Evan Peck on making choices, accepting trade-offs, and liberal arts as a great middle way

Evan Peck is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Bucknell University in the US. Evan has a passion for teaching and also wants to do good research but when he was looking around for a faculty position, he decided he didn’t want to trade off family life and life quality to do it all, as he considered he might have to at a top-rated school. He also wasn’t sure about industry where he could have better life quality but would miss teaching. He is now an evangelist for Liberal Arts Colleges, like Bucknell, as a middle way for PhD students to include when considering career options. Evan talks about his decision processes getting there and his current experiences as a new faculty in learning to be deliberate about his use of time so that he can include teaching, research and time for family. He also has a great blog post written on this topic.

"It's all trade-offs."

“Put on the calendar, this is when I am done for the day and this is the amount of time I have to get work done and if it doesn’t get done it happens tomorrow and not through dinner”

“So have to be deliberate about how you use your time.”

“In Grad School it’s really easy to fall into this trap that your identity is the work you are doing and that’s why these rejections feel so much more personal”

He talks about (times approximate) …

01:30 Start

02:15 Background starting out at a Liberal Arts College and having a broad education, teaching focus, courses capped at 30 students

04:30 Path getting to Bucknell  via an UG degree at a Liberal Arts College and a PhD at Tufts Uni with Rob Jacob on Brain Computer Interaction, having a child during Grad School and starting to think about what measures of success and impact means and what he wanted

06:00 Up to then a typical grad student perspective re rankings and top school as measures of success; realised “even if I were to be productive at the rate of someone at a top school, I think I would be miserable doing it” – something about the pace, can fit others beautifully but grants and away from teaching not how he wanted to spend his time, or emotionally or the stress of the tenure process

08:20 “They say, here are the things that are valuable to us and if those don’t align with the things that are valuable to you ... things you don’t want to do are more taxing … if you are at a university where the benchmarks involve things that you don’t what to spend all your time doing… then it can seem very overwhelming”

09:00 Thought he was going into industry because he thought academic was two pillars, either research or teaching focussed. Loves doing research but not all the time. Had industry internship and saw good work life balance, didn’t consume them, not their entire identity and this aspect appealed to him. And getting to end of grad school was a grind so it seemed attractive.

11:15 After having a kid, shifting own work habits. If he continued his old schedule he would lonely see his son half hour a day. So getting up early and trying to set boundaries on the upper limit.

12:42 How to put up boundaries – scheduling wise, almost “put on the calendar, this is when I am done for the day and this is the amount of time I have to get work done and if it doesn’t get done it happens tomorrow and not through dinner”. Priorities becoming much more important and industry seemed more appealing as could see structure in industry. And in appealing places to live. Factors line up.

14:15 Very lucky in lab culture and advisor who was very sensitive to family issues, told him to go be with his family; the only he can figure out how to do 3 CHI papers is to work 15 hrs a day, may be different for others.

Challenges when you set these boundaries – could be more productive without boundaries but “It’s all trade-offs”. “First level says I’m missing out on something, second level says would I trade it” and no he wouldn’t, helps come to terms with those decisions

16:20 Role of supervisor in setting culture, and previous grad students who had children so wasn’t breaking new ground

17:15 Comparing self to others – very challenging, easy to compare yourself to the best teacher and the best researcher, very tempting – but remembering they only take one of the jobs

18:15 Heading back to liberal arts via advice to apply everywhere, supervisor a wealth of good advice, can always decide you don’t like it later; hoping grad students think about this more in advance; having options and opportunity to figure out priorities on the fly; “I really like my job. Many ways I could have missed it. How could I mitigate this for other people coming on?”

20:35 Being more deliberate? Written about in blog post. Perception that things fit cleanly into categories of academia vs industry, research vs teaching school but not does not fit reality. Representation of academia at conferences most visible but not representative. Muddied when you visit these places. Careful to say this is about him, he wouldn’t be able to do all, others he knows can.

22:20 “What are the things that I take joy doing?” Knew wherever he went he would want to spend significant time in teaching, loves getting students excited about computer science. “The question was, if I’m spending time in this [teaching] is it going to be rewarded or not? Will the people around me say this is part of you excelling in your job or is it something…that’s an obstruction to your research?”

Told at one place the way to succeed was to make sure students don’t hate you but don’t do too much more. Feels like he is doing fewer hours because it is investing in things he wants to be doing.

25:00 First year of teaching really taxing but didn’t feel like he was doing as many hours as in his PhD. Something he wanted to invest time in. Towards end of PhD everything felt like a grind, exhausting. If teaching more then getting faster feedback. So the feedback loops are a lot faster but slower feedback loops in research can be tough. Took a long time to get first paper accepted. Can go years without those reward feelings it takes your toll.

