The Hatful Candy Juggler, or my job as an assistant professor

How’s work going?”

It’s a natural question to ask. It’s seemingly innocuous. When a family member asks me, I usually give the nonspecific answer “fine”, having inferred that they did not intend to ask a question whose complexity is tantamount to — for example — “Assess our current military readiness and posture with respect to Eastern Europe.” Yet, since becoming an assistant professor, I’ve discovered that work is so multifaceted as to make a succinct answer impossible.

So, what is it that I do all day?

Let me start by saying that I have an amazing job: it comes with the freedom to craft my own research agenda; the opportunity to work with, teach, and learn from brilliant students and colleagues; and the institutional support to help grow an interdisciplinary scholarly community. There are days when I am positively exhilarated about the exciting things happening around me and the fantastic people making them happen. (I’ll say it again: the people I get to work with are seriously awesome!)

But I have to be honest: This job can be freakin’ exhausting.

Most people know that professors have the roles of:

  • Teacher, i.e. lecturing in class, holding office hours, and preparing/grading assessments (homework, quizzes, exams) with help from TAs.
  • Researcher/scientist/scholar, i.e. reading, thinking, experimenting, writing, and speaking at conferences.
I asked for an illustration, and the internet delivered

Answering how research is going is complicated by my omnivorous approach to science, which involves juggling 5 or more projects at all times. When a potential collaborator approaches me with a research idea, I react like a kid in a candy store with a credit card and very little self-control. (Which makes me…a candy juggler?) The advantage is that I am never bored; the disadvantage is that I always feel behind on some of the projects.

But much more than that, the thing that’s difficult to appreciate if you haven’t done this job is that there are dozens of responsibilities in support of the above roles that occupy my time. I wear many hats, serving as:

  • Chief Email Executive
  • Scheduling zen master
  • New course proposer and developer
  • Course enrollment gatekeeper
  • Research collaboration-builder
  • Research supervisor/mentor
  • Thesis committee member
  • Software developer/development supervisor
  • Webmaster
  • Sysadmin
  • Workshop/hackathon organizer
  • Guest speaker
  • Travel planner
  • Guest speaker inviter & host
  • Reading group organizer/participant
  • Research community organizer
  • Curriculum navigator & advisor [in my case, for 4 curricula/6 degree programs]
  • Career advisor/job opportunity sleuth
  • Recommendation letter-writer
  • Diversity encourager
  • Paperwork signer
  • Networking/outreach facilitator
  • Grad recruiter, admissions judge
  • Reassurer of anxious prospective/incoming grad students
  • Department committee member, policymaker, strategist, faculty candidate interviewer [one of many]
  • Patient listener in faculty meetings
  • Lab social director
  • Presentation coach
  • Writing coach
  • LaTeX coach
  • Copyeditor
  • Reviewer
  • Fundraiser
  • Budgeter
  • Expense/reimbursement tracker
  • Lab manager
  • Representative of my field to the public [rare] or students/researchers/practitioners in other disciplines [less rare]
Someone took the time to produce an excellent visualization of the fragmentation of effort in this job

I actually enjoy or feel at least minimally comfortable in most of my hats — in isolation. But wearing them all at once can be a difficult balancing act.

To give an example: My email hat is the hat that supports all others. (There are days when I feel like I need to go back to school and get a degree in email.) Some of the kinds of requests that require a decision:

  • I am a student from country who would like to do a Ph.D. in the area of buzzwords, which you mention on your website. I have done research in topic only tangentially related to my research. My resume is attached. Are you taking new students in the fall?
  • Would you be willing to review for conference?
  • From a student in my course: I have a big deadline for another class this week. Can I get an extension on the homework?
  • From a senior colleague, to the department: I have a proposal to change the way we do something in the department. Long discussion thread ensues.
  • I am a business student with an idea for an app. Can we set up a meeting so I can tell you about it and hear your advice?
  • From the department chair: URGENT: I need a description for your new course being offered next semester.

I want to be responsive to everybody who contacts me, yet I don’t want email-hat to topple all the other hats.

So, the proper answer to “How’s work going?” would discuss how these hats, individually and collectively, feel at the moment: in some, I feel weighted down by slow progress, red tape, or guilt; while simultaneously in others, I feel like I am capable, part of a team, ready to learn and think and create.

Now excuse me while I tend to my candy supply.