Saturday, 2 February 2013

Academia's working hours culture

It’s the time of the head when myself and colleagues are doing or annual performance reviews so work-life balance has been the subject of discussion quite a lot – helped, I think, because my school recently had an equalities and diversity study carried out. I’ve blogged about the subject before. If you get a load of academics chatting about work-life balance it quickly turns into something like this:
To lay my cards on the table – I arrive in the office between 8:30-9:10 every morning, depending on what train I get. I leave the office about 5:30-6:30 (I’ve only had to sign the late-working book once in two years) and quite often have a relaxed lunch away from my desk with colleagues. And I very rarely work weekends. I reckon I put in about 40 hours a week. But the cause of this blog entry is a tweet I sent last night just as I was leaving work:
As I unlocked my bike, I realised I was going to get quite a few responses. When I got home, lo and behold they were waiting for me:

Over on Facebook the chat went like this: 

In this post, I particularly want to pick up on Janice’s point – how do I do it? Well, it comes down to fortunate contextual factors, fortunate departmental factors, and a hell of a lot of individual choices.

The fortunate contextual factors have been or are:
  • when I first started I happened to have a very light teaching load which gave me time to write the papers from my PhD and complete a major research project. This means my CV looks very strong for the stage of my career I’m at.
  • due to the ongoing slump in the property market, and other factors, the classes I teach are mercifully small. This makes teaching a joy and marking light.
  • I’m still not on many journal editors lists as a possible reviewer. I plan to keep it that way, though I’ve not refused to peer review an article yet.
  • most importantly, I have no caring responsibilities. Really, as the feminist debates around academic working hours highlight, I have absolutely no idea how people with caring responsibilities (predominantly women) maintain any semblance of an ongoing career rather than just keeping going at their job.

The fortunate departmental factors are:
  • Although I lead a postgraduate programme, as student numbers are low, this is a fairly low commitment.
  • I lead two courses and will lead on a third from next year. As we are focused on research intensity, I am never going to have more than three courses to teach as a lecturer. This gives space for other work.
  • We have an amazing amount of flexibility around assignments which means I can manage my teaching load around other commitments
  • Other than that my admin commitment is very light and manageable.
  • All my teaching is on a Monday. Six hours straight. I am a very odd person at the end of this (sort of bizarrely hyper whilst being simultaneously exhausted) but it does get everything out of the way quickly.
  • Low student numbers also mean dissertation supervision requirements are low.
  • I’m a social scientist. I can’t interview people at the dead of night. I can’t really set up experiments that run for hours on end. This puts a natural boundary around my working week.

The individual choices are a bit more complex, and are also linked to my skillset. Firstly, I avoid making work for myself. As soon as I set my first ever assignment I realised the easiest way to make work for yourself in terms of student emails is to be unclear in communication and especially expectations in assignments. When setting assignments I make sure my brief is fairly exhaustive and clear as to what is expected of the student and the marking criteria I will apply. This minimises the number of “how do I do this” emails greatly. I also ensure I use class time to clarify points and deliver instruction efficiently. I got caught out this year when after I changed an assignment and some of the details of last year’s instructions rolled-over, confusing some of the students. Rather than waiting for 33 emails I just took an hour to go through the VLE and my documents clarifying things.

As a programme leader I get a lot of the VLE announcements from my colleagues courses, as I’m signed up to them so I know what’s going on. A mistake I see happen quite often (resulting in endless extra announcements and tutorials) is lecturers expecting students to guess what is expected of them in assignment as part of the assignment. This strikes me as utterly daft. I’m not promoting spoon-feeding, but if someone can’t work out what to do from your instructions, then your instructions might not be right. And I don’t do simple assignments either – I’ve set: equalities impact assessments; professional reports; essays; personal development plans; even an assignment where students could do whatever they wanted. And none of this resulted in much work. I’ve also pioneered using techniques like audio-feedback to improve the efficiency of feedback and interaction with students.

Relating to this, I also work hard at reflecting on how I use my time to ensure I’m using it efficiently. So, this year I’ve changed my coursework assignments so they still have a fantastic breadth and really push the student, but they have a single hand-in date, meaning I can plough through the marking in three of four days. I’ve also staggered the hand-in dates either side of Easter so I have time to mark. If through some miracle of NSS scores (did I mention we’re the best planning school in the UK?) we have 150 level 1 students next year I will very rapidly re-design the assignment so I don’t have 150 3,000 word essays to mark, but can still measure intended learning outcomes.

One of the major complaints of my fellow students on my PGCAP course was the time commitment in attending classes and completing coursework. But I’ve applied the same sort of logic to that. For one major piece of coursework, I focused on internationalisation, because I knew this was of strategic concern to the School and my discipline. This meant I got extra brownie points for doing something I had to do anyway. I’ve done similar things with my successive assignments.

One thing I’m increasingly doing is leaving little fiddly tasks on the to-do list and making sure I do these in my down-time – the post-lunch lull and other periods where, even if I try my hardest, there is absolutely no way I can bang on 3,000 words of perfect prose. I can read that report I’ve got sitting in an email folder unread. The other thing I know I do is get incredibly stressed when I have quite a few things on and a lot of deadlines to finish, work ridiculously hard and then suddenly find I have a week free to, almost literally, twiddle my thumbs. It’s how I respond to stress. I’m learning about it, and now learning to use it wisely (if I did it all the time, I’d burn out in days).

