What I Learned About Writing by Not

Author: Rebecca A. Adelman
Original: www.rebeccaaadelman.com


All is not lost.  What I have lacked in tangible productivity over my long season of writer’s block (which seems finally to be limping its way to a close), I have gained in new understandings of the intricacies of my writing process and the fussy mechanics of getting words on the page.

When you aren’t getting words on the page, it’s crazy annoying (at best) to hear about people that are.  And it’s similarly unpleasant to receive unsolicited suggestions about how to get yourself unstuck.  As if it was simply a matter of will or ergonomics or mental hygiene.  But if it was that easy, anyone could do it.  Producing good work, and doing it well, takes more than that.  So here are a few things I figured out about being productive when I was struggling to produce anything at all.  It’s an open letter, of sorts, to my writerly self – the “I” is me, and so is the “you.”  But the “you” can also be, you know, you, if you are reading this and wanting to reconsider your writing praxis.

Become attuned to your limits.
It’s hard to tune out the constant drone of academic meta-commentary about how much (or, from the occasional maverick, how little) we work.  And it helps to know that most of those aggrandizing self-reports are bullshit.  But even still, focusing too much on what other people are doing, or not, just leaves me insecure, or anxious, or envious.  So spend less time worrying about what other people are doing and focus on your own patterns. Then figure out how you work, and be honest about whether all the hours you spend “working” are actually that.  For example, I’ve figured out that I’m neither efficient nor terribly lucid after dinner, and that even when I go back to work late in the evening, I’m not getting much done besides maybe assuaging my guilt about not working enough.

Diminishing returns are a thing.  So consider whether you might be better served by reinvesting those mediocre or largely symbolic work hours elsewhere.

Figure out how you want the experience of writing to feel.  
Turns out, there are no extra points for suffering.  Or if they are, they circulate in an economy that is wildly unrewarding.  Like the counters where you redeem your tickets at arcades: a small fortune in tokens and hours spent playing Skeeball leave you with an armload of little cardboard rectangles and the teenager in charge of the whole operation barely acknowledges you when you come to select your prize and it ends up that all you can afford is a pencil case.  Anyway.

Few of us have the luxury, presumably, to only write when it feels good.  Deadlines, tenure, promotion, &c.  But unless you produce your best work in the throes of abject misery, experiment with the novel practice of setting your writing aside when writing feels terrible.  We all have different thresholds for ‘terrible,’ and that terrible feeling might be mental or physical, but when you encounter that threshold, I think it’s smart to heed it. Admittedly, I am still relatively new to the routine of being a peer-reviewer, but I have not yet encountered a reviewer questionnaire instructing me to give special consideration to a project if I think the author cried a lot (A LOT) while they composed it.  And if there are people who will give you extra credit for your anguish, think carefully about whether you want to play by that set of rules.

Spend some time thinking about how it feels when you are doing your best work.  Maybe you feel focused, or excited, or peaceful, or maybe you’re so in it that you don’t feel anything at all.  Take advantage of those times, figure out how to increase their frequency if possible, develop strategies for doing good-enough work in circumstances that only approximate them.  And otherwise: leave it alone.

Work at a pace that’s sustainable.
Pretty much every academic I know, including me, is overcommitted.  There are lots of reasons for this, both individual and structural.  Obviously, everybody will define “overcommitted” in their own ways, and experience being overcommitted idiosyncratically.  I’ll need to figure out, eventually, why I have a tendency to hoard projects, but here’s what I know for now: I tend to overestimate the amount of time that I have before a deadline, while underestimating how much work I will want to put into a given project.  Part of me also imagines that the asteroid will surely hit between now and whatever deadline so it won’t actually matter.

I can manage the consequences of my over- and underestimating (as well as the general paucity of asteroids) fairly well under normal circumstances.  But when shit, inevitably happens, that mismatch becomes acutely untenable.

