practical phd

a transparent source for all things PhD

Working in a job where the most important component (at least according to most research institutions’ tenure standards) is also the least regulated by deadlines presents a challenge for creating balance.  Teaching responsibilities come with a clear schedule for preparing lectures, grading assignments, and submitting final grades.  Service assignments can also have hard deadlines even if that’s just the next committee meeting.  While research comes with deadlines for revise and resubmits, conference submissions, special calls for papers, and grant applications, a lot of research work has no hard deadline.  Without a deadline, this is the work that can get pushed to the back burner when work with deadlines gets busy.  The only way to manage this and maintain a balance is with setting boundaries.

The major challenge to setting boundaries is that you need to know what to set boundaries around.  For me, that’s been a moving target since starting my job as an Assistant Professor as I see what demands there are for my time.  Each year I seem to get different requests whether it’s adding guest lectures, external service for a professional association, or a new responsibility within my department.  

One suggestion that has helped me identify where I need to set new boundaries is reflecting on all that I’ve done at the end of each semester.  I use a set of questions I got from Mirya Holman’s MHAWS newsletter that includes reflecting on what you would change about how an accomplishment came about.  When my reflection is that something was too demanding on my time or I did too much of some task, that’s a sign that I need to set a boundary.

There are many ways to set boundaries.  The first and most obvious boundary is saying no.  This boundary is particularly helpful when you’re asked to do something “earlier” than usual in your career.  I’ve usually been able to flag when I’m being asked “too early” by talking to more senior colleagues who will help me determine whether to say yes now, say not now (but later), or just say no.

Most of the time though, I need boundaries for the kind of work I need to do some of, but can’t do all that I’m asked to do.  For these kinds of requests, one approach is to set a cap or a maximum of how much you can do.  For instance, it’s not possible to say no to all peer review requests, but I do set a cap on how much peer review I can accommodate without it taking over my research time.  One way to set this boundary is a total number per semester and saying no after you reach that limit.  Many folks set this number based on how many articles they have under review and multiplying by two or three to set a goal number of reviews to give back to the peer review process.

Another way to set boundaries though is to set limits on a set of tasks that fit together.  This semester, for example, I’ve implemented a system where I treat peer review as part of the category of work I call “reading other people’s work.”  This includes reading draft work for friends, graduate students, workshops, and peer review.  My cap right now is to only read one person’s paper a week.  So to decide whether I can accept peer review, I look at what other work I have in “reading other people’s work” to do in the time frame in which the peer review would be due and make a decision on my availability based on that.  If I accept, I assign the peer review to a specific week based on when I don’t have to read the other manuscripts.

Setting boundaries is an important part of managing to balance research, teaching, and service.  You have a variety of ways to set boundaries, so find what works for you for each of the areas in which you need to set limits and adjust your process as you need to.

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