The Chronicle has an article on a Harvard survey of Gen-X professors and their attitudes toward the balance of work and the rest of life. The professors surveyed indicate that they want to be successul in their careers but don’t want to sell out their personal lives in the process. The main survey report is here (PDF, 2.1MB). Here’s a representative quote from one of the interviewees, a business professor, talking about the perils of overwork that Gen-Xers perceive in their older colleagues:
There’s really nothing to be gained by closing your door and working until 11:00 o’clock at night, other than the tenure hurdle that is somewhere out there. If you want to pole vault over it, you go right ahead, but no one here is going to back up the Brinks truck and start dumping all this cash on you, simply because you’ve decided to work like you have three jobs. So that’s the approach I take – sometimes you have to know when there’s this point of diminishing return, where if I keep pounding at this one front, then yes, I may nail it, but at the same time, it will then for a very high cost in other areas.
Although the sample size for this study is painfully small — just 16 professors (the Chronicle article says 12) — the responses are nonetheless fascinating to read and range across a wide variety of work/life balance issues. It’s worth reading the whole thing.
The study is from the same group at Harvard to which I referred in this post
from 2006. There, I was responding to comments form some older (or “embedded”) faculty who took the reluctance of Gen-Xers to work until 11:00 PM every night as some form of laziness. Some of the comments at the new Chronicle article tend in that direction also, and conversely there are comments from Gen-Xers that lob equal and opposite stereotypes back at the older faculty.
Unfortunately, until COACHE comes out with a scientific nationwide study on this issue (with, at the very least, n > 16), all we can do is rely upon anecdotes to understand the issues. But it does seem that most GenX faculty I know share my incredulity at the priorities of some other faculty who place work as the be all-end all of their lives. We also share an extreme irritation toward the inefficient use of time that seems endemic to academia. I shudder to think about how many meetings have I been forced into that have no agenda, spend 45 minutes in chit-chat or irrelevant philosophizing, and accomplish nothing. And — very especially — we share a kind of hopelessness in considering the rewards structure of academia that gives the loudest applause to those faculty who cut the most out of their lives and say “no” to work the least.
I can only speak for myself (until COACHE gets more data), but I have learned that the best sacrifice to make is not to take time away from your wife and kids so you can get another publication out or hold office hours at 10:00 PM, but rather to lay down hard boundaries around your family and make the crossing of those boundaries by work to be unacceptable. I have learned to say a resounding “no” when work gets to be too much. I have tenure, and surely if I can get tenure then anybody can, but I am coming to understand that I will probably never win one of those prestigious teaching or service awards at my college simply because I maintain those boundaries and protect my family time ruthlessly.
And you know what? So be it. I have three happy and healthy kids who see a great deal of both Mom and Dad every day, who never want for play time or story time, and who know without question that they and their Mom are top priority in Dad’s life. This is more important, more satisfying, and ultimately more crucial to the well-being of the next generation than anything I can possibly crank out in my career. And if it ever gets to the point where my job and my family life cannot coexist, guess which one I’ll jettison without a second thought?
Although hopefully it will never come to that, and I have no reason to think that at my current place of employment it will. And hopefully higher ed as a whole will begin to see that there are a lot of people like me out there and learn to respect our boundaries even as we work to respect the mission of the academy.
3 responses to “Working and having a life, redux”
Great post. I am a postdoc now, and I keep worrying about the future. I don’t believe in working more than 50 hours per week (I usually do a little less!). I believe in a strict work-life balance, but felt ‘left out’. Glad to see your post. BTW, how many hours do you work per day/week?
Karthik, I really try hard to keep my work confined to the work day, which for me is roughly 8AM to 4:30PM. There are times when the workload swells, like when I give a test or (as is the case this week) I have a conference coming up and I have to prepare my conference presentations AND get my classes for the following week ready. In those cases I will sometimes work an additional 3-5 hours in the evenings during the week (total; that is, an hour or so a night) and 3-4 hours on the weekends while the kids are napping. But with three kids and a wife who also works, it is literally all but impossible for me to spend more than 50 hours a week on work, even if I wanted to. So the efficiency I mentioned above is absolutely essential, as is the discipline of knowing where your boundaries are and saying “no” to anything that would cross them.
Thanks for your prompt response!