A brief guide to a full professor’s administrative work

Administrative and service work is the black hole that consumes a huge proportion of our working time but is pretty much invisible to everyone else. Typically, postdocs only get a small taste of it when they write their first grant applications. Assistant professors tend to have limited service assignments. Then you get promoted to associate and then full professor, start supervising graduate students, become better known in the community so there is more demand for your time, and administrative work starts creeping up on you until you almost function like a small business. That’s how it felt to me, anyway, and I’ve found in talking with actual small business owners that we do have a lot in common.

I’m writing this mostly for students and postdocs contemplating an academic career, just so they know what they’re getting into. It’s not all about working quietly in your office, sheltered from the business realities of “real life”. If that’s what you expect, be warned that you might not get it. If on the other hand you enjoy working with people and find the gloomy ivory tower cliches unappealing, I can reassure you that they bear no resemblance to my own work.

Before someone gets on the “LOL professors complain” soapbox: I do a lot of this work on a voluntary basis. I enjoy much of it. That doesn’t mean that we can’t talk about how easily “research-related activities” can drive out actual research if we let them, or what we do to maintain a balance. Nor does it have to stop us from speculating on how the system might evolve and which way we would like to push it.

Service to the department and the university. This includes mandatory service on departmental and university committees, attending faculty meetings, undergraduate advising, interviewing job candidates, reading and evaluating graduate applications, various kinds of reporting, and more. Some committee assignments are light; others carry a heavy workload, for example the hiring committee reads and evaluates hundreds of job applications. One departmental calculation estimates this part of a full professor’s workload as roughly equivalent to teaching one course.

Applying for research grants. I’m going to restrict this one to Canadian mathematics; other countries and disciplines of science will have other funding systems. Our main source of funding is NSERC Discovery Grants, for which we apply every 5 years. This is the money that pays the research stipends for our graduate students and postdocs, our travel expenses and other similar items. (Unlike in the U.S., we cannot use our grants to pay ourselves a summer salary.) Once in a while, we apply for funding (from NSERC or other agencies) for a specific purpose, e.g. equipment grants or support for conferences. We sponsor our students and postdocs for various awards. We may also be asked to support grant applications on behalf of institutions (in 2006/07, I was a co-applicant on the Fields Institute application for NSERC funding).

If you are interested to find out more about the NSERC application process, here is the information page for applicants for NSERC Discovery Grants. NSERC, unlike NSF, does not estimate the time required to complete the application, from collection of information (e.g. looking up the current positions of our past students and postdocs) to actually thinking about our research plans, but the corresponding number at NSF is 120 hours. The NSERC average is probably similar or higher.

For an especially work-intensive example, here is the guide to applying for a Banting postdoctoral fellowship. (I have not sponsored a Banting application, but I have served on a committee to screen them.) A Banting application is a joint project between the applicant, the proposed supervisor and the host institution, with the supervisor preparing some of the documents and presumably helping out with the rest. The institutional part alone (in practice, written by the supervisor and then edited in consultation with the research office) includes “Institutional Synergy and Letter of Endorsement”, “Supervisor’s Statement”, “Research Environment”, and “Professional Development”, addressing criteria such as “Describe the institution’s documented strategic directions and illustrate the synergy between that strategy and the applicant’s proposed research program”. (Remember that we’re talking about postdocs, not distinguished research chairs.) And that’s for an award where the chances of success are infinitesimal: there are only 70 Banting fellowships awarded each year, for all of Canada, in all fields of science.

Having postdocs and graduate students. I love working with postdocs and students, but it does add to the administrative load. This includes making postdoc offers, balancing the budget and making sure that everyone gets paid, writing letters of recommendation, helping out with proposals and applications, candidacy exams, final doctoral exams (including logistics and paperwork), advising students on administrative matters, and so on.

