Wednesday, March 23, 2016

My Workday as a Philosophy Professor

[cross-posted from The Philosophers' Cocoon, "Real Philosophy Jobs Part 3"]

How hard does the typical tenured professor work, and on what? Good information is hard to come by. I will describe my own workload and typical workday, as one data point.

I am a full professor of philosophy, with a six-digit salary and tenure at UC Riverside, whose philosophy PhD program is ranked 28th in the US by the Philosophical Gourmet. Our normal teaching load is four 10-week courses (plus final exams) spread over three “quarters” (hence 1-2-1), plus independent supervision of graduate students.

Unlike most of my colleagues, I try to work regular workdays – about 8:00 to 5:30 Monday to Friday, with evenings and weekends reserved for home life (below, I’ll add some caveats to that). I also try to have relatively normal holidays: the official US holidays, a couple weeks for family vacation during the summer, about a week over winter break, and a smattering of other days off.

My typical day:


Email is a major part of the job. After arriving at the office around 8:00, I’ll usually spend my first hour reading and answering email. I’ll also check and answer email through the rest of the day. The distinction between “answering email” and “doing tasks that were precipitated by receiving an email” is vague, but I’d estimate that I spend about two hours a day reading and answering emails. Last week I received 359 email messages, almost none of which were junk mail from corporations. (I use a separate email account for that.) Approximately one half were group emails that I could skim or ignore. The other half I had to actually read. About half of those, I replied to. I of course also send emails that are not simply replies. Last week, I sent 107 email messages. That’s an average of 36 substantive incoming and 21 outgoing messages per weekday. If I spend one minute per message, that’s already an hour a day right there. Of course some messages require less time, others substantially more.

Here’s a Monday morning sample, which includes Friday evening through 10:00 a.m. Monday: a few emails discussing dinner plans after a talk at the APA; two submitted blog comments which I approved (including one where I followed a link to an interesting article that I’d already read); an email from a potential coauthor about an op-ed piece we’re considering writing together; A-V information about an upcoming talk; three emails in a four-way philosophical discussion about Asian philosophy and oneness; an undergraduate request for me to write a letter of recommendation, which I replied to with substantial advice; a reminder about some written interview questions that I got last week and haven’t yet managed to answer; a question from another philosopher about my data collection methods from a recent paper; an email trying to coordinate a meeting with a colleague at the coming APA; two requests to referee articles for journals (one accepted, one declined); three emails of thanks for reference letters I wrote last week; an email confirming that my request for $10,000 to organize a mini-conference has been approved, precipitating a message to my collaborator about next steps; a link to a recently published article citing one of my articles, interesting enough that I read the abstract, downloaded, and quickly skimmed for possible later reading; two emails from my wife with info about getting my son organized for applying to colleges next year; a couple emails about arranging the hotels for my trip to Hong Kong in May; an email from a speaker I’ve invited to talk at UCR next year who is unsure whether he’ll be able to fit it into his schedule; and two emails concerning getting the overhead lights in my office fixed. That gives you the flavor, I think!

Classroom teaching:

Most of my undergraduate classes are already prepped from previous years. I’ll spend about 60-90 minutes refreshing myself on the material and reviewing and tweaking my overheads. (If it’s material I haven’t taught before, it takes several hours.) Then I’ll spend 50 minutes on a lecture stage in front of hundreds of students (for a lower-division class), 80 minutes in lecture-and-informal discussion with about 30 students (for an upper-division class), or three hours in focused discussion with about 8 students (for a grad seminar).

Teaching the giant lecture classes is stressful, but also a thrill when it goes well. When I switched from the ordinary “Introduction to Philosophy” material to material that more students cared about, with real emotional resonance – lynching, the Holocaust, sex and death, the role of cognition and emotion in moral development, starvation amid wealth – I found my passion for the lower division teaching. One time, the two hundred students were so still in the lecture hall that the motion sensors decided the classroom was empty and the lights turned themselves off. Whoa. When I can bring that intensity to students on topics like these, that feels meaningful and worthwhile.

In upper-division courses and grad seminars, I rely on more from the students. Classes become a mix of semi-structured mini-lectures, freewheeling tangents, and informal debate among students. UCR students are strong enough that their discussions are reliably interesting as long as I can do two things: (a.) draw out the best in students’ sometimes half-baked ideas, and (b.) succeed in expanding the conversation away from just the most assertive talkers.


On days when I’m not teaching, probably about half of my time is research. On teaching days, research is sometimes squeezed out altogether. Research is mostly reading and writing, but I also (unusually for a philosopher) also do some experimental work and data analysis.

