Time to find your balance at the cutting edge

April 2, 2004

Academic work often spills over into family time, but the positives can outweigh the negatives, says Nick Saunders.

The idea of balancing work and family in today's climate in higher education invariably produces either an ironic smile or a pained groan. Throughout academia, the pressures of government initiatives, student numbers, funding and all the expectations of the research assessment exercise combine to manifest the Chinese curse of "living in interesting times". Yet there are compensations, and no shortage of applicants for posts.

None of us enters this profession in search of financial rewards, but because we variously enjoy, and are sometimes good at, teaching, research and getting published. And for those who research and publish, there is that extra, still partly altruistic dimension - that of a small but unique contribution being made to the sum of knowledge that will endure long after we have gone.

The inherent nature of what we do can make it difficult to strike the balance so comparatively easily achieved by those in non-academic jobs.

Unless in management, in the commercial world most work ends as the office door closes. In academia, it is not so clear cut. Marking essays, writing references, preparing lectures, update reading and catering to the ever-increasing administrative demands of our institutions are only part of it. We then give our lectures and seminars, hold our tutorials, supervise dissertations and attend peer presentations. Increasingly, we are exhorted to apply for large research funds, and the application forms can take many weeks, sometimes months, to complete to the requisite standard. Yet, for many of us, this is still only half the job. What of original intellectual content? Inspiration, ideas, connections and trains of thought cannot be timed and packaged, even if the research and writing that turn them into professional publications can. They come when they will, and often arrive when we are (comparatively) relaxed - at home. Perhaps I am atypical, but most of the colleagues with whom I have cooperated in research and publication write mainly at home. This contrasts with many friends and family who work outside academia, and who would not dream of invading their family space with their job unless faced with dismissal, promotion or financial reward.

Here is the conundrum at the heart of the balancing act. While most people look to the home for a degree of peace and quiet in which to relax, many of us require exactly these conditions to conceive, plan and write the publications on which our departmental RAE ratings and, ultimately, our positions depend. Increasingly, it seems that our jobs are not place specific. They exist in two parts - things that have to be done in the office and those undertaken at home.

Academic jobs increasingly bleed into the family domain. Although this affects some disciplines more than others, and we all cope in different ways, it clearly is a factor in the decisions of some to seek better-paid and more clearly delineated work patterns outside the university sector. So is it possible to reach a balance? The answer is probably a heavily qualified "yes". For those with families, emotionally intense negotiations may be required, influenced by financial considerations and the acknowledgement that academic careers mirror life in as much as they go through stages - each involving a trade-off appropriate to the time. There are also the "hidden extras" for those with children - who benefit from having parents at the jagged cutting edge, and who can advise and guide in ways that others cannot. Despite the challenges, most of us believe in what we do - from helping a shy, unconfident fresher to a 2:1 or first, to having an idea that becomes a research project, conference or book. In a world where time appears increasingly fugitive, we are perhaps acquiring an extra talent - the ability to cut, section and apportion our lives to keep work and family in creative balance, if not always in perfect harmony.

Nick Saunders is lecturer in material culture in the department of anthropology, University College London.

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