In the past year, as faculty, I have spent 33% of my time on paperwork and bureaucratic activities. This does not include service (committees,department meetings, etc), and is after hiring a full time laboratory manager! It is simply the filling out of forms, arguing to retain and expand my space, a wide variety of mandatory training, and being asked to justify and verify a wide variety of things.

I would like to spend less time interacting with the vast number of middle management at my school, and focus on what I enjoy: research and teaching. However, there always seems to be another 'mandatory' thing. I do not have tenure, so I cannot yet simply tell them to go away. Any suggestions on how to spend less time on bureaucracy?

  • 3
    As a note, this is not a guess: I track all my time, this is alongside 23% on teaching and advising, 22% on research, 8% on service, 14% on grantwriting in the April 2018-April 2019 period. I work 46.8 hours a week, on average, for the university. I'm not interested in increasing that number. – Industrademic Apr 16 '19 at 13:44
  • 4
    33% is pretty good. How do you do that? – Captain Emacs Apr 16 '19 at 13:56
  • 1
    Well, including service (now clarified in my question explicitly) I spent 41%. That indeed seems to be much less than what my tenure-track colleagues spend, and also far more than seems reasonable. For example, I spent more time on writing to justify expenditures, hiring, travel, equipment storage, safety, etc... last month than I did writing and revising papers. – Industrademic Apr 19 '19 at 3:28
  • 3
    What is your lab manager doing? – Anonymous Physicist Apr 19 '19 at 3:42
  • 2
    I do not know whether the US ever had the tradition of secretarial staff for regular faculty — Yes. At least for some tasks in some departments at some universities, we still do. (But I can't imagine asking a staff member to write a letter or a progress report or space request for me; how would they know what to write?) – JeffE Apr 19 '19 at 13:05

Learn to say "NO" (especially to people that do not decide about your tenure)

It is discussed in length here and here but these are my favourite points:

  • Short and simple answers like "Thanks for coming to me but I’m afraid it’s not convenient/possible right now" or "I’m sorry but I can’t help with this (at the moment)". Don't start to write endless time-eating apologies.
  • Avoid feeling guilty about saying "no".
  • Interrupt the "yes"-cycle using phrases like "I'll get back to you" - you might not hear from them again if it was not that important after all (which is the case for very many things). My ex-boss did this on a master level: we would only answer requests from people lower in the food chain if the requests were already reminders - the original request was ignored straight away. (I personally think that this is a bit over the top but it worked for him (post-tenure)).

Complicated mess, I guess. As an untenured faculty member you should first analyze what you need to do to get tenure. If the meetings and paper work are getting in the way, you can go to the head/chair of your department and discuss the issue. You may be able to negotiate a temporary release from some duties so that you can focus on what is important right now. Most places it is the research that is most important, but in some, your distribution might even be seen as advantaging you. I can't answer that from this distance, but you probably can.

However, after you obtain tenure, I have two thoughts for you. One is to never volunteer for any bureaucratic task. Never. If your complaint is valid, this may be a way out, even though you can't avoid it all.

But, there is a tradeoff. If you don't contribute to the bureaucratic aspects of academia you are at the mercy of others who do contribute and are then subject to policies driven by their ideas and not your own. If you completely trust those other people, as I was able to do in my final position, then all is well. But if you think of them as incompetent (some of my earlier positions) then it is sub-optimal and you may need to work to drive the policies yourself.

Academia is a complex place. There is more to it than research. Lucky are those who can ignore aspects that don't appeal to them.

  • Actually, what you describe I have tagged as 'service, and I feel at 8% it is well under control, This is specifically because of a discussion with my chair upon hire. What I was not ready for was the pages a month of writing to justify sand facilitate expenditures, hiring, travel, equipment storage, safety, etc... I never before truly understood the vast seemingly redundant middle management that needs always one more thing from faculty. My small lab (12 staff, 3 students), with 40 hours a week lab management to help,still requires I spend 12 hours+ a week on just this. – Industrademic Apr 19 '19 at 3:35
  • 3
    cheers to 'Lucky are those who can ignore aspects that don't appeal to them'. – Prof. Santa Claus Apr 19 '19 at 9:55
  • @Prof.SantaClaus, I was also thinking of calling out this excellent line. Indeed, my goal is to become this. – Industrademic Apr 20 '19 at 8:13

Honestly speaking, sometimes there is no way out of these duties. When I entered academia, I also thought that it is all research and teaching, but soon learned that it is only a part of it, and sometimes, not even the biggest one. Other part includes politics and bureaucracy. In your early tenure years, your best bet would be to talk to the head and negotiate for complete or partial relaxation. However, if these were the things you agreed to during your hiring then this might be tricky. Another strategy would be to hire a full-time or part-time lab manager/administrator to handle paperwork regarding expenditures, hiring, travel, equipment storage, safety etc (things you mentioned). But you mentioned you already hired one, so maybe you need to talk to your manager to distribute duties.

  • 1
    I think the sheer volume and uselessness is what surprises me. For example, I give talk. A company that funds my lab offers to pay for travel. I say 'likely sure', then bat an email to my contracting folks asking how to do that. Seventeen emails later the lawyers are involved, and the sponsor sends me a kind, backchannel email suggesting it's just too much trouble. I agree and pay my own way. Another ten or so emails debate what to do about the aborted process. Conflict of interest is invoked by some unkind individual, and they would like to have a statement of work. And so on... – Industrademic Apr 20 '19 at 8:18
  • @Industrademic That reminds of me this Feynman story. – Anyon Apr 24 '19 at 17:48

Likely you cannot get rid of all of the paperwork and bureaucratic activities. But, you can control how you use your time.

My suggestion, learn how to maximize your time. Personally, I suggest reading Cal Newport's book, Deep Work. He provides case studies of how professors can maximize their time and impact. Some tips he provides include:

  • Batch scheduling (e.g., creating uninterrupted time for research, answer emails in batches, even batch teaching all courses in one semester if possible).
  • Saying No (as mentioned in other answers). This includes limiting your outside engagement and travel.
  • Being digitally disconnected and more engaged with what you are doing.
  • Do not respond to emails that are not critical.
  • Follow Tim Ferriss's advice: in order to do the big things, you have to let the small bad things happen.
  • 1
    The Ferriss advice hits home: I do have a detail-oriented approach that can lead to me getting lost in preventing all the small things while letting the big ones slip. – Industrademic Apr 25 '19 at 3:56

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.