So: try to plan out your projects and commitments, as best as you are able, so that they align with how busy you want to be, and when, while also maintaining an overall mode of existence that is tolerable.  (Parenthetically, I think academics ought to aspire to existences that are more than tolerable, and break the habit of postponing tolerability until the summer.)  Not all of this is in your control, of course, so another part of writing and working well is, I think, accepting that those plans won’t always pan out.  And leave a margin for catastrophes, great and small.  If your whole writing scheme is contingent on you never getting a flat tire / your kid never getting sick / you never getting called for jury duty / no one you love ever needing you or dying, it probably isn’t going to work for you long-term.

Consider what it’s worth to you.
Because we are all, alas, constrained by the laws of time and space, doing one thing generally means not doing another (or half-doing two things at once).  Try to be cognizant of the trade-offs your writing affords and requires of you.  Be honest about whether the potential rewards actually appeal to you, and your values.  And then consider the costs, and whether they’re acceptable.  With a few exceptions, I am generally fine to sacrifice binge-watching for writing.  And sometimes I feel very okay opting out of being social so I can stay in and work.  But on the other hand, it’s almost never worth it to me – though it used to be – to trade work for sleep, or healthy food, or exercise.  Maybe your non-negotiable stuff is different.  The point is to figure out what that non-negotiable stuff is, and protect it … otherwise work will eat it all.

Detach from the outcome.
Beyond doing your best to make your ideas intelligible and your style engaging, you can’t control how people will respond to your writing.  Consider your audience, but don’t obsess about them, and learn the difference between wanting to connect with your readers and needing to charm and trap them into your ways of seeing and thinking.  Efforts to engineer reader reactions almost never generate better writing, and are much more likely to result in arguments that overreach or result to pedantry, while the fixation with impressing your audiences will ultimately leave you stultified and unable to say much of anything at all.  Good ideas are much easier to come by than magic words.

Look, and move, forward. 
You will have seasons when you are more productive, seasons when you are less productive, and seasons when you are scarcely functional.  Hopefully, over the course of your writing life, these will balance out into an overall sense of accomplishment, with a body of work that bears it out.  When you are more productive, spend some time figuring out what enables you to work at that level, but don’t make yourself crazy trying to recreate it every time you encounter a slump.  Chances are, it’s mostly a matter of circumstance: a legitimate manifestation of your brilliance, sure, but maybe also just good luck. Conversely, the seasons when you are less productive are also likely to be those in which your luck is worse than usual, and not a  final revelation of your incompetence.

Capitalism tells us that time is modular, that any hour has potentially the same value as any other hour, and hence that missed hours can be replaced.  Nope.  If there is something big that keeps you from your work for a season, you won’t (sorry) be able to get those hours back.  And especially if that something big is also something massively unpleasant, you probably won’t be able to stop feeling lousy about those lost hours, anxious or mournful about the work you could be doing, and resentful of the people around you who happen to be enjoying one of those good-luck seasons of magical writing.  In those moments, all you can do is muddle through: do what you can with your radically reduced resources, plead for deadline clemency if you need it, and accept – your overwhelming fatigue may help lubricate this process – that you probably won’t be producing your very best work at this particular godawful juncture.  And don’t compound the insult by blaming yourself for those lost hours, those words left unwritten.  For my part, now that I’m halfway (give or take) back in the saddle after a pretty unrelentingly miserably eighteen months, it’s a daily struggle not to take the losses of that period out on myself.  It takes a lot of mental discipline to focus on what you can do, not on what you didn’t because you couldn’t.

*    *    *    *    *

So that’s a little bit of what I know now that I didn’t know before.  It strikes me as odd that academics, generally so good at questioning why things are the way they are, rarely bring their skeptical sensibilities to the task of questioning their own work habits or the expectations they have internalized.  And for those who are satisfied with their circumstances, there may be no need for this kind of querying.  But I get the impression (or maybe I just run with an exceptionally grumpy crowd) that lots of us are less than satisfied.  Of course, many of the reasons for that are structural, and so insuperable by these tiny little hacks.  But despite this, or maybe because of it, minor adjustments made in the service of your own comfort are meaningful, worth it, and necessary.

