Hitting refresh on your approach to graduate student mentoring

Guess what? I wrote a guest post on the stylish academic blog about a really fantastic leadership book that I read this fall. If you are thinking that your leadership and mentorship approach could use a reboot I think that the book This is Day One might be just what the doctor ordered!

So curl up in your chair next to a fireplace over the holidays and give this book a read. It might just change your approach to the way you lead at work as well as at home.

What exactly do you DO as a professor?

Ah the age-old question. 

Most people know that professors teach university students but the part about research is confusing for even my most interested family members (outside of my partner, and parents).  And don’t get me started on the fact that most people assume I relax, and sip cocktails all summer long (Spoiler alert: this is absolutely not true. I have a 12-month appointment and a high distribution of effort in research which means the summer is one of my busiest times). How exactly do you explain the details of the research process to someone who asks you?

I had a senior colleague who once told me that his perspective was that being an academic researcher was like being a small business owner or entrepreneur. At first, I thought it was a strange analogy but the more I have thought about it over the years, the more I like it. I think my research team runs very much like a small business and I think that it has been helpful for me to talk about it that way with my graduate students because it helps them to better understand how I spend my time, and my role in the bigger picture (essentially keeping the ship afloat and pointing in the right direction).

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As researchers we deal in the business of ideas and not widgets, but to me it is very similar. 

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See? Running an academic research lab is in fact, a lot like running a small business. 

How to rock your fall semester as a new faculty member.

How do you manage your time and track your research, teaching and service responsibilities? 

When it comes to tenure and promotion expectations as an early career faculty member, research productivity is key. In order to be as productive as possible, putting some thought into your time management strategy is at least as important as checking off the T&P boxes. As academics, we don’t really like to think that the way we work has that much in common with lawyers or other corporate types who think in terms of billable hours. What no one tells you as a graduate student is that that sort of thinking will serve you well as a new faculty member on your path to tenure. 



The first order of business is to invest in some sort of time tracking software or app. I use a tool called Officetime to track my time but there are many options available at all different price points. Much like a lawyer keeps track of billable hours, I use this to keep track of every minute of time during the workday. If I spend an hour working on a grant proposal I record it. When a student stops into my office to discuss their research project, I change the timer to record my change in focus. There is no better way to be able to be sure that your time is properly aligned with your distribution of effort (DOE) and tenure requirements than to log your time. On a side note: having an accurate record of your time is incredibly helpful when at the end of your first year on the job you get an email from your Department Chair with a spreadsheet attachment that asks for you to record the amount of time you have spent mentoring each of your individual trainees. I am pretty certain that if you just “guess-timate” you are likely underestimating the time you have invested in your graduate and postdoctoral trainees.   

2)   PLAN IT

The second tool that I have been using for the past 2-years to improve my overall research productivity while maintaining a better boundary between work and family time is Asana. I usually sit at around 10 graduate students and postdocs for whom I am the primary supervisor. Our group at any given time is working on many different projects and we have been using Asana to coordinate and communicate. We are using the free version and it has been a fantastic way to help keep my email box a bit less cluttered because more of our team communication is moved to Asana. My graduate students like it because they can assign tasks that require my attention with a “required by” date and it automatically appears on my Asana to-do list. This way they can also see where their task is in my (usually very large) queue. It is a great way to be sure that I am holding up my end of our mentoring agreement which is that I will provide timely feedback. Being strategic about how you spend your time pre-tenure is key and the first order of business is to find a strategy that works for you and to (actually) keep track of your time. 

Do you have specific strategies for managing all of your different academic tasks and time? 

This post was not sponsored by Asana or Officetime. All thoughts are my own.