How to stay afloat during a particularly hard semester

Eva Lantsoght
4 aug ’16

I now have been in universities for the last 12 years, and employed as an academic for the last 7 years. And somehow I've come to the understanding that the Flying Spaghettimonster has the ability to make all difficult things come together in a Semester of Doom. His noodly highness pulls the strings of academia, and seems to enjoy observing whether we'll sink or swim in a particularly hard semester.

Spaghettimonsters and pirates aside, today I want to give you some tips on how to stay afloat during a Semester of Doom. The kind of semester in which you need to teach three new courses and start a new lab, or when you need to set up one new class and get all the paper deadlines and your research has deadlines but your finite element software gives every possible license error under the sun? Been there, done that, didn't even get a T-shirt for it.

I could be brief in discussing this topic: the key is in planning and time management (gnagnagna), and, on a similar note, making sure you don't crash and burn. Getting sick in the 6th week of the semester never got you to the end of the semester in style. So here are my best tips for avoiding to become like the owl in the famous meme:

1. Make a list of what you need to do

Feeling overwhelmed by all your tasks? Write them out in a list. Before every semester, I make an overview in my notebook of my responsibilities for the upcoming semester, in the following categories:

research projects
papers to write
teaching responsibilities
committee work
conferences to attend

Next to each task I write (in pencil, so I can erase and roll with the punches) in which weeks of the semester I will need to work on that task. Some tasks, like bigger research projects, will take an entire semester.

2. Prioritize

If it's all too much, see what you *really* need to get done this semester, and what you can shuttle over to the (near?) future. I'm bringing up the urgent-important matrix here again:

Obviously, the urgent tasks are the ones that will have deadlines, and that you can't postpone to a later time. However, don't let your important - not urgent tasks fall behind, because doing so will cost you in the long run.

3. Don't postpone writing

Talking about important - not urgent tasks: your first submission to a journal does not have a deadline (unless you are participating in a special issue). That does not mean you should postpone writing altogether to another semester. Try to schedule time for writing frequently, try to move your manuscripts forward. Slow but steady will get you there. Set a goal for yourself, and stick to it: an hour a day, 750 words a day, two hours in three blocks during the week, every Friday afternoon - make sure your goal is not just "I will write", but measurable, regular and attainable.

4. Schedule

Develop a blueprint for the weeks of your semester. I've written about my experiments with schedules: from my ambitious attempts in my first semester of teaching, to a more open schedule in the next semester, and my observations on why rigid scheduling can conflict with the creative nature of scientific work. Similar musing and an even more open schedule is what Dr. Pacheco-Vega recommends.

In general, if you commit to tasks you will work on, try to identify how many hours a week you will spend on these tasks. Put blocks for these in your schedule, and build in buffer. If you put 2 hours for writing, know that this timeslot will be easily reduced to 1,5 of effective writing, when you factor in all kinds of smaller disturbances. And that's OK - you're not a robot. Schedule in 1 - 2 hours every day for email and admin. All in all, in an 8 hour working day, you can schedule maximum maximum 6 hours of core tasks.

If you see you won't be able to make it, not even if you throw in 55 hours of productive work a week, go back to step 2, and see what you can postpone to the future.

5. Streamline processes

Automatization is your best friend. Set up spreadsheets to facilitate grading. Code scripts for processes you carry out often. Process email in a quick way: either reply right away, or schedule time to take care of a certain task. Process email and admin tasks during a set timeslot during the day. Silence your phone during a number of timeslots. Plan your meals, prep meals and batch cook.

6. Renegotiate tasks

If your schedule shows you can't possibly deliver on all your commitments, go talk to your PI or dean and tell them you are overloaded. Most of us in academia really love our job and research, and don't even feel it when we work long days - but at the end of the day, you're paid for 36 /38/40 hours (whatever is the legal maximum in your country) of work. If you really need to put much more time and effort, you have too much on your plate and/or are seriously underpaid.

An option is to shed administrative tasks to colleagues or supporting personnel (having professors fill out too much administrative documents which your secretary could fill out too is bad for university - imagine the extra paper you could write in a semester if you could shove off the standard administrative procedures!).

7. Get support from students or colleagues

If there is a lot of research work to be done on a project, see if you can enlist a MSc student for a thesis project. See if your colleagues can take some more tasks related to governing your department while you try to survive this semester. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Yes, there will always be Haters who start talking behind your back that you were simply not able to get everything done because you're not smart/good/supercalifragilisticexpialidocious enough. Haters are gonna hate, potatoes are gonna potate - and you need to get through the mud without losing your boots.

8. Find joy

If your semester is extremely loaded, it's easy to fall in the trap of starting to just count down the weeks, hold your breath and wait for the torture to be over. Don't do this - try to find joy in small things instead. Try to take at least one day a week off (for me, that's usually my Saturday, which is reserved for crossfit, groceries, cooking, sometimes a restaurant visit or party, music, gaming, reading, long skype talks, and more fun stuff - whatever I feel like).

Find joy in the small things: a good espresso during a break, a piece of chocolate while grading, an evening of reading, grading from home with a cat chasing your pen, ...

9. Stay healthy

Every action you take that is Good for You is like putting some money in your savings account to guard you for the future. Don't let exercise, eating well, and sleep slide to the side. These are not things you can postpone to another semester. Simple meals and batch cooking can get you a long way in the eating well department. Put exercise in your schedule. Try to have a cut-off time every night for work.

10. Find a routine and eliminate choices

With a schedule for work, some easy (but yummy) recipes to rely on for healthy food and an exercise routine you can stick to, you will find a routine. During my research stays in Delft, I need to squeeze in pretty much all my research of a year into 1 - 2 months. For that short period of time, I live a simple, yet enjoyable routine.

Work from 7:30 am to 6:20 pm
Training from 7 pm - 8 pm
home at 8:30 pm for cooking and preparing my food for the next day
9:30 pm - 10:30 pm for blogging or replying personal mails
One weekend off to visit family in Belgium, one weekend on (work both days)

While such a routine is extremely regimented and intense, it keeps me afloat for the short time that I am enjoying my research stay, and makes sure I eat well, exercise, sleep enough, and, of course, get as much work done as possible.

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