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Could Parental Leave Actually be Good for my Academic Career?

Author: David Kent
Original: University Affairs | The Black Hole


Last autumn, I started my research lab at the University of Cambridge’s Stem Cell Institute, but this coming summer I’m doing something completely different – I’m taking parental leave with my first child. I must admit that at least some inspiration came from my brother, who took a term off with his second child and said it was one of the best decisions he’d ever made.

It’s been a tough journey to get a group leader position – 11 years of intense research-focused time, most of which were spent in a complete black hole of uncertainty with respect to my future career. And now, I won’t be in the lab for 14 weeks – we’ll see how it all works out.

Reaction to my decision amongst non-academic family and friends was pretty much universally positive, but reaction from academic colleagues was highly variable – a substantial number of whom think I’m absolutely crazy to take off so much time within the first year of my research lab’s existence. I wasn’t too surprised by this, having emerged from the North American system where parental leave is much less generous than in Europe. What I didn’t expect were the other reactions …

In November, I was at a national cancer conference and at one of the evening receptions I spoke with a female scientist from another U.K. university about women in science. Over the course of the discussion, I mentioned that my partner and I would be taking advantage of the U.K.’s new “Shared Parental Leave” policy, with my partner taking 8.5 months of leave and me taking 3.5 months. She said she was shocked and surprised that a brand new group leader would take the time off, but also said “good for you.”

The next evening is when things really hit home though. After the conference dinner I was on the dance floor and a complete stranger came up to me and asked, “Are you David Kent?” I assumed she had seen my presentation earlier in the day until she continued, “the David Kent who is taking parental leave as a new group leader? I just wanted to say thank you.” We chatted a little and it was as simple as this: a male group leader taking parental leave was just not that common, especially not a 3.5-month block of time. The professor from the other night had clearly gone off and told her colleagues and word had spread.

Here I was being showered with praise for taking 3.5 months off work and feeling pretty good about my decision until I did a quick comparison to my partner’s situation, also an early career scientist. Not only would she be taking nearly three times the amount of leave, but she’s also been carrying a baby around for eight months whilst undertaking world-class research. Is there a small fan club of approving academics lined up to congratulate her on the brave decision to spend time with her child? Not that I’ve seen.

So, in effect, my taking a short block of parental leave has boosted my profile in the eyes of some academics and her taking a longer block will put her in the challenging position that so many young female academics find themselves in: trying to play catch-up and pretend that children haven’t impacted their careers (many do not acknowledge children on CVs, job applications, etc., for fear of being viewed unfavourably). The science community needs to embrace rather than shun such individuals.

Overall, if universities want more women in science, then the way we handle babies and families needs to change – men need to be as “risky” to hire as women. But change does not come overnight and it does not come easy. As a start, more countries (and institutions) need to have “use it or lose it” policies, such as exists in Quebec – the father is given a block of time that the mother cannot use. Universities and individuals need to fight for this. Countries such as Sweden have seen incredible results from such policies and are amongst the world leaders in having women in senior positions. For science specifically, granting agencies need to behave like the European Research Council with respect to eligibility windows and like EMBO for postdoctoral fellowships – creating small allowances for young parents that make the journey just a little bit easier.

Or perhaps we should just force them all out of science – that seems to be the way things are currently set up and it makes me worry for our future science workforce.

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It’s OK to Quit Your PhD

Author: Jennifer Polk
Original: From PhD to Life


Occasionally I’m asked about quitting, particularly “quitting” a PhD program. This happened several times last week, when I was in Vancouver.

