Academic Skills

Juggling research and teaching obligations

Teaching is a common task for postgraduate students. Due to its interactive nature and more defined tasks, it is easy to prioritise teaching over research. Carving out time for research during busy teaching periods is never easy. However, there are a few things that can help you to juggle better between the two.

Teaching as a postgraduate student

Many PhD students, but also master’s students, teach next to their education. As a part-time job. As part of their employment contract. Or simply to make a living.

Teaching is time-consuming and can eat up much of your energy. Strategies to deal with procrastination are just one part of the solution. When it comes to teaching deadlines, there is a high sense of urgency. After all, you will be the one who has to stand in front of a class the next morning, so you better be prepared…

The result? Teaching deadlines tend to get priority. Research-related tasks, which are often more intangible, are easier to neglect. Tackling your teaching load involves concrete steps and a to-do list. On the other hand, when conducting research, you might feel like you are going in all directions. Without any concrete results (and with the corresponding frustration and feeling of a lack of accomplishment) at the end of the day.

While juggling demands and priorities takes a lifetime of practice, there are a few ways to carve out some valuable – and necessary (!) – time for research, even in busy teaching periods.

Be realistic about time planning

Unfortunately, there are just 24 hours in a day. Teaching obligations often come in bulk and are unevenly distributed over an academic year. And inevitably, with a high teaching load, some other activities will suffer.

At the same time, beware of working nights and weekends for an extended period, to make up for the lack of research time during the day. It is not a good long-term approach to energy management in academia and will backfire eventually.

It can be hard to acknowledge that during hectic teaching periods, less progress can be made on research. But: Realistic planning is often better than constant disappointment when you cannot meet your own goals.

You are only human. Don’t set unrealistic expectations for yourself!

Figure out when you work best

Most people have a ‘prime time’ of productivity. Self-awareness in this respect can help. I work best from around 10 am to 1 pm. This is the time I can concentrate well and tackle difficult tasks. If you have one hour a day to spend on writing your thesis, it is sensible to do so during the time in which your performance generally peaks.

Repetitive grading, for example, does require concentration. However, I realised that I can also do this in the afternoon (when my brain is not capable of producing academic writing and figuring out complex relations anymore).

Awareness not only about your day but also the week is important. Imagine you have to teach on Tuesdays and Fridays:

  • If you get nervous about teaching, and tend to over-prepare, it does not make much sense to schedule a time to work on your thesis on Monday and Wednesday afternoons. Even if you already prepared your classes for the next day.

  • Acknowledge that you wouldn’t be able to focus on research anyways, and would just end up scrolling the internet. Give yourself the time to focus on preparing for the next day.

  • Instead, block for instance Wednesdays as pure research days. On this day, don’t do any grading. Don’t answer any student emails (or even better, don’t open your email inbox at all). Simply focus on reading and writing.

  • Additionally, you could also block 2.5 hours on Monday and Wednesday mornings. Combined, these blocks of uninterrupted research time will add up and help you to make progress on your research.

Keep track of how you spend your time

You might now think: “I’m doing all of this, but I am still struggling to keep my head above water.” And I hear you. The problem with many university teaching activities is that way too little time is provided for tasks. So you might get paid for 20 hours, but in reality, you work at least 30.

Having difficult conversations with either your supervisor or your teaching coordinator is never pleasant. Especially when you are in a precarious employment situation. However, there comes a time when these discussions are inevitable.

I suggest keeping a log of your working hours for several weeks, before making a move. This will provide ‘data’ and also insight into what teaching activities eat up most of your time or much more time than is designated.

Maybe you realise that you are doing fine time-wise when it comes to grading, but that individual supervision takes three times longer than you are being paid for. Based on these insights, you can discuss your tasks. You can also brainstorm about concrete ways to reduce time on, for example, individual supervision. For instance by mainstreaming certain processes or by having group meetings instead of individual ones.

Team up with a colleague

Teaming up with a colleague can take on different dimensions. For instance, it is always good to have an accountability partner. Or several accountability partners. Collaboration with colleagues within your thesis project – be it formal or informal – can be encouraging, hold you accountable to make progress on your research, and help you to finish your project in time.

Teaming up with a colleague for teaching can also be helpful. For instance, many courses have several lecturers who teach the same seminar groups in addition to plenary lectures. If you get along with the other lecturers responsible for these seminars, it does make sense to develop the seminar material together. No need to reinvent the wheel.

However, caution is also advised here. Depending on the course, your colleagues, and your personality, collaborating extensively on teaching tasks can also make your life more difficult. Think of many meetings, endless discussions and disagreements in content and teaching style. So, evaluate the situation carefully before suggesting to collaborate. Keep in mind that your ultimate objective is to reduce your workload!

And lastly, if you have colleagues who are equally overburdened with teaching obligations, it can help to join forces when addressing the issue with your supervisor/s. Many departments and faculty also have councils or unions that can provide extra support and advice to early career researchers who are feeling overloaded with teaching tasks.

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