scientist feeling bored due to administrative duty

#118: How to tackle tedious admin tasks?

We have all had our experiences with administrative hurdles and likely been driven up the walls more than once in failed attempts and wasted hours trying to figure out how exactly we’re supposed to complete a particular admin task. In this blogpost we will let you know why admin tasks are as annoying as they are–you might be surprised! We’ll also share concrete advice on how to keep calm and process admin tasks quickly in our free worksheet: “8 tricks to efficiently deal with admin tasks.”

Do you know a scientist who loves admin tasks? Let us know, because we have not yet encountered anyone in science with that particular preference. It’s more like admin tasks are the dreaded duties that remain undone after we’ve accomplished every last possible task, or are done last-minute before a looming deadline. 

Have you tried to fill-in a form for the university administration that took you hours to complete? Tried to apply for a grant to fund your post-doc project and had it rejected due to a ‘formal error’ (no further explanation given)? We have all had our experiences with administrative hurdles and have been driven up the walls more than once in failed attempts and wasted hours trying to figure out how to complete a particular admin task. 

Administrative tasks must be performed in order to maintain the scientific workplace. They are not at the heart of our work as scientists, but merely have to be done in order to achieve something else or because someone else in the organisation requires us to do them. 

But the problem often is not only that we don’t like them–it’s more that we feel that there are extra hurdles that make them a lot more complicated than they should be. A seemingly easy administrative task can thus become a real nuisance and turn into a lengthy, unwinnable endeavor. 

With this blogpost, we will shed light on the murky waters of admin stuff. We’ll expose why they are as annoying as they are, which will already make you feel a lot better about them. But on top of that, we’ll share valuable advice on how to keep calm and process admin tasks efficiently in our free worksheet: “8 tricks to efficiently deal with admin tasks.”

Examples of admin work in research

The list of tedious admin tasks in science is virtually endless. There are admin tasks that are straightforward but quite simply boring–think of labelling the chemicals in your lab. But some admin tasks involve multiple players, either several scientists or university administration, or external players, like a funding agency. This often makes the process of completion more complicated because it’s not you simply completing a taskit’s someone else demanding you complete a task in a certain way. 

We’ll drop a few common examples below, so you get the full picture of what we’re talking about:

Reimbursement of travel expenses: 

You’ve got to fill in a form to get your personal money back after attending a scientific event. Effectively you borrowed money from the university and you’ve got to spend hours now to claim back what was yours in the first place. 

Changes to your personal profile on departmental website: 

You’ve got a publication record of 15 peer-reviewed papers, but the departmental website still only lists the 7 you had when you started your current position. To get the changes displayed online, you’ve got to fill-in a form (yes, again) in which you apply to make the respective updates, get it signed-off by your head of department and IT. It will then sit on someone’s desk for weeks, only being processed with the next lot of updates while you could easily log-on to the website and make the changes yourself in 15 minutes if only you had permission to do so. 

Ordering a new computer: 

You were granted a new computer because your old one’s not able to run the latest software updates anymore and you can’t do the required analyses for a pending research paper. You filled in a form (once more), got it past your line manager and forwarded it to the purchasing department. You’ve not heard from them for weeks, and have not received any updates on when the computer will arrive. Your e-mails are met with silence, and your calls are met with disdain (how dare you call?) and the most friendly answer you got is: we’re really sorry, but we don’t have any information as to when your PC will be delivered. 

Reporting to the funding agency: 

As the PI, you’ve got to write the annual report of what the team did and send it to the funding agency. Describing the procedures, deliverables, plus describing why the team is delayed with a few things and asking for an extension will easily amount to an 80 page-project that’ll take you days if not weeks to complete (chasing down team-members for missing information not included). You’ve got an inkling that the entire thing won’t be read by a single soul, and a decision will be made upon criteria unknown to you anyway.

Credit points for PhD education: 

You’ve kept track of the courses you took during your PhD and according to your account you’ve got the 30 ECTS credits that are needed to hand in the dissertation. However, the record of the graduate school shows only 27 ECTS points to your name. If you want to avoid taking further courses worth the 3 missing credits, you’ve got to assemble your entire record of course activities during your PhD years. You’ve got to go through them, double-check the credit-points, re-submit the whole lot to the grad school and hope for the best. 

Repairs for broken equipment: 

We’ve had many scientists in our courses who were literally stalled for weeks because of broken equipment. There was either insufficient money for repair, or it took months to order the particular missing part or get the specialist in house to carry out the repair. Sometimes the process was delayed because university admin needed to buy the part or contract the company with the cheapest offer. 

