What is the best office arrangement for a professor?

Sometimes I think we academics borrow too much from the business world. This is true when it comes to office layout. If we seldom or never have to fire anyone (I never have), why should we have to lord it over people across a desk? OK, true, we do sometimes have to talk to crying students who have just failed our classes, or gotten a grade lower than their parents expected, but this can be dealt with through sympathy, and a kleenex, at least at Rice.

But generally we work with our students as a team. We want them to progress, and together we can find the most effective way. Students in our laboratories are our colleagues and when we talk in the office together, we are as likely as not to be staring at the same figures on the computer, or sketching things out on a pad of paper. Sometimes we are all huddled around the speaker phone, or on Skype, talking to a collaborator elsewhere. I remember one time the whole EEB faculty crowded into my office as we did an off-site speaker phone interview with a job candidate. It was a lot of fun, with lots of note passing, and questioning.

Doesn’t it send the wrong message to talk to a collaborator with an expanse of desk between you and them? I think so, though often they have no choice in their office layout. But the problem is that if you are working there on your own, it is nice to have an el shaped desk, with a wing you can pile papers on. This can get in the way of pulling together over the computer. Some are fortunate enough to have a large office with a little round table for talking in groups of 2 or 4. But this is the sort of thing deans have, not the optimum for looking at data. So what is the best design for an office, one that meets all these challenges?

I’m in a wonderful new office with windows which I love after 30 years in an office that had only high windows that opened onto a passageway. I went with the el option, and liked it well enough. But yesterday I got tired of squeezing into the space by the computer with someone else, and rearranged the space so it would be more open. One of my taller graduate students loved the open space. She’s the one always lobbying for high benches. My husband immediately pointed out that I had pinned 4 drawers against the wall, and so I had. Now I’ve emptied those drawers and shoved it back into place. We’ll see if I’m happy with this new arrangement and for how long. Maybe the most important thing about an office is that it can be readily rearranged. Also, I know many would say it is all about the amount of bookshelves and filing cabinets.

The other key feature every office must have is a place for naps. My office at Rice has both a couch and a hammock, so naps are great either way. In Copenhagen we brought a duvet and blanket for cozy naps on the floor. If you get a hammock, be sure that the walls can take it, and buy the hooks or loops at a marina or boating supply store, not a hardware store. I hope I have a great office with a hammock and an open desk at Washington University.

mike in his office.jpg

OK, maybe sometimes behind the desk is not what we first notice, Professor Singer.


My office upstairs, showing the hammock and the el configuration I just changed.


Postdoc Neil talking to undergraduate Kate in his office.


No more el shape – can talk freely and use computer.


Like this!


Dave has a nice compromise, a friendly el.


John Bonner, at Princeton, the father of Dictyostelium, has a vintage set-up.


Sometimes the floor is better than a desk – Tracy and Debbie collecting in Mexico.


Jim Carpenter has a huge office.


At Jatun Sacha, in Ecuador, the same table serves as desk, and kitchen counter.


OK, do we really even need a desk? Chandra checks out Gordon’s work.


Mike Singer at University of Texas at Austin in his neat stage!


In Sangha, Mali, we had a roll-up table for a desk.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Houston, Rice University and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to What is the best office arrangement for a professor?

  1. Alona says:

    I LOVE the new layout! What a great idea!

    And I agree about the open space! I remember when you were interviewing me, you were sitting right across me on your ball! It was so casual it made me feel much more comfortable 🙂 haha

  2. Sara says:

    I like Dave’s arrangement a lot. I typically pull up the chair that neither Neil nor Katie are sitting in, and Dave and I share the corner of the “L” (the space with the short stack of papers) for writing things out.

  3. And some great thoughts got cemented there, and went into your brand new Ph.D.!

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