Making the most of your summer

Faculty members offer tips for balancing work and relaxation.

June 9, 2015

Spring semester is over and, at most college campuses, things have quieted down. But for many professors, empty lecture halls result in little respite. For most, the summer break finally allows them to catch up on their work, and do more traveling, writing, and professional development activities without interruption. That can leave them with little time to recuperate before the next academic year begins.

But with the right habits, academics can have a summer that’s both productive and regenerative, said Timothy Slater, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Wyoming and blogger at the time-management website

“At the end of the school year, professors feel tired, and disconnected from their families,” he said. “Most know that they need rest in order to be motivated to be at full speed by August, so they take time off and don’t think about their jobs. Or they spend summer frantically trying to read and write everything they need to in a short three-month period to catch up.” Both tactics, he said, are ineffective.

To find the right balance this summer, try these tips from faculty members who’ve mastered the art of summer time management:

When you are working, be disciplined. Slater recommends that educators who aren’t teaching in the summer try something counterintuitive: set their alarms extra early.

“Ben Franklin was right about being early to rise,” he said. “The most productive academics get up early, even on vacation.” Inspired by a 2012 book, The Miracle Morning, by Hal Elrod, Slater insists that getting even a one-hour head start on your day while everyone else is asleep can help you be more focused and effective throughout the day, especially if you have written out a schedule.

“The most important strategy any academic can have is a routine,” he advised. “The most productive ones know ahead of time every day what they’re doing at 6:30 a.m., 11 a.m., and 3:30 p.m.”

The idea that college professors get a break when students are away during the summer is a myth, said Timothy Fogarty, CPA, J.D., Ph.D., a professor of accountancy at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. “Faculty who are research-active look at the summer as their best opportunity to make meaningful progress. I am just as engaged during the summer as I am at any other time, both in teaching and research.”

Strike a balance. Rest is essential to staying on top of your game though. When you write your schedule for the week, set regular hours and include time for breaks. 

Professor Tory Vornholt, J.D., M.S., says that spending brief intervals at the national recreation area near her home increases her productivity. “I can hike a trail or paddle on the river for an hour or two, either before or after working or even as a break midday. A short break outside helps me to be more focused on my work,” said Vornholt, who teaches accounting at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School and Agnes Scott College in Atlanta. Strategies like these, Vornholt said, help her get as much work done during a summer week as during the academic year,

It’s important to honor your breaks, even if you’re tempted to keep working. Even 15 minutes away and some fresh air can improve your focus when you return.

Get a jump on the coming semester. The summer is an ideal time to refine course syllabuses, assignments, and lectures, refreshing references and incorporating research you’ve done over the summer.

Kevin Jackson, CPA, Ph.D., has used the past two summers to prerecord his lectures on video, another way to get an advance on the fall semester.

“I essentially ‘flipped’ my classroom so students watch the lectures on their computers at home,” said Jackson, an associate professor of accountancy at the University of Illinois. “When students come to class, we apply what they learned to different scenarios. Working through the material while we are in class helps students discover and resolve their questions together.” This summer, Jackson is designing an online course, another way of using technology to deliver material to students.

Knocking out small tasks such as finalizing rubrics, setting up an online portal for students, and finishing footnotes during the summer can also save you precious time when students come back to class.

Don’t unplug entirely. With fewer department meetings and many colleagues out of the office, summer is an easy time to disconnect. Don’t give in to that temptation. It’s crucial to read, stay abreast of current issues, and network by attending professional activities like conferences.

From national meetings to professional development seminars, Vornholt will be traveling throughout the summer to meet with professional peers, she said.

“During the school year, so much of my time is spent with students, in class, holding office hours, advising students, and attending student organizational meetings, as well as attending faculty meetings,” she said. “Summer is much more conducive to travel and conferences because you don’t have to schedule around these events.”

Summer can also be an ideal time to get back in touch with the day-to-day business of accounting by completing an internship or externship. If it’s been a long time since you were steeped in an audit for a high-stakes account, spending the summer doing practical accounting can remind you of what it’s like. Experiences such as externships can enhance your expertise and credibility, bring you up to speed on current trends and practices, and help you ensure your students hit the job market with the most desirable skills.

Though your work may not slow down during the summer, the break from classes and office hours will at least give you the flexibility to take greater control over your schedule. Use your time wisely and you’ll find yourself feeling both satisfied with what you’ve accomplished and refreshed for the coming school year.
Samiha Khanna is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C.