Not all of it is straightforward. My current postdoc is supported by a combination of an NSF postdoctoral fellowship, NSERC grant money, and teaching. It took about 3 workdays just to work out the logistics of the appointment so that it would be acceptable to everyone and compatible with each agency’s requirements. (That would be the actual time spent on it. The whole process was spread out over 2 weeks or so, including an email exchange with NSERC.) There is a staff member who helps with this, but we still end up having to know arcane rules such as where the funds for a postdoc’s benefits (extended health etc.) can come from depending on how much of their salary is processed through UBC payroll. Didn’t think that this was part of a research job? Sorry.

Then there are times when things aren’t moving as smoothly as they should. Students and postdocs have families, health problems, personal circumstances. Some don’t do well in the program, for various reasons. Some want to reconcile graduate school with exploring other options. We can’t sort out their personal issues, but we do have to look up policies on leaves, deferments and conditional admissions.

Service to the community: organizing conferences and institute programs (including applying for funding), editorial appointments, refereeing papers, service on grant selection panels and award committees, assessing promotion and tenure cases at other institutions, etc.

This is generally done on a voluntary basis and we can decline any particular request if we don’t have the time. Nonetheless, we are expected to pull our weight overall, and there are consequences if we keep turning down everything. Promotion and tenure committees expect to see some level of activity on the national and international scene. If you expect your own papers to get refereed and published, or your grant proposals to get reviewed, you owe it to the community to do a proportional share of refereeing. Some assignments (editorial appointments, membership on award selection committees or institute boards, etc.) are also considered to be marks of professional recognition, so that your willingness to do it (or not) reflects on other aspects of your career, from merit salary increases to the quality of the graduate and postdoctoral candidates you can attract.

There are many reasons why you may want to support and promote your area of research, for example by organizing conferences or summer schools. In the long run, it contributes to having a healthy and supportive community, encourages young researchers to enter the area, and makes them feel welcome once they’re there.

Also, this is often the most interesting and educational part of admin work. A standard invitation to serve on a grant selection panel usually says something along these lines (actual quote):

By participating in this panel you will have the opportunity to influence and shape current research in these areas. Many panelists have also found that their panel experience has provided them with new perspectives and exposure to recent developments on a variety of topics close to their own research interests.

… and this is actually true. You can learn a lot from serving on panels, award selection committees, meeting program committees, and other similar bodies. Organizing a successful conference or program can inspire a sense of accomplishment, of having done something for a group of people that you care about.

It does take time, though. Refereeing can be quite time-consuming, given that some papers can take weeks to read and understand. (On the other hand, I would not referee one of those unless I had research-related reasons to read them anyway.) Organizing a CMS or AMS meeting session is relatively simple: you are only responsible for choosing the speakers, inviting them, forwarding meeting information to them, and coordinating the schedule. Other conferences can get more complicated, especially when it involves funding applications.

Organizing institute programs should really be in its own special category. I organized the 6-month Fields Institute thematic program on harmonic analysis in Winter 2008. This was a long process that started back in January 2005 (no, not a typo) and involved multiple proposals and funding applications, postdoctoral offers coordinated with several universities, course buyouts, long-term and short-term visitors, graduate courses, distinguished lectures, two workshops and a major conference. I had a 1-course buyout from Fields to attend the program, but the total amount of work involved was far greater than that (probably the equivalent of 2-3 courses spread over the 3.5-year period), not that I regret any of it. I’m not going to try to actually calculate it (too much work), but in case you’re interested, I still have several mail folders with a total of 894 1078 program-related emails. (I missed a couple of folders the first time I counted.) I have no idea how many I’ve deleted.

My own service workload. For those curious how much this adds up to and how it breaks down, I’ve tried to estimate how much time I have spent on administrative activities in 2011, and this is what I came up with.

