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Academic life

Managing expectations

When my daughter was little, the very-real exhaustion of parenting meant that sometimes it was easier to cave in to the demands of a toddler than to argue. What I quickly learned though, is that if I agreed to carry her home from day care one day, I better be ready to do it every day. Same went for any other breaks in routine: ice cream at lunch, extra stories at bedtime, etc. Eventually I had the wherewithal to ask myself, if you do this once, are you prepared to do it every day? There’s no greater lesson in managing expectations than dealing with an unruly toddler.

The unruly toddlers of academia

Much like children, your work colleagues, supervisors, and students will quickly pick up on your boundaries – or lack thereof. A few examples of the kinds of habits that set expectations:

  • Responding to emails immediately and/or after hours and on weekends
  • Regularly agreeing to meeting times that conflict with your research and writing time
  • Being responsive to messages and doing work while on vacation
  • Saying yes right away to service requests

These habits teach people what to expect from you, and once an expectation is set, it can be difficult to change. Your boss probably won’t have a full-on temper tantrum in the hallway, but you never know.

Managing expectations is much like setting boundaries. However, it doesn’t necessarily require a direct conversation or a firm rule. Rather, you’re creating norms that communicate what others can expect of you.

Ways of managing expectations

With students, you can use the syllabus as an expectation management guide. Here, you can let students know what to expect in terms of email response times, meeting times, how long grading will take, etc. Keep in mind, though, that if you specify that you don’t check email after 6pm but you regularly reply well after that, that will become the new expectation.

If you don’t want your research and writing time interrupted every week, block chunks of your Outlook calendar off ahead of time to dissuade meeting requests. This communicates the expectation that you’re not available during this time and that you don’t regularly sacrifice research time for service. If it happens once in while, that’s fine. But it will not become the norm.

Use auto-reply features early and often! Or, use your email signature to convey a message. When you’re away, auto-reply lets people know not to expect a response. A note in your email signature can also inform people of your normal email response times.

Normalize taking time before saying yes to a request. You can acknowledge the request and let them know you’ll need a couple of days to consider it. Unless it’s truly urgent, this communicates the idea that you aren’t an “automatic yes” person.

You set the tone

It can be difficult to set firm boundaries in academia, especially given the dangerous hierarchies that keep many people in insecure positions. Nonetheless, most of us have to power to create some norms around what others can expect of us. You’re not only doing yourself a favour by managing expectations, you’re also setting an example for your students and colleagues. Take some time to ask yourself: what expectations have I set up, and are they serving me well?