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Academic Scientists at Work: Where'd My Day Go?

" 5:30! I hardly got anything done today," your colleague with the curly red hair shouts at you as she passes you in the hall. You think you didn't get anything done either, yet there the two of you are standing in the hall jabbering about how the day went by and nothing got done. You both complain that there was no time to finish your experiments, write your test questions, revise your hot manuscripts, meet with your advisees, help with graduate-student recruiting, design the new Web site for your department, order the food for the department poster session, and pick up the kids from soccer practice at 7:00. But, as you look around, some of your colleagues seem to have it all under control. How do they do it?

The simple answer: organization, time management, and a good tolerance for stress. If you want to accomplish what you need to accomplish each day, you need to take control of your time. This article will discuss aspects of time management and planning that are of particular use to academic scientists.

Tick, tick, tick ...

So, where did your day go? You started out with the intention of clearing off your desk and responding to the 63 e-mails that showed up overnight, then getting right to work on your projects. But when you turned on your computer, you saw the front page of The New York Times and decided to check out some of the articles. After 45 minutes of reading the Times, you started reviewing the e-mails and saw an inflammatory missive from one of your colleagues telling you (in bold letters) that your GammaZoid collector in the common lab had contaminated the space and to do something about it-- pronto. You spent the next hour writing and rewriting an equally inflammatory e-mail back to "Dr. Kleen" and another half-hour calming down from the emotional e-mail outburst.

As you went through your stack of papers on your to-do pile, you came across last week's memo from your chair requesting your updated CV. You realized that you've been shuffling this memo around different corners of your desk for a week and that the deadline was yesterday! An hour later, you had your updated--but tardy--CV and you were ready for lunch, despite the fact that you hadn't gotten into the lab all morning.

The rest of the day was eaten up by lunch off campus with your colleagues, which took up way too much time, again checking The New York Times on the Web, responding to e-mails, talking to people who walked in your open office door, and talking on the telephone to your collaborator in Italy about the wording of four sentences in your joint manuscript. Now it's 5:30, and that is where the day went!

Following are some ways to begin getting control over your time, starting with the concept of "the forest and the trees."

The forest

Before you manage your day, you need to think about managing your career. This is the forest view. The overall ("forest") goal is to be a successful scientist and teacher; if you are a junior faculty member, getting promoted with tenure should be on the list, too. To accomplish the first part of this goal, you will need to design, plan, and execute decisive experiments. Executing experiments requires money, but to get money you need to prove to your peer group that you will use the money effectively.

Thus, one of the most important tasks of your career is to write and publish manuscripts. Manuscripts provide the proof that you can do your job and achieve the goals that you set for your science. Then it starts again: With more publications, you will be able to pursue additional research grants to support your scientific ambition. It takes money to do science, and it takes good (published) science to get money. The sum total of all this coordinated effort is scholarship. In research-centric universities, scholarship is by far the most important factor for promotion and tenure. Even at many teaching-oriented schools, scholarship carries a lot of weight.

Speaking of teaching: That second goal--becoming an excellent teacher--may also be important, to you personally and to your career. To be an excellent teacher, you must be able to spend considerable effort in the design of your lectures, assignments, and exams. This takes time. Preparing tomorrow's lecture tonight may get you through the lecture, but it won't allow you to bring novel and creative approaches to the lecture hall. And it surely won't win you the teaching award.

The criteria required to keep your job, get promoted, and receive tenure must always be on your agenda. Although this seems obvious, it is easy to get caught up in all the academic service work and lose sight of this goal and what it takes to achieve it. It's easy, in other words, to lose sight of the forest because of the trees.

The trees

Whereas the forest represents the major goals in your academic life, the trees represent the incremental goals that you must complete along the way. Each manuscript that you publish, grant proposal that you submit, course that you teach, or committee that you sit on is a tree. The leaves on the trees are the actual tasks: preparing figures, writing a paper or grant proposal, preparing and delivering each lecture, meeting graduate students, providing academic advice, and so on. Some of these tasks are more important--and more time-sensitive--than others. These two characteristics--importance and time-sensitivity--are not the same and have to be kept separate. The key to time management is to prioritize.

Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize!

Do all the important stuff first, right? Sounds easy enough. But what about all those deadlines for unimportant stuff? There are four basic categories that you can use to help prioritize tasks. These categories are partitioned by their importance and timeliness in a manner described by S. R. Covey ( The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989).


Priority Category

Is It Urgent?

Is It Vital?







Not so much





Not so much






Tasks with an "urgent" designation are those that have deadlines. The "vital" designation is for items that are important to your career or personal life. The "forest" aspects of your career belong to category 1 because they are important for your career success and also have time deadlines (e.g., the tenure clock). Items in this category include meeting grant proposal deadlines, preparing your tenure review dossier, and so on. Category 2 is for the "trees"; they usually do not have immediate deadlines. Category 2 items enter category 1 as the due date approaches or passes.

For example, preparing lectures for your upcoming classes moves from a category 2 to a category 1 task as the date of class approaches, if you haven't yet finished your lecture slides, handouts, and so on. Preparing and submitting manuscripts are typically category 2 items, but they can move up if you are in competition with another lab. Category 3 items may be things like getting an order in for a reagent so that you can do the experiment this week instead of next or meeting with a salesperson about a new self-cleaning, noncontaminating GammaZoid fusion collector. Calming a lab disagreement would certainly fall on the urgent side, but its overall relation to your success is not high. However, it is important that the conflict be resolved effectively to avoid the incident from becoming a category 1 affair. The last category reflects most items that are not related directly to your success. Organizing some nonscholastic/teaching departmental event should stay in category 4 as long as you do not let the time component get in the way. In general, the goal should be to spend as much of your time as possible on vital tasks and not to let all other matters eat up your day.

