Tag Archives: academic angst

In Thrall or Enthralled? – The Academic Work-Life Balance

I‘ve written about the academic work-life balance before, but that was about the conflicts arsing between research, teaching and administration.  This time I want to address the real work-life balance i.e. home life versus work life and the angst that it causes many of us.

In the UK we have a number of Bank Holidays*, the two most recent at the time of writing, the May Day Holiday and the late May (Whitsun) Bank Holiday. The former, despite the name was May 6th this year!  I felt the need to log on Twitter and wrote “It is quite revealing how as an academic I am feeling guilty that I am not marking student research projects today even though it is a Bank Holiday. How is that we have allowed ourselves to get so in thrall to #academiclife that even the bits we don’t like can cause guilt 😦

Immediate responses to my tweet about work guilt

Given the current state of the Academy, I was not surprised to find that I was not the only one 😊

If only we all had the will power and sense, that Olaf Schmidt has

When I first became an academic more than forty years ago, albeit in a research institute, we had typists and departmental secretaries who did a lot of the things that we do now.  We had technical support teams that ordered our supplies and we had administrative staff that got our estimates for the equipment that we needed for grant applications. We also didn’t have email, although it very soon arrived!   It seems to me that as we have got more and more computerised and do more things on-line, we as academics are doing things, that in the past, were done by non-academic staff.  We are now also faced with ever tighter deadlines to get marked assignments back to students and urged to give more detailed feedback.  Much of this is in response to provide data for the metrics by which universities are now judged.  Couple this with the increased number of students on modules, brought about by the way in which universities seek savings by reducing module choice and the need to publish and bring in grant monies and there just aren’t enough hours in the day ☹ The generation before mine had it even easier and although I am not advocating a return to those days, scientists were perhaps more likely to take more risks with their research in those less metric-driven times.

Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching, it is why I moved from working in a research institute to a university, although I really, really, hate marking.  I also love research and being in a university environment allows you the freedom to do both, but the pressures, especially in research intensive institutions means that the job is far from stress free.  In my case, and for many of my colleagues, if you don’t take some of your work home it doesn’t get done. There are just not enough hours in the working day.  If you do outreach as I do, most of that happens in the evenings, so again you are working outwith ‘office hours’.  In theory, one can opt to take ‘time off in lieu’ (TOIL), but when, especially as in my case and of that of many colleagues, our official work loads show us working in excess of 100%, mine for example is 113%.

As Tamsin Majerus remarked in response to my Tweet  “I agree, it is just wrong. The whole system is based on a history of dedicated researchers working long hours doing something they loved. The amount of work now deemed ‘normal’ assumes all academics will continue to work the long hours regardless of the task or other commitments”

So, we are our own worst enemies, and this takes me to the title of my post. When you’re in thrall to someone, you are under their control in some way. If you’re being held as a hostage, you’re in thrall to your captor. You can be in thrall to anything that holds you captive or controls your thoughts or actions, like an addiction, a disease, or a cult leader. The Old English word that thrall comes from literally means “slave” or “servant.” Another word with the same root as thrall is enthrall, which is a sort of friendlier version of the same idea. If you’re enthralled by someone, you’re captivated or fascinated, rather than “held in bondage.” I certainly became a researcher because I was fascinated by insects, and never expected or wanted  to be a slave to paperwork.

So which is it, are we enthralled or in thrall and if the latter how do we go about changing things and live a guilt-free life?

Many thanks to any of you who answered the poll.

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