« The faculty market (Advice to young scholars, part 1 of 4) | Main | Doing interdisciplinary work (Advice to young scholars, part 3 of 4) »

December 01, 2014

Balancing work and life (Advice to young scholars, part 2 of 4)

These notes are an adapted summary of the the 2nd of 4 professional development panels for young scholars, as part of the American Mathematical Society (AMS) Mathematics Research Community (MRC) on Network Science, held in June 2014. Their focus was on mathematics, computer science, and networks, but many of the comments generalize to other fields. [1,2]

Panel 2. Life / Work Balance

Opening remarks: "Academia is like art because we're all a little crazy."

Productivity often scales with time spent. A good strategy is to find enough of a balance so that you don't implode or burn out or become bitter. The best way to find that balance is to experiment! Social norms in academia are slowly shifting to be more sensitive about work/life balance issues, but academia changes slowly and sometimes you will feel judged. Often, those judging are senior faculty, possibly because of classical gender roles in the family and the fact that their children (if any) are usually grown. Telling people you're unavailable is uncomfortable, but you will get used to it. Pressure will be constant, so if you want a life and/or a family, you just have to do it. Routines can be powerful--make some rules about when your non-work hours are during the week and stick to them.

  • What if I want to have children?
    Most institutions have a standard paternity/maternity leave option: one semester off of research/teaching/service plus a one-year pause on your tenure clock. If you think you will have children while being faculty, ask about the parental leave policy during your job interview. Faculty with small children often have to deal with scheduling constraints driven by day care hours, or at-home responsibilities for child care; they are often simply unavailable nights and evenings, so be sensitive to that (don't assume they will be available for work stuff then). Juggling a brand new faculty job and a new baby in the same year can be done, but it can also burn you out.

  • Burnout, what?
    It's hard to get numbers on burnout rate, in part because there are varying degrees of ``burnout'' and different people burn out in different ways. Most tenured faculty are not completely burned out; true burnout often turns into leaving academia. On the other hand, some faculty have real breakdowns and then get back on the horse. Other faculty give up on the ``rat race'' of fundraising and publishing in highly competitive venues and instead focus on teaching or service. There are many ways to stop being productive and lose the passion.

    One strategy is to promise yourself that once it stops being fun, leave and go get a satisfying 9-5 job (that pays better).

  • What about all this service stuff I'm getting asked to do?
    Service (to your department, to your university, and to your research community) is an important part of being a professor. You will get asked to do many things, many of which you've never done before, some of which will sound exciting. As an early-career person, you should learn to say "no" to things and feel comfortable with that decision. Until you have tenure, it's okay to be fairly selfish about your service--think about whether saying "yes" will have a benefit to your own research efforts. If the benefit is marginal, then you should probably say no.

    There are a lot of factors that go into whether or not you say yes to something. It's important to learn to tell the difference between something you should say no or yes to. A key part of this is having one or more senior faculty mentors you can ask. Ideally, have one inside your department and one outside your department but within your research community.

  • What happens during summers?
    If you're willing to set yourself up for it, then you can readily take a month-long vacation with absolutely no contact. Tell your department head that you're not bringing your laptop. That being said, summer is often the time where many faculty try to focus exclusively on research, since they're not teaching. At most institutions, it's normal for regular departmental committees to not meet, so you often get a break from your departmental service obligations then, too.

  • How many hours should I work each week?
    How much you work each week is really up to you. Some people work 80-85 hours during terms, and 70 between terms. A common number kicked around is 60, and relatively few people work a lot less than that. For the most part, faculty work these hours by choice. The great advantage of faculty life is that your schedule is pretty flexible, which allows you to carve out specific time for other things (e.g., life / family). Many faculty work 9-5 on campus, and then add other hours at home or otherwise off campus. Some others work long hours during the week and then are offline on the weekends.

  • Do I have to spend all those hours on campus?
    If you don't get "face time" with your institution and the people evaluating your tenure case, then they will form negative opinions about you. So go into work often. And, spend time "in your lab," with your students. Good idea to have lunch with every one of your fellow tenure-track faculty during your early faculty career.

  • I have a two body problem.
    Solving the two-body problem (marriage with another academic or other professional career type) can be tricky. Start talking about it with your partner long before you start applying to jobs. One solution: make a list and let your partner cross off the things that don't make sense. In job negotiations, there are things that the department can do, such as interview/hire your spouse (or encourage/fund another department to do so). If your partner is not an academic there are few things the university can do, but often the more senior people have contacts and that can help.

    One strategy is to always go for the interview, get the offer first, and think about it later. Departments often want to know ahead of time whether they'll need to help with the two-body problem in order to get you to say yes. (But, they are legally not allowed to ask you if you have a partner, so you have to bring it up.) This can (but not necessarily) hurt your offer. Also, when women interview, they get assumptions imposed on them, such as the existence of a two-body problem. Some women don't wear a wedding ring to an interview in order to avoid those assumptions. One possibility is to consider saying something in advance along the lines of ``my husband is excited and there's no problem.’’

  • How much should I travel?
    Many strategies. Mostly depends on your personal preferences. A popular strategy is to travel no more than once a month. Also consider picking trips on which you can bring your family and/or do some extra traveling. As a junior person, however, traveling is in part about reputation-building, and is a necessary part of academic success.


[1] Panelists were Mason Porter (Oxford), David Kempe (Southern California), and me (the MRC organizers), along with an ad hoc assortment of individuals from the MRC itself, as per their expertise. The notes were compiled by MRC participants, and I then edited and expanded upon them for clarity and completeness, and to remove identifying information. Notes made public with permission.

[2] Here is a complete copy of the notes for all four panels (PDF).

posted December 1, 2014 03:25 AM in Simply Academic | permalink