Being an academic is great, so start enjoying yourself

Scholars should cheer up and learn to take the rough with the smooth, says John Tregoning

May 11, 2016
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Yay! This job is great – just don’t tell anyone.

At the start of the year, I bravely made the statement that we should be happy academics. Well, not so bravely, as I did it anonymously in a Guardian article.

This optimistic message flew in the face of the normal academic narrative: evil reviewers, no money, too much teaching. Hence the anonymity. Some of the instant feedback that others felt brave enough to leave anonymously in return suggested that I was an overly optimistic, delusional, Pollyannaish outlier.

Luckily, this esteemed website that you are currently reading performs a workplace survey each year so I can benchmark my optimism against the sector. Seventy per cent of people answering the survey said that they found working in higher education rewarding and 64 per cent were proud of the institution they work in. So based on the survey’s findings, I am not an outlier (take that, naysayers!).

Three themes emerge from the workplace analysis. University staff are, on the whole, happy with their jobs; struggle with the work-life balance; and have issues with authority. I wanted to share with you why I think these three themes emerged and some suggestions about how to improve the bad bits.

Happier, more productive academics

As I’ve said, there are a number of reasons why I think we should enjoy our jobs. These include: the relative freedom to do what we like, the company of other brilliant minds, working with students and doing something with societal value.

Yes, it isn’t always chocolate boxes and roses, but it can be good – even great – at times. Yes, the sector has changed since the 1960s (for good and bad). And yes, if you met me in person three days out of five, you would get a very different view. But I encourage you to seek out the parts you do enjoy and to fix the parts you don’t.

Balancing work life and academic life

Work often feels like surfing: some of the time you are triumphantly riding the crest, but most of the time getting tumbled in the wave and heading towards some very big rocks (hopefully one of you got the Point Break reference).

For example, this blog was meant to coincide with February's 2016 University Workplace Survey, but in common with more than 50 per cent of academic respondents, I failed to achieve work-life balance, and this article sadly fell by the wayside. I was failing to get the balance right due to a gruelling teaching-grant/thesis-correcting cycle, combined with having to do my share of the childcare (the horror).

During this period, there was much gnashing of teeth and rending of hair about how terrible things were. However, there was also a euphoric sense of relief when the worst of the deadlines passed.

There is no doubt that work, like nature, abhors a vacuum and will seep into any available space. The best thing is to seal off the rest of your life – I spent some of last weekend writing a grant for a scheme that got cancelled, so I would have clearly been better off gardening, taking some exercise or playing FIFA with my son. There are some good tips here for working smarter, not harder, in order to finish on time.

I had a colleague who clocked off every day at 5pm. When asked how they managed to be so efficient, they replied: “I’m not. Each evening I scold myself, saying that I must try harder to get everything done tomorrow and go home with a clear conscience.” Finish at a sensible time, tell yourself to try harder tomorrow, go home and do something else, because the work will still be there tomorrow and the world won’t have come to an end.

Scholars: the spanners in the works?

The largest discrepancy in the survey between professional/support staff and academics was with regard to management.

Academics tend to regard two functions as management: process management and strategic management. Process management makes the university tick and stops academics from doing stupid things in the name of research. It is there to pay our wages, help us recruit better staff and fix the stuff  that we break. But more importantly, it is there to stop us killing ourselves, breaking laws or (worst of all) bankrupting the university.

As academics, especially when we have left deadlines too late, it is very easy to blame a faceless someone from central admin for our own failings. And I am sure that from a compliance, health and safety, accounting, reporting, logistics or purchasing point of view, universities would run a lot more smoothly if it wasn’t for us pesky academics.

The Sword of Damocles

Leadership is the other function of management. This strategic management tends to come in the form of edicts from a central source, structuring and restructuring our departments, setting up virtual centres and matchmaking collaborative partnerships between people who hate each other.

This metric-driven nonsense is caused by the research excellence framework, the teaching excellence framework and university rankings. Sadly, strategic management has both a perceived and a direct impact upon our workplace. The perceived impact is the fear of wholesale job cuts, department closures and performance reviews. The direct impact is when the job cuts, reviews and closures actually happen.

However, the perceived impact – the fear of things to come – is the most toxic, contributing to work-life imbalance and the academic dissatisfaction with management. Worst of all, creative thought is stifled by fear of job loss. Having the Sword of Damocles dangling over our jobs leads us to focus on short-term metrics, particularly the dreaded impact.

But there are solutions. And here they are:

  1. Enjoy your work – you can either spend the whole time working hard, being miserable and ultimately losing your job or you can spend the whole time working hard, being happy and lose your job. With the happy option, at least the time spent doesn’t feel wasted.
  2. Branch out – make sure that if the axe falls you have a sufficiently good CV to move onwards or even change path.
  3. Get some clarity – find out what is expected of you – the KPI (key performance indicators). If you are not costing the university any money, they will probably keep you on.
  4. Take over – critically, the senior leadership of universities are academics. If your institution is not being run the way you like, get involved, join the union, go to committees, become part of the management yourself.

John Tregoning is senior lecturer in the mucosal infection and immunity section of virology at Imperial College LondonHe runs a blog on academic life.

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Reader's comments (5)

“Critically, the senior leadership of universities are academics.” Unfortunately, this is often not the case. It may be so in ICL and other good universities, but elsewhere we find failed academics and career bureaucrats causing demoralization and waste. It is part of the irony of much of British HE that ‘academic leaders’ are not academic (i.e. active in research and teaching).
Hear hear to the previous comment. And the article's emphasis on personal happiness and well-being risks a deeply conservative quietism. Personally, I'm committed to making my job as liveable and as benign vis-a-vis my mental health as possible. But politically the changes to Higher Education over the last few decades cannot but make me deeply unhappy. And involvement in the administration of my department only adds to the distress, making clear the extent of the capitulation of top-level university management to quite unthinking neo-liberal pieties.
This may be true if you have a permanent job in Higher Education. If you are one of those trying to work on temporary contracts, or "soft" grant money, then the rose-tinted glasses come off very quickly. For those of us without permanent positions, well, we have a pretty miserable time. And in many places we are now the majority.
Glad that some are starry eyed enough to believe that there will be jobs in UK universities for those whose jobs are cut. Try telling that to folk at York, Nottingham, Ulster or Leicester. Or perhaps they can all get jobs as cost cutters or Professors of Philistine studies?
Deeply problematic, presumptive and non-reflexive. After 15 years in industry and 3 now in academics, interacting with educational institutions across 3 continents, I can already see the academy increasingly as an extension of the corporation, most fundamentally with respect to ideology. Anyone with reasonable exposure to the corporation can point to the the tenuousness of job surveys. Also "and stops academics from doing stupid things in the name of research.... help us recruit better staff and fix the stuff that we break." Who decides "stupid", "better" and "break"?