Reading. I don’t read many books cover to cover. I read a mix of happenstance material and targeted material. The happenstance will be recent articles from journal tables of contents, articles or books or book chapters that people have mentioned or emailed to me as possibly of interest (including their own work), work that cites my own, and other work that catches my eye for whatever reason. The targeted material will be current or classic or historical work that is relevant to an article or blog post that I am currently writing or thinking about. For example, for my recent paper on rationalization with Jon Ellis, I read through bunches of relevant psychological literature, some fun classic work from the history of psychology, a whole bunch of Habermas (which I ended up only barely citing but seemed worth knowing anyway), relevant work by philosophers on rationalization and on self-knowledge, and various tangentially related material.

Writing: Blog. I have an active blog, The Splintered Mind, where I try to post at least once a week, usually about 500-1000 words with a fresh idea about something I’ve been working on recently. Typically this takes me a few hours, plus maybe another hour replying to comments on the blog or on social media sites where I’ve linked to the blog. I find it good discipline to get my ideas out there in some sort of comprehensible shape on a regular basis, and to get some feedback about them. I usually try not to spend more than five hours blogging per week.

Writing: Articles. I am always bursting with writing ideas – far more stuff than I can actually write up. (The blog is a good vent for ideas that won’t make it into articles.) A first draft will normally take me about an hour a page. Most of my non-empirical articles go through one to five top-to-bottom rewrites from beginning to end, plus multiple smaller-scale revisions and rereadings. For me, a typical full-length published article reflects about 100-200 hours of writing and revising. I try to write always for two audiences simultaneously: the fast skimming reader who just wants the big picture and the careful nitpicking reader who is looking to critique me on details. I care about prose style. I care about trying to draw the reader in, about revealing the importance of the issues, about being fun and accessible rather than dry and technical, to the extent that’s compatible with rigorously covering the issues. I love the craft of writing.

Writing: Other. I’ve also recently started writing science fiction and op-eds. Because why not? These can, of course, take a lot of time, and it’s a challenge to acquire the relevant skills. (I rather enjoy the challenge.) It helps that I’ve recently been getting grant money for teaching release, so that I don’t have to compromise my other research to do these things.

One of the things I love about this job, especially now that I’m tenured, is the enormous freedom I have to read and write whatever I feel like reading and writing, at whatever pace and schedule I feel like doing so. Especially during the summer, my office is a playground for my mind. Of course, it’s not always like that – when I commit to particular writing projects with deadlines and/or co-authors, I have to prioritize them on a schedule I might not prefer, and there are the frequent scheduled demands of teaching and meetings that can feel like they get in the way of my passionate desire to think and read and write, and of course there’s always the stack of email which if I ignore for even one day becomes quite daunting by the next.

Other Stuff:

Meetings. During the term, I probably average about 1-2 hours in meetings per day. This includes university committee meetings, faculty meetings, departmental talks and receptions, graduate student oral exams, open-door office hours, and one-on-one meetings in person or by phone or Skype with students, collaborators, and colleagues.

Grading. Grading undergraduate exams and essays is a pretty tough slog, and probably my least favorite part of the job – though those occasional “A” papers are like lights in the mist. When I’m teaching upper-division without TAs, this will be several hours a week several weeks of the term. Evaluating graduate student essays and dissertations is not as grueling, but is still quite a bit of work – in combination amounting to hundreds of comments over hundreds of pages.

Miscellaneous Tasks. These typically come via email – things I can’t just respond to with a quick email in reply. They include: writing letters of recommendation; writing referee reports on articles submitted to journals; organizing events; organizing travel and financial matters (including applying for and managing grants); dealing with students with special issues; keeping up to some extent with what’s going on in the philosophical corners of social media and the popular press; evaluating research proposals as part of a committee or review board or as an outside evaluator; planning new courses or course material; evaluating graduate admissions applications if I’m on the admissions committee or job applications if I’m on a hiring committee; evaluating the promotion and merit files of my colleagues; completing well-intentioned administrative forms; and other such – I’m sure I’ve forgotten some.

Although I don’t conceptualize this “other stuff” as research, most of it does expose me, in one way or another, to work going on in the field.

I’ll take about 15 minutes for lunch (walk to the student cafeteria then walk back, often eating en route) and maybe another 30 minutes over the day for non-philosophy stuff like internet news, humor items, non-philosophy social media, and family-related things.

