Pain & gain

June 1, 2007

Academic life might not be as idyllic as it once was, but it still has its rewards. Wyn Grant offers advice to young scholars

Why should anyone want to become an academic? It is certainly not an option that would maximise the lifetime income of a well-qualified and intelligent person. At one time, the role might have offered a considerable measure of professional autonomy and a relatively relaxed lifestyle for at least some individuals. However, as in other professions, a growing culture of regulation has reduced autonomy and added to the administrative burdens of academic work. Academic life is not exempt from the UK's long-hours culture, and evidence suggests that most academics have to work well over the European Union's maximum 48-hour week to fulfil their roles of being researchers, teachers and managers.

For all these drawbacks, many people still want to become academics. For most, there is a sense of vocation about the job, even if it is being eroded. Academics may value a job that is intellectually challenging. They may consider that an academic post offers an opportunity to change the world for the better by influencing the clash of ideas or feeding into debates about public policy. Whatever aspects of the job academics particularly enjoy, they may be people particularly inclined to a holistic view of life, which places more emphasis on non-material rewards and psychological satisfactions (which isn't to say that they wouldn't like better pay). Real satisfaction can be derived from a sense of purpose and belonging that an academic community can still provide, even if universities look increasingly like educational service businesses run as impersonal bureaucracies.

It is helpful to have some idea of why you are in academic life, even if you drifted into it through a series of chances, and what you want to achieve in terms of personal satisfaction. It is a common human ambition, particularly for the well educated, to want to make a difference in one's life. Making a positive contribution to the lives of others can be an important source of personal satisfaction. However, life also presents us with increasingly more complex choices and challenges, not least because of technological change.

We live in a world in which electronic technology facilitates 24/7 working, and for academics the boundaries between work and the rest of life are particularly blurred. There is always a risk of their work taking over their life to the exclusion of a proper work-life balance, a situation that makes them obsessive individuals who lose a sense of balance and proportion, and that is destructive to family and personal relationships.

UK academics at the beginning of the 21st century face an increasingly pressurised environment. In broad terms, this is the generation of people who joined universities at the time when the research assessment exercise started to make a major impact.

Entrants to most academic departments today face an environment in which they are expected to generate an acceptable level and quality of research output quickly, as well as taking the first steps towards obtaining their own research funding. These research goals have to be pursued in a climate in which greater attention is paid to excellence in teaching and its measurement through external quality assessment exercises of various kinds.

New entrants to academia are also facing a situation in which students (and their parents) will be paying considerably more for their education than in the past. Parents are taking an increasingly active interest in the higher education their children receive and asking whether it offers value for money. All this contributes to a more demanding environment for staff.

There is survey evidence that suggests that "staff in new universities are more likely to suffer from stress and to become ill as a result than their counterparts in old institutions" ( The Times Higher , March 18, 2005). This may reflect research pressures on top of a heavy teaching load and poor staff-to-student ratios, along with poor workload management. Young academics need to learn to say "no" to additional duties, and universities need to create structures and systems of support that enable them to say "no". Appropriately qualified support staff who can undertake routine academically-related tasks are a necessity rather than a luxury, and information technology services, too often treated as an add-on in universities rather than a core integral function, need to be designed to allow staff to undertake tasks more efficiently and expeditiously.

Nevertheless, when academics work long hours, it is because they are enthused about what they are doing. There are few careers that are intellectually stimulating and offer you the opportunity to develop the potential of others and to contribute, through the power of ideas, to bringing about social change and a better society.

The aspirations and goals of academics, and what constitutes a satisfactory and fulfilling career, can vary considerably. Serendipity can play an important role. Anyone can float upwards on a rising tide, but you need to be aware of obstacles and risks that may impede or halt your progress.

Above all, be true to yourself and your own values.

As Shakespeare wrote in Measure for Measure :

"Our doubts are traitors, And make us lose the good we oft might win By fearing to attempt."

Edited extract from Managing your Academic Career by Wyn Grant with Philippa Sherrington (Palgrave Macmillan).

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