The Times Higher Education Magazine this week published an article describing the working days (and nights) of 5 academics at various career stages. The article was also the cover feature, with the headline “Full-time vocation The university working week: from before sunrise to after sunset”. The academics describing their day included a V-C, a science professor, an early career researcher, a registrar and the director of a graduate school. Each described working days/weeks that blended freely with other life activities, or in some cases replaced them entirely. I was particularly struck by the science professor who said that in order to make up for hours he spent with his children, he sometimes started work at 3 am in the morning, and the PhD student who confessed to trying to take “at least a half-day off a week”.
The wrapper for the interviews says “if you want a 9 to 5 job, you’re in the wrong profession” and that “unversity careers do indeed impose huge demands on those who persue them”. However, it also points out that there was a striking “lack of resentment felt about what people in most walks of life would regard as an intolerably skewed work/life balance”.
I would agree that academia is not a “normal” 9 to 5 job. It is rare for academics to be able to switch off, and many are permanently attached to email, read journal articles for fun, and regularly put in long hours. Many academics don’t take the holiday to which they are entitled. In that sense, academia, and particularly research, is definitely a vocation. Long hours bring rewards in terms of travel opportunities, wonderful collaborations and many others. I know many people who have working patterns similar to those described in the article, and who are happy (or at least not unhappy) with their working lives. However, as a Head of Department I also know many academics who face a daily struggle to meet all the demands on them, both from their work and home lives, and of many brilliant young researchers who look at those above and are put off by the ubiquitous acceptance and celebration of ridiculous working practices.They leave academia, and their skills and knowledge are lost. Or newly appointed academics become burnt out after a few years because they perceive that EVERYONE needs to behave like this.
This celebration/acceptance of long working hours is not new. A former head of department is reported to have told a colleague that if they were in the office less than 40 hours a week, they had better make sure they were 40 good hours. I myself turned down a job offer at a different institution partly because the working culture there was that 60 hour weeks were the norm (it is interesting that said department was overwhelmingly male). Around the same time, I spent 6 weeks working in a public research institution, and was struck by how most people finished work at 6 pm and went home. And did something else. For the first week I felt lost in the evenings, but I quickly recovered, and I look back at that time with fond memories.
My objection to the THE article is that it didn’t really include any examples of people who were not so happy with their work-life balance. The registrar did admit to not spending enough time with his wife, and the graduate school director referred to never having enough time to do things properly. I was encouraged to hear the V-C refer to moves to reduce amount of time spent in meetings, and an agreement that senior management do not send emails to the the rank and file at unsocial hours or weekends unless previously agreed. The latter move is under consideration in my School too. I feel that the THE article in a way is validating the status quo by celebrating the long hours and skewed work-life balance. There are many academics with much to offer in research, teaching and other areas who would love to see examples of those who have succeeded whilst having a work-life balance that is less skewed, or to hear the challenges that those trying to do this face. We do not want to lose the valuable talents of those not quite so prepared to sacrifice family, hobbies or sleep to the same extent!
In that spirit, I offer here my own experience. For context, I am a professor in a science department, a head of department and a mum. I work 0.8FTE spread over 5 days.
6.20am alarm goes off. Shower, dress, check twitter feeds and retweet paper links to followers and research team.
7.05 children wake – mum duty from then until school and nursery run finished.
9.15 Into office, check email (around 80 new ones each morning), deal with firefighting issues. My days vary but on average I will have 3 hours of meetings or seminars, 1 hour of “urgent” hoD business and 1 hour of reviewing/editing to do (I am an associate editor of a journal). In a teaching term I will have approx. 2 hours teaching a week. Writing papers, doing my own “hands-on” research, reading journal articles, writing proposals etc has to fit in around this.
Lunch??? Often whilst walking between meetings, in a seminar, or at the computer.
3 days per week I finish at 3 pm, sprint to school and am then back on Mum duty until after bedtime at 7.45 or so. The other 2 days, my husband does the school pick up and I stay at work until 5.15 before collecting my youngest from nursery and returning home. Once the kids are in bed, my husband and I share the cooking and urgent domestic management tasks. We try to sit down and eat together at the table so that we actually have a conversation, but often we are exhausted by this point. I rarely have any brain power left in the evening, but if there is an imminent deadline for marking or proposals I will occasionally work from 9 until 11 in the evenings. I also do this to “catch up” when my husband is out in the evening. I do not routinely access my work email from home, but I do access twitter and social media for work from my mobile. So far this session I have worked the equivalent of 10 days over a reasonable 0.8FTE (although our contracts have no specified hours this is in itself open to interpretation).
Am I happy? I have a great job and a largely happy, healthy family. I can help people contribute to solving important science questions with real impact for society. I can help people acheive their goals. This is all good. However, I feel like I am constantly battling against the long-hours “science is everything” culture, and being torn between things that I “should” be doing. There are 3 full-time jobs I would like to do that make up my role 1) research and research management, 2) HoD and staff development, 3) media and outreach. Oh and 4) fully engaged family member. The guilt of not being able to perform any of these “properly” is sometimes overwhelming. I have also become known as something of a champion for work-life balance and part-time working and so this is additional pressure. The pressure shows in my health, both mental and physical.
Anyone interested in joining a support and self-help group with the motto “I’m an academic and I love my job, but I’d like to do other things too”?