Setting Boundaries to Promote Your Research Productivity

By June L. Preast, PhD, NCSP, University of Alabama

Within traditional academic positions, our jobs are divided upon research, service, and teaching. The division of responsibilities across those commitments typically varies across different institutions and roles. For example, more research-intensive institutions may have a workload of .4 FTE for research, .4 FTE for teaching, and .2 FTE for service. Alternatively, institutions with more of a focus on teaching may require .60 FTE for teaching, .20 FTE for research, and .20 for service. Faculty, especially early career scholars, often have a lot of flexibility in how they spend their time in a given time period, which has many advantages. We often get to devote our time, focus, and energy to the activities and experiences about which we are most invested. 

However, there are also challenges that come with the flexibility of an academic career due to the abundance of unplanned opportunities that can crop up and assumption of self-management. Plus, many of us are taken by surprise–sometimes frequently–by the sheer volume of expected requests and opportunities that can come up, from staffing crises to calls for proposals to student needs or grading and advising needs that far outstrip allocated FTE. Quite simply, there is never a shortage of work, new opportunities, or time-sensitive demands. Scholars typically must be disciplined, thoughtful, organized, and self-protective to ensure they are able to fulfill their various responsibilities. Doing so, especially as an early career scholar, can be daunting because it requires setting and holding boundaries in a context where demands for your time can seem never ending.

Boundaries can be referred to as how we let others know our needs. And holding those boundaries are important to ensure that we are meeting our own needs. It’s important to keep in mind individual faculty may have different experiences in setting and holding boundaries in comparison to their colleagues. Women faculty are often expected to provide more time on service and teaching obligations, are often approached more often by students for support, and subsequently have less time to devote to research endeavors and their counterparts identifying as men. Faculty of color, especially women faculty of color, experience even more inequity, adding the sometimes hidden additional requirements for achieving tenure and promotion. LGBTQIA+ faculty and faculty of color are also tasked with creating and maintaining safe spaces for community for students. And women faculty often have significant caregiving responsibilities outside of work that limit their ability to continue working on tasks beyond the typical work day. The structure of higher education is designed to get as much as they can out of you before you say no. And with that, the structure easily takes advantage of faculty, especially women, faculty of color, and LGBTQIA+ faculty.

Often, teaching and service have set deadlines (i.e., class times, meetings) and involve working with others or for others. For teaching, you know you have to be prepared for the set class meeting times, grades have to be submitted by a certain date, and students are asking questions that need to be answered related to specific assignments or topics. For service, you usually know when the meetings will be, when your tasks are due, and have other people holding you accountable. But research is self-driven, with deadlines you set yourself or with research partners. Although there are times when you may have others holding you accountable for research, that may not always be the case. And your research agenda is just that, yours, and yours alone. It’s up to you to accomplish your goals related to research. And it can be easy to let the teaching and service needs take over the time you set aside for research simply because of the perceived obligation to others. This blog post aims to provide some strategies for preserving research time in the midst of other responsibilities. 

Strategy 1: Align your time with your job expectations. 

Research suggests that faculty time is often poorly aligned with job expectations. For early career scholars, developing effective habits for time use can be critical for avoiding over-extending yourself or failing to meet basic job role expectations (e.g., publishing). As much as possible, strive to align how you spend your time with how you’re expected to spend your time. This will often require a combination of proactive calendaring, self-monitoring, adjustment, and the strategies above. For early career scholars for whom research is a primary expectation for employment, promotion, or tenure, the ongoing process of scheduling, protecting, and fulfilling research time is especially important. This will likely necessitate firm limits on how much time is available for other responsibilities or endeavors. For example, you may cap the amount of time you can spend on course prep or grading each week, which will likely require use of strategies for efficient feedback.

Strategy 2: Set aside time each day to touch research. 

It’s important to make time in your schedule dedicated to research. Treat it like you would an important meeting or class period, limiting distractions for that scheduled time. If you struggle with carving out large chunks of time, one idea is scheduling 30 minutes each day to make any sort of forward progress towards research. Committing to smaller amounts of time throughout the week may be more beneficial than setting aside say all of Friday, especially as the needs of earlier in the week may overflow into your research time at the end of the week. Or if you prefer larger chunks of time, try to make sure to schedule those earlier in the week before other work responsibilities are able to get in the way. Regardless, make a point to cut distractions as much as you can during your research time and make note of all that you accomplish, even if it feels small. Avoiding distractions may mean ignoring email during writing time, limiting apps or internet access, or working where others are unlikely to disrupt your time.

Strategy 3: Schedule times in your day to answer emails. 

Very rarely are there emergencies in academia, so it’s okay to not answer all emails immediately after receiving them. Give yourself some time each day to answer emails, but only during that time each day. If it’s too hard to do all emails that way, consider setting aside time just for student emails. You can also use email templates to streamline your email time by preparing standard responses as the basis for common inquiries. These can include templates for graciously declining an opportunity that is a poor fit for your goals, role, or availability.

Strategy 4: Start saying no to opportunities that don’t align with your research and professional goals

The ECF has repeatedly addressed the importance of saying no to opportunities that aren’t aligned with your goals and interests because the tendency to say yes to every opportunity can derail goals and contribute to exhaustion and burnout. As an early career scholar, it may feel hard or seem mean saying no to committees or opportunities. But if those opportunities don’t align with your research and professional goals, it’s okay to say no, especially if you are already meeting the expectations for service for your institution. You may feel better about saying no by visibly and frequently reminding yourself of your goals and role expectations. Write out your research and professional goal(s) and keep it either on your laptop, desktop, or maybe as a post-it note. Look back at your goal(s) when presented with an opportunity and ask yourself if it aligns. If you find it difficult to say no, text a couple friends (especially fellow academics) who are willing to provide guidance. Our previously mentioned post provides additional suggestions for how to navigate this tricky process.

Strategy 5: Resist the urge to fix to every student issue

Student issues (or situations that students perceive as issues) are inevitable. And when students come to you upset and in need of support, it can be easy to instantly want to help and find solutions for them. However, be sure to take the time to understand the issue before saying yes and jumping into the problem-solver role. Not all student issues are ours to solve. Feel free to ask colleagues for guidance. Consider directing students to other resources or personnel who are better positioned to support their needs. Where infrastructure is lacking, it might be helpful to work with colleagues to build out procedures or resources so that you’re not always in reactive mode every time a concern emerges.  

For most (if not all) of us, research is enjoyable and the questions we strive to answer drive us and our work. However, our various work responsibilities sometimes take away the time we plan or hope to spend on research. Prioritizing research is possible with a little planning and strategizing. Hopefully you find something helpful in our suggestions. What other suggestions do you have for effectively setting boundaries to support your research?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *