Work and other labours of love

Academics and others discuss a typical working week

June 6, 2013

Source: David Lyttleton

The academic life is often depicted as a vocation rather than a job, with long working hours merging seamlessly into private life. But how true is that stereotype, and is it truer of some disciplines or pay grades than others?

We asked five people from across the sector to tell us about their typical working week and how they felt about it. The responses suggest that university careers do indeed impose huge demands on those who pursue them. The working day begins as early as 3am, while attending functions and dealing with email interruptions can go on long into the evening without much pause for breath in between (although one contributor did manage a brief “power nap” at lunchtime).

But equally striking in the academics’ accounts is the lack of resentment felt about what people in most walks of life would regard as an intolerably skewed work/life balance. All our contributors clearly find their jobs highly rewarding and accept their workloads with relative equanimity, regardless of whether they see themselves as working primarily for their university or for themselves.

Furthermore, they somehow still manage to find the time for an array of hobbies, including bee-keeping, heavy metal guitar riffing and attempts at DIY (with disastrous results). And if, as in the case of one academic, nightmares are about MasterChef, working life surely can’t be too unpleasant.

David Lyttleton feature illustration (6 June 2013)

The vice-chancellor

I am always up on a workday by 6am. On alternate days I spend about 20 minutes on the treadmill in my garage. If I had all day to think about it I’m sure I’d lose the will, as running can be tedious, but at that time of the morning I find it conducive to my planning for the day ahead, stimulating my thinking on how I might manage some difficult scheduled meeting or structure some writing task. I’ve also found that exercise helps me to deal with the length of my days.

My diary could very easily fill up with meetings and events well into the evening. I am a member of many boards and committees at the university, in the local area and also nationally, so these occupy quite a lot of my typical week. Then there are the one-to-ones with my senior team and ad hoc meetings both internally and externally. I therefore consciously have to block out time for reflection and creativity, to write and to be able to walk around the university and chat informally with staff and students.

I try to plan three months ahead, as that seems to naturally fit the academic cycle. I anticipate what I will need to reserve time for, such as preparing material for a governing council meeting. Needless to say, sometimes these plans are overtaken by other events.

I’m often out and about, so time spent in my office - especially alone - is limited. The room is not glamorous and doesn’t have an executive feel to it, but it is light and airy, with one wall that is effectively a window giving a great view of our most recent building, the award-winning Gateway: its wonderful blue stainless-steel facade changes colour in different light.

When we talked to staff recently about workloads, their responses almost always included spending too much time on emails and in meetings. For that reason we have introduced a protocol aligned with our university’s “Cord” values - clarity, openness, respect and delivery on commitments - that is designed to call on people’s time more wisely. For example, each meeting should have a clear purpose, good timekeeping and involve only those who really need to be there.

We are also conscious of the tyranny of email. Staff who receive emails from senior managers at unsocial hours or at weekends can feel under pressure to respond immediately. Therefore we have agreed to keep such messaging to working hours (except among ourselves). Personally, I tend to deal with emails in batches rather than dropping other things when one appears in my in-box.

Many of my evenings are occupied by work-related events. Sometimes they can feel a chore, but on occasions they are an absolute pleasure. For instance, I recently attended our annual students’ union awards. It was quite emotional at times and a wonderful celebration of the contribution that our diverse student body makes to the broader life of the university and our local community.

I enjoy activities outside work when time allows. I have written before in Times Higher Education about my love of bee-keeping. I have a large garden that I like working in, but I don’t have time to do it justice. It therefore falls to my husband to keep up the ready supply of home-grown produce with which we both enjoy cooking. We also lap up food programmes on the television. Since moving to Buckinghamshire, we have become supporters of London Wasps Rugby Club (a university partner) and enjoy going to home matches.

I feel very lucky as I enjoy my job immensely. There may be low points and difficult things to deal with, but my belief in the value of higher education as a life-changing experience means I am prepared to put in whatever time it takes.

Ruth Farwell is vice-chancellor and chief executive of Bucks New University

David Lyttleton feature illustration (6 June 2013)

The science professor

Sometimes my day starts as early as 3am. I have three young children, and I compensate for the time I make for them in the evenings and at weekends by getting up before they do. This gives me an average of about six hours’ sleep a night, but I can’t say I hit the ground running every morning: I usually require a good litre of caffeine to kick-start my day.

I am almost obsessive-compulsive about trying to maintain an empty email in-box. I turn off the email only if I have to meet a particular deadline - something I constantly struggle to do owing to my tendency to underestimate how long things will take. I receive an average of 40 or 50 emails a day and try to respond to students’ specific queries about coursework or exams within 24 hours.