Enrol as PhD candidate: 

If you continue at the same university at which you studied for your Masters in the same subject area, there’s usually no problem. But if you are coming from a different country or you switched subject areas, then the process is more complicated. The university administration has to prove that you are eligible for a PhD, and there is some wiggle room for them to decide if you can go ahead, or if you have to sit a few courses again, or if you’re rejected altogether. If you’re a ‘complicated case,’ it can take months before a decision is made. What makes it often hard to bear is that the decision-making process is opaque and the final decision itself is made behind closed doors by people you don’t know. We’ve reported about such a case in blogpost #114: PhD-journey with obstacles and happy end! 

While some of the above mentioned examples are only a small nuisance and marginally affect your ability to do your research, others can severely impact your progress and make you so upset that it is virtually impossible to focus on anything else. It’s not only the actual physical blockade or time-drain you may experience, but the mental impact these incidents have on you. 

How do scientists typically react?

When we’ve performed an admin task (take any of the above) while working as researchers, we usually get seriously frustrated before even starting the job. We’d spend hours arguing why it was impossible to do what we had to do, and we would try to figure out what could be changed in the form or the process to make it manageable for scientists. We would feel unfairly treated, wondering why no-one even remotely considered how complicated it would be for us as scientists to work on the admin task. We would get upset and only when there was no other way forward, finally get around to doing the job grudgingly and with resentment. Never would we ‘just do it’ so it was out of the way. 

Getting worked-up and seriously annoyed about an admin task is a rather common reaction for scientists. Participants in our courses have mentioned that they were so occupied with ongoing frustrating admin tasks that they were severely distracted from the ‘real stuff–the important tasks necessary to achieve our research goals. Instead of getting up in the morning and thinking about their research projects, they would get up and start dwelling on the challenging admin task right away. 

Another typical reaction is to procrastinate–simply trying to avoid the admin job altogether, until the final deadline. Which then may still cause us to feel unfairly treated and personally attacked. 

Do these typical reactions of scientists make sense? No! They do more harm than good and do not contribute to progress on the task either. So why do we react this way?

Scientists work with a different mindset

The answer is simple: Because we are scientists and as such, we approach administrative tasks with a scientific mindset and skillset, and that doesn’t work. We analyse, we want to know why, understand the underlying mechanisms, we build arguments to prove that we are right and the administration is wrong, or at the very least we assemble evidence that there’s something fundamentally flawed in the administration’s procedures or forms. And if we were in charge, we would set them up in a ‘better’ way. 

In his short post, “Why academics fail in administrative jobs?” Dalit (2016) notes that admin jobs require a totally different mindset and organisational approach than academia. He argues that academics have totally different work styles and learned behaviours that lead to success, and concludes that many academics fail at admin work because they approach it with academic workflow and communication styles. While Dalit is talking about researchers taking on administrative positions, it’s clearly the same mechanisms at work when researchers have to perform individual admin tasks. 

A further point worth mentioning: While research requires deep-thinking, you barely have to think to handle most administrative duties (see academic.stackexchange 2019). But that is precisely what we do when approaching an admin task–think deeply! However, that’s completely out of place and hinders us in completing the task. 

And a last one: In science, perfection is often the standard. Our work has to be excellent. We’re so used to our high quality standards that we try to do an admin job ‘perfectly.’ But that is pointless for most admin tasks which simply have to be done. More about how perfectionism can hinder you in completing tasks swiftly in blogpost no. 69: What a cucumber taught me about perfectionism

How should we react?

Most admin tasks are things we have no say on nor the executive power to change. We’ve got to accept this, even if it might be hard to swallow. 

As scientists, we prioritise and value our research and research-related tasks highest. That’s ok! But you’ll never have a job as a scientist where you can dedicate 100% of your time to research. Accept that administration is part of the job as well. So from the outset, make time for processing admin-tasks, even if they seem trivial or boring. 

If you become aware that you’ll actually trip yourself up if you approach an admin task with a scientist’s mindset, you can adjust. You really need to switch-off your academic brain, become aware that you are about to work on an admin task, focus on getting the job done, and then switch back to your scientific mindset.

But there are many concrete steps you should definitely take in your daily approach to administrative tasks to take them all in stride. In our free worksheet: “8 tricks to efficiently deal with admin tasks” we’ve assembled solid advice to help you process admin tasks easily while staying sane! Implement these tricks now to save time and spare your nerves. 

You’ll be surprised how easy your admin tasks really are once you’ve overcome your mental hurdles and tackle them in the right way. 

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