I was recently hired as a tenure-track faculty at a research university. After the first day at work, my Ma asked me, "So what work did they give you today?" Soon after, a few friends who are not acquainted with academia asked me similar questions on saying that I am chasing an October deadline, "But you just started. What deadline/work did they give you?" I realized that these friends from the tech industry may know about coding and fixing bugs, but are not quite acquainted with how academia works.
The funny thing is as an academic, these questions, or the way non-academics see academia never dawn on you. So I decided to write this post especially for my Ma who taught me my first letters and numbers and takes a keen interest in learning things about my life, things that are completely alien to her.
To dispel a few wrong notions, this is a job where no one gives me work. I create my own work. I don't have to show up to office every day, or at a specific time. I could be Facebooking, chatting, or chasing Pokemons all day. No one is going to come at the end of the day asking me how productive I have been. Unless I am teaching or have a meeting with other colleagues, I could be anywhere.
Work-wise, no one tells me what to do. To give a simplistic analogy, getting this job is like getting a car with some limited gas/petrol (startup funding). Now where I go with my car and how much gas/petrol I spend is my business. I could take it to Glacier National Park. Or I could drive to New York City. Or I can keep my car in the garage and never use it. Unless I do something drastic like harass a student or smuggle and store drugs in the department, no one can fire me during my 6-year period.
Having said that, I have to meet high expectations during and by the end of my tenure review after 6 years. This includes consistent performance in terms of getting grant funding for my research (getting my own gas/petrol to be able to continue driving my car), publishing my research (showing others how well my car drives), meeting high standards of teaching and mentoring students (training novice drivers to drive), collaborating (carpooling), and doing service such as serving on committees and editorial boards (helping fellow drivers service their cars or helping them when their car breaks down or inspiring others to become drivers or ensuring I do not kill anyone while driving). I am putting this very simply with a car/driving analogy, the process is more complicated and labor-intensive than it sounds.
I have the freedom to do any kind of research that aligns with the department's interests. I can collaborate with anyone in the department, in the country, and in the world. There are three broad expectations (research, teaching/mentoring, and service) that I need to fulfill well in order to be able to get tenure. And these are not something that can be achieved overnight, in a month or even a year. I have been preparing to meet these expectations even before this job I got was advertised.
So to answer Ma's question, they did not give me any work on day one, and never will. I work for me now and have to give myself work, if that makes sense.