What is the ‘right’ work-life balance in academia?

As I approach the end of the first half of my third year an Assistant professor, I look back on the semester and feel disappointed in myself. I have been what feels remarkably unproductive. My first two years were spent frantically prepping new classes, and now that I’ve got all repeats this semester has seemed tame. Frankly, I had gotten used to always just barely keeping up, as I found the transition to teaching difficult. Everyone told me that it would get easier, and it certainly has. Is it possible it got too easy?

My job is supposed to be research AND teaching, which means I need to be taking those extra hours and devoting them to writing grants and manuscripts. I’ve really dropped the ball in that regard. I haven’t done a single bit of manuscript writing all semester, and only submitted one of the three grants I was going to apply for. I do have new research projects starting up under a cohort of graduate students, but for the most part I’m letting the students take the lead…. perhaps too much so. I recently realized that I haven’t been giving them as much direction and feedback as they need and deserve.

So where has my time gone? To life. My work-life balance has swung a bit too far in the ‘life’ direction. This is something I struggled with during the doldrums of graduate school, and during my time as a postdoc with a terrible mentor who made me really not want to work. This time around I’ve been socializing, mainlining tv series on Netflix, and gaming… sometimes all three at once. It certainly is fun and relaxing, but at the same time is really stressful – because I know there are things I should be doing. Video game addiction is a real, serious problem, but I don’t think I’m quite there. I am, however, not working *quite* as hard as I think I need to be to stay on track for tenure.

Now that I know there is a problem, how do I fix it? It has always been hard for me to motivate when there aren’t class deadlines (either as a student or a teacher). During my research postdoc, I kept track of my productive working hours, which worked well to get my a** into gear towards the end of a lazy week. I targeted and achieved an average 37.5 hour work week over the year. I continued to track my work hours in the Fall semesters of both my first and second years as a professor, and averaged 50 hours a week – which seemed pretty reasonable if a touch high for a long-term goal. I actually have no idea what my ‘hours’ of productivity are these days, but I would guess back down in the 35-40 hour a week range.

Is that really that bad? Should I feel guilty? I don’t know. If I’m doing a good job teaching (and I have definitely improved and am learning to like it) and making decent research progress, a number shouldn’t be important. I get the impression that my friends at R1 institutions put in a lot more time. However, one of the reasons I took the job I have is that it does provide an opportunity for work-life balance, so comparing myself to them may not be that helpful. Maybe it’s ok to be good rather than great, and a little laziness isn’t the end of the world. But I know after this semester that I need to find a balance that I’m comfortable with, and I’m not quite there yet.

9 thoughts on “What is the ‘right’ work-life balance in academia?

  1. I notice how much you say “supposed to” and “should” in your post. The question to ask is, What do YOU want? What are the end results you really want (teaching career? tenure? successful grad students? publications?)?

    Figure that out and you can stop measuring your work in hours (and your worth in hours worked) and focus on doing what you have to do to get those results. If it takes 35-40 hours a week to get them, that’s the perfect amount of time you need to be working. Heck, if it takes 20 hours a week, that’s perfect.

    I know from experience that figuring out what YOU really want (and sorting it out from all the shoulds and supposed-tos) is often not easy, but well worth the effort.

  2. Gah! I totally empathize! I am in the exact same point on my path toward tenure and struggle with productivity and work-life balance. But . . . I think that is because I too compare myself to my R1 peers and folks who prioritize their science. I try to remind myself that this honestly is not something that is an inflexible commitment for me. I prioritize other things . . . like running my puppy. 🙂 I know you are succeeding, and I’m proud of you for taking you time. You deserve it, girl.

    And, amen to SherryBikesDC. This is really where the focus should be.

  3. Take the guilt out — the question is whether you are fulfilling the expectations of your job and on track to tenure. If you are, let go of the guilt and spend your time as you wish. But make sure you are on track. The danger is especially high of falling off the track when you get little feedback — because there could be long term expectations that you are given free reign to meet.

  4. Thank you for this post. I always feel like I’m not working hard enough. Prioritizing life over research. Then. I think I shouldn’t be aiming for a PI job because I doubt live & breath science. So great to hear about good research scientists feel the same. Could this be another form of imposter syndrome?

  5. I think the most valuable lesson for all stages of academia (student through to PI) is to stop comparing yourself to others, it really helps to overcome imposter syndrome. My view is that work-life balance doesn’t exist and work is just a part of my life in which I also happen to be a mother etc…

    • Love your reply. I don’t like either the expression “work-life balance”. The opposite of life is death, not work. Work is a part of life.

      Anyway, guilt isn’t probably a useful emotion. It won’t help you with this “balance” (say between work and free time or hobbies?). I would suggest you to have a more positive view of scholarly obligations. Yes, writing grants and articles is work, but stop consider it a burden, but a privilege. You have the possibility (and probably money) to dedicate your time to a research topic that I guess you like, or at least interest you. Many brilliant phd can’t work in academia and don’t have this possibility. Enjoy the luck to work in academia.

  6. I am just at the same point of my TT!! I am in a high research institution (would that be R2 with the previous classification?) I am making a conscious decision of working reasonable hours. I am not following the crazy hours some people in academia boast about…it is just not good for my health, and I’ve had a bad scare related to stress in the past, so I take this pretty seriously. I’ve had paralyzing impostor syndrome (increased by the fact that I moved from overseas for this position) and struggled to adapt to a new academic system and research expectations. This is the first year I actually know what I really really want to go after and I am positive about its value. This has given me the confidence to decide what and how I want to do things in other areas, and I now don’t care what others are doing. Their philosophy of nearly spamming journal editors and funding agencies is not my thing and never will.

    I don’t measure working hours, because I know that I will not sustain that and sometimes I work in cycles of crazy productivity followed by smaller productivity. I decided this semester to turn the whiteboard in my office into a giant kanban board. It has helped keeping things moving and not just stuck in my head and never happening.
    Plus about kanban: color post-it 🙂 I love them and have a code: red for grant writing, pink for publications, blue for seminars/teaching slides preparation, yellow for general paperwork stuff, green for service. And to one side I have a list of all the grant and publication deadlines I will work towards this year. Followed by “to do” this week, tomorrow, “doing” today, waiting for, and “done”. On the lower part of the board I have things under review: grants and publications (with name and dates I expect to be notified).Moving the post-it physically from one column to the next is very satisfactory 🙂

  7. I suspect this past term has been a bit of a pendulum swing. You might have been a bit burnt out and ended up doing more personal relaxing things to make up for not having done them in previous years.

    That and in the pressure to develop new courses, you haven’t established a writing practice. Just because you do writing alone doesn’t mean you can’t schedule it the way you schedule teaching and other activities. Figure out how much time you want to spend on writing and then add that to your calendar. Maybe that’s just 30 minutes every morning, but research shows that as little as 15 minutes daily is effective.

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