How Do the Best Professors Work?

October 2nd, 2007 by jose

Note: this is a contributed post by Cal Newport. If you like this, check his study hacks blog for more. If you have an interesting idea that supercharges your productivity and want to share it with our community, feel free to send it to us using the contact form. We’d certainly want to hear it!


I’m a graduate student. A fourth year PhD candidate at MIT, to be precise. And I have an annoying habit. Whenever I get a chance to collaborate, chat, or hang around with successful professors in my field, I like to find out about their work habits. In doing so, I’ve discovered the following two trends:

  1. The best young professors carve out a day each week to do nothing but research. This prevents the administrative nonsense that dominates their early professional lives from bringing their research momentum to a complete stop.
  2. The best, distinguished, older professors — those who have earned light teaching schedules and have paid their dues on enough committees that in their final years before retirement can begin to untangle themselves from these obligations — isolate administrative nonsense to a small number of days. They might even, for example, have a single day each week to take care of this crap, and then spend the other four thinking big thoughts.

Graduate students exist in an interesting middle ground between these two extremes. We don’t have the administrative burden of a young professor. On the other hand, unlike older, distinguished professors, we can’t get away with mainly just thinking big thoughts. They can do this because their young grad student collaborators — i.e., us — will take care of the time-consuming grunt work on actually writing papers.Keeping these two examples in mind, however, I devised an innovative schedule for my graduate student work week. I’ve used it for over a year now, and have been really pleased with its results. It works as follows:

The 3 + 2 Graduate Student Work Week

Designate one day each week to be your Administrative Nonsense Day

Spend this entire day taking care of any work on your plate that doesn’t directly connect to the task of conducting research and writing research papers. This is when I fill out forms, return library books, hand in reimbursement paperwork, call the cable guy, and add new publications to my web site. You get the idea…

Designate one day each week to be your Big Idea Day

Spend this entire day doing literature search and brainstorming on that research project you’ve always day-dreamed about, but have been to afraid to mention to your advisor. If you don’t set aside this time, you will get stuck in the rut of happenstance papers — the projects you fall into out of convenience or advisorial coercion. This work is fine. It’s how you earn your research stripes. But some time along the way you have to be fighting to make your own mark.

Use the Other Three Days to Get Your Normal Work Done

Most of what we do as graduate students is working on various stages of the paper-writing process. This spans cleaning up numbers in Excel to editing the related work section of a journal submission. Use these three days to get this work done. Because you isolated the administrative nonsense on another day, you might be surprised by how much gets accomplished in just 60% of the week. I like to make my Admin Day on Monday and my Big Idea Day on Friday, so this work can happen consecutively in the middle of the week; but preferences differ here.That’s it. A simple structure. But sometimes it’s the simplest changes that yield the most consistent results over time. This approach, of course, gets complicated by classes, group meetings, and collaborators who don’t know about (or, frankly care) that a certain day is your big idea day. So it will never apply perfectly. But even the attempt can make a difference…

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13 Responses to “How Do the Best Professors Work?”

  1. CarolNo Gravatar Says:

    Great post, Jose. Sounds like a very effective plan.

    However, you CAN avoid dealing with most of the “administrative nonsense” all together. All you’d have to do is partner with a Virtual Assistant and pass along most of it to her (or him). That would then give you two “Big Idea” days. ;)

  2. pqsNo Gravatar Says:

    Then plan looks sound. But I guess, in my case, I should add debugging/hacking day.

  3. CalNo Gravatar Says:


    Have you actually tried the virtual assistant approach in an academic environment? If so, I would love to hear about it!

    - Cal

  4. CarolNo Gravatar Says:

    Cal, I am a Virtual Assistant. You can check out or email me at for more information on how a Virtual Assistant can help you.

  5. Study Hacks » Blog Archive » Weekend Links: Stop Working on Fridays, Meet Better People, and Become Perplexed by Cal's Prolificness Says:

    [...] How Do the Best Professors Work? | Academic Productivity A guest post I wrote for Academic Productivity about how I schedule my work week as a graduate student (hint: it’s inspired by the work habits of top professors). [...]

  6. Bunch your obligations-earn yourself a “Big Idea Day” « Getting Things Done in Academia Says:

    [...] worth of emails to return, forms to fill out, and papers to grade. This is the argument made by Cal Newport in a nifty discussion of “best practices” by professors and graduate [...]

  7. momNo Gravatar Says:

    Great in theory, except that administrative nonsense doesn’t behave sometimes — e.g., you call someone, they aren’t there, your appointment for X can’t be made on that day, etc.

    And, that sometimes you can’t do your “normal work” for 10 hours on end — writers burn out, sore eyes, etc.

    I am a young prof at an R1 and I save 3-5pm, my least productive time of the day, for administrivia, coffee mtgs, etc. I’m on leave so now I do it 5x a week, but when teaching I do it 3x a week, and have office hours on the other days during the same slot.

    Just an alternative idea.

  8. Study Hacks » Blog Archive » How to Use an Administrative Day to Significantly Increase Your Weekly Productivity Says:

    [...] couple weeks back, I wrote a post for Academic Productivity about how I structure my work week as a graduate student. I want to [...]

  9. Shemsedin ThaqiNo Gravatar Says:

    it would be better to have an assisten and then you really get the big idea

  10. Antique Wood CarvingsNo Gravatar Says:

    this is a great read.
    although nothing is going to work out perfect,
    the idea and concept of putting certain things to be done on certain days can definitely help with your focus.

    you can concentrate on one thing that day,
    not having to juggle your thoughts.

  11. InvisalignNo Gravatar Says:

    With a bachelors, most teachers make between 30-50K a year starting salary. Professors start from 40-60K. If you want to know exact numbers, simply go to any school district or public university website and locate the “teacher salary scale”. By law, any public school or institution must publicly post salaries paid to its employees. You might have to search around their human resources site, but I assure you it’s there.

  12. Divide and conquer… your academic workweek « Academic Lifehacker Says:

    [...] and conquer… your academic workweek I was recently re-inspired by this post over at Academic Productivity. I had tagged it ages ago, but never gave serious consideration to [...]

  13. Work habits | ProfessorTime’s Weblog Says:

    [...] the lesson is, find your own style and go with what works for you.  Academic Productivity posted some tips from how the best professors work that might be useful.  Glean what you can and [...]

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