Nancy Rothwell

October 21, 2005

Feeling imposed upon is worse than having too much work. Don't be a martyr to jobs you detest - delegate that admin

Last week I was told by a colleague that I should feel stressed. So I'm working on it, doubtless with great success. I agree to numerous commitments, seem to have a few too many jobs (almost all of them self-inflicted) and am now acting vice-chancellor again for a couple of weeks - probably a good excuse for some stress.

But many reviews, reports and personal accounts suggest that the life of academics in general is not always an easy one. The data suggest that many work more than 50 hours a week (and the rest, I hear you say). They are expected not only to deliver outstanding teaching that students and external reviewers alike rate highly; secure major grants; publish in international journals; supervise a string of PhD students; and give presentations at conferences around the world (but not when you are meant to be teaching, of course), but also to do all those little jobs such as organise new courses; mark 100 (or several hundred) exam scripts; console the student with the unprintable personal problem; organise departmental seminars; and attend staff or committee meetings that go on for hours, often with little sign of an outcome.

Is it any wonder that our universities have difficulties in recruiting leading researchers or that few women reach the top of the academic profession when all this is expected of them and they also have to juggle family life in between? I was recently involved in the filming of two BBC documentaries about "doing research". As part of this, the producer interviewed a group of PhD students at a university somewhere in the UK. He was shocked to find that most did not see their future career in academia.

When he asked why, the answers were numerous, but mostly featured concerns about conflicting pressures, long hours (often not on primary interests, research and teaching high-quality students) and, of course, low pay. Some felt it was just too competitive, with few managing to achieve a lectureship position (unless, according to a recent Times Higher article, you are in humanities). The producer was amazed. He thought that every young scientist aspired to be a university lecturer and eventually a professor.

He also shared many of the common misconceptions about "university dons"

(why does the tabloid press always call us this?). I've rarely met an academic who hasn't been infuriated by a friend, acquaintance or other non-university individual (taxi drivers are a favourite) who asks, some time between May and October, if you are enjoying the long holiday. The public perception seems to be that we work for about eight months of the year and spend the rest at leisure. I used to get irate, then I began to explain what we do, now I tend to just nod and smile.

It seems we are not alone; many professions now work longer hours, take shorter holidays and take work home with them more often than their parents did - despite the enthusiastic forecasts of more leisure time. But we all hear about (and some will remember) a past academic life where staff apparently took tea each day in the common room, had idle chats with their students over sherry and sat and pondered the world for many hours. Much seems to have changed in little more than a few decades.

Of course, we are teaching more students, at lower funding per student and highly competitive research support, so we have to squeeze more out of less. Universities are also now much more accountable, so we are continually assessed. But academics also do a lot of jobs that others should do. We are happy to undertake research and to teach students, but often detest administration. Yet some of us are our own worst enemies. We complain about teaching loads, but complain louder when someone tries to cut our course because it drew only five students. We often refuse to give work to the very able secretary, taking on administrative duties that other staff are there to do and, dare I say, are sometimes better qualified to deal with.

But workload itself is not necessarily the major cause of stress. A fascinating series of studies of stress in the workplace known as the "Whitehall studies" showed that the greatest stress (measured from physiological parameters such as stress-hormone levels, which are risk factors for poor health) was experienced by the more junior staff who were told what to do. Their bosses worked much longer hours, but had more control of their jobs, and showed lower levels of stress.

So perhaps the key is to choose to take on lots of jobs you want to do, hence having no time for those that might be imposed on you. And since I seem to have managed to land most of my many jobs myself, I've decided not to be stressed after all.

Nancy Rothwell is MRC research professor in the faculty of life sciences at Manchester University.

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