Do it once

To improve your efficiency at handling routine tasks, respond right away to every request that requires a simple action or response. If the list of chores in the request is complex and multifaceted and you are not going to deal with it now, put it on your to-do list.

Splitting chores

Sometimes tasks have multiple steps that can be accomplished at different times. For example, reviewing grant proposals and research papers is a two-step process. Sometimes, it takes longer to read the proposal and write the review if it is done in the same day. Often, reading a manuscript or grant application on one day, letting it "ferment" overnight, then writing the review the next morning will allow your opinion on the matter to gel, making it easier to concisely and efficiently write your review. Also, it may be easier for your schedule to split the reading and the writing tasks rather than trying to block out an extended period of time to accomplish both.

Means of communication

Although e-mail is fast and you can do it on your own schedule, it tends to eat up lots of time. Because the e-mail is right in front of us on the computer screen, we tend to respond to it quickly. If you can't resist opening each incoming message, reset the "get my mail" feature of your computer to 1-hour increments. If this doesn't help, retrieve and answer your e-mails in the morning and late afternoon only.

Although it's not as much of a problem as it used to be, we academic scientists often find ourselves in long telephone conversations with colleagues around the world. These are enjoyable but can eat up your day. If you choose to communicate frequently on the phone rather than by e-mail, stick to business as much as possible and stay on the subject.

For example, working through a joint manuscript on the phone with a collaborator can take all day. If you are the primary writer, have your collaborator fax, express-mail, or e-mail comments to you so that you can include them in the manuscript. This way you only have to discuss those changes that you don't like. If you are the one doing the editing and your colleague is coordinating the document, send your comments to your collaborator and make the follow-up call short. Also, remember that the journal copy editor will alter stylistic changes anyway, so arguing over them early on is pointless.

Internet news

The Internet is without a doubt the greatest new source of information to come along in a very long time, maybe ever. Its news, weather, stock prices, and 24-hour shopping can also be addictive. So pace yourself. If you must read the news, do it only in the early morning or evening. Do not use a news network as your homepage. Bottom line: Stay focused. Spend as little time wandering the Internet as possible.

Lunch and the hallway

Other things that eat time are the social gatherings between colleagues. The most frequent are hallway/water-cooler/coffeemaker conversations and group lunches. Each of these venues is important in finding out what is going on in your department and what is transpiring at the upper levels of your institution. Collegiality is important in any workplace.

But, although interacting with your colleagues is important and should be a regular event--especially if you are going to talk about teaching and science--these conversations need to have an ending point. Be aware of your time and make sure that you get back to your office or lab bench. Spend some time developing strategies for extricating yourself gracefully from these conversations. Having a fixed schedule for the day, perhaps with large blocks for lab work marked in, will provide a ready excuse for moving on, while also helping you manage your time.


Scientists who work in academic positions have to do committee work. It's part of the job. To you, a committee may be a complete waste of time; to others, the same committee may be very important. Committee meetings can be efficient or not, depending on how they are run. For a committee to be efficient, it needs to follow an agenda of tasks to be accomplished. If you are asked to attend a committee meeting, ask for the agenda. Read it ahead of time so that you have the opportunity to think about what you want to say.

If the outcome of one of the discussion items is important to you, discuss it with senior faculty members ahead of time. Go into the meeting with a plan. If the discussion item is not important to you, do not prolong the discussion by being a devil's advocate. Finally, have an exit time planned. When asked to be on a committee or attend a meeting, let the organizer know ahead of time when you need to leave the meeting. This may prevent the "How about those Braves, can you believe they let Maddux go?" conversations from starting up and delaying the work of the meeting.

Close your office door

If you close your office door, you will get more accomplished. There are two reasons for this. First, a closed door is the equivalent of an invitation not to come in. People will come to your closed door and think, "She must be working, and I just wanted to talk baseball anyway," and then they will leave. The second reason is that it cuts down on the external distractions and allows you to concentrate on the work at hand. The exception to this is that you want to be accessible to your lab staff; make sure that you emerge periodically so that they can see you (and vice versa).

You can also make it clear to your lab staff that they should feel free to interrupt you with important work-related questions even when your door is closed. Although closing your office door sounds like the perfect solution to getting some work done, there is one important drawback: This practice may make you seem unfriendly to your colleagues. If all your colleagues have their doors open, then the advice here is to use this secret weapon only when you need to catch up on your work.

Working the off shift

You can get a lot accomplished if you can find time to work when no one is around who needs to take advantage of your time, thoughts, and energy. The hours before 10 a.m. and after 6 p.m. are the most quiet times, most weeks, at a university. Even if you work early or late only 1 day a week, it will make a big difference. Working Sunday evenings has a special advantage in that it allows you to organize your week just before it starts. But don't forget to leave time for a personal life.

Working at home

Some people find that if they really need to make a big writing push or need some reading time, staying at home is the only way they can get control of their time. If you are not distracted by the mailman, the dripping faucet, the need to choose the right background music on the CD, the ice cream in the freezer, or the television--and if you don't need to be near the laboratory--then working at home may be right for you. If you get distracted when you are at home, go back to campus and close your office door.

In summary, time management is critical to the success of an academic scientist. You must do lab work, write grant applications and research papers, teach, and perform academic service--sometimes all in the same day. So prioritize your work tasks according to their urgency and importance to your career and life. Break habits that waste hours during the day. Be aware of where your day goes, implement whatever strategies you can think of to save time, and do not get so caught up in the day-to-day that you lose sight of your objectives.

Oh! Time's up--where'd my day go? Gotta go now. Good luck!

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