Saturday, 8 June 2013

Balancing the Conflicting Demands of Academia

The final Early Career Research Network meeting of the year focused on how to balance the conflicting demands of academia. The fact that the room was full suggested that this was something that was close to the heart of many starting out. However, the speakers, Profs Gordon Lynch and Sarah Spurgeon, made it clear that the issue doesn't disappear with seniority; like parenthood the challenges and demands change, but they never go away.

In the first part of the session, participants talked together in small groups about the main tensions in juggling different parts of their jobs. When these were fed back it was clear that there were a number of common themes: balancing immediate and pressing deadlines with long term research work; frustrations with unnecessary and inefficient administration; unrealistic demands of some students; knowing your limits and knowing when (and how) to say 'no'.

'There's no simple algorithm for dealing with these,' confessed Sarah, and the rest of the session was an opportunity to share strategies for coping. Not all of these would work for everybody, but achieving a successful balance is about working out which of them would work for you.
  • Try to work out which pressures are individual, and which are the result of the structure or institution within which you work. Having recognised this distinction, consider what can be done about them. You will have more control over the individual pressures (see the next point), but sometimes you can facilitate collective change if enough people suffer from the same pressures and are able and willing to work differently.
  • Work out which of your tasks are essential and which desirable, and concentrate on the first.
  • Get a sense of perspective: how much work do others have? If they have less, are their tasks more consuming? If everyone's pressured, is there any possibility of working more intelligently, or sharing workloads? (see the first point).
  • Try to double up tasks, especially between research and teaching. For example, if your research project requires a literature review and you have some control over your teaching programme, try and include an element  that would require you to undertake a literature review to inform your teaching.
  • Create email-free periods of work time. Modern technology has made periods of intense concentration increasingly difficult to find. By carving out a period each week which colleagues and students know as a period when you won't respond to emails, you can regain time for proper thought.
  • Look for external funding to buy out your time to do things that you want to do. 
  • Think more strategically about managing your time. For instance, if you want to keep weekends sacrosanct, you might have to sacrifice weekday evenings to keep on top of work.
  • Have a broad career strategy, which is important to you but is informed by local, national, and international contexts.There will be times when it might make sense to go part time. Accept them, and recognise them as temporary and transitory.
  • Have a plan which has many strands. Don't rely on a single strand of research, which might depend on a single grant, but consider what other options, what other interests you have, and be prepared to change between them as your life changes.
  • Set realistic goals over different time scales and review them regularly.
  • Get help from the right people. Having supportive mentors and colleagues is invaluable.
Sarah concluded by saying that ‘most importantly, it is difficult to get this right and, in my view, however glittering the careers of others may appear to us, I firmly believe nobody achieves the perfect balance all the time.’

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