The End of Work-Life Balance in Modern Academia

Museum of Modern Art and Culture, Münster

Museum of Modern Art and Culture, Münster

Among the 20-30 colleagues I already dared to ask this bothering question: what will you do after your phd? I only know of one who might consider to continue his career within the academic world. There are numerous reasons that I heard why an academic career isn't worth the effort. The top three are: (1) job insecurity, (2) low income and (3) dislike of the publish or perish system. Reasons that nobody mentions but I perceive as relevant are (1) fear of talking to large crowds, (2) doubts regarding own writing skills, (3) lack of creativity or imagination and, finally, (4) the stress of not having a simple work-life balance. Thomas Roulet (one of the top 10 Twitter professors out there) just asked me to write about the latter, about the balance of work and life in academia, because it's such an important subject that is poorly documented and most often misunderstood. Indeed, most people don't care because professors have "the best job in the world". This statement runs in complete opposite to the increasing number of burn-outs of professors and doctoral students today. In the following, I will try to explain you why there is no such thing as work-life balance in the academic world and why integrating your job in your life is becoming part of being a modern academic.

Work-life is no valid concept

The word "work-life" as a construct describing the idea of how to harmonize work time and free time suggests that you have either time to live or to work. It is no big thing to explain a six year old that life and work cannot be seperated. Distinguishing between life and work would mean that your work is not part of you life. That's not only wrong, but also makes no sense. Your work is a major part of your life, if you want it or not. It may be or become a central source of joy and happiness if you devote yourself to it and reward yourself. It means to balance the time you spend doing your hobbies, meeting with friends, talking to your wife, arguing with your mom and improving on your work status, that's what we mean actually with juggling the things that we care about.

There is no "balance" in academia

You have got 30.000+ days to live on average and you distribute this time following your individual goal of self-fulfillment investing your devotion and energy the best way you can. This may include teaching from 10 to 12 am, going to the doctor at 2 pm, writing your mails on the way with public transport to the doctor, calling a friend you want to invite as a guest speaker to your class, deciding to take a D-tour because you want to stroll in a near park that may provide you with the right mood to think about your next big research project. There is so much going on between your daily routines of teaching and writing that enters your personal life. Your daily routine is basically having no routine. Therefore, in academia, there is no balance, everything is socially mixed up and your profession is entering your personal life and vice versa your personal life is entering your profession. Your wife may be your best friendly reviewer and your most important colleagues may even become your friends. They are your peers of your field and it is genuine to admire their fearless devotion to the same thing. In the end, in academia the exchange between your peers is your research output (ideally speaking). You may simply have nothing to balance, because it means to seperate privacy and work, which is becoming more and more difficult. Instead the integration could become a huge opportunity or a requirement depending on your institution and your desire to succeed. You as a person of progressing knowledge may have to become a public figure if you want to not only sell your ideas but yourself as a person which are both mutually connected. The modern academic requires you to become a part of the public society. In this case, it's hard to tell what to balance if it's all mixed up. Instead, a modern academic should devote his energy in framing certain times (e.g. 5am to 8am writing time) and spaces (in the home office) to define what your job is and what not. It also requires you to have strong communication skills to explain these times and spaces to the near and important persons around you.

The only limit is your imagination

Your intrinsic motivation that drives you as a researcher has no week ends. Your task of knowledge progress is not extrinsically motivated. You are doing it or at least you ultimately think you are doing it for the greater good. There is often no payment linked to your job success and if so you may not like it. Being productive does not only mean to work consistently. In academia, it mostly means to think all the time and to write it down. There are no borders that may limit you. There is nothing that make you stop to think. The only limit is your imagination. You are an entrepreneur of knowledge and as such your capital is your time and skill. With such a freedom comes an increased stress of self-determination but also self-management that is hard to handle particularly for those being new to the academic world. 

If you go for a "normal" job,  you may receive a huge list of possibilities that the company will offer to guarantee a balance of life and work. If you go for an academic job, it is you who carries this list. It's hard to follow your own goals and rules but if you succeed in doing so, you may have what we call a "rich" life with a diversified experience and a satisfying feeling of success that no other job may be able to provide. I think that being a modern academic is a difficult job, maybe one of the most difficult jobs out there, which is why it is important to have the best people for this task. If you read the list of reasons above that my colleagues mentioned, most of the things may be solved by improving the scholarly environment. Society needs to give back and provide doctoral students and professors with the skills, knowledge and competence to being able to address what is required when being a modern academic. I am curious what you think. What's your image of the modern academic? What do you think is his responsibility in a connected world?