Contrary to what you may hear or what your own internal critics tell you, there’s no shame in moving on. I remember a long post on a Versatile PhD forum from “PJ,” an ABD thinking about leaving instead of spending another two years (minimum) to finish their PhD. In response, one commenter wrote, “But the real question is, do you want to be a quitter? Now, not everyone will view that question the same, and I’m sure many will say that equating quitting a PhD program to being a quitter is not valid, but in reality, it is.” No! Thankfully, most other commenters on the thread offered more nuanced and helpful reflections and advice. “Finishing is not just about the destination,” one former tenure-track professor pointed out. “If that’s the only thing you want, then it’s a tough few years ahead.” Indeed.

Before you make the decision to leave, separate your inner critic – who may well be reflecting outer critics in your life – from what you know is right for you. Trust your gut, not your gremlin. In my experience, this is a decision that individuals make and re-make over time. I’ve worked with a few clients who’ve contemplated not finishing their PhD programs. While you figure out what you want, it’s ok to be ambivalent, carrying on the work but distancing yourself psychologically and emotionally from academia. What are your goals? Once you know them, you can determine the correct strategy to move toward them. (With thanks to Harvey P. Weingarten’s recent post.)

The “no one likes a quitter” attitude that exists in graduate school and perhaps in academia writ large isn’t warranted. There is nothing inherently good or bad about completing a PhD. It’s only a good move for you if it is a good move for you. While individuals who depart sans degree will come to their own personal conclusions about their decisions, the wide world rarely cares. It’s instructive that in PJ’s original post, they mentioned that their former undergraduate professors were unanimous in advising them to quit. I’ll let English professor (and graduate advisor) Leonard Cassuto speak for ideal advisors everywhere: “Most of my advisees finish their dissertations and get jobs. I’m proud of them. But some walk away – and of that group I’m just as proud” (Graduate School Mess, p. 121). I feel the same way about my own clients, whatever path they choose to take.

A while back Christine Slocum reflected on her career journey in a Transition Q & A post. She’d completed an MA and then two years of a PhD program, then moved on before achieving ABD status. In her post she explains there were several reasons for her choice, including feeling burnt out, lack of community in her department, and desire to start a family. Pursuing the doctorate no longer meshed with her goals: “After some soul searching, I remembered that the reason I was pursuing sociology in the first place was to better understand the mechanisms of social stratification because I wanted to better understand how to undo it. ​Four years of graduate study [later,] I felt like I had enough that the next five years would be better spent working for an NGO, nonprofit, or government position getting practical experience in the field.”

Heather Steel made a similar decision when she decided not to continue her PhD in the midst of dissertating. She learned important information about herself during graduate school. “There were parts of my program that I enjoyed very much (classes, having the chance to read and think, teaching, and my colleagues), but in the end,” she realized, “sitting for hours in front of a microfilm reader to write something that few people would actually read was not fulfilling.” Heather learned that she enjoys “research in small doses, not projects that take years to see results.” When I did an informational interview with her during my transition, I learned that she didn’t regret her choices. Her career has continued to progress since then.

When I was in Vancouver, a graduate student in the audience at one of my talks shared his own story: He’d been enrolled in a PhD programs years before, then left. But here he was back doing another doctorate! He was nearly done, and this time around he knew it was the correct path for him. I know several people who’ve done similar things, for a variety of reasons. Fascinating, eh?

If completing your PhD is the right move for you, carry on. Get support and help wherever you can find it, go part-time, or take a break or leave or absence. Make whatever changes you need to smooth your journey. But if the doctorate no longer makes sense — your goals have changed, you’ve learned more about yourself over the years — then I’ve got your back (in spirit) in deciding not to continue. You’re not “quitting” or “leaving”; instead, you’re embarking on a new, better-for-you path, taking what you learned and experienced and applying it in a context that’s more suitable to who you are, how you work best, and where you want to go. That’s risky and brave, but it’s also just you standing up for yourself. It took me until after my PhD to do that. Feel free to do as I didn’t.

