Billable Hours-Faculty Edition

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I was recently caught off guard in the very best way. I was on a Zoom call with some colleagues in both academia and in industry and the call was wrapping up. We were sharing ‘good-bye’s’ and ‘have a good day’ sign offs and I brought up a big conference that we would all likely go to. As I mentioned it, my colleague, who is in industry, brought up a good point that we in academia often forget about.

“I lose so many billable hours if I go to this conference.”

As I get entrenched in the grants and contracts portion of my position, I had never thought about my work the way my colleague in industry does, as a billable hour. We talk about our time in percentages and buying out our time means x number of hours per week, but I had NEVER considered how many billable hours I would be able to give to each of my projects and then figure out the value of those billable hours. If there’s 40 hours in a typical workweek, I’m spending 10-12 of them grading and class planning, which is more than 20%. When you think about it, it’s a skewed model, but what if my ONLY job was to work on grants and contracts?

What does it mean to be a younger faculty member? It means counting that, acting as your own boss in many ways, and hustling for the next collaboration, grant submission, and publication while teaching, advising, and participating in service for the university.

When we begin thinking of ourselves as entrepreneurs, what happens to the public science for the public good? It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. If I start thinking of my time in billable hours instead of science for the public good, will it change or alter the nature of my work? Will it devalue it or help it increase in value? I don’t know the answer, but it’s caused me a pregnant pause.

Back to the conference conversation: I can’t go due to a major event that I cannot miss, but when I think about it in billable hours, it makes even more sense to NOT go. Part of me really hates to miss it, another part of me is bummed that I think of it in billable hours or as a % of my time and value, but the travel, money, and trying to gauge how many meaningful connections I MIGHT have aren’t tangible enough.

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One thought on “Billable Hours-Faculty Edition

  1. I am also toggling between these two perspectives of thought on a daily basis. I think this topic will come up more frequently in the next decade as academia intertwines with industry even more. I am a faculty who is 100% soft money and I like it that way. It gives me the freedom to work on projects that are for the public good and motivates me to secure more funding to keep working for the public good. I have a team (some may call a lab) that function the same way. As the PI it’s also my responsibility to secure funding for my team. The burden of that responsibility is lifted when I know what we are doing is for the public good and I don’t feel guilty in viewing our time as billable hours to keep doing the good work we are doing. To me, percent efforts is just another unit. However you look at it, percent efforts or billable hours, it’s still a unit of time. It has increased the value of our work from both sides. As a team we are better stewards of our time. From our sponsor’s perspective, they see us a partner of the same team rather than an awarded contractor. It’s been good for both sides.

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