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You would think that profs are living the high life when lectures are over and all they have to do is to hand out the exam (in a couple weeks) and grade them. But when I tried to get a hold of the profs, they seem to be busier than ever. One prof even stopped holding office hours all together and handed those duties to the TAs.

What do profs usually do after all lectures has stopped, and in general, when are profs most free in terms of their faculty duties during a semester?

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    Academics are often the sort of person who will go looking for work to do and have no interest in the "high life." – Anonymous Physicist Dec 7 '14 at 4:44
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    As the answers below will tell you, teaching is about 1/3 of the job of a professor, with the other 2/3 being research and service. You can't skimp on those, either. That's why they say, "Publish or perish." To answer the other part of your question, where I teach faculty are least snowed under just after midterms. The start of a term is awful and the end is worse. – Bob Brown Dec 7 '14 at 13:10
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The end of the semester particularly the period between the end of lectures and when students finally leave campus (which may be well after you've submitted grades) can be the busiest part of the semester because that's when you spend a lot of time dealing individually with students that have questions, complaints, or problems. The reason that this is so time consuming is that there are typically lots of these students, and each complaining student can easily take an hour out of your day.

Meanwhile you may also be grading a lot of term papers or student projects and you're also busy writing, proctoring, and grading final exams.

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  • Research and service commitments tend to continue year round- my answer is really about the intensity of teaching related work at the end of the semester. – Brian Borchers Dec 7 '14 at 5:35
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    True, although some service commitments have peaks at certain times of the year (e.g. admissions). – J W Dec 7 '14 at 6:02
  • +1, and that is assuming that there is a time "when students (...) leave campus" at all. – O. R. Mapper Dec 7 '14 at 10:24
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It varies from university to university and from academic to academic, but here are some of the things that can keep professors/lecturers busy, apart from lectures and exams:

  • Doing research
  • Serving on committees
  • Preparing for the next course/semester
  • Advising/supervising students
  • Catching up on missed work

Moreover, grading exams can be very time consuming in itself.

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  • 3
    Also, attending conferences/visiting collaborators. – Jessica B Dec 7 '14 at 7:24
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    Following the question, which of these tend to peak at the end of the semester? For me: all five, but especially the second, fourth, and fifth. Committees try to get in one last meeting; students have individual issues that require attention; things like refereeing that were due during the semester finally have a chance to be finished. – Oswald Veblen Dec 7 '14 at 13:07
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  • Not before the exams, because they will be busy preparing exam questions.
  • Not during the exams, because they will be dealing with exam logistics such as finding an exam room and students who ask last minute questions.
  • Not after the exams, because they will need to grade the exams.
  • Not after grades are announced, because many students will be trying to complain about their grade.
  • Not before the end of the semester, since they will be assigning letter grades and responding to students who want to get a better grade.
  • Not at the beginning of the school year or other times when prospective graduate students are looking for an advisor.
  • Not on holiday breaks, since they will likely be busy with the holiday.
  • Not in the middle of summer, since they may have decided to use the free time to get a lot of traveling to conferences done.
  • Not in fall since that's when a lot of grant deadlines are due.
  • Not in late spring/early summer/late summer, since that's the most common time thesis defenses are done.

Generally, I don't think you can expect to find any specific time that professors are reliably found to be more available. There are usually many, many people competing for a professor's time, and together they comprise a very efficient market. If it is ever noticed that a given professor tends to be free around a certain time, everyone will immediately prioritize that time, hoping to catch the professor free, and thereby destroying the availability.

Many professors have brief, transient periods of being less busy than usual, but these are chaotically distributed in time and impossible to easily predict without careful analysis of the professor in question. Unless you regularly interact with a professor, your best bet is to just ask them when they are free.

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Last year, Eszter Hargittai published an essay in Inside Higher Ed titled "How I spent Summer 'Vacation'" that provides a nearly comprehensive account of what professors do during their non-teaching time.

A very incomplete list of things that Professor Hargittai mentions that she did over a single summer "vacation" include:

Teaching and Mentoring: syllabus design; assignment and exam preparation; reading recently published materials in an area to be covered by a class; advising students on independent work; reading and commenting on drafts of papers, dissertations, etc; converting student from incomplete; discussing graduate school with potential applications; designing and conducting general examinations; conducting dissertation proposal defenses; conducting dissertation defenses; preparing for any/all of the above.

Research: IRB proposal creation and revision; catching up on the literature in one's field; collecting data; analyzing data; writing up papers; responding to reviews; writing book proposals; courting editors at presses; recommending reviewers; traveling to and attending conferences; organizing logistics for travel to conferences; preparing presentations for conferences; designing and writing grant proposals; reviewing grant proposals; interviewing and hiring research staff.

Service: researching or writing letters of recommendation; writing tenure letters; preparing tenure/promotion files; writing reviews; acting as an editor or associate editor for a journal or conference; miscellaneous work on committees including reading graduate applications, designing department wide curriculum, creating job descriptions for new faculty positions.

All of these things are much harder, or even impossible, to do when classes are in session.

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  • Thanks for the link to Hargittai's essay; I've just put a link to it on my school home page. – Bob Brown Dec 7 '14 at 17:24
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Oh, they are busy... Let me give you an insight to my professor's and my own schedule (I'm lecturer, not yet regular professor as I am still lacking the habilitation thesis).

We have a short meeting every working day at 7.30 to organise the daily business and schedule big meetings for big issues.

After that there is always enough to do: Those who lecture always have something to prepare: Writing or correcting scripts, correcting theseis and exams, preparing slides, organising participants for congresses (or participate themselves) and prepare talks for such events. Many professors and lecturers also hold talks outside of university, so there's also this stuff to prepare.

Then there are commitees. Mine has to organise a major congress in March 2015, we are already very busy now: Contacting possible participants, reading through all the literature the participants wrote on the topic, preparing our own papers and talks in response to it, etc.

My working day starts at 7.30 and normally doesn't end before 7 to 8PM. Just yesterday I attended a congress from another commitee and including the dinner (where you also keep discussing) I spend my saturday at university from 7 in the morning until 11pm...

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