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Academic Scattering

Author: Katie Mack
Original: Research Whisperer


A couple of years ago, I was gathering my things after a seminar at a top physics research institution when I overheard two of the senior professors discussing a candidate for a senior lectureship.

Professor A was asking Professor B if the candidate had a partner, which might make him less able to move internationally.

Prof B replied, happily: “No, he has no family. He’s perfect!”

I doubt any selection committee would admit on-record to thinking a family-free candidate is “perfect”. Nonetheless, the traditional academic career structure is built around an assumption of mobility that is hard to maintain with any kind of relationships or dependents. I’m still trying to figure out if I can manage to keep a pet.

Right now I live in Australia, working as a postdoc in Melbourne. My first postdoc was in England. Before that I was in grad school in New Jersey, and I was an undergrad in my native California. Halfway through grad school I studied for a year in England. I’ve done two- or three-month stints in Japan, Germany, Australia and the UK. Each of these moves or visits has been, while not strictly required, extremely helpful for my career. And in a field where competition for jobs is so fierce, if you want any hope of landing that coveted permanent academic job, how many of these “helpful” moves can you really consider optional? If mobility is such an advantage, how does having a family or a partner affect your chances?

A couple of months ago, Slate published an article with the headline, “Rule Number One for Female Academics: Don’t Have a Baby.” The point of the article wasn’t actually to discourage women in academia from having children (though backlash from the community may have contributed to the change in title to the somewhat vague, “In the Ivory Tower, Men Only”). The article provided statistics and anecdotes to illustrate how having children, or being suspected of the intent to have children, could harm a woman’s progress in academia – from the necessary pause in research output, to the unconscious or explicit biases that act against “working mothers” but have no similar effect on “working fathers”. Personally, I found the piece deeply disheartening, but my dismay was of a somewhat detached variety. In order to worry about the effects of having children, one has to be in a position where that seems like even a remote possibility. As a single woman with a short-term contract and no idea which hemisphere I’ll be in two years from now, children are not exactly at the forefront of my mind. At the moment, I spend a lot more time thinking about the two-body problem.

In this context, the “two-body problem” is the problem of maintaining a committed relationship between two individuals who are trying to have careers in academia. When the two-body problem proves unsolvable, it’s sometimes called “academic scattering”. It is by no means unique to academia, but the international nature of the field, the frequency of short-term (1-3 year) contracts, and the low wages compared to other similarly intense career paths make it especially bad for academics. In the sciences, the gender disparity adds a further complication for female academics: when women make up a small percentage of the discipline, they are much more likely to be partnered with other academics.

Of course, solving the two-body problem is not impossible. I have many colleagues who have done it, either through spousal hires, fortuitous job opportunities, extended long-distance relationships, or various degrees of compromise. It takes sacrifice, luck, and, often, institutional support. But couples just beginning a relationship while building two academic careers might find the odds stacked against them. Even ignoring for a moment the fact that a no-compromise work-obsessed lifestyle is still considered a virtue in many institutions, academic careers are structurally best suited to people with no relationships or dependents, who travel light and have their passports at the ready.

It varies by field, but for physics and astronomy, a “typical” tenure-track career path looks something like this: 4-6 years in grad school, a postdoctoral fellowship for 1-3 years, then usually another (and maybe another), all followed by a tenure-track or permanent job, which may or may not be the job you end up in for the long-term. There’s no guarantee all these steps will be in the same country – very often they are not. For me, it’s been an international move every time so far, and it’s very possible the next one will be, too. When I took up my first postdoc, I left my country of origin, most of my worldly possessions, all my friends and family, and a committed relationship, to start all over in England. When I took up my second postdoc, I left my newly built life in England and another committed relationship to start all over yet again on the other side of the world. I’ve moved internationally several times chasing the prospect of permanent academic employment. I have yet to convince anyone to come with me.