  • NSERC Discovery Grant proposal: 120 hours. (The official NSF estimate; looks about right to me.)
  • Chairing the Putnam committee: 120 hours. (Preparing my proposed problems and solutions, solving and ranking problems proposed by other committee members, compiling the rankings, organizing and attending the committee meeting, proofreading problems and solutions, various correspondence.)
  • Departmental graduate affairs committee: 70 hours. (More than half of that time was spent on graduate admissions and ranking of scholarship applications.)
  • Administrative work on behalf of students and postdocs: 70 hours. (Arranging a postdoc offer, one student’s graduation, financial support issues, providing advice on administrative matters, and more. Letters of recommendation are included in a separate category.)
  • Editorial work and refereeing: 60 hours.
  • Letters of recommendation: 45 hours. (Includes evaluations for promotion, tenure and senior appointments.)
  • Promotion and tenure cases in the department: 20 hours. (Attendance at faculty meetings, service on promotion and reappointment committees.)
  • Undergraduate advising: 20 hours. (Answering email questions, some meetings in person.)
  • Banting screening committee: 15 hours.
  • Miscellaneous: 50 hours. (Faculty meetings not included above, organizing the harmonic analysis seminar, making arrangements for research visitors, updating individual and group webpages, faculty mentoring, AMS Current Events Bulletin committee, miscellaneous email and correspondence, probably other things I’m forgetting about.)

This adds up to 590 hours, or 14.75 40-hour weeks, or about 3.5 months of working a full-time job.

I came up with these numbers by trying to remember at least the main items in each category, recalling how much time they took, and estimating how long it would take me to get through all of them in one stretch. In reality, some items were in fact done in long blocks of time (NSERC, solving and ranking Putnam problems, ranking graduate scholarship applications), but most of it was done in small increments throughout the year. I wanted to have an actual number assigned to each category, rather than a range. I also (obviously) rounded up the numbers, some upward and some down. Overall, I have tried to stay on the conservative side.

This is an estimate of how long it took me to do this work. It’s quite possible, for example, that the Putnam assignment would have been less time-consuming for someone who coaches a Putnam team and is better versed in the contest lore. On the other hand, I try not to cut corners, especially with things like grant proposals, recommendation letters, or opinions on tenure cases. (Technically, I suppose it would be possible to “complete” the NSERC forms in 2 days or so, not that it would get me any grant money.)

The estimates also include the “learning time” – whenever we do something we haven’t done before, which is often, we have to spend some time learning the procedures, policies and regulations, and finding out how it actually works in practice. It helps to have a colleague or staff member who has done the same thing before, but we can’t generally count on that. In my case, I was the only active harmonic analyst in the department for 6 years, and I’m still the only full professor in the group, so I’ve had to figure out a lot of it on my own (and still do). It does get easier when you do the same thing the second time around.

This is fairly representative of my administrative workload in recent years. The two main items, NSERC and Putnam, are not annual occurrences. The Putnam committee was a 3-year assignment (2 years as member, 1 year as chair) that has just ended, and NSERC applications are made every 5 years. On the other hand, last year I did not organize any conferences or institute programs, or serve on funding panels or award selection committees, all of which I have done in the past. I also had fewer letters of recommendation to write than in previous years, and I had to decline most refereeing requests due to the Putnam and NSERC workload.

We’ll be talking more about it later: how it interacts with our research and teaching, how much is enough, what could be cut (realistically or not). For now, I’ll just leave it there for information purposes.

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4 responses to “A brief guide to a full professor’s administrative work

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  2. mpawliuk

    Very informative! Although I can’t tell if this is supposed to be depressing or not. I got a bit sick around the line “And that’s for an award where the chances of success are infinitesimal: there are only 70 Banting fellowships awarded each year, for all of Canada, in all fields of science.”

    (I stumbled onto this post after reading your post on gender imbalance in MO. I’m a graduate student at the University of Toronto.)

  3. It can be depressing sometimes. I have learned to be selective about submitting proposals and applications: if the workload is too high relative to the chances of actually getting something out of it, I’d rather pass. Otherwise I’d have no time left for actual research.

  4. Pingback: La gestión: quien reparte se queda la mejor parte « Blog de Alex Moretó, un lugar para disfrutar aprendiendo matemáticas