Workload survival guide for academics

Advice on how to cope with all the work and when to say no to opportunities

February 18, 2016
Man pushing against clock hands

Of the academics contributing to this year’s Times Higher Education University Workplace Survey, more than two-thirds agree that they “spend too much time working”. Less than a third believe that their “work responsibilities allow for a healthy work-life balance”. Despite satisfaction levels of more than three-quarters for both teaching and research, it is clear that many academics are in peril of drowning in the sea of things that they are expected (and often want) to do, while also trying to find time for family, friends and fun.

So are there ways of learning to prioritise better? What is the knack to knowing when and how to say no to attractive opportunities – not to mention tasks you feel you ought to take on? We asked a range of academics to recount their own experiences, and to draw out any lessons and practical tips.

It is clear that no one finds the balancing act easy to pull off. Indeed, one contributor has gone so far as to form a mutual support group for “opportunities addicts” struggling with the “fine art of saying no”. Members tempted to take on just one extra burden are nudged back towards sanity with a succession of sobering mantras, such as: “All baby opportunities are cute. Imagine this opportunity as a teenager.”

But any academic tempted to put that phrase on a T-shirt and set up a stall at the next big international conference should first reflect realistically on the amount of work that would involve.

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‘I became aware of that prickly feeling on the back of my neck that the wildebeest at the waterhole must feel when the lions notice it…’

I used to think that being invisible in academia was a bad thing. Years ago, as a junior researcher quietly tinkering away on biological problems, my world didn’t extend much beyond my laboratory, with its smattering of tubes, bottles and glass slides. But neither did my influence within the university.

If I wondered wistfully when I would ever be in the managerial cut and thrust, senior colleagues would retort that I was enjoying some sort of science nirvana, for ever lost to them: “All you have to do is research. Enjoy it while it lasts.”

When my time came, it came quickly. After the first invitation to join a committee, I became aware of that prickly feeling on the back of my neck that the wildebeest at the waterhole must feel when the lions notice it, and begin to advance menacingly. Soon I was chairing sessions at research days, judging posters and mentoring more junior staff. More committee invitations followed, including a prestigious chairing role. When my funding became uncertain, many hours of teaching were heaped on to the load. In the evenings and weekends, I found myself constantly working on grants to keep my small team’s research alive. Weeks went by without touching an experiment, then months.

Although at first it was flattering to be at the centre of things, the atmosphere soon took a sinister turn. Deadlines began to gather over my head, sucking away my oxygen. My diary slowly turned black, each square containing a dense list of tasks in increasingly small fonts. The weekend squares, once relatively free, began to take up the overspill, elbowing out the fulfilling, personal tasks I used to do much more of: writing, public engagement and political activism. When my husband and I moved out of London and put our toddler into a local nursery, my commute imposed uncompromising hours and involved pushing a pram for several miles a day. By the time I got home, I was exhausted; weekends felt like a convalescence. Despite my desperate need for more sleep, I found myself lying awake at night, clenched into endless cycles of anxiety about the things I had yet to do.

Why don’t you just say no, non-academic friends asked? Because, I explained, when you don’t have job security, you can’t afford to. Even, they persisted, when saying no will allow you to publish the papers you need to achieve this security? Sadly, yes.

Last term, which I remember now only as a dark nightmare of stress and over-commitment, I started filling in a timesheet. I discovered that I spent a lot of days doing many things simultaneously, and realised that such diffusion was feeding my sense of being out of control. Over the Christmas break, once I’d caught up with my sleep and started feeling more human, I set about making changes in my life. I went through each week of the upcoming term, blocking out entire days in my diary that I would devote solely to research, or teaching or academic obligations. When necessary, I negotiated with the teaching admin staff to make this happen. I create detailed to-do lists for each day of the coming week, and try to stick religiously to them. If someone asks me to do something, I say that I am happy to help, but not right this second: it needs to be timetabled in. Surprisingly, the earth did not stop revolving.

I still don’t feel fully in control. This piece is late, and I’m tapping it out on a weekend while my son plays with matches at the table opposite me, and my husband cooks dinner. But the panicked episodes have lessened, and I may soon start to enjoy my job again.

Jennifer Rohn is a principal research associate in the division of medicine at University College London. In her not-so-spare time she is also a writer, science communicator, pundit and mum.

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‘A key purpose of a PhD is to destroy a young person’s ability to enjoy leisure. Presumably, this is what it is like to be in the SAS’

For most scholars, the idea of managing time sounds perplexing. That is because there are only two kinds of time: time when one is thinking about research at the front of one’s mind, and time when one is thinking about research at the back of one’s mind. The bottom line in academia is really just a question: how much stress can you tolerate in life? That will dictate how you manage your activities.

