Traversing a career – and life – is a challenging prospect, and I am glad to share some of my experiences. In this issue of the ECE Corner Office, I will take on the hardest question (for me) first, that of how to spend my time. Next, some aspects of research as a function of time, and finally, thinking about life trajectories and not only dealing with, but embracing and creating change in our lives and careers as they progress.

Time Triage and Goals

Whatever your life and work situations, time management is the name of the game in academia. Actually, the reality is more on the order of “time triage” – a focus on what is most critical, limited attention to what we cannot let fall by the wayside, and a decision to let the rest decline though inactivity! We have a great deal of personal freedom in academia, and that is a challenge to excel, a ticket to exhaustion, a burden of responsibility, and a creative outlet that can all add up to a fulfilling, productive life that has a real impact in the world. As our lives progress, sometimes we will achieve balance, and sometimes we will be forced from the path of moderation to excess – pouring work into tenure, enjoying time with a new baby, spending precious moments with an aging parent. How to navigate all of this?

Identifying your personal goals can guide you through your time triage, but setting goals is a great deal more difficult than it might seem at first glance, especially when you are trying to balance the multiple aspects of an academic career (research, teaching, service) and a personal life (dating, partner/spouse, children, parents, friends, exercise, recreation). Try to be realistic in your goals, and honest. Then, prioritize your tasks and time to meet your goals. Be firm with yourself about time allocation. Watch for burnout, and be sure to get some sleep. If you are uncomfortable with where this leads you to, then re-formulate your goals.

Your goals will change with time, and it is a great idea to set a time each year to think about your path through work and life. Looking at your goals, and your progress toward your goals, will insert a realism into your planning that may be a bit painful in some years, but that will give you a powerful sense of self-determination, accomplishment, and capability as time progresses. Looking back, my goals and choices did not always result in exactly what I expected, but rather, opened up some unanticipated adventures that at times enriched me, and at other times taught me a lesson. Set your goals, but also let your goals flow with time, and events, and be open to the unexpected – there is a great deal of room for living with spontaneity while keeping the larger picture in sight. Having goals enables us to think strategically, which is a powerful way to consciously set our own paths, rather than following those that might be set for us, or that we wander into.

Set a variety of goals – some short term, some long term, some easier to accomplish, and some that will be a real stretch. If you reach every goal, or none of your goals, in the time period you set, that’s a wake-up call that needs attention. I have found it very helpful to talk to friends, colleagues, and experts, as well as to read and get data about what realistic goals are for my age and profession. How many papers do faculty publish, who are my age, tenured, at my rank, a Fellow, a NAE member? How do people with school age children and a spouse handle work and family? What resources can I leverage to give myself more time?

Projects, Students, and Collaboration in Research

Research is the name of the game in a research university, and leverage can help you to achieve more results in less time. I leverage my research efforts through a diversity of projects, by engaging students, and through collaboration. I attempt to build a continuum of funding, projects, and students with varying completion dates. A diverse portfolio of projects that have a common technical foundation is efficient, so that my students can share knowledge and problems that are synergistic internal to the group, and then go out and use that knowledge in collaborations with other groups. A diversity of projects and funding sources can also help to alleviate the inevitable hiccups in support that occur, so if funding becomes difficult in one research area or sponsor, another can support the group.

A productive, positive relationship with research students is one of the most satisfying aspects of an academic career, and your students can significantly magnify your efforts. Recruit the best students possible, and treat their ideas, work, and time with respect. One of our greatest privileges and challenges is to guide and enable our research students, and to share the determination that is necessary to realize solid research, the savvy needed to judge what the best questions are, and the rush that is a successful result. Be straightforward with students, and give them feedback when you are impressed with their work, and also when a better effort is needed. It is critical to build up a research program with multiple students of varying levels so that more senior students can teach the junior students, which leads to significant times savings for everyone involved. I aim for, and usually achieve, a positive mentoring relationship with my students, so that we are “rowing in the same direction,” to get high quality research results in a timely manner, and to publish the results.

Collaboration is another great approach to leverage and diversification. Working with others to achieve a common goal occurs in many venues – at work, with a spouse, with a family, with friends and organizations. At work, for tenure and promotion, it is important to distinguish yourself as a researcher, both through individual and collaborative research. Particularly in multidisciplinary, highly competitive fields, it is important to form collaborations so that you can compete effectively. Bring your skills to the table for collaboration: approach other researchers who may not be in your field, limit the jargon that you use to communicate effectively, and explore how you could partner together to create something new and exciting. Creative energy and ideas can flow at an amazing pace in a great collaboration. Talking with others that are higher or lower on the “food chain” is an excellent approach – who will use your technology? What do you need to make your technology better? All of us have problems that need solutions. Your solutions could be useful to program managers, hospital clinicians, faculty in another department, and individuals in industry. They key is to approach people, and to engage them.

