Redefining “Success”: On Self-Care, Balance, and Overwork in Academia

Author: Raul Pacheco-Vega
Originals:  [ 1 | 2 ]

By some people’s standards I could consider myself a very successful academic. I have a job I love at a prestigious, internationally-recognized institution, I have a low teaching load, have successfully raised extramural grant money to execute projects, I have brilliant students, both undergraduate and graduate. I absolutely love my research and have fantastic collaborators worldwide and wonderful colleagues at my institution’s campuses.


Yet, I can’t help but remind myself that definitions of success vary. I’m not a fan of “publish-or-perish”, and sometimes I defy the old canon by refusing to engage in it. Yet other times, I just can’t stop myself from writing about a research topic because it really ignites a fire inside me and I’m passionate about it (ask me about my recent work on water privatization, for example, or my career-long scholarship on wastewater governance).

However, I should also admit that this time a decade ago, I was just happy to be alive, and I considered that a success. I had just broken up with my fiance, and my world was crumbling underneath my feet. The pressure of completing a PhD, plus my own personal goals shattered by the loss of the person I thought I was going to marry, were overwhelming. Yet I survived, thrived, completed my PhD, managed to publish a few things and now have a fantastic position, and a research trajectory that fascinates me.

In the current environment of higher education, with funding cuts, loss of tenure-track positions, increasing pressure on graduates to find jobs, and grave mental health problems in academia, we can’t afford to measure success the same way for everyone. For many academics who face disability challenges, just reading one page or writing 100 words per day should be considered a success. Heck, being alive is success.


For many academics, success should include being able to balance their personal life with their professional one. Or having time to spend with their children. OR having time for themselves. Success is such a personal component of life that I find associating it with the professional side ends up hurting us more than helping us. For me, because I was so ill at ISA 2014, success meant having the physical energy to participate in my own panel and comment another one.



For those of you who follow me on Twitter, you may know that I ended 2014 extremely sick. I was under an impossible amount of pressure (finishing two project reports, my Mom was in the hospital undergoing cardiovascular surgery, and I also had a negative reaction to the flu shot). Overall, these conditions combined leading to me being sick for two weeks. As in, my physician told me “you need to rest or you’re going to die”. Those are not the words you want your physician to tell you, at any point in time.

I understand why I ended up this broken. We have 3 holiday periods at CIDE: April (3 weeks), July (3 weeks), and December (2 weeks). I didn’t take any holidays last December, nor this April, nor in July. Not even statutory holidays and long weekends. Which means I was on 24/7, 365 days. No human being is capable of sustaining this amount of pressure for an extended period of time.

Yes, I do schedule self-care every day (I go out with my friends, with my parents, I schedule naps). But even daily self-care isn’t enough in academic life. Because it’s not a job that is 9 am to 5pm, as most jobs would be. In academic life, you are on 24/7. Your brain is always thinking about your research (at least, mine is).

This amount of pressure isn’t something my institution brought on to myself. Much to the contrary, all senior faculty at CIDE insisted “you need to slow down” in late 2013. And to be perfectly honest, I *thought* I had slowed down. I was learning to say “no” to requests, I said NO to many conference calls, and invitations to participate in academic seminars, etc. BUT (and here is the big BUT), all the planning I did ended up being screwed because there were things I didn’t foresee (like my parents’ poor health, which is something you can’t schedule or plan around).

So what did I do in 2015, with all this learning I just gained?

1) I tried to not answer work-related emails on weekends.

2) I took almost all weekends off, and I did take all statutory holidays and my allocated vacation time.

3) I tried to erase any commitment that didn’t bring me forward in my career. This meant book chapters, Spanish language publications and edited volumes.

4) I made a commitment to my own health and well-being public with my institution (which I have to admit, is incredibly supportive and human), with my colleagues (who are simply amazing and understanding and caring) and with my own students (who are fantastic), and with my international colleagues (who are outstanding scholars who understand the need for self-care).

5) I went home for the holidays. I miss Vancouver and Canada like crazy and 2014 was the first year I hadn’t gone home for the holidays. I did go to Toronto in 2014, but I miss my own home and my friends.

Let’s redefine success in academia not only based on books, book articles, chapters, but on what is really relevant to us. My research is policy-relevant. I’m doing what I love and getting paid for it. And I am spending time with my parents, my friends and my loved ones.

To me, that’s success.