There is a reason for this apparently harsh fact. Our professional lives are extraordinarily privileged. Unlike those in virtually any other occupation in Western society, university scholars have the near-autonomy of a self-employed person and yet the relative financial security of an employee. Everything pleasant has to have an associated cost.

The downside of university life is that clear leisure time does not exist. There are no weekends with nothing to do. I have always thought that a key purpose of a PhD is to destroy a young person’s ability to enjoy leisure. Presumably, this is what it is like to be in the SAS. Once you have passed through extreme training, most normal activities are no longer stimulating, because your brain’s standard for what counts as excitement has been raised, and indeed can never go back.

For any young person considering an academic career, the following bit of arithmetic is useful. Let’s say that 25 hours a week has to be spent on teaching, seeing students, preparation, departmental meetings and administration. This slice of your life is not particularly negotiable. Then, however, there are another three broad options. You can work another 15 hours on research. You can work another 25 hours on research. Or you can work another 35 hours on research (where “research” includes not just writing articles and books but also any activity such as going to conferences, refereeing and editorial work on journals).

It is straightforward to see the advantage of long hours. If you choose the 35 path, you will do more than double the amount of research of your neighbour who takes the 15 track. Some readers may think that the 35 track, which of course implies a 60-hour week, sounds extreme. Well, I have known literally hundreds of American economists who work far longer than 60 hours a week. If your priority is success in research, when measured by international standards, it will mean hellishly long hours.

Within your putative 60 hours a week, if that is your desired track in life, there is plenty of scope for different strategies. I know successful people who love conferences and successful people who virtually never go to them. There are also activities that count as service to the academic community. We are all aware of individuals who shirk their refereeing duties and others who are highly diligent. But if you wish to be a shirker, people will come to learn of it and you will eventually have to take the negative consequences.

What is the best strategy? I wish I knew. Personally, I suppose I just got swept along with ambition and the intrinsic interest of the topics.

A famous “happiness” researcher, the late Michael Argyle, was once asked: “What should I do to be happier?”

After a moment, he replied: “Sir, write out a list of all the things that make you happy. Then do them more.”

That might be my general advice about academia and how to allocate time. A few things are not to be avoided. For the rest of your time, why not do the activities that make you happiest? It is decent to put some hours into service to the scholarly community. We should all do our duty – but not too much. The world does not prosper when humans are consumed by duty.

Andrew Oswald is professor of economics at the University of Warwick.

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‘Rather than harmlessly seeking to build an academic career, I had actually become an opportunities addict’

It was about three years ago when I first realised that I had a problem. Overwhelmed with multiple obligations, I reflected that many of the things I was struggling to accomplish had once lit up my daily routine with the enticing gleam of a new opportunity: a way to satisfy a burning curiosity and to follow ideas where they lead. (And after all, just one more little task wouldn’t hurt; I could work around it and it would be rude to say no.) It dawned on me that the very presence of opportunities gives me a kick. And I concluded that rather than harmlessly seeking to build an academic career, I had actually become an opportunities addict.

Tentatively, I mentioned my problem to colleagues. I started with those who appeared – at least from a distance – to be similarly afflicted. The relief I felt at having “outed” myself was palpable. And it seemed that I was very far from being alone in my madness. Whether driven by a sense of curiosity, competition or obligation to pull their weight in the reciprocity-based academic community, many colleagues across the world seem incapable of managing their pursuit of opportunities and attaining that mystical state of work-life balance.

While opportunities addiction seems more prevalent among senior staff, many junior academics are also inclined to feel like small enterprises, concerned that no more “business” may come their way if they don’t accept everything that comes in. This, they worry, may be their only chance to capture that grant, visit that place or turn that idea into something concrete. Others simply enjoy a challenge, or are lured by the possibilities of the unknown. But, whatever the cause of opportunities problems, one thing is clearer: sufferers need help.

For this reason, I formed Opportunities Anonymous: an informal self-help group of about a dozen close colleagues in my networks who are addicted to saying yes. The group acts as a forum in which to confess the opportunities that we are currently considering and to get feedback on them. Surprisingly, perhaps, it is very easy to see why other people should turn opportunities away – especially with the help of the rules of thumb that we have drawn up to help us to put opportunities into perspective and guide our decisions about them.

Most people’s favourite is: “An urgent opportunity is usually someone else’s problem”. Others include: “All baby opportunities are cute. Imagine this opportunity as a teenager”; “An opportunity shared is an opportunity solved: pass on your unwanted opportunities carefully”; “Beware the opportunity bearing gold”; “Good opportunities come to those who wait”; “Let sleeping opportunities lie”; “Opportunities do not create time; they always destroy it” (also known as the Law of Opportunotropy); and “My chances of [please delete as appropriate] saving the world/changing the discipline/writing four world-class papers/finally getting all the recognition I deserve/being made a professor/appeasing my colleagues/being happy do not hinge on this opportunity.”