I’m not trying to convince anyone that avoiding academia or refusing to move around the world is the key to solving all relationship problems. Anyone can be unlucky in love, even if they stay in the same city their entire lives. But academic shuffling is particularly hostile to romance. The short-term contracts mean that when you arrive in a new country, if you’re interested in finding a long-term partner, you have something like two years to identify and convince a person you’ve just met to agree to follow you wherever you might end up in the world, and you won’t be able to tell them where that will be. If you happen to have different citizenships (which is likely), you have to take into account immigration issues as well – your partner may not be able to follow you without a spousal visa, which can mean a rather hasty life-long commitment, or, depending on the marriage laws of the country in question, a total impossibility. I had a friend in grad school who, at the end of her PhD, faced a choice between living with her wife in Canada, and becoming a tenure-track professor at one of the most prestigious research universities in the USA.

The timing doesn’t help, either. The postdoc stage, when you’re doing your best impersonation of a human pinball, usually comes about in your late 20s or early 30s. It’s a time when it seems like all your non-academic friends are buying houses, getting married, having babies, and generally living what looks like a regular grown-up life. Meanwhile, chances are you’re residing in a single room in a short-term rental, wondering which country you’ll be living in next year. If you’re a woman, you might be keeping an eye on the latest research on fertility in older mothers, and mentally calculating how long you actually need to know someone before deciding to reproduce with them, because by the time you’re in one place long enough to think about settling down you’ll be, at best, pushing 40.

There are lots of ways to make it all work out, of course. You could refuse to date other academics, and instead make sure you’re spending enough time on hobbies outside of the university to attract someone’s interest, while making sure you have a REALLY good pitch about the joy of imminent mystery relocation. You could date another academic, and resign yourself to a relationship that will probably be long-distance for far longer than it was ever face-to-face, with no guaranteed reunion in sight. For this option, make sure that you have lots of disposable income for plane tickets and that neither of you is committed to spending too much time inside a lab. You could swear off serious dating altogether until you’re getting close to landing a permanent job, then negotiate with your future employer for a spousal hire, with the necessary career compromise that will be required of one or both of you to be at that particular institution.

Or you could just wait till you’ve scored a permanent faculty job somewhere, probably in your mid-to-late 30s, and (if you’re a woman) hope that you meet someone soon enough that starting a family is still an option. (As a side note, my late-thirties single straight female friends tell me that men who want babies won’t date women over 35. Obviously this is an unfair and unscientific generalization, but the point is that there are societal pressures that women face when they choose to put off the prospect of families until they have permanent jobs.) If you choose this option, you might also want to keep in mind that a tenure-track job isn’t necessarily permanent, and having a child before having tenure is one of those options that the aforementioned article had a few things to say about.

Or you could decide to prioritize where you want to be (or who you want to be with), and, more likely than not, end up severely limiting your career progress and/or leaving academia altogether. If one or the other partner does have to make a big career sacrifice, gender norms will suggest that, if you’re a woman, the one to make the sacrifice really ought to be you.

As for me, I confess I haven’t figured it out. I have two years left on my contract in Australia and no idea whatsoever which country I’ll end up in next. I’m applying broadly, and there’s no guarantee I’ll have a choice about location if I want to stay on the path toward becoming tenure-track faculty at a major research institution. When it’s not unusual for a single postdoc job to have 300 applicants, and faculty jobs are even more selective, getting even one offer is considered a huge win.

I don’t know if there’s a solution. Having a pool of early-career researchers who move frequently to different institutions unquestionably advances research and keeps the ideas flowing. It is also usually great for the development of postdocs’ research abilities, exposing them to new ideas and work styles. But the prospect of a nearly decade-long period of lifestyle limbo between graduate studies and the start of the tenure track is, understandably, a significant discouragement to many fine researchers who might otherwise bring their unique insights to the field. And, statistically, more of these lost researchers are likely to be women. It may not be the dominant force keeping women out of science or academia, and it may not affect all women, but any slight statistical skew that disadvantages women more than men contributes to the inequality we see. And that makes academia a little bit more lonely for everyone.