When I’m Not in the Office:

Morning walks. I walk an hour every morning – often my favorite part of the day. I’ll let my mind drift. Maybe a third of the time I’m drifting off into philosophical thoughts, things I’d like to write or revise, blog post ideas, project plans, etc. Sometimes I’ll listen to a podcast or a text-to-speech article (philosophy, science fiction, or otherwise), or I’ll look a bit at social media. When I’ve slept well and in a good mood, I’m just bursting with enthusiasm and fun ideas – sometimes ideas that seem a bit too silly in my more sober moods later.

Evenings and weekends. Evenings and weekends, I prioritize family. I’ll check social media a bit, sometimes reading or commenting on philosophical things, but always in a light way – never in a concentrated-this-feels-like-work way. I won’t check email, except maybe to scan headers if I think there might be something urgent. I always read before going to sleep – about half an hour, often something related to philosophy but which doesn’t feel workish, such as a popular book of history or psychology or some speculative science fiction.

Travel. I have a deal with my family: four out-of-town trips per year, one of which is overseas. The overseas trip will usually be about two weeks, and I’ll try to string together a bunch of talks at different places, in quick succession. The other three will normally be 2-4 nights, and I’ll try to string together two or three talks in nearby places if it can be arranged.

So How Much Do I Work and on What?

If we figure that the travel approximately cancels out the arbitrary days I take off, that leaves me with about 49 weeks per year, at about (9:30 minus 0:45) x 5 = 43.75 hours per week, plus some hard-to-count off-the-clock stuff like light reading at night and philosophical thinking during my morning walks. Maybe about 40% my work time is reading and writing with research ends in mind, about 25% of it teaching related, and 35% everything else.

But all this task-and-hour-counting omits something essential: the extent to which my work has shaped my sense of who I am and what I value. I could not simply cut it away. As my children will attest, I am a philosopher even in my light-hearted play with them. I have become what my work has made me.


Arnold said...

...add Teacher to labels...thanks

CA Heaven said...

Interesting to read what your work day is.

I get the best of two worlds, working full time for BigOil (mostly resesrch) and having an adjunct professor position (geophysics) in the university. I teach a PhD course on demand,usually every spring semester, and supervise MSc and PhD students. Sometimes lots of work, but very inspiring >:)

Cold As Heaven

Sara L. Uckelman said...

Having reflected over the last few months on the fact that most students don't really know quite exactly what an academic does, outside of teaching time, I recently created this page: What is My Lecturer Doing? I'm always happy to have additions to the list!

Helen De Cruz said...

Hi Eric - thank you so much for sharing this on the Cocoon and your own site. As others have said, it would seem you have a good work-life balance, and I am curious how you achieved this. Currently, I am putting a lot of work in prepping courses and in grading, and I hope the prepping will ease over time and that I will become more efficient at grading. But I keep on finding it difficult to follow my own advice about work-life balance. Did this grow naturally out of habits, or did you have to do an effort to get to the current situation? In how far do you think a balance like this would be feasible for people with higher teaching loads (say, 3/3 or even 4/4)?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

CA Heaven: That does sound like a pretty sweet deal!

Sara: A useful list, especially to help fight the perception that most of the work is classroom contact work.

Helen: Starting in 1997 as a new Assistant Professor, I made a decision to make a sharp distinction between work and home, and to clock into my office for a regular workday. This forced me to make decisions about what to prioritize at work. I was reasonably research productive as an Assistant Professor, but I was not as prolific a writer as I am now -- about 1 or 2 articles per year. I allowed myself to focus more on teaching early on, so I could get my courses into the shape I wanted them to be.

I think having the rigorous workday really helps for me. When I'm focused in the office, I can blaze through a lot of work. It helps that there's an end in sight -- I'm much less tempted to take breaks. Other techniques: Since the university counts blogging and other public outreach as "service" instead of research, I emphasize this in declining to take on heavy service jobs from the department and university. I also pay out of pocket for research expenses instead of spending lots of time pursuing grants. (Part of my justification for this as an assistant professor was that $2000 a year on research was financially prudent if it helped me earn larger merit based increases in the future.)

All that said, in my two-prep terms, I do feel like things are spinning out of control. I've built my organizational systems and plans around zero or one classes of teaching. If I were teaching a real 2-2 without reductions, or even more than that, I couldn't do as much as I do on the research end, for sure. I probably would still start, though, with that boundary setting between office time and home time.

ABCDecay said...


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Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I don't remember, other than that it was my class on Evil. Oddly, my experience is that it's not always the same lectures that seem to go well, year to year.