I love the variety of academic life, but sometimes I resent the fact that focusing on a single task for an extended period proves impossible. I’m currently a research council fellow, so I have only a third of my school’s standard teaching load. In principle I could excuse myself entirely, but I really enjoy teaching so I want to keep my hand in during the six years of the fellowship (which I applied for to help me build up new research activity).

People have sometimes given me plants to brighten up my bland office, but I’ve always killed them through neglect within a couple of weeks. I spend three or four days a week there: the rest of the time I am away at conferences, workshops and meetings of the various committees and European networks with which I am involved.

There is rarely a time when I don’t have two or three papers to review on my to-do list. I also skim-read between 10 and 20 published papers a week. Travelling gives me space to do this, but it also encroaches on my family time, of which I don’t have enough. We need to focus more on videoconferencing. Meetings can account for up to 10 hours a week at worst, and most could be significantly shortened with no detriment to the business done.

The hardest part of running a lab is dealing with friction between its members; thankfully, though, that occurs only rarely. I drop into my lab regularly to talk to the PhD students and postdocs, but if I want to do an experiment myself, I come back at around 9pm after I’ve put the children to bed. Experiencing the tribulations of experimental science is important to connect you with your researchers, and I still love those rare moments (usually around 3am) when the experiment works and you see a facet of nature that no one has seen before.

The increasing number of incredibly dumb attempts at top-down university management also eat up time. The most recent irritation is my university’s “personal development and performance review” system, whose documentation features some of the most patronising (and poorly written) junk I’ve ever had the misfortune to read. Despite management’s best efforts, I do not subscribe to the idea that I should feel loyalty to the University of Nottingham’s “corporate brand”, and my objectives certainly do not automatically align with theirs, as they seem to think should be a given.

I get involved in quite a bit of outreach and public engagement. This includes video journalist Brady Haran’s Sixty Symbols and Numberphile YouTube projects, which explain physics and mathematics to a general audience. It is gratifying to receive emails saying that one of the videos has convinced someone to study physics, or rekindled their interest in the subject. I’ve also been using YouTube to complement my undergraduate lectures.

I recently wrote a video blog that explains the links between heavy metal music and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle (it’s on the Physicsfocus forum).I’ve been meaning to write something like that for about a decade because I’m a big heavy metal fan and listen to music all the time when I’m working. I also play guitar and write music.

Being Irish, I am genetically/culturally incapable of communicating in fewer than 140 characters, so I don’t use Twitter.Besides, it would be a big distraction because I’m somewhat…let’s just say argumentative.

I guard my free time with my family rather obsessively, so I rarely socialise with colleagues.In the evenings I play with my kids, help them with their homework and read them a story. I also sort out dinner if it’s my turn. If my wife, a nursing auxiliary, isn’t working a night shift, I spend some time with her. Otherwise I read the newspaper or watch a bit of television (with laptop open). But the last time I watched a film that wasn’t from the Pixar/Disney stable was many moons ago!

When I started as a lecturer 16 years ago, I never expected to make it to chair level, so I’m more than happy. I am well remunerated for doing a job that, for the moment at least, allows me to pursue the research I like in a subject I love.

Philip Moriarty is professor of physics at the University of Nottingham

David Lyttleton feature illustration (6 June 2013)

Every other week I attend the departmental reading group, held in a pub near the university. It breaks down the academic hierarchies and creates a sense of community

The early career researcher

My day begins at 7am - or 6am on Fridays, when I have to do a two-hour commute into Canterbury to teach.I’m often awake before the alarm, usually going over my to-do list in my head. Some days this involves battling a sense of panic, although there are days when there’s a pleasant sense of anticipation instead.

I’m more ruthless and realistic early in the day, so I blitz the emails from mailing lists over breakfast, checking for conferences I should attend or funding I should apply for.I probably get around 30 or 40 emails a day. I don’t find that my students email me too much: just a small flurry shortly before an assignment needs handing in. I’m sure there’s an official policy, but I usually just try to reply within what I would consider to be a reasonable amount of time.

I was told at a graduate workshop to join Twitter. I’m sure that I scoffed at the time, but it has been incredibly useful for keeping on top of research, conferences, funding and talks, and I check it every day after breakfast. But Twitter also mocks you by giving the impression that everyone else is working all the time. And because of the lack of set hours, you feel like you should be, too.

My “office” is my bedroom. I know everyone recommends the separation of work and relaxation spaces, but there’s nothing as convenient as a double bed for spreading papers across and having everything within my grasp. My bedroom is also bright and full of mementos from trips and silly gifts from friends, reminding me not to get too wrapped up in my work.

I know I operate best in the mornings, so I use this time for writing or marking, the jobs I find most challenging. I try to refresh my to-do list at the start of each week because it’s satisfying to feel as if I’m getting somewhere by crossing things off. Doing a PhD is such a long process that it often feels like I’m getting nowhere.