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

Author: Raul Pacheco-Vega
Originals: RaulPacheco.org  [ 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.

You do not Need to Work 80 Hours a Week to Succeed in Academia

Author:
Original: Dynamic Ecology


There is a persistent myth (some might even call it a zombie idea) that getting tenure in academia requires working 80 hours a week. There’s even a joke along the lines of “The great thing about academia is the flexibility. You can work whatever 80 hours a week you want!” The idea that you need to work 80 hours a week in order to publish or get grants or tenure is simply wrong. Moreover, I think it’s damaging: I hear routinely from younger folks (often women) who are seriously considering leaving academia primarily because they think that a tenure track position will require working so much that they wouldn’t be able to have any life outside work (including raising a family)*. So, this is my attempt at slaying the zombie idea that succeeding in academia requires working as much as an investment banker**.

This post was inspired by this comment from dinoverm on last Friday’s linkfest post, where I linked to the “7 Year Postdoc” article, even though I had already linked to it earlier, because I found that it kept coming up in conversations with grad students, postdocs, and new faculty. In linking to it on Friday, I said, “I really like the idea of deciding what you are okay with doing (maybe you aren’t willing to move anywhere in the country/world, or you really want to do a particular type of research but aren’t sure how “tenurable” that line of work will be), and then using that to set boundaries on what you do as a faculty member. I think this perspective is really valuable for people who are considering stepping off the tenure track primarily because they’re worried about work-life balance or quality of life. Obviously getting tenure will require working hard, but the lore that it requires 80 hour work weeks and ignoring one’s non-work priorities is simply wrong, and I think this perspective is a good one for thinking about how to balance things.” That led to discussion in the comments on how it is rare for someone to “admit” to not working 80 hours a week. This is something that we’ve discussed in the comments before. (Thanks to Jeremy for figuring out where!) You should go read this entire comment from Brian, because it’s great. (The rest of that comment thread is worth reading, too. There are lots of good thoughts there about parenting and academia, in particular.) But, just to quote part of it here:

“I think it is time to start calling BS on such posturing. Nobody works 80 hours a week regularly (as she claimed in one post). It actually is physically impossible* over the long run. I used to be a consultant where you billed every hour. We were a bunch of type As in an environment where we were strongly encouraged to work long hours (indeed it’s how the company made money by paying us a fixed salary and billing hours worked). I think I exceeded 80 hours once in 9 years, and only rarely and only in times of crisis exceeded 60. The official company expectation was 45 (although of course if you wanted a good review you might aim to be a tad above rather than below). We don’t record hours in academia, but I know what 80 looks and I know what 60 and 50 and 40 look like because I measured it so carefully for 450 weeks and I haven’t seen anything truly different here. Most young profs are in the 40-60 hour range is my belief with most in the lower half of that. And yes 50 hours plus rest of life feels crazy and insane. But stop saying it’s 80 and making everybody else feel guilty they’re not measuring up. The game is incented to exaggerate how much you work, so believe those numbers other people throw out at your risk.”

<cutting lots of great thoughts that you really should go read>

“*Do the math on working 80 hours/week -112 waking hours – 14 hours/week eating/grooming/maintaining car house – 5 hours commuting = 83 hours and that is pretty sparse grooming and maintaining – e.g. no exercise – and nobody lives on 3 hours/week leisure time)”

Why does this myth persist? Probably it’s in part because, if you think everyone else is working 80 hours a week, it can seem risky to admit that you aren’t, since that could make you seem like a slacker.

