Ask us anything: allocating your time

Recently, we invited you to ask us anything. Today’s question is from Marco Mello: In North American universities, how much time do you allocate on average to research, teaching, mentoring, outreach, and service?

Jeremy’s answer:

Officially, my time allocation is the common 40:40:20 research:teaching:service split that Brian describes below.

In reality, I don’t know how I allocate my time because I don’t track my time. If you don’t, you almost certainly have a very mistaken idea of how you allocate your time.

I do know that I do basically no outreach. I don’t think of this blog as “outreach” because it’s aimed at my fellow academic ecologists.

Here are some data and humorous commentary on how professors spend their time (and how they and their employers wish they would spend their time).

Here’s Meghan’s old post with strategies and reasons for being more productive in fewer hours.

Brian’s answer:

Most faculty jobs in North America come with an official allocation across your exact four categories: teaching, research, service and outreach. So technically the allocation is not your choice but specified in your job description. The most typical is 40% teaching, 40% research, and 20% service,0% formally for outreach  (although there is an increasing expectation to do some outreach but it amounts to an occasional talk and doesn’t have a formal allocation). Here at UMaine we call it 50% teaching/50% research, and then somehow recognize that service is important too, but its basically equivalent to the 40/40/20 job. Individuals may have 75% or even 100% research appointments as well (especially if they are part of a research center). You can also have faculty that are 75%-100% teaching (and these can be either tenure track but over time evolved into excelling at teaching or they can be hired as the rapidly growing position of instructor or lecturer who are tenure track or at least guaranteed contract and usually part of departmental life – e.g. faculty meetings – but 100% teaching focused from the beginning). And at land grant universities some individuals have an allocation from 20%-100% towards outreach (land grant universities have a whole branch called “extension” of individuals who are all outreach and research and graduate teaching). This is typically quite intensive outreach – attending farmer conferences or what not, not just a couple of public talks. So the allocation varies a lot in a formal way. Ideally, things like tenure start with knowing your allocations and evaluate accordingly. I have to say I really like this system. It is not one size fits all. It lets departments play to individual strengths and focuses on total group success of the department by mixing and matching the strengths of individuals. And best of it formally makes all types of contribution on a level playing field.

Now, as to how those official allocations actually play out, as Jeremy says nobody knows for sure without keeping a log book (I would say you’d have to keep it for a year which is not going to happen). And it certainly varies by department. At a research university 50% (or 40%)  teaching in a humanities department probably looks like 2-4 courses per semester, while in most research universities a 40%/50% teaching appointment in the sciences looks like 2-2.5 classes per YEAR. And then of course that still leaves variance of how real time (say 40 hours/week) is allocated. It is certainly not constant per week. Some weeks are teaching heavy and some weeks are research heavy (even in North America where classes meet weekly for 15 weeks or so – the European system uses block teaching which are much more concentrated periods of teaching most or all of a day for a few weeks).

But if I had to guess, a 40% teaching/40% research/20% service appointment actually comes out close to accurate averaged over an entire year (i.e. 16 hours teaching, 16 hours research, 8 hours service and outreach). For myself I concentrate my teaching in one semester which then, including graduate teaching, takes up a good 70-80% of my week, squeeze in service, leaving just a few windows to move along papers already in progress. And then the other semester I focus on research and travel (which is almost all research related). And then I get a good 80% on research with most of the rest on graduate teaching and service. But it balances out across two semesters. If any number is far off, it is probably the 20% service/outreach which might be a bit higher than reality. Although there is also a career trajectory component. As one becomes more senior, I have found I get a bit more efficient on my teaching (equal quality with less time) but have even more service expectations. Of course in the US professors are paid only for 9 months so what happens in the summer is a whole different accounting (mostly research and some vacation for most faculty).

7 thoughts on “Ask us anything: allocating your time

  1. Thank you very much for answering my question with a whole new post! 😁 It’s quite interesting to see how your systems work in North America. Here in Brazil time allocation varies a lot, depending on where your work: federal, state, or private university. There is no formal agreement, like the 40:40:20 you mentioned. In most public universities, the contract states three points: (i) the career has five pillars (teaching, research, mentoring, extension, and service), (ii) you are obliged to teach, help in service from time to time, and then add one of the other pillars to your agenda (but the best rewards go to research); and (iii) you need to teach a minimum of 8 hours a week in the classroom per semester (some people teach 20 hours!), unless you serve in a higher bureaucratic position, such as department head or graduate school coordinator. And extension (outreach) here means anything that reaches out of your university, from environmental consulting to participation in civil organizations, assistance to science journalists, or blogging, for instance. In conclusion, we are expected to do a myriad of things and excel in research, although most of our time is consumed by a huge teaching load.

  2. Workload allocation varies enormously in the UK and some universities (my own included) have tried to implement a workload model that breaks all tasks down into approximate hours which then need to add up to 550 hours of teaching time per year. Allowance is made for being a programme or module leader, etc. Some of the time allocation is far removed from reality (e.g. hours for PhD student supervision). It’s never really worked and does not reflect the number of hours needed to get the job done but it’s the sort of thing that Deans and senior managers love to discuss in meetings.

  3. Brian, I’ve just re-read this sentence: “Of course in the US professors are paid only for 9 months […]”. How come? How does it work for you? I cannot even fathom that…

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