The point is to support each other in the fine art of saying no. It is not about avoiding the responsibilities and reciprocities of academic life – the wheels of peer review, external examination, research assessment and the rest must keep turning. It is, rather, about recognising our capacities and limits. By acknowledging our addictions, we hope to be able to consume opportunities in moderation, and thereby rediscover the joy and excitement that they bring.

Harriet Bulkeley is a professor in the department of geography at Durham University. Thanks to the other members of Opportunities Anonymous: Ben Anderson, Michele Betsill, Vanesa Castan Broto, Anna Davies, Gareth Edwards, Mikael Granberg, Matthew Hoffmann, Simon Marvin, Kes McCormick, Kimberly Nicholas, Matthew Paterson, Johannes Stripple, Stacy VanDeveer and Yuliya Voytenko.

Beetham Tower/Hilton Tower interior, Manchester, England
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‘I finally realised that actual time spent in the lab bears little correlation to what people actually achieve’

Most bookstores have a shelf in the self-help section devoted to life balance – or, more specifically, work-home balance. If you’re an academic scientist, these are expensive paperweights. Everybody has their own personal perspective on this, but I’ve found the most interesting element to be the changing context with age.

If you choose to pursue academic research, your initial research environment will have a powerful imprinting effect on the rest of your life. When I started my PhD at the University of Dundee in the early 1980s, I was remarkably fortunate to land in a circle of people that included students, postdoctoral fellows and visiting professors. I asked the visiting professors how many hours I should work each day. They told me that, at my age, all hours were work hours and that the last hour you worked in a day would be the most productive. I had no one depending on me at that time, so I initially took them at their word. Fortunately, I also met someone I’m lucky to still depend on – in the lab, no less. “I” became “we”, but my studies still tended to come first, and socialising was typically confined to our lab friends.

The next phase of the journey was a postdoctoral spell in San Diego, accompanied by stunning surroundings and amazing science. The hours were still long, but we both worked at the same research institute. Then our daughter muscled on to the scene, rightly demanding adjustments. I finally realised that actual time spent in the lab bears little correlation to what people actually achieve. Time management became a tunable skill.

My spouse chose to look after our kids. Many couples manage to juggle work and family; indeed, sometimes not through choice but to keep afloat financially. I was given a gift that was (and still is) a luxury that enabled me to cheat the clock with extended time to work, protected “quality” family time and less exhaustion. I know I was lucky.

Our next life step was an independent research group in London. We lived in the suburbs, so getting to the lab involved a one-hour commute, half of which was by train. Those 30 minutes each way became invaluable reading time. One morning the train was delayed outside Euston, compelling me to read a Nature article that I’d only glanced at earlier. It was a fruit fly orthologue of a gene I’d been working on in mammals. The appalling punctuality of Network Southeast changed my research.

A few years later, we moved to Toronto and the commuter train was swapped for a car. I couldn’t read, so I listened to music or just drove. It’s easy to fill your day and mind with transactions – but it’s important to jealously protect time for free thought. Those flecks of serenity seem rarer these days; even an elevator ride has become a place to check your screen.

Like many academic researchers, my time for doing experiments in the lab became squeezed out by administrative hoops and responsibilities. But the time pressures grew worse still: there was never enough time in the day for what I needed to do to feel accomplished. So I did something about it. I cut down travel where possible, learned to better share responsibilities and left cancelled meetings in my calendar – often my only “free time” in a day.

My liberation was to realise that much of what your day consists of can be reconfigured, that deadlines are largely self-imposed procrastination limits and that we are not uniformly productive. Starting a piece of work in the wrong state of mind simply wastes that mind. We know ourselves best and we often beat ourselves up for failing to meet our expectations. Don’t do that! Aside from life being too short, frustration is often a symptom of lack of control. That’s something you need to take back.

Jim Woodgett is director of research and senior investigator at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute in Toronto.

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‘I try to agree only to talks that move the writing forward, using them as deadlines for producing parts of a wider whole’

I recently spent three days at the Institut Mémoires de l’Edition Contemporaine at the Abbaye d’Ardenne, outside Caen in Normandy. This houses the archives of many French writers, publishers and institutions, including a valuable collection of papers by and relating to Michel Foucault.

The reading room is in the abbey itself; the other buildings have been converted into study-bedrooms, a refectory and conference rooms. Most people using the collections stay on site, take meals together and work in the reading room all the time it is open. There is a shared collective endeavour, a comfortable silence in working hours and a genuine interest in each other’s work in the communal spaces.

