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Keeping Your Research Alive
Rhodes College is a highly selective, private liberal arts college with a student population of about 1400. The teaching load is three courses per semester which is equivalent to nine hours per week in the classroom. Normally, because the students are good, I can expect a lot from them. But in turn, they expect a lot from me. I am expected to be available to students outside of the classroom to answer their questions, help solidify concepts, or just talk about mathematics. I spend about eight hours per week meeting with students outside of class.
The service component of my job consists of plenty of college-wide committee work, special college projects (such as devising a new registration system), departmental curricular projects, and advising. (And actually advising is one of my most time-consuming endeavors.) And of course there is a research expectation.
As a graduate student my prevailing thought was ``if I can just find a good problem,'' or ``if I can just find a way to prove this conjecture.'' As an assistant professor, my prevailing thought was ``if I can just find the time!'' Since professional activity is a continuous process of growth and change, we have to find a way to make time for it all along the way so that this professional development is rich and meaningful, rather than disjointed and incomplete.
The first suggestion may sound simple or even trivial, but being successful at it has probably helped me more than anything to create time for professional activities: Reevaluate how you organize and structure your classes to see if there are any ways to achieve what you want to achieve more efficiently. For example, clarify your expectations to your students in your classes verbally and in your syllabus so that students know exactly what their responsibilities are, and so that you know exactly what your schedule will be for the semester. For instance, set your office hours in your syllabus on the first day of class, and try to encourage students to stick to these times rather than allowing them to wander into your office at any time during the week. This will help you organize your grading and testing and enable you to set aside big blocks of time for your research. Think carefully about your testing schedule for the semester early on, so you don't spend time creating and administering make-up exams and quizzes during the term. Assign projects and writing assignments to groups of students -- not only is this a wonderful way for students to engage in problem solving with their peers, but it cuts down on grading.
Encourage your department to organize and support student-run help sessions to be held at night to supplement the help you provide during office hours. Moreover, when it is appropriate, request multiple, back-to-back sections of courses so that you have fewer preparations and you can give the same exams for both classes.
In your upper level courses, try using more original sources instead of textbooks. Get students involved in critically reading papers and giving presentations. These things, though seemingly small, will keep you in a more active mode of inquiry and possibly lead students in that same direction. This way, even if the papers are not specifically in your area of research, you are learning and investigating in the manner in which you investigated as a graduate student.
In service, since I am presently the only tenured woman in the Natural Sciences Division in my institution, I have been asked to serve on college committees where gender and divisional diversity are desired. Sometimes I just have to say no. Certainly, as an untenured faculty member this is harder to do -- but it's a necessary response sometimes in order to maintain a legitimate professional activities calendar. If you can't say no, or have a project offered to you that you would like to tackle, turn it in to a professional activity! (For example, maybe the curricular reform project you've been assigned lends itself to writing a grant proposal to carry out such a reform.) There may be ways to alter your service duties a bit so that you can gain in other ways by disseminating the ideas you have used.
In research, at least in the beginning, it is important to maintain your collaborations. Keep in touch with individuals with whom you have worked so that talking and thinking about problems doesn't become an unnatural thing to do. They can also help you to stay current with the literature in your field. Attend seminars and meetings as often as possible -- that interaction is as valuable as any.
And finally, as a new Ph.D., try to focus in one direction professionally. Once you have established yourself solidly in one area, then you will be in a better position to dabble in other areas of interest later on. Think about what you want to be doing in the next five years and set your sights there!.