26:40 The big shift to grad school. Difference in identity between undergrad and grad school; “In Grad School it’s really easy to fall into this trap that your identity is the work you are doing and that’s why these rejections feel so much more personal” because this is what he chose; Handling rejection by keeping on working, but pretty demoralising when rejections start piling up, but also short term thinking so did finally have a year when work comes through. But again a comparison point. An exhausting way to go about things,

28:40 Importance of making this message that there are alternatives in Liberal Arts schools. Integrating teaching and research. Saw another lab member to go to a liberal arts and still be able to do research so had a hint.

30:00 Making the decision in the end. Thinking about mobility in academia, some directions harder than others. One concern was about moving out of liberal arts to focus on research? And many school sin very rural areas. Big family decisions. Are these places we want to live? Factors that played into decision – visiting the campus and the faculty and getting a sense of people’s lives there. At Bucknell and some others, impressed with seriousness of work and also talking about other aspects of life – sole identity not inside the office.

32:35 One of the interesting side benefits of smaller school in a more isolated place is the community that forms around it is very strong, most people live within three miles of each, a real sense of community and that the community values not just you but your family; had meals provided for a month and half after daughter born. Those factors really important on the family side. And not conceding professionally either to deal with family side.

35:00 Biggest challenge moving from grad student to faculty member – working on 10 things at once, now time splintered, needing to be much more organised, needing to be productive with small pockets of time, need to be more deliberate about research. Understanding what your strengths are, the rhythm of the semester, being reflective. Different strategies during semester vs during summer. Now uses a calendar. Setting in calendar these are the time to do research, otherwise can always improve lectures. “So have to be deliberate about how you use your time.”

37:20 Learning process re being deliberate: Understanding where he can be high impact. Always concessions. “How can I be high impact given I’m not going to publish 4 papers a year, that I don’t have grad students, what topics are more high impact, what resources do I have and voices do I have in the community that other people have?” So in the first year he determined that his time in the classroom most valuable, working to what he was strong at. At some point “I only have this much time. What benefits the students the most? If I only had 2 hrs to prep for this, how am I going to spend those 2 hrs?” A little structure one year helps the next. Slow process getting the pieces that work together.

40:15 Always been reflective and strategic thinker to some degree. People around in grad school very reflective. Seeing value on reflecting on the structural pieces that help. More honed now out of necessity. More constrained about his resources and so has to think more about what would be valuable. Letting grad students know there is a huge spectrum of jobs. Could be miserable in grad school but be an excellent professor. Feel like he is a much better professor than a grad student. “Fits me a lot better.” Thought was a one off for a long time, not knowing what the landscape was. After faculty position, talked to senior grad students and same things came up. And they would be amazed that a place like this exists. 

43:40 [Option of liberal arts college] should be a liberating thought. In PhD where you start out with big visions about how you are going to change the world and do research and then realise it is only small corner of research and keep working, still excited, but somewhere along the lines think “Oh no, I’ve been working on something for 5, 6, 7 years, and maybe I’m in the wrong profession, or maybe I still love this stuff but the way but the way the jobs line up don’t seem very exciting. That’s just horrifying.”

44:45 Goes to a bigger picture of computer science education. All these students at all these universities, computers impact us in all parts of life, and students not at big research schools. All PhDs graduating, passionate about these ideas but not connecting pieces well. The best educators who leave or go to industry, not because it is best fit, but their personal priorities don’t map to the big research schools.

47:26 End

Related Links

Evan Peck: https://www.eg.bucknell.edu/~emp017/

Evan’s blog post on “The jobs I didn’t see: My misconceptions of the Academic job market”: https://medium.com/bucknell-hci/the-jobs-i-didnt-see-my-misconceptions-of-the-academic-job-market-9cb98b057422  

Rob Jacob: https://www.cs.tufts.edu/~jacob/

Liberal Arts College: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberal_arts_college

Andy Ko on being reflectively self-aware, deliberately structured, & amazingly productive

Andy Ko is an Associate Professor in the Information School at University of Washington. Building on Andy’s blog post, “How I sometimes achieve academic work life balance”, we explore lots of different perspectives about how he works at being structured and productive. The conversation ranges from his experiences doing a start up, learning planning skills from his mother, putting them to work at college, and adapting priorities while working in industry. Now back in academia, he shares his very deliberate practices around things like managing his PhD supervision, co-writing papers, running efficient meetings, quantifying time and tasks, managing to-do lists and the like. A common theme is that these are ‘simply’ skills and habits that are developed through repeated practice, discipline and self-awareness, and working to your strengths.

“That paradox of being structured and flexible at the same time… never enough time to do all the things we want to do… so there has to be flexibility… The only thing you can predict is how much time we have.”

“We all have different skills…and abilities to be self-aware and disciplined …most of this is practice… For anybody thinking about how to use their time more effectively they just have to first think about what skills they already have and... how to build practices around them… slowly incrementally over time… Much more about a process of learning and being reflective…and less about borrowing a particular strategy.”

