Thursday, September 15, 2011

How to use the help of an administrative assistant

In the US professors enjoy the support of administrative assistants who help them work more efficiently by doing some of their tasks for them. In France administrative support is low, and the general attitude is that people manage by themselves and only go to the department administrative support when they stumble onto a block and there is something that they cannot do by themselves.

Here in the US, when I do specific tasks for the department (such as PhD admissions or recruiting), I have lots of precious help from the department administrative staff. But I am thinking about the many day-to-day tasks that go with being a professor, mostly having to do with my individual work, not with department service. For those tasks, what do theoreticians use their staff help for?

For example, does everybody other than me use them to book their travels? I feel funny having my assistant choose the time and cost of my tickets, or the tradeoff location/cost of lodging, so I do it myself, but even the simplest travel takes at least a couple of hours to arrange, I have found.

Does anyone use them to manage email? There is a mix of personal and general content of emails to me, and I find it hard to imagine my assistant dealing with it, so a different approach to email might be required. Does anyone use them for journal editor work or NSF panel work or conference program committee work? for advising students? For setting up visits? In all those cases, although a significant fraction of my time is spent doing things that could in principle be delegated ("How do I download those papers?" "What are the degree requirements for a Master's, track 2?" "Will this particular course be taught next year?", etc), they are inextricably intertwined with questions that are impossible to delegate, and I do not know how to separate the two. As a result, I am really not using my administrative help hardly at all for matters other than department committee service.
How do other people do it?


  1. Interesting. Most bus schools let faculty control the size of the admin staff: the dept is given a budget, and if they spend less on staff, they're given more in their expense accounts for travel, hardware, software, etc. We've found that most of prefer a lean staff and larger budgets, even if that means we book our own travel. At the same time, we've raised the quality of staff, and they do much more than menial tasks.

  2. We have a pool of assistants, maybe one per 15 faculty members. The last time I tried letting one of them book my travel (maybe five years ago) she got my hotel reservation off by a day by not noticing that my flight to Europe arrived the day after it left. Of course it's a mistake I might have made myself but it put me off doing it that way. I do use them for getting through our travel reimbursement red tape, though.

  3. I don't think most US professors have a personal, or even shared, administrative assistant.

    In my dept., we have a business office who helps with grants, and a handful of secretaries (for a dept. with 50+ profs) who mainly do things for the department as a whole rather than for individual professors.

  4. I have an administrative assistant (shared with several faculty).

    Even though our staff are reliable and helpful, communicating all my travel constraints and preferences would take more time (and more rounds of communication) than just finding the flight myself, so these days I do the latter. Same deal for scheduling most meetings.

    For arranging visitor schedules, and booking some hotels, and departmental matters like reimbursements, I do get help.

  5. Yes, I forgot to mention that my admin assistant is also shared with several other faculty. Your use of their help sounds similar to mine.

    Perhaps it is ok to only use a tiny fraction of their time. It frees the rest of their time for broad department service (or for helping the faculty who are constantly applying for new grants).


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