But I think another important reason for the persistence of this myth is that people are bad at recognizing how much they actually work. Unlike Brian, most of us haven’t spent years tracking our exact hours worked, and so don’t have a realistic sense of what an 80 hour work week would really feel like. As a grad student and postdoc, I thought I worked really hard. But then I made myself start logging hours (sort of like I was keeping track of billable hours, though I was simply doing it out of curiosity). I was astonished at how little I actually worked. It was something like 6 hours of actual work a day. I never would have guessed it was that low. I hadn’t realized how much time I was spending on those seemingly little breaks between projects. I used to count a sample, then go read an article on Slate, then go count another sample, then go read another article, etc. At the end of the day, if you’d asked what I’d done, I would have said I’d spent all day counting samples. But, in reality, I had probably only spent roughly half my day actually counting samples. I found this exercise really valuable and eye-opening. I think it probably did more to make me more efficient in how I work than anything else. And working efficiently frees up lots of time for other things (including spending time with my kids). I’ve recommended this to people who were struggling to keep up with tasks they needed to accomplish, and also have recommended keeping track of basic categories (maybe research, teaching, and service) when doing this accounting to see if the relative time devoted to those tasks seems reasonable.

So how much do I work? That has varied over the years, not surprisingly. When I started my first faculty position, there were times when I felt like I was working as hard as I possibly could, and I started to wonder if I was working 80 hours a week. So, I tallied the hours. It was about 60 hours/week. And that was during a really time-intensive experiment, and was a relatively short-term thing. (I’m not sure, but that might be similar to the amount I worked during the peak parts of field season in grad school.) I could not have maintained that schedule over several months without burning out, regardless of whether or not I had kids. Right now, I’d say I typically work 40-50 hours a week. I am in my office from 9-5, and I work as hard as I can during that time. I usually can get some work done after the kids go to bed, but there’s also prepping bottles to send to daycare the next day, doing dishes, etc., so I definitely have less evening work time than I used to. And I usually get a few hours total on the weekend to work, but that’s variable.

Again, I think the key is being efficient. This article has an interesting summary of history and research behind the 40 hour work week. It argues (with studies to back up the argument) that, after an 8 hour work day, people are pretty ineffective:

“What these studies showed, over and over, was that industrial workers have eight good, reliable hours a day in them. On average, you get no more widgets out of a 10-hour day than you do out of an eight-hour day. Likewise, the overall output for the work week will be exactly the same at the end of six days as it would be after five days. So paying hourly workers to stick around once they’ve put in their weekly 40 is basically nothing more than a stupid and abusive way to burn up profits. Let ‘em go home, rest up and come back on Monday. It’s better for everybody.”

That article points out that there is an exception – occasionally, you can increase productivity (though not by 50%) by going up to a 60 hour work week. But, this only works for a short term. This matches what I’ve found in my own work (see previous paragraph) and also seems to match with the quote from Brian above.

So, please, do not think that you need to work 80 hours a week in academia. If you are working that many hours, you are probably not being efficient. (I’m sure there are exceptional individuals who can work that long and still be efficient, but they are surely not the norm.) So, work hard for 40-50 hours a week (maybe 60 during exceptional times), and then use the rest of the time for whatever you like***. And, please, please, please, stop perpetuating the myth that academics need to work 80 hours a week.

* People who are regular readers of this blog will know that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with non-academic careers. I simply want people to make their decisions based on accurate information, and don’t want someone choosing to step off the tenure track primarily because of the myth that it requires 80 hour work weeks.

** As it turns out, investment bankers are being encouraged to work less, though “less” is still a whole lot by most standards. (Here’s another story on the same topic.)

*** I encourage exercise as one way to use some of that time. (Perhaps that’s not a surprise, given that I have a treadmill desk.) In talking with other academics, it seems that exercise is often one of the first things to go when things get busy. I enjoyed this post by Dr. Isis, which explains why she decided to start prioritizing exercise again. (The comments on that post are good, too.) When I made myself mentally switch from saying “I don’t have time to exercise” to “I am choosing not to prioritize exercise”, I suddenly got much better at working exercise into my schedule.

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