Summer off? Not likely

Tim Birkhead dispels the myth that lecturers spend three months on the beach

September 4, 2008

At the beginning of July my ageing mum asked me if I was now on holiday, meaning: was I on holiday until the beginning of the new semester in September? Despite years of trying to disabuse her of the idea, she still assumes that when the undergraduates leave for their summer vacation, I - together with my other scientific colleagues - am "on holiday".

This extremely widespread misconception is not confined to mums.

Maybe it is a legacy of the 1960s, the age of Malcolm Bradbury's History Man: a more relaxed era in which (some) academics enjoyed both free love and long holidays (often simultaneously). But it may also be because some academics do actually still take the entire summer off.

While many of my colleagues enjoy a well-earned break during the undergraduate summer vacation, few that I know take their full entitlement, and none takes three months' holiday.

The "working day" for most academics during semester time is taken up by lectures, tutorials, seeing students, reading theses, grappling with grant proposal forms, wrestling with various oxymoronically named university "services", answering emails and completing university surveys.

If there is anything truly creative to be done, the university office is not the place to it - there is simply too much day-to-day stuff to deal with and too many interruptions.

Instead, my colleagues do their real work of preparing teaching, writing grant applications, papers and research talks at home, usually in the evenings and weekends.

The majority of my academic colleagues spend far more than the paid-for 37 hours a week working, in part because they are enthusiasts and partly because being an academic is rather like being self-employed - if you don't work your socks off you won't get grants, won't get promoted and won't keep the backlog of research from gobbling you up.

It is not quite as bad here as in many American universities, where the quest for tenure creates a hothouse atmosphere. But compared with many of my colleagues on the Continent, many British academics work very long hours.

Just how hard do academics work? Does anyone know? One would think that with the requirement by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) that UK universities undertake time-allocation surveys to quantify our activities, the answer should be obvious.

However, the Hefce surveys officially record only the proportion of time spent on different activities, not the number of hours the average academic works.

It would be interesting to know, but I doubt our masters have any intention of opening up this particular can of worms, fearing, I suspect, the discrepancies it might reveal between institutions and probably between departments in the same institution.

Discrepancies might raise issues about how much people are paid for what they do.

The problem is that we tend to be judged (or judge ourselves) against the "best" - which can also mean the most extreme. A recent profile in the scientific journal Nature of a medical researcher based in California describes him as someone whose "workday begins when he wakes at 3am to write grants and papers".

"At 6 or 6.30, he goes for a long run, swim or a bicycle ride ... and is at work by 7.30."

This particular scientist has 11 research grants and manages a 35-person lab, and his researchers "have weekly goals that must be met, and (whose) progress is measured with project-management software".

He has more than 75,000 citations and an H-index of more than 100. Ironically, or maybe even prophetically, the subject of his research is cell death.

This raises a number of questions - like when is enough enough? There is always that extra grant you could apply for; always that extra paper you could write. And because enough is never enough, the situation is out of control.

One additional reason, of course, why academics work such long hours is that they are forced to spend so much time on tasks that either have a low return or are completely futile, like many grant applications.

The amount of time academics spend on writing (and reviewing) them is both scandalous and demoralising.

I sometimes fantasise about being in one of those continental research institutions where the inmates are not obliged to spend time writing grants, but instead are allocated research funding automatically.

The potentially wide-open horizons and freedom are almost unimaginable to the average British academic.

Yet the fantasy bubble is quickly burst, for the reality is not that appealing.

In my experience, researchers in such privileged circumstances are rarely more productive or creative than my colleagues in British and US universities.

The too-easy acquisition of research funding seems - in some cases at least - to dampen enthusiasm and breed complacency.

Clearly, researchers need to feel a bit of competition to drive them, but - and this is the point - there is a healthy limit that I believe that we in the UK and our colleagues in the US have clearly passed.

The work-life balance is a continuing issue and it is one that individual academics have to formulate for themselves.

If they get it right, the rewards are obvious: immense job satisfaction, promotion, maybe even some national and international awards.

But get it wrong and the most likely result is, indeed, early cell death.

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