How I work

By Marko J. Spasojevic

There is this idea going around that to be successful as an academic you must work 60+ hours a week. This isn’t new, but despite many people’s best effort to dispel it (Meghan Duffy has a nice post about this, the idea persists. It is even in official graduate student handbooks “Most academics devote 60+ hours a week; students should expect to devote similar hours. Consequently, students should expect to be engaged in their academic pursuits on occasions at night and during weekends.”

More recently, on Feb 5th a tweet by Nicholas Christakis set the twitterverse off with this tweet.


The article highlighted in this tweet was a small survey (N=30) at one institution (Boise State University) and suggested that academics on average work 60 hours a week. You can read the article here and the twitter comments here.

Instead of trying to write about how working 60+ hours a week is unrealistic, bad for your productivity, bad for your health, and generally a terrible idea, I am going to do something else. I am going to take a page from the productivity blog Lifehacker and do a series of “How I Work” interviews. The goal here is to demonstrate that there are many ways to be successful in academia and students, post-docs, and professors need to find the approach that is best for them. I will be posting interviews from people at all stages (grad students, post-docs, professors), so that we can start to get an idea of the things that might help people be more effective and efficient with their time so that they don’t have to work 60 hours a week.

So, to start things off…

I am UC-Riverside Assistant Professor Marko Spasojevic, and This Is How I Work.

I am plant community ecologists working at the interface of ecology, biogeography and conservation. My broad goal is to understand the mechanisms that influence patterns of biodiversity, and then to use that understanding to address environmental issues. My research combines large-scale observational studies across biogeographic regions, field experiments, functional and phylogenetic approaches, and advanced statistics and modeling to address environmental issues and to explore fundamental questions in ecology.

Location: University of California, Riverside

Current Position: Assistant Professor

One word that best describes how you work: Efficient

Current Mobile Device: iPhone (though I think the now dead Windows phones were the best)

Current Computer: PC

Current Statistics Program: Mix of R and JMP

Current Reference Management Software: EndNote

First of all, tell us about your background and how you got to where you are today.

I was generally interested in science as a kid, but after high school I didn’t know what I wanted to do, with myself and my family couldn’t afford college, so I joined the Army. My last posting in the Army was in Hawaii and I spent much of my free time SCUBA diving, so I figured when I got home Marine Biology was the way to go. When I actually got back home to Seattle and went diving I learned the water was really, really cold, and I didn’t really want to do Marine Biology. So I ended up taking a plant taxonomy course simply because it fit into my schedule and this lead to a summer job doing vegetation surveys on Mt. St. Helens. Studying how the vegetation was returning after the eruption is where I fell in love with ecology – I was fascinated to see the variation across the landscape in how the plant communities were developing. After I graduated from undergrad, I did a post-bac working with Penguins in Argentina and then went on to do my Ph.D. with Katie Suding working at the Niwot Ridge LTER. Next, I did a postdoc with Susan Harrison at UC-Davis, a postdoc with Jonathan Myers at WashU, and finally a postdoc with Katie Suding at CU boulder before landing my position here at UC-Riverside.

How do you organize your day? I depends on my teaching schedule, but I try to set aside the morning for writing and working on my projects and then set aside the afternoons for meetings. This doesn’t always work, but I know I write best in the morning, so I try the best I can to block out some time then.

What is your best time saving short-cut?  For me there are times I hit a wall on a project (writing, analysis, etc) and I found that it’s easier to come back to this wall fresh (the next day) rather than try and power through it. When I try and power through, things take longer than if I give something a little time to marinate. So, when I hit a wall, I switch over to another project or to answering emails – usually something that doesn’t require the same level of deep thought.

How do you manage your to-do list? I moved away from a true list and started using a program/app called Trello. It allows me to organize projects, add deadlines, and add collaborators (i.e. I have a Trello board I share with my grad student, so we can plan and keep track of progress). It’s been a huge help in keeping on top of projects. I used to have a big spreadsheet, but it wasn’t dynamic enough to be really useful. In Trello I can move thigs around and it has helped me keep organized

What apps, software, or tools do you use (if any)? Trello and a calendar for organization. Twitter for keeping on top of the literature.

How do you balance multiple projects/demands (teaching/research/service/etc.)? I try to block out chunks of time for each. I have a problem of saying yes to too many collaborations and I am still working on learning to say no. I am still trying to figure out how to better balance teaching and research (see next question).

What’s your biggest struggle in the workplace? My biggest struggle as a new professor has been balancing teaching and research. I have a relatively high course load for a new professor at a R1 and a lot of my time has been dedicated to building and improving lectures. The biggest help has been hiring a lab manager to help get projects off the ground. Definitely hire a lab manager when you start your lab.

What do you listen to while you work? Music. I find it hard to work when it is too quiet. I usually listen to something more upbeat, but it depends on my mood. Podcasts, require too much of my attention

What is the most interesting journal article you read recently? Graae et al. 2018 Stay or go – how topographic complexity influences alpine plant population and community responses to climate change. Perspectives in Plant Ecology, Evolution and Systematics 30:41-50

How do you recharge? Lately, low energy things: reading, movies, or videogames. Since we have a 1 year old at home it is hard to find time to get out and exercise or to find cooking relaxing. I have a group of dads I play videos games with online who have been great for talking about new dad stuff.

What is your routine like? Early-riser, or night owl? Early-riser. I absolutely cannot work in the evenings. My brain is too fried.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received? Early in grad school my Ph.D. my advisor Katie asked me if I wanted to be an alpine ecologist or a community ecologist. This question made me think about how I had been framing my research and that if I wanted to be a community ecologist, I needed to think beyond my system and think about theory and “big questions”.

Fill in the blank: I’d love to see _________ answer these same questions. Someone who just got tenure

So that’s it for the first one. In the next few months you will be seeing more of these from the widest variety of people that will respond to my email. I hope these help us all find ways to work smarter, more efficiently and fewer hours.

Author Biography: Marko Spasojevic is an Assistant Professor at UC-Riverside. He is a plant community ecologist who works in alpine, serpentine, and forest ecosystems. His research seeks to understand the mechanisms that influence patterns of biodiversity, and then to use that understanding to address environmental issues. He received his Ph.D. in 2010 from UC-Irvine, was a postdoc at UC-Davis, Washington University in St. Louis, and CU-Boulder before joining the faculty at UC-Riverside in 2016. You can find him on twitter @M_J_Spasojevic or via email at

Photo 1 Credit: Twitter (@NAChristakis)

Categories: Career

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