Summer Schedules

May 28, 2009

For nonacademics, summer "break" is probably one of the least understood elements of our profession. I once had a neighbor who would regularly tease me, "You guys get the whole summer off. Wish I had such a sweet deal!" No amount of enumeration of research projects, summer teaching, or service commitments could convince him that I was not getting a free ride at the taxpayers' expense.

But many professors, especially early on in their careers, have trouble valuing summer as well. When you are a graduate student, your schedule for June, July, and August is often dictated by others: courses you need to take or perhaps teach; conventions for networking or job hunting; exams to study for; dissertations to plug away at; and so on. But as an assistant professor, you face an array of options, and it is sometimes hard to choose among them or best exploit the ones you have selected.

The most important thing to keep in mind about summer while you're on the tenure track is that the promotion-and-tenure clock does not stop. In fact, whether you are at a community college or a high-powered research university, deciding what work to do over the summer and completing it efficiently may be crucial determinants of your ascent up the career ladder.

Before we begin a list of proscriptions and prescriptions for a P&T-friendly summer we must deal with the main existential issue of the so-called break —money versus productivity, especially for those in research universities. I have seen, and heard of, many an assistant professor start June with grand intentions to both teach summer classes and finish articles, crunch big data sets, and even write books. Then suddenly, it's the middle of August, the research took a back seat to teaching, and it's time to prepare for the fall semester.

Certainly the monetary payoff of summer teaching may be too attractive to turn down, especially in these times. If you can juggle an intensive summer-class schedule with your research obligations, great. But for many young scholars, the extra cash can be a career deflater in the long run if it obstructs the scholarly work that would put them over the finish line.

Now, we can review the summer dos and don'ts.

Don't overcommit. The first step in a productive P&T summer is to avoid becoming hypnotized by the alluring vastness of a quarter of a year spent with many fewer daily commitments. Summer can fly by while you are working on that big book project as much as it did in the halcyon days of sleepaway camp when you were a tweenager. So don't be overambitious about the goals you set and the projects you undertake. What is your top priority? Is it writing a book, producing several research articles, prepping for new courses, completing a major service project, or reorganizing your files or your lab?

Follow the one-or-three rule. Finish one big project or three smaller ones. As I wrote in an earlier column on time management, saying "yes" to one project means saying "no" to others. Better to finish one big or three small projects than to dissipate yourself on dozens of endeavors that fritter away your time and attention.

Set a schedule, but be flexible. After you have determined your summer goals, plan out exactly how, and when, you want to accomplish them. One recent summer, my objective was to complete a book project for which I had accumulated the basic research, taken notes, analyzed the data —that is, I had done everything but the actual writing. It seemed reasonable to expect I could write at least five chapters that summer. I divided up the weeks into equal segments devoted to each chapter. But as the work progressed I found I had to balance flexibility with ruthlessness of purpose. One chapter was more challenging than the rest, so I ended up giving it more time than the others. Furthermore, because the summer lacks the periodic rhythms of a school semester —with, say, midterms and such —I pinpointed certain days when I would stop work altogether to take stock of how it was proceeding.

Secure the resources you need. One young professor I know resolved to spend a summer doing research for his book at a particular archive. Late in May, however, he discovered that the deadline for the archive's competition for summer-research fellowships had long since passed and he didn't have the money to travel there himself. Early on, make a list of all the resources you will need —financial, material, or human —to get a project done. Sometimes, you must coordinate with others. An assistant professor in the sciences told me that she was forced to delay a major experiment she had planned for one summer because her postdocs had gotten full-time jobs elsewhere and her university's budget did not allow the hiring of new ones until the fall. Line up your ducks and make sure they are well fed for the long swim to come.

Lay out a work environment. A graduate student told me that he found it difficult to work in his departmental office over the break because his college turned off the air-conditioning when summer classes were not in session. And a professor I know said he never did get around to finishing a book one summer because his family bought a new lake cottage and he found that (a) the renovations required his full attention, and (b) it was impossible to work in the noisy atmosphere of the lakefront. Whatever your summer goals, plan out the "where" of doing the job.

Balance body and mind, family and work. I have heard several academics joke darkly that the summer break gained them a book and cost them a marriage. The problem of committing to a summer of productivity can be especially tricky in a "mixed" marriage with a nonacademic who may, for example, receive only two weeks of vacation and view with a certain incredulity your long break. If your partner gets only a short vacation, by all means, mobilize your schedule to make sure you are completely work-free during those weeks.

Indeed, taking an actual extended vacation or smaller, shorter ones during the summer is vital. No football player, boxer, or racehorse is expected to play, fight, or run every day. Your mind needs cleansing and soothing. Your creativity will be sparked by engaging in activities that have absolutely nothing to do with your research and teaching. Conversely, I know academics, especially those in history and literature, whose vacations are happy fulfillments of their passions. A colleague told me that her father, a historian of ancient Greece, would devote his summers to showing his family the glorious ruins and museums of the Hellenic east. The jaunts were intellectually stimulating reminders of why he loved his field.

Reward yourself. Consider creating an incentive system for summer accomplishments. The tenure process, alas, is full of punitive measures and not enough rewards, except the gigantic one at its closure. The summer can be a long, hot, hard slog if checking off boxes on our to-do lists is the only way we feel we have gotten something done. Finish a chapter? Treat yourself to a long weekend at the beach. Conclude an experiment? Take the kids camping. Revise all your course materials? Buy that iPod, complete set of Trollope novels, or business suit you have had your eye on.

Remember your responsibilities. There is one large caveat about any commitments you make this summer for your own productivity: Don't forget your responsibilities to your students, your colleagues, and your institution. Perhaps in this instance my advice is more a moral stance than a practical consideration, but promotion and tenure is not achieved only by fulfilling some objective criteria of student-evaluation scores or numbers of journal publications. Others, who sit in judgment of you, need to believe with credible evidence that you will be a lifelong supportive member of the "team." Unless you are actually in the Amazon on a research trip, please do respond to anxious graduate students and queries from colleagues. Just as the P&T clock does not stop, your responsibilities continue even if you are not officially receiving a salary. Square your own needs with those of others.

The summer can be a black hole into which we put much effort with little to show for it unless we subject the period to the same sort of forethought necessary to conduct a series of complicated lab experiments or prep for a new course. Plan carefully for June, July, and August, and you will greet the new school year both refreshed in mind and satisfied with your accomplishments.

David D. Perlmutter, starting June 22, will become director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a professor and Starch Faculty Fellow at the University of Iowa.