After lunch I run errands, before returning either to research, prepare for conferences or mark papers, depending on how focused I feel. I break for dinner and finish work between 6pm and 8pm on quiet weeks or 10pm on busy ones. My weekends might as well be weekdays: the only difference is that I go out in the evenings. But I do try to take at least a half-day off a week.

I last read fiction for pleasure several months ago, even though it is one of my favourite pastimes. I’ve been on a push to finish a PhD chapter, so can’t face looking at more words at the end of the day. I go running a few times a week and walk my dog. Every other week I attend the invaluable departmental reading group, held in a pub near the university. It breaks down the academic hierarchies and creates a sense of community like nothing else.

A postdoc friend asked me if I’d had mortgage envy yet, and it was like he was reading my mind! I am lucky to have a research council scholarship and teaching income on top, so I live comfortably. But I won’t have a permanent job for years and don’t envision ever being able to buy a house. I get to do a job I love, so perhaps I shouldn’t care whether I own a pile of bricks, but it’s hard to keep that in mind sometimes when everyone you know seems to have their own place.

I love teaching and I probably spend far more time than I should researching pedagogic techniques, developing resources and lesson planning. But it feels like a tremendous responsibility, as well as a privilege, to help students transition from school to university standard, encouraging them to think differently and push themselves. By contrast, I hate marking. It takes for ever and the effort involved is not reflected in the mark and comments that are merely glanced over by students.

My PhD is important to me, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. If something is handed in a little late because I have to comfort a friend in crisis or go on a rare date with my very patient boyfriend (who possibly couldn’t even tell you the title of my PhD), then so be it.

If it weren’t for some very close friends doing doctorates, with whom I exchange “this is impossible” and “no, just a tough week: you can do it” emails, I don’t know what I would do. Everyone in my department is supportive, but only my fellow students are actively engaged in the scramble for non-existent jobs, so they empathise more with the pressure to be perfect in every respect.

Alice White is a PhD student and assistant lecturer at the University of Kent

David Lyttleton feature illustration (6 June 2013)

The registrar

I get up between 5.30am and 6am, and I’m at my desk by 7.30am. This is through habit and a desire to avoid playing human dodgems in the rush hour at Waterloo station.

One of my personal performance indicators is the number of emails I delete each day. This is rarely under 100 and can touch 150. Some of these are fragmented, serial versions of what in the past would have been phone calls. Others are trivial or personal. But at least 40 need more than a quick one-line reply.

I once worked out that my writing output is - in terms of volume, at least - the equivalent of a master’s dissertation every fortnight. When working on a committee paper or difficult message, I sometimes turn the email off completely - though probably not often enough. My colleague Linda Newman, who keeps my diary, tries to leave Fridays free for more sustained pieces of work, although this doesn’t always work.

Some colleagues think that committees are devices for the avoidance of decision-making, but I don’t see them that way. Meetings take up between 15 and 20 hours of my week, but are often essential and (if run crisply) effective. I usually enjoy them, too - although perhaps slightly less so than I did earlier in my career. I also spend about 5 per cent of my time in transit around campus. This is what used to be called “management by walking around”, or as a colleague once called it, “management by swanning about”.

In spite of being quite senior in the organisation, I don’t have an office. My workspace is a rather spartan corner of an open-plan area. I have a rather tired joke: “I would have an open-door policy if I had a door.” My main decoration is a colourful London Underground poster poem: “I sing/of the beauty of Athens/without its slaves…I sing of a world reshaped.” But I do have a big comfy chair, which I use for my lunchtime power nap - achieved with the help of an iPad and Vaughan Williams, Keith Jarrett or Barbie Benson. This is a critical part of the day: a still point in a turning world.

The best and the worst aspects of the job depend on my mood. On some days the constant movement between high-level strategy and detailed business is difficult to handle, but on others it is the main source of stimulus in the role. A persistent irritation is when something - an issue, a message - that I think I have dealt with comes straight back into my in-tray. And it frustrates me that plans and projects rarely come to fruition as envisioned or to the expected timescale.

I feel most guilty about work-related literature. The higher education sector is rich in high-quality research reports about itself; and if we are serious about evidence-based policy, this is where it should start. But I don’t read them, at least not with the care with which they were written. Also, absurdly, I feel guilty about spending desk time reading rather than writing.

There are work-related evening events about twice a week. Some involve networking with individuals or small groups, others are receptions or dinners. I also chair the London School of Economics’ senior common room - a considerable honour, as I am only the second administrator to have done so. All this is pleasurable but it makes a long week longer.

