas research can easily be put on the back burner.

This raises a crucial point. One must always be very careful in prioritizing effort to distinguish urgency from importance.

I published my dissertation work as quick as I could. A colleague, perhaps better qualified than me, did not. Dissertation out of the way, I got a research program going, got some other things in print, and got early tenure after 3 years. My colleague coauthored one short paper while still shaping up his dissertation work, and did not get tenure. Incidentally, I would say my colleague's dissertation was far superior to mine in scope and importance.

Someone said it didn't happen until it is published. Some truth to that. A reprint is more convincing than a lab book with some data in it. The goal of your research should be publication, however you manage or pace it. You do your research on your own schedule, and you have to get it done while accomplishing the other things you have to do in life. This is a considerable challenge.

Having served on many search committees, I can tell you that 99.54% of all applicants are great teachers, even if they have never been in a classroom.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 19 Apr 2008 #permalink

I feel that, insasmuch as Physioprof's comment reflected a hyper-single-minded mindset, your response was dead on! (I have no tolerance of the concept that badly needing to take a whiz doesn't distract you from writing)

Inasmuch as Physioprof may have been trying to point out that research, once in the writing-up stages, is easily (barring certain complications that can plague publishing) the place where you get most career-milage out of the least effort, thinking long and hard about that advice was a good move. To me, you sound totally on top of things, but I think prioritizing getting research out the door quickly is very common these days.
Ah- we live in such a degenerate age...
as Sinclair Lewis said in Arrowsmith (1925):
"Perhaps he was overcautious, and more than the devil or starvation he hated the man who rushed into publication unprepared"

Nice post and comments. But wow your administrators are either lying (to you, or to themselves, or both), or run a very different kind of department than I have experienced (as an undergrad and grad, but never faculty).

Story: My advisor came up for tenure, and they asked us, his advisees, for input. Questions like how he is as an advisor, a mentor, in the classroom, etc. I said: "Mystery Advisor is intensely and aggressively focused on publishing research papers and nothing else, to the point of being unfriendly, domineering, and abusive, and neglects his classes and advisees. He has published lots recently. But you knew all that. I have nothing more to say." They took it as a positive letter. He got tenure, of course.

By AnotherMysteryU (not verified) on 19 Apr 2008 #permalink

I think one point worth making is these (pre-tenure) research priorities change over time. So in years 1-3, grant getting and money to run the lab and designing experiments is pretty important. Not to the exclusion of publishing, but perhaps up there, since you'll eventually need those resources in order to carry on the publishing. Like you, I have a two year time from design to write up (and I'm sure I don't work in -ology, even though I don't know what -ology is precisely). I spent years 1-3 designing more studies and collecting more data and published big papers but gradually accumulated a series of interesting notes that haven't gotten out the door.

But in years 4 & 5, probably nothing is more important than publishing within the research priorities. Because the money you get isn't going to help you get more publications out in time for them to pay off for tenure. Depends on your time spent in press (for me it's about a year). I speak as someone in the midst of that shift.

I'll add, as a comfort, that teaching as time spent vs. payoff improves with years and repeat preps. So even though it was hard to priorities research and teaching this year, it should get better. (And I also can't walk into a class and say oops I didn't prepare today because I was doing research). On the other hand the there is an asymptotic curve reflecting the payoff vs time spent on prep and the key is knowing where on that curve you can stop.

By hypatia cade (not verified) on 19 Apr 2008 #permalink

In my experience, publications were probably twice as important as the administration and department said they were. For what it's worth.

On the other hand, you sound like you're being really productive. And worrying is probably the least productive thing that any academic can do with her time.

Doesn't it all just come down to the fact that in both tenure and contract renewals the bar is a moving target. You have to do well at every single damn thing. Teaching matters (and because we don't want to screw our students by being underprepared or slow to respoint), Research matters, Service matters, Family matters, Life matters. We're juggling many many tasks and every single department is different with regards to what is prioritized at review time. I like Kim's response the most - be productive.

But this thread really has made me start thinking more seriously about my goals for the year.

While I agree that getting funding for your lab, generating data and procuring personnel are all extremely important for your career, they are important for one reason: To eventually publish papers. If you don't publish it, it didn't happen and thus didn't count. This is what I think of when I think that publishing should be your first priority.