He talks about (times approximate) …

1:54 Andy’s background and research area, and taking time in sabbatical to read deeply about learning science to support current research

4:04 Sabbatical just after tenure, and its relation to taking two year’s leave to do a start-up, “a good stressor on my productivity skills”, clear trajectory from career grant to start-up

6:14 The start-up process story – wanting to apply research in practice, and different goals of co-founder, resolving conflict of interests, getting in touch with potential customers, raising venture capital, building team and product, market plan; support of faculty important

09:44 Lessons learnt? Biggest mistake, not doing enough user research, forgetting enterprise customers were also users

11:54 Coming back to academia, hiring replacement CEO, CTO, and ongoing involvement as chief scientist (patent work and strategic R&D), now 1 day a week for the company

13:14 Previously working 60 hours a week, conversations with families/kids and getting consent from them re not being so available and ok with it, becoming talented at productivity, needing to be ruthless aboutprotecting time and using it wisely

15:24 Fundamental idea of having to invest time, economic model of how much time committed to different parties, “doing the most I can within that time” and then context switching

17:05 Compromises? Being present in the company 8-6 every day, then needing to be flexible eg meeting with students in evenings or at lunch; accepting research having to go slower, with result of sometimes helping eg student having to grow, and sometimes not; becoming more reflective about how much he gave and how much was needed

19:25 For supporting students with publications: “What’s the thing that they need to me, it’s not so much about how much time they need from me but what they need from me”; explicit discussion, developing more self awareness for self and students, and other downstream effects; confounded by getting or having tenure (how critical it is to get a publication done now)

21:24 New skills for managing different projects, keeping track of people’s state – capturing information 5 mins after a meeting about to remember for next meeting, and scheduling 5 mins before next meeting to catch up – using Apple’s notes app and document for each student as log of interactions, progress, challenges etc; also helps with context switching and shorter meetings

24:22 Shortened meeting times, there’s something about a 30 min meeting, more focused, forcing function of having to reflect on the purpose of the meeting sometimes even solves issue before the meeting; scaffold meeting by defining purpose, build prep/reading into the meeting time, more efficient use of time; value of physical documents, can’t hold smart phone, nudges towards engagement

28:15 Attribute most learning to deliberate practice … being organized, impact of watching mum being organized

30:39 At college, being obsessive around to-do lists because he was bad at remembering things; still do to-do lists, tools better now, task capture easier; helps a lot with faculty life with multiple responsibilities; using Omnifocus, 4000 open to-do items spanning 3 yrs, the discipline around future planning … “because that little tiny commitment muscle is practiced enough every time I remember... I capture it too”

36:12 Story of professor and research of prospective memory, learning about memory and opportunity to reflect on practice, capturing metadata around tasks, being very deliberate about what can fit in the time, and the value of having data to support that, and requiring discipline to capture that data in the first place; hard to begin those practices, because hard to judge what the future value will be

39:34 Setting a quota for types of work, being rational about commitments, we say numbers (50% research 30% teaching, 20% service) but ignore them entirely so tries to be committed to those numbers and to reciprocity principle eg with reviewing

41:54 “That paradox of being structured and flexible at the same time, that’s just the nature of the work we do. As researchers and scholars, we have this great privilege of all of this time in which to pursue our curiosity and do things that are valuable to the world and yet there is never enough time to do all the things we want to do so we are constantly balancing what we want to do and what we have time to do and trying to fit things into the time we have so there has to be that flexibility in balancing that structure as we don’t have predictable paths that we follow in the work we do. … The only thing you can predict is how much time we have.”

42:55 Usually does an 8-5 or 6 day – knows that when he burns out, thinking isn’t as clear, forgets to do things, stares at email longer than he should; using self awareness around own cognition that is valuable, doing things that are appropriate for level of consciousness and energy at the time

44:55 Most common reaction/question since the blog post – could never do what you do or how do I get started;

“we all have different skills we have developed over our lifetimes and abilities to be self-aware and disciplined and I do believe that most of this is practice, I’m really not much of an innate talent mindset… but the reality is that I have had a lot of practice at a lot of these things ... that allowed me to develop a certain set of practices that are very structured and mature. For anybody thinking about how to use their time more effectively they just have to first think about what skills they already have and how to build upon them, how to build practices around them. … build slowly incrementally over time … Much more about a process of learning and being reflective about that process and less about borrowing a particular strategy. … Very personal processes very tied to our ability to self regulate and discipline our behavior.”

47:24 Now researching software developers and their self-regulation skills – even teaching novice students self regulation skills increase their productivity, self-efficacy and their growth mindset because of awareness

50:52 End

Related Links

Andy's blog post: “How I sometimes achieve academic work life balance” - https://medium.com/bits-and-behavior/how-i-sometimes-achieve-academic-work-life-balance-4bbfc1769820

Jacob Wobbrock - https://faculty.washington.edu/wobbrock/

Start-up: AnswerDash - https://www.answerdash.com

Tool: Omnifocus - https://www.omnigroup.com/omnifocus