My work/life balance is slightly out of kilter. In particular, I don’t get to spend enough time with my wife, Barbie. Even when there is no evening event in the diary, I rarely know when I will get home. When I do, I usually check my email. It is rare that there are developments that couldn’t wait until morning, but it is a small way of ensuring that the messages don’t pile up. I usually do three or four hours’ work on Sunday mornings, too.

In my spare time, I enjoy watching herons at the London Wetland Centre. Barbie and I also go to the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. I am learning to play the clarinet, slowly and painfully, while Barbie runs the Barnes Philosophy Club (details on request). But I don’t have a large hobby to act as a counterweight to work. Even my youthful obsession with cricket has waned (slightly).

Since the LSE has promoted me to a senior position and is rewarding me well, it is entitled to expect a high level of commitment and performance, so I don’t feel resentful about my working patterns. I also believe that leadership is, in part, about personal example.

Working life in higher education administration has changed massively since I entered the profession in 1977. The changes in technology are obvious and visible, but there have also been subtle yet profound changes in expectations about workload and commitment.

Simeon Underwood is academic registrar and director of academic services at the London School of Economics

David Lyttleton feature illustration (6 June 2013)

The litany of crises in universities gives me a fidgety, restless state of mind inimical to the deep levels of concentration needed for research and reading

The graduate school director

I was born at 8am on a Monday morning, which seems to have made me an early riser. I switch on BBC Radio 4: if Farming Today is still on, I know it’s too early to start dealing with the 50 or so emails I receive every day. But I hit those as soon as I arrive in my office, always hopeful of pleasant surprises. I live only a few minutes’ walk from the university so there’s no commute, and if I’ve forgotten anything I can go home and get it.

I lead a Jekyll and Hyde double life, divided between professorial duties in the English department and directing the graduate school. One minute I’m discussing free will and determinism in Victorian fiction, the next I’m signing off PhD student extension requests (which perhaps have more in common than one might think). I enjoy teaching if discussion lights up, but not when the students seem more interested in checking their split ends.

As for maintaining a grip on the day, Thomas Hardy’s character Donald Farfrae sums it up perfectly: “We plan this, but we do that.” I scuttle from one building to another late for meetings, hoping that PowerPoint will work without my needing to summon a technician.

Two jobs mean two offices: the functional, shared one in the graduate school and the climatically extreme one in the English department. The latter is a Dickensian chaos of books, papers, student essays, plants, biscuits, posters and big plastic boxes full of meeting documents. The posters regularly peel off the walls, and someone once fell through the seat of my easy chair when the springs collapsed. “It’ll be here somewhere,” I promise patient students queuing up for essays. “I never throw anything away.”

The worst side of the job is never having enough time to do things properly. Most academic tasks need to be performed patiently and thoughtfully, one at a time, in peace and quiet. But however hard I try to prioritise, a fresh email always distracts me. The litany of crises in universities gives me a fidgety, restless state of mind inimical to the deep levels of concentration needed for research and reading. My best reading is therefore done on trains: a return trip to Exeter can clear a fortnight’s backlog.

It can be difficult keeping up to date with both sides of my work as thoroughly as I’d like. I suspect I enjoy academic meetings more than I should. It’s partly because so much is happening in academic life that this is the quickest way to find out what’s going on, and talking about it can be stimulating.

The most difficult situations in my job arise from imposing regulations, such as referring a tearful student for plagiarism or turning down an appeal. Online marking is another menace on the horizon. Where are the health and safety police when you need them? Instead of binning perfectly good brownies left over after buffets, they should do something useful and save us from the neck pain and backache, migraines and blurred vision incurred as we hunch over computers far into the night - and all because students can no longer read handwriting.

I feel as if I work primarily for the university and only secondarily for myself, although invitations to contribute research are addressed to me as an individual, which can complicate the relationship. The lack of a clear gap between work and private time also muddies the waters. I always have to work for some of the weekend to survive the following week, for instance. I break it up by swimming, running, mowing the lawn, or otherwise spending time outdoors.

I have a pile of half-read books by my bed and try to keep up with contemporary as well as Victorian fiction and biographies. A new and uncharacteristic thing is my Pooterish urge to improve the house. Take my advice: never be tempted to paint the bathroom tiles, even if they look too stuck on to be removed.

Workplace socialising feels like a casualty of current pressures. Even departmental seminars have become more routine and efficient, with no lingering. Everyone nowadays has a “partner” who has to be hurried home to. I’m usually too tired to work for long in the evenings and go to bed after BBC News at Ten; the TV goes on for one programme and stays on for others. The other day I had a nightmare about MasterChef, which serves me right.

Valerie Sanders is professor of English at the University of Hull and director of Hull Graduate School

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Reader's comments (1)

Dear Neil Stanley. Then write one