That said, My boss was the head of the tenure committee at my school and if you neglected service to university (committees, etc) and teaching, you would still be unable to get tenure. However, the amount of these things necessary are dwarfed by the importance of a publication track record based on data you generated in your current lab situation and your ability to get funding. Funding is what it whole game is really all about. The overhead on your grants is how the university pays for your lab space and salary and makes their tidy little profit.

Appendix to my comment:
Divisions of time for me do not include my family. I have x hrs for work and y hrs for family, and I try to keep those separate. Papers shouldn't be produced at the expense of time with your family, but the division of those x hours is critically important (especially when x is not 24/7).

This brings up a couple of very good points. I'm hoping that Science Woman is the one correct, as I'm about to start a postdoc with a serious chronic illness, which is going to limit the stamina I have to do research. I can't do 80 hour weeks and expect to last more then a couple of weeks.

But worse, I will be jumping into a whole new research area, which I do NOT have a history of publications in, nor will I be able to bring my graduate school projects to my postdoc lab.

Combined, this will mean a gap in my publication record is inevitable. Will this sink my future career aspirations by default?

By ArchTeryx (not verified) on 20 Apr 2008 #permalink

PhysioProf's comment(s) bothered me, too, but for a different reason.

His reasoning was that you should put publishing ahead of -everything- in your life, including taking a whizz. You "played the mommy card."

You shouldn't have to "play the mommy card." Period, end. It was a sexist thing for PP to say in the first place. I was shocked to realize it.

As others have blogged, science (and society itself) needs to change its ways, such that women don't have to "play" that card. We can't all be men with stay-at-home wives, who take care of everything else in life while we devote every waking moment to a singular purpose. We (PP) need to stop demanding that of everyone. We need to stop making that the de facto bar for performance, with certain "excuses" permitted (but not really; note that you had to make the excuse, first, before your appeal was considered. What a power gradient. Please, daddy?). And until we do, the pipeline will stay leaky while we wring our hands and wonder "why?" without looking at ourselves.

Combined, this will mean a gap in my publication record is inevitable. Will this sink my future career aspirations by default?

A gap in productivity at the beginning of your post-doc, especially given that you are subtantially changing research direction, should not be a problem for your future job prospects. Similarly, a gap in productivity when you start your own lab is also not a problem. They key is to demonstrate sustained productivity once you get up to speed after these transitions.

You shouldn't have to "play the mommy card." Period, end. It was a sexist thing for PP to say in the first place. I was shocked to realize it.

I am equally shocked that PP would say something like this. or, perhaps not, I mean between him and Laden they practically invented the Carnival of the Demented Wackaloon didn't they? You never know what this guy is going to come up with next.

Regarding publication record, gaps, balance of time, etc. We can get too obsessed and wound up about this stuff. Sure, there are people who get denied tenure although Uncertain Chad has a rare good point on this that one cannot force one's natural fit. Nobody's CV is "perfect". Everyone faces some sort of critique and hardly anyone is going to get through an otherwise antagonistic department's review based on their great numbers. I guess what I'm saying is that if you have a pub gap, you just deal. People ask "why" and you tell 'em. Productivity low because you chose a work/family balance? A little tougher but you may just brazen it out...there will, after all, be some people who are receptive and think you are worth it anyway. Some people who are fairminded enough to realize that actually, you are indeed quite productive after all. Instead of just saying "oh, she's on the mommy track" and dismissing you.

By Sockeye Salmon (not verified) on 21 Apr 2008 #permalink

It was a sexist thing for PP to say in the first place.

This is totally fucking ridiculous.

By PhysioProf (not verified) on 22 Apr 2008 #permalink

PP, it may not have been sexist, but what you said is coming from the standpoint of a (no, wait, let me guess here) heterosexual white male.

You don't have to actually intend to be sexist or racist (or whatever... size-ist, able-ist, and so on) to be perpetuating cultural crap that we've all inherited, including the idea that the norm, the benchmark for "productive work" involves total dedication to the job to the detriment of home and family life.

