Career advice: how to work a 37-hour week

Jenny Pickerill explains how she balances her workload

May 24, 2018
Man tries to control obstinate horse
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There is a deeply embedded assumption that academics should work whatever hours necessary to do the job.

The problem is that an academic’s work is never complete – more time could always be spent on research, teaching or administrative tasks. Indeed many of these tasks, such as teaching preparation, will fill whatever time is available.

In the highly competitive world of academia, those who can work excessive hours unpaid are likely to gain a career advantage. However, there are many costs to this approach, not least to academics’ mental and physical health, let alone in effect pushing out those with caring or other non-work responsibilities. The longer the hours we work, the more productivity falls.

Unwilling to sacrifice my life to academia and to work extra hours unpaid, I have accepted that the requirements of my job are impossible to complete and have instead been trying to develop ways to do the job as best as I can in my contracted hours. I am privileged to do this from a secure and senior position, but have been trying these approaches for more than a decade.

Spend time on the rewarding parts of the job
I cherish reading and writing days, enjoy face-to-face teaching and supervision, and love fieldwork – both research and teaching field classes. Time spent chatting and laughing with colleagues is also vital to feeling a sense of belonging and collectivity, especially in stressful times.

Creating time for these things, however, requires squashing other activities into less time. I allocate realistic time to tasks in my calendar; I know what has to be done each week and when I am going to do it. But when this gets disrupted, as it invariably does, I kow what time needs to be taken from something or somewhere else or what might have to be cancelled.

In other words, I start from an acceptance that academic labour is not an inexhaustible resource. To do this job requires a pragmatism in working out what parts of it can be afforded less time. I have to be efficient in how I deal with emails (often deleting them on the subject line alone), speed read meeting papers and make quick decisions. I avoid others’ agendas; I am cautious of being pulled into things and take my time before agreeing to invitations, collaborations and favours.

Don’t over-prepare your teaching
Teaching is one of the hardest activities to restrict to the 40 per cent of my time that my workload model allocates to it. While it can be deeply rewarding, the expectations of what I deliver constantly increase in terms of innovation, interaction, face time and feedback, and yet the hours stay the same.

To navigate this, I don’t over-prepare my teaching, and I have to ad lib sometimes. I also limit my preparation time deliberately and do my best in the limited time available. I only try one new technique a year and I don’t dwell on a bad lecture, seminar or student evaluation. I have found that students respond better to slightly more spontaneous and lively teaching than when I have carefully planned everything.

I also teach the way I like; if it is enjoyable for me, I hope my students will be enthused. Of course I try to be accessible and inclusive too (and post material before sessions). I also time my marking: I give each assessment the time allowed.

Push back on administrative duties
It is important to be a contributing institutional citizen by doing a fair share of administrative duties. I have been in senior departmental positions (such as director of teaching and learning) but, no matter the role, it cannot all be done. I have had to push back on bureaucracy, and prioritise the things that will make a difference to the department, staff and students.

I have had to ignore some demands, meetings or emails; otherwise my admin role would morph into a full-time job on its own. To help constrain it, I allocate days either to teaching and admin, or to research. They don’t mix.

Know when to say ‘no more’
Finally, I have a list of all the things that constitute my job – a mixture of what the department and university ask of me and my own priorities. I have categorised them and created a list of things that I dislike doing but have to do, or find time-consuming and have a yearly target; once reached I do no more.

In an academic job where nothing is ever complete and every task could expand ad infinitum, it is important to accept when just enough is enough.

Jenny Pickerill is professor of environmental geography at the University of Sheffield.

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