All this is at some distance from the working lives of most academics today. Teaching, preparation, marking, office hours, meetings, emails, phone calls and so on make consolidated and protected time for individual study very difficult to obtain and protect. Yet much of our most important work, perhaps especially for academics in the social sciences and humanities, happens alone, in time that cannot easily be quantified, measured or evaluated. Journal articles, chapters and books need consolidated, isolated and protected time; the slow accumulation of reading, thinking and writing, repeated and repeated.

I’m in a privileged position in general in terms of my academic role, and especially this academic year, when I am on sabbatical. But I have an ambitious plan: one book was submitted in the summer before the sabbatical began, I have another that I want to complete and a third with which I want to make good progress. So I set myself some rules to try to structure the days and make the most of the time available (these work just as well for isolated research days, or even just a few hours of writing time).

Number one is not to check email in the morning; email has a habit of setting the day’s agenda for you, instead of being but one of the tasks you need to address. I try to keep nothing in my inbox. This does not mean that every email is already answered, or the associated task completed. It means that the only ones in there are ones I have never seen. Some messages are sorted into consolidated folders – things to do in the office, things to read at some point – others are turned into tasks with scheduled dates and times. So, if nothing in my inbox is older than half a day, it can’t be that urgent. If it is, it’s the sender’s problem, not mine.

I try to keep the morning, or the whole of a shorter slot, as consolidated writing time. I set the agenda. If I’ve had a few productive hours of writing, and feel I am moving things forward, then I am better placed to deal with other tasks – review work, editorial duties, reading PhD students’ work, answering messages. I restrict social media use, usually by using a plug-in to block or limit time. I can always use my phone or iPad, but then it’s really obvious that I’m not working.

I try to agree only to talks that move the writing forward, using them as deadlines for producing parts of a wider whole. There are always exceptions, but preparing a talk can become a major diversion from a focus. The same goes for writing or editing projects – often intriguing, flattering and tempting, and I do those that I can, but they have a cost.

Certain places are also associated with productive work. The specialist archives are one; I’ve also done good work in the British Library Rare Books room in the past. But the best place is still my home study. Close the door – physical and virtual – and get back to writing.

Stuart Elden is professor of political theory and geography at the University of Warwick and author of the forthcoming Foucault’s Last Decade. He blogs at Progressive Geographies.

Smithsonian National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
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‘I am seriously tempted to burn some of the papers which reach me for an opinion’

Among the more time-consuming tasks that academics are asked to perform is peer reviewing. Complaints about the burden it imposes are frequent, and there is a widespread sense that, amid the relentless increase in the number of papers published annually, the burden is only getting heavier.

Yet recently discovered reports from the Royal Society’s archives reveal that referees have been feeling the burden for many decades. For instance, in a note accompanying one of his many referee reports to the assistant secretary at the Royal Society, the chemist Neil Kensington Adam wrote in 1950: “For mercy’s sake, don’t send me any more papers to referee for a long time! During the last five very busy weeks I have had five papers, not one of which was fit for publication in a first-class scientific journal.”

His thoughts about the underlying problem are likely to resonate with modern ears: “The papers have been sent to the Society largely because the PhD supervisors feel that their protégés, or their laboratories, or both, will gain a little extra prestige if the Royal Society has published some of their work.”

His laments about the consequences of the reviewing burden for his own science are also likely to sound familiar. “I get a much smaller fraction of my time for scientific work than the supervisors and heads of departments from whom such papers as these come, and the job of examining unsatisfactory communications is very exacting and time-consuming,” he wrote. “If I get much more heavy refereeing like this, it is goodbye to any chance of doing real scientific work myself (and please remember that many other societies try and make me referee their papers also!). If I could only get some uninterrupted time, I could do real work of ten times the value of the sort of rubbish I have been required to report on lately...So, I warn you, you can expect a strike of referees or at least one of them, if these pot-hunting PhD supervisors don’t take more trouble to censor their students’ work. It’s becoming a thorough nuisance, and a disgrace to the profession of science…I am seriously tempted to burn some of the papers which reach me for an opinion; I really believe that might be a good way of dealing with them!”

Adam was not alone in his views. Colleagues throughout the 1950s, from across the sciences, expressed similar frustrations. In October 1951, University College London crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale wrote to the assistant secretary of the Royal Society, on receiving yet another revised copy of a manuscript: “Quite frankly I hope it will not be returned to me, even in a further revised form! I have spent an enormous amount of time on it, but I feel that it is still so badly prepared as to be almost unreadable – at least by me, and I just can’t afford to give it any more time.”

One positive side to all this is the seriousness with which reviewers took their responsibilities, frequently writing three or four pages of constructive criticism. The other is the crumb of comfort it offers to modern academics snowed under with dubious manuscripts to review. Not only are you not alone – it turns out that you never were.

Camilla Mørk Røstvik is a researcher on the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project “Publishing the Philosophical Transactions: the economic, social and cultural history of a learned journal, 1665-2015” at the University of St Andrews.

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