This attitude hurts parents (and arguably, everyone else) of any gender because it assumes that only men are capable of "productivity" because they have a female to take care of their more corporeal needs, like cleaning the domicile and looking after the kids. And that idea is sexist.

Hm, I didn't see anything sexist about what PhysioProf said and I think the characterization of him here is a bit unfair. Cut through the hyperbole, he just said what my (female) mentor says, which is publish, publish, publish. There are folks who for whatever reason (inertia, perfectionism, insecurity, the need to attend to things that are (or seem) urgent, competing priorities) put off and off and off getting the manuscript(s) out the door. Note that this does NOT sound like sciencewoman - I am boggled by your list of accomplishments! I myself am guilty of getting a little bored with a project and doing something new instead of wrapping up the old (count them: 3 half-finished 'side' projects...). Finishing older projects requires a certain focus, it's easy to get distracted, and results in a failure to move on to the new. And no pubs, no funding; no funding, no tenure. No matter how great your teaching is. one of my erstwhile colleagues a case in point...

By Neurowoman (not verified) on 22 Apr 2008 #permalink

If I am not mistaken what happened here is that Sciencewoman said that she, herself "played the mommy card". anon@9:36 misinterpreted this part as reading that PhysioProf accused Sciencewoman of "playing the mommy card". Which PP did not do as far as I can tell.

If I may...I think that anon@9:36 interpreted PP's comment as sexist because it ignores the larger proportion of family- and household-responsibilities that many women carry - thus making the standard of working all the time an impossible standard for many women to achieve - thus the system that expects this standard is sexist. Personally, I didn't find PP's comment sexist as much as anti-human. I believe that everyone should get to have some life outside the lab and that unreasonable standards or expectations hurt everyone - men and women.

But really only anon@9:36 can tell us what she meant.

Personally, I didn't find PP's comment sexist as much as anti-human.

You are absolutely correct. I truly hate all human beings, and truly want them all to suffer as much as possible. Telling junior faculty to write up their completed work instead of eating, sleeping, and taking a fucking whizz is all part of my sinister plot to spread misery throughout the world.

I agree that this whole discussion is absurd. I will not be looking at this blog ever again.

By anonymous (not verified) on 23 Apr 2008 #permalink

I agree that this whole discussion is absurd. I will not be looking at this blog ever again.

Who are you agreeing with? The voices in your head?

PP, do you at least see how your comment is sexist? How perpetuating that attitude hurts families? If not, please escort yourself from Feministing straight back to the feminism 101 blog. Do not pass go, do not collect 200 USD.


Aside from the hyperbole, I agree that what PP said was of course correct. We should all do everything as quickly as we can.

It was the use of the sexist (patriarchal, males need only apply here) hyperbole to which I strongly objected. It only serves to perpetuate the status quo, which is biased against women (and yes, SW, any human with a life). This is the inherent kind of sexism that's harder to identify and battle.

There's no need and no excuse for it. And until PP can recognize it in himself - here we stay, stuck in the same rut.

By Anon(9:36) (not verified) on 24 Apr 2008 #permalink


What I'm pointing out is that PP should not have *set up* some insane expectation, where only men with stay-at-home wives can succeed in the first place because they're free to drop everything. It is a sexist expectation.

At present, women are somewhat allowed, begrudgingly, to play the mommy card. Sometimes it's even accepted, by extension of a tenure clock. Sometimes not - as in the gaps on a CV.

What we women really need, is a (science) society in which expectations are reasonable in the first place. Where excuses don't have to be made; where being equal isn't something only men can do, and women can appeal to be considered with exceptions.

So no, I did not misread the original exchange as PP accusing SW of playing the mommy card. I read it same as you - but I found something different from you.

By Anon(9:36) (not verified) on 24 Apr 2008 #permalink

anon(9:36), gotcha. agreed with your point that the "you have to be obsessed to be a real scientist" stems from an assumption that there is a "wife figure" supporting this obsessive working behavior. (although I would tend to extend the PP the benefit of the doubt with respect to what he was getting at with his original comment.) times are a-changing ever so slightly although sciencewoman's previous anecdote about the male colleague with children having his dad duties acknowledged while her mom duties were not is memorable.

i have little concrete in the way of solutions other than for dad-scientists to step up and be as "out" as possible at work about their dad-duties. so as to shift the "norm" as much as possible...

so I might amend PPs original comment with a caveat: "within the available working time you have allocated within your situation". and actually, come to think of it, I don't really agree that papers are absolutely everything, yes even if you get scooped in a minor way. Sometimes ensuring that flow of grant money by writing another application is worth getting scooped on (and perhaps even out of) a paper... long term outlook and all that.