I’m also well aware of how I write - this is vital for an academic. I’m an editor, not a writer. I just pour forth bollocks onto the page and then spend days going back over it polishing it up. I use the peer-review process as part of this. I don’t send off horrendous papers, but I do submit papers knowing full well that the reviewers will expect corrections and I’ll welcome their comments on improvements. This fits into how I structure my week. I work from home on a Thursday and this is my “writing day”. Actually, I very rarely write. But it is the day where I plough through things I know I need to concentrate on without being disturbed. And so far it works really well. If you follow me on Twitter, this is why I always tweet a lot more on Thursdays – I have no one else to speak to apart from the automatic checkout in Tesco when I pop out for lunch.

My policy with emails generally is, if you don’t send ‘em you don’t receive them. It works well and my inbox is fairly well managed. I’m also ruthless on deleting them. Every morning I get the batch of updates from the JISC mailing lists I’ve signed up to. I scan the subject lines and delete the lot in five minutes. I keep my email open in the background so I can just keep on top of them during the day, deleting the vast majority of them with barely a glance. The important ones get sorted into a folder and flagged as unread. One thing with my new toy is I have had to switch on email push to get my calendar to sync. This means I can be very aware of emails piling up, so I need to watch myself on this.

The most important thing, I suppose, is I don’t beat myself up, set daft targets and I’m happy to say “no”. This requires planning, and this being academia, a lot of flexibility in that planning. Right now I have enough on my plate to keep me ticking along quite nicely until about November, when, all being well, another big task will commence. If you ask me to do anything now I’ll say no, especially if it’s a major commitment. Also, if you’ve seen me speak at a seminar, I’d wait a while before you come back for more. Much as it’d be nice to do a well-polished new paper for each seminar, at the moment you’re going to learn about non-straight people in deprived Scottish neighbourhoods and middle-class activism. It’s what I have ready to use so I’ll use it.

This attitude to my job comes out in the Facebook discussion. Yes, I want to do well at my job. It’d be really nice if I was a professor one day. But, I earn plenty as I do and have no real burning desire for rapid career ascendency. As Sarah pointed out, academia can be addictive – it’s a vocation. I do really enjoy my job. So much that it is definitely part of my identity. However, I also really enjoy swimming for three-and-half-hours a week and doing another hour of fitness classes. I enjoy commuting by bike and train, even though in many cases I could save time driving. I enjoy having the weekends to read the Saturday Guardian and get annoyed at how smug and middle class it is and cook a Sunday roast and then go to evensong and go to the pub afterwards. I enjoy being able to have the occasional evening out during the week, or friends around for dinner.

Most of all I love and respect my partner who is not an academic but also has a highly pressured job. I like to be able to cook dinner about half the time. I like to be tucked up in bed, together, at a sensible hour so I am vaguely refreshed the next day. I like to cabbage on the sofa in front of the TV and watch a couple of hours together. I love my family and friends as well, and much as I’d like to spend more time with them than I do, I do make some time for them, including the regular natters with my mum. All these things are more valuable to me than my academic vocation. Even if I tried to push my hours, in the range of activities I do, I could probably only squeeze another five hours into my working week, and I know for those hours I’d be so exhausted my efficiency would have plummeted. To stay in a job I need to get a “satisfactory” in my annual performance review. So I’ll always ensure my forward job plan is achievable.

Two final points to note are, Firstly, the one thing I know this work pattern means is that I don’t read enough as I would like to do. Note: I would like to do. I don’t actually feel like I should be reading much more than I do. Just that it would be nice if I could. I know if I could read academic literature before going to bed I could increase how much I read, but it sends me to sleep in two pages because it’s hard work and generally quite dull. Give me a rollicking Ursula K Le Guin novel any day. The second point is, is this work? And is chatting about academic stuff on Twitter work? Or even, is reading a quick journal article work. It is and it isn’t. And this is where the problem of academia being a vocation comes in. What I will say, was when my academic twittering did become more problematic and was filling too much of my time, I did stop it. And that, is how I do it.


  1. I have little experience of academia, but one thing that I learnt in my old high-pressure job was to stop associating "hours spent working" with "quantity of work done" (and even less quality). I learnt that as I worked longer hours, my rate of work would decrease, meaning that I would have to work still longer hours to catch up... etc. So for me, even if the sole aim of my life were productivity at work, it wouldn't be worth it. Other people may work differently, of course.

    Of course, translating that realisation into corporate (and, I imagine, academic) culture is another matter entirely......

  2. Thanks Peter! I enjoyed reading this and musing on my own working practices. I think you are lucky in enjoying a high degree of autonomy in your work and having that early teaching load early on.

    Any paper I write from my PhD, I pretty much have to write in my own time - at least in part as I am not a lecturer yet, and so am more at the beck and call of others and their research project needs, and still trying to bump up my CV and profile so that someone will take me on as a lecturer...

    I think I'm going to try and learn from this though - much as I hate the phrase 'work smarter, not harder' it's as much about using your time wisely as it is working all the hours on the earth...

  3. Tks very much for your post.

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