Work-Life Balance? Post 1 of Many

This was originally posted in 2011. As you can see from the title, at the time I expected to write a lot more posts about work-life balance. I’m just getting to that now, in 2016!


Since opening The Professor Is In, the question I’ve been most often asked, by women, is “how can I maintain some kind of work-life balance while pursuing a career in academia?” (The question I’ve been asked almost as often is, “when should I decide to throw in the towel and quit trying to have an academic career?” That question I will confront next week).

This question is difficult. The fact is, maintaining a work-life balance has become almost impossible in any job in the downsizing U.S. economy. We are expected to do more and more with less and less. Hours are increasing while pay is falling in most professional sectors (law, medicine, etc.) Even the “booming” sectors of the economy, like IT and Finance, are based on truly inhumane expectations for hours of work. The eight hour day and the weekends for home life are becoming things of the past.

In that context is the academy. Academic pay scales are declining while work expectations are increasing. Expectations for tenure go up, class sizes go up, administrative duties go up, and support goes down.

Women in the academy are trying to juggle, on the job, writing, research, teaching, service, and if tenure track, the clicking tenure clock, and, at home, partners, children, home life, spirit-sustaining personal interests, and the biological clock. Even thinking about timing a pregnancy, for a graduate student or assistant professor, can be overwhelming.

Senior female colleagues are not always that helpful either as models or mentors. Once, as a new assistant professor, at a dinner at a national conference, I turned to the woman sitting next to me, a highly productive, prolific department head about 40 years old, and earnestly, oh so earnestly asked, “HOW did you manage to have two kids??” Barely glancing my way she replied, with a sneer in her voice, “well, I had sex with my husband….” before turning away to talk to someone more important.

The senior women with children in my departments mostly fell into two camps: those who paused after tenure to dedicate themselves to child-rearing and remained affably at the Associate level, and those who handed their children over to full-time nannies and worked ridiculous hours, and made it to Full.

I was never happy with either of those choices.  In the end, chaotic life circumstances placed me into the former category, although I was never affable.

In my first year on the tenure track I applied for and won two major research and writing fellowships, including the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for University Professors. My department generously allowed me to stagger them, and I ended up with two full years off. I spent those two years writing my book and commencing a second project. And having my first child. When I returned to work full time, my tenure case was secure, so I felt comfortable having a second child.

After the insanity of the first year, and its all new class preps and the unfamiliar rounds of committee meetings and department obligations, and demands of undergraduate and graduate students, my life came to feel sort of balanced. When I went back to work after my 2 years of leave, my children were in daycare, but I religiously picked them up before 5 PM, and dedicated my time at home, when they were awake, to hanging out with them. I did not work a lot on weekends, and limited my conferences to two large national meetings a year. I woke early and wrote while they slept.  I worked out every day.  And I had a spouse who did his part—got the kids up and fed and dressed for the day, cooked dinner, and did a lot around the house.

Basically, my experience of the tenure track echoed my experience of graduate school: balance of personal and academic life is possible when you are well and abundantly funded, freed from excessive teaching or service responsibilities, and have support at home.  It’s why I am so fixated on grant-writing, FYI.

I know that for many, these resources are unavailable. TAs, adjuncts, the un- and underderemployed, assistant professors on the tenure track in penny-pinching, chaotic departments—so many in our world are scrambling desperately to keep their heads above water.

What struck me at my R1 institution, however, was the degree to which even those who did enjoy access to these resources refused to use them to ease their lives. Indeed, they just seemed to work harder.

My tenured colleagues never let up. They were always in their office. They were always working. They never had time for lunch or dinner or coffee. They were always at this conference or that symposium, or if not actually there, then writing the paper in preparation. They weren’t just grading, or in meetings, or in class. They were launching a new university-wide initiative, or spearheading a new major, or starting a film festival, or creating a regional consortium.

None of these things is bad. In fact a lot of them are good. But what I could never entirely understand, was: why? The hours the faculty put in to accomplish all of this were impossible. They didn’t make sense. They seemed counter-productive.

I came to feel that university faculty are more thoroughly interpellated into the logic of capital than anyone else in the economy. Because after tenure they’re basically given a choice about how much they’ll work, and they STILL work themselves practically to death.

Why couldn’t senior faculty just take a break? Why couldn’t they slow down? Why couldn’t they sit still for a moment, and take a breath?

It’s my view that they don’t want to. Tenured professors have a choice, and too many choose to have lives out of balance. Why, I’m not sure. But I increasingly suspect it’s because if they slow down, if they sit still, then they might have to notice.

  • Notice the disintegration of their workplace.
  • Notice the whittling away of their power in the institution.
  • Notice the marginalization of their voice in society.
  • Notice the scared graduate students and the struggling adjuncts and the anxious assistant professors.
  • Notice that their privilege rests on countless others’ exploitation.

Professors are smart. So they keep moving. To keep that knowledge at bay as long as they can.







Work-Life Balance? Post 1 of Many — 20 Comments

  1. Well I have come to favor the have kids in graduate school model. That way you have them when your schedule is the most flexible and you are most likely to be at a university with a child care centre. Then, when you are