New Prof Struggles: Managerial Leverage vs. Academic Passion

Sauvik Das
5 min readJul 25, 2019


I’ve been faculty at Georgia Tech for just over 1 year now. One of the final pieces of advice my advisor gave me as I left Carnegie Mellon was to read Andy Grove’s book High Output Management. I bought it right away, but never truly committed to reading it until this summer. “Manager” is not an identity I have ever knowingly sought. If anything, it was one I actively resisted: managers do not do, and what I want to do is do.

My thinking has changed since I read that book. Professors are managers. We may not only be managers, but we are managers. If we reject that identity, it doesn’t change the reality. While I don’t agree with everything in the book (specifically, that output should be our sole focus), I learned some useful concepts and it has been educational transplanting them to the faculty context. Chief among these is “leverage,” and how it is the one of most important considerations when judging how to allocate one’s time as a manager.

Leverage is simple to understand in the abstract: it’s the impact of a given action. As a manager, one’s output is the cumulative output of one’s team. As a professor, one’s output is the cumulative output of one’s lab — the papers, the students, the talks, the consultations, etc. Actions with high leverage increase this cumulative output more significantly than actions with low leverage.

For example, 1:1 meetings with your Ph.D. students are usually high-leverage activities. In one hour, you are positively shaping what your student does for a week. Moreover, you are training them. Over time, they will become more independent and need fewer such meetings to do great work. That’s the idea, at least.

Meddling with one’s students work by helicopter advising, however, can be a negative leverage activity. Your student will never feel empowered to be independent and will need your constant attention. You might be underutilizing excessive amounts of your own time and smothering your student all at once.

Writing grants is a high-leverage activity: a few weeks worth of writing can potentially impact 2–3 years of work in your lab. It could impact the career trajectories of your students.

Teaching can be a high-leverage activity: ten hours per week might materially impact the thoughts and careers of dozens, if not hundreds, of students. It can also be negative leverage if done poorly: you’ll still be spending time doing it, but your students might get little out of it. It can be tough to “count” the outputs of your teaching as being directly related to your actions as a teacher, though — there usually isn’t an academic paper at the end of it.

Broadly speaking, delegation is high-leverage. But, according to Grove, you should only delegate what you know how to do, so that you can use your expertise to oversee the process and make sure it goes smoothly. If you delegate what you do not know how to do well, and do not ensure that there is some kind of reliable oversight over the delegated activity, you will have no way to know that what is being produced is good. In Grove’s words, “delegation without oversight is abdication.”

So, what about programming? Programming oneself is, I suppose, usually low leverage. One hour of your time is one hour of productivity. While your one hour might produce greater output than a student’s one hour, there’s still a relatively constant closed-form relationship.

An exception might be if you’re programming something that will help your students do their work — e.g., creating a platform that greatly facilitates the activities they must conduct to get their work done. But, if you’re good at programming, you should probably delegate that task to your students if there’s a good fit.

The upshot? To ensure high leverage, you should try to delegate away the things you’re good at to your students and use your time figuring out what you don’t know how to do well but that might be useful for the activities of your lab (e.g., learning new methods, new skills). If you train yourself well, you can later delegate that task and make it high-leverage as well.

This is all the theory, anyway. It’s not my practice. Not yet. There are intangibles. Opportunity cost. Mental health. I like to code, and if I never get to code, I will be unhappy. Being unhappy is negative leverage —how can you expect your student to be motivated about their work if you aren’t? Also, “output” isn’t the only thing that matters, anyway. I also care about things like creating a welcoming and inclusive environment for my students, and that is independent of any “output” benefits.

I like to code. I like to write blog posts. I like to make YouTube videos. Most of what I do, I do without thinking about leverage. This has been my greatest struggle, so far, as I’ve transitioned from grad student to faculty: managing my time as a manager, instead of as a grad student. I’ll make a YouTube video, and then feel guilty about if I could have been doing something with higher leverage instead. I’ll probably get better at figuring this out, but part of me remains resistant.

By the way, I actually do like being a professor-manager. I get a lot of joy out of teaching and advising. Also, it’s a new challenge and I like those.

What do you think? What are the “high leverage” activities that you think faculty should do? What are “low leverage” activities that you engage in just because you enjoy them, leverage be damned?

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Sauvik Das

Assistant Professor of Human-Computer Interaction at Carnegie Mellon University. Formerly at Georgia Tech. Ph.D. from CMU HCII. HCI, Security, Data Science.