What I'm pointing out is that PP should not have *set up* some insane expectation, where only men with stay-at-home wives can succeed in the first place because they're free to drop everything. It is a sexist expectation.

My expectations are not insane. I totally think that it is completely reasonable for all junior faculty--men and women--to not eat, sleep, or take a whizz if there are any manuscripts on their desks that still need to be submitted. Just hold that fucking whizz in!!

And it's not my fault that many men have women at home to eat, sleep, and take whizzes for them, but very few women have men at home to eat, sleep, and take whizzes for them. This is actually just an inescapable consequence of human evolution, because back in the caveman days the women stayed back in the cave while the men went out and hunted woolly mammoths.

And doing science in today's competitive science environment, where we literally hunt down data, grants, and publications, it is only natural that the best scientists are the men who have women at home to eat, sleep, and take whizzes for them, while the men do battle. Biology is destiny.

And in relation to prioritizing getting completed work out the door over teaching, administrative work, and doing new studies, that was total hyperbole.

The real important thing is to make sure that you prioritize getting completed work out the door over eating, sleeping, whizzing, pooping, caring for children, walking the dog, feeding the cat, changing the bed linens, washing your hair, vacuuming, dusting, mopping, changing the oil in the car, and weeding the garden. That's not hyperbole at all.

Story: My advisor came up for tenure, and they asked us, his advisees, for input. Questions like how he is as an advisor, a mentor, in the classroom, etc. I said: "Mystery Advisor is intensely and aggressively focused on publishing research papers and nothing else, to the point of being unfriendly, domineering, and abusive, and neglects his classes and advisees. He has published lots recently. But you knew all that. I have nothing more to say." They took it as a positive letter. He got tenure, of course.

Hah. Mine was the same way, except it wasn't "to the point of. . . " he crossed over the line. 3 out of 4 of his graduate students resigned from the lab within a week. I will be curious to see if his tenure committee interprets that positively.

This was all very interesting to read. How to allocate energy is something we deal with daily but I have rarely thought about it or heard it articulated in depth. Thanks sciencewoman!

I found myself agreeing with multiple people though. i think the way sciencewoman is planning out her research sounds really reasonable. But to each their own right? Some people work better with a determination to get papers out even if that means a lull in research output for a couple of years as new projects are being developed and progressing after the publication burst...

This also relates to the question above about 'gaps' in CV. Both due to health problems and due to my personal working style, part of my CV looks something like this:

2004: 3 x 1st author and several 2nd author papers in Great journals
2005-2006: 2 x 2nd author papers in OK journals (Uh-oh!)
2007: 3 x 1st author papers in Great journals...

My field generally has a 2+ year timecourse from start of project to paper as well. I'm not up for tenure, I'm postdoc.

The point I wanted to make is, responses to my CV are always positive and noone ever mentioned the 'dip' or even asked why. In my case, it would not have been possible to work in a way that would allow those papers to be distributed more evenly across the 4 years I'm giving as an example. But if you can do that, and prefer to do that, good for you! All that matters is that things are published. There is not much judgment about how you do it as long as you publish (at least in my experience, which is of course limited).

And depending on the project, you may get scooped if you wait too long. I try to focus on getting those kinds of papers out and sit (sometimes way too long) on papers that would be difficult for others to replicate.

In my experience, following PhysioProf's advice and living and breathing papers does work. But it may not be possible to sustain this year after year. But I think that's what he meant for the junior years of the career, there may be times when you're best off doing that.. And it may lead to some dips but as long as you don't stay in those dips, you have your papers out you're OK.

Do I think it should be this hard to succeed, to the exclusion of all else at times? Is it doable for those with family? Those are important issues but doesn't matter what we think is the answer. This seems to be the game if we want to play it..