New year, same goal: more research

I began the academic year with a renewed hope that this year would be different: that I would be smarter in how I allocated my time so as to focus on research and that I would be steadfast in my approach to saying no to the things that do not directly support this goal. Yet seven weeks have passed since the start of the spring semester and as I reevaluate and make a list of the goals I want to accomplish by the end of this academic year, I noticed that this list contains some of the same research items I aimed to complete by the end of the fall semester.

Let’s be honest: things come up. There are many additional expectations, responsibilities, and opportunities in this profession aside from our teaching and research duties. So how can we properly allocate our time to achieve our goals as researchers? Here are a few things that come to mind, along with some advice I have received along the way.

Foster Collaborations. In my last blog I wrote about building research collaborations and how I have made great friends along the way. Another great benefit of collaborative projects is the higher level of productivity. When working with others you can approach problems from a variety of perspectives, which can lead to finding the breakthrough needed to finish the results. As a research group member, I feel accountable for the part of the work I am to contribute to the project. I understand that others are counting on me, and this expectation forces me to focus on the project much more than I would if I only had myself to report to. Which leads naturally to the next point:

Involve students in your research. Last academic year I supervised three undergraduate thesis students. I had to spend time on my research in order to be prepared to discuss that week’s topic with them. These projects resulted in two publications and multiple conference presentations. Having involved my students in my research kept me motivated and excited about my work. I highly recommend other junior faculty include students in their research.

If your teaching load prohibits supervising projects during the academic year a great option is to apply for a CURM mini-grant. This grant provides faculty funds for a course buy-out, and a stipend for the student researchers. If you would prefer to work with students during the summer, but your school does not have an REU site, consider applying for the MAA National Research Experiences for Undergraduates Program. This program provides “stipends for faculty researchers and local minority undergraduates, as well as costs for student room and board for a period of six to eight weeks.”

Learn to say no. I will get this off my chest: As a Project NExT fellow (shout out to my Silver Dot 2012 cohort!) Professor Joe Gallian taught us to say yes to every opportunity so that we would find our niche within the mathematical community. His advice has lead to some great career opportunities that would not have materialized had I declined to help/participate. However, there is a point beyond which we overcommit ourselves and are therefore less productive and effective in our research endeavors. A mentor once told me that a good way to respond to requests that might not support one’s research goals, especially for pre-tenure faculty, is to say “Let me talk to my advisor/chair/suppervisor about this and I will get back to you soon.” This gives you adequate time to think about how this new commitment supports your goals, and keeps your advisor/chair/suppervisor informed on the work you are thinking of undertaking.

Ask for help. When you’ve said yes to too many things, nothing is more powerful than finding help. For example, I started a speaker series in my department and the first few years I did everything myself: inviting speakers, dealing with the necessary paperwork, finding funding sources, etc. However, this year, I reached out to my fellow civilian colleagues and asked if they would codirect the series with me. Three said yes and now the workload is divided among four. This makes the organization more manageable, and, more importantly, considerably more students are attending the lunchtime talks as a result of our teamwork. Another benefit of working with others is that the series will continue even after I leave. This is something I am quite proud of and something that would not have occurred had I not asked for help from my colleagues.

Get organized. Being able to find things is a challenge for me. My desk is always clean, but as one of my old office mates pointed out, it is because I stuff my desk’s drawers full of papers. Professor Gizem Karaali has contributed a wonderful blog about organization basics for mathematicians. It can all start with an empty email inbox! Read her article and do your best to stay organized and get an early start to your spring-cleaning.

What else do you do to stay focused on achieving your research goals? Feel free to share your tips and tricks in the comments.

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