The most effective collaboration is when multiple investigators bring capabilities to the research, each has a clear contribution that is needed for the project to succeed, each can perform work that can progress initially without results from the others, and everyone appreciates the skills for the other’s work. Collaboration is a relationship – it evolves with time, mutual respect breeds good relationships, and trust underlines the relationship. I talk to lots of people about collaborating, but choose a few to spend my time with – down select to people that you enjoy working with. Collaborations have lifetimes, too; long term collaborations are great, but funding, areas of interest, and commitments shift, so don’t hold on if there is no reason to do so.

Leverage and collaboration are keywords for me at home, too. I thought that the time crunch hit right away while I was seeking tenure; exercise, friends, and recreation didn’t get much time. When I had children, the real time crunch hit. I found that I was unable to do everything that I wanted to do, and if I exhausted myself, I ended up sick, and in an even deeper time pit. So, I leveraged family and salary into daily help (child and elder care, cleaners), made friends with other people in similar circumstances in the neighborhood and at my children’s schools (we help each other out), exerted control over my schedule so that I could be more flexible if an emergency arose, and became more efficient at home and at work than I had thought possible. Those were the days when the children were young – little sleep, lots of work, but great times. As the children have grown, the time demands have changed, and the high level of external help at home is no longer needed, but the network of family and friends is increasingly important. There is an enforced balance for me between life and work, which takes continuous prioritization, negotiation, compromise, and juggling.

Transitions, Trajectories, and Strategic Thinking

Our careers and lives have trajectories that evolve with time, and transitions are not only to be endured, but can be embraced to keep us fresh. Adaptation and change are critical to an academic career – to remain relevant in research, I have found that I need to refresh my focus every 5 years. As I have grown more senior, I have been asked to do more management and service for Duke. We wrap our story around again to our goals – they have guided me in transitions, set my trajectories, and led me to think strategically about who I want to be, and what I want to achieve as I go through my career and my life.

In my early academic years, the focus was to earn tenure, and so I concentrated on research. Build your research program fast, recruit the best students possible, perform some individual and some collaborative research, and publish in solid journals. Teach well, but minimize the time input by teaching a few courses. If possible, teach the same basic “bread and butter” course once per year; after a couple of years, this will minimize the effort necessary for that class. Be organized and enthusiastic, teach clearly, and treat the students with respect, and you will do well as a teacher. Take on limited service commitments that maximize benefit for the time spent.

Once you have successfully earned tenure, then it’s time to build your reputation. In research, it is important to continue to build the story of who you are – the areas in which you are an expert, how you lead, your creative drive, and your collaborative capabilities. This is a time to volunteer at the local and national levels for journal, conference, and leadership positions to build visibility in your field, and, you guessed it – to publish and to graduate research students. You have the freedom to expand your horizons a bit in teaching and service. Just be aware that your research production and reputation will shape your future more than most other activities at this point.

As your career progresses, take the time to strategize about your future – what are your possible paths for the next 5, 10, 20 years? I have found that I enjoy collaboration immensely, and have focused my research on collaborative efforts that all have a common technology base in my expertise. I have also faced critical decisions about where I want to work and live, and ended up surprising myself occasionally when I took the time to really think about what I wanted, and not what the world was pressing me to do. If we think about our lives, we can make decisions about who we are – it has been enlightening for me to explore these thoughts.

These reflections, and sometimes, lack of them, has led me down some forked paths that have taught me some lessons, and have opened up vistas that I had not anticipated. When you make a transition, especially involving a decision to stay or to go to a new place, you are at a vulnerable point. Get everything important in writing, however, decide where to be flexible – draw some lines, and don’t insist on having every detail nailed down – just the critical points – and express yourself clearly to the negotiating parties. I have found that when I have questions about new forays into the unknown, asking people like me who have traversed that path can be helpful. And if you, or a recruiter, can’t find anyone like you who has walked that trail, then be aware of how difficult trail blazing can be.

My largest service commitment to date has been the design and upfit of SMIF. When I took on SMIF, I had little idea of the time commitment that it would be, the discussions that would surround SMIF, and how my research program would be challenged. Service and leadership are about enabling others and the common good, but it does help if the personal good sees benefit, too. My experiences have been greatly expanded through SMIF, and that has helped me to think more broadly and creatively. I have taken on other service roles at Duke, as well, because I have found that I am interested in the inner workings of the University, and I have a contribution to make. It’s not for everyone, but it has kept me fresh and interested, and intellectually challenged, and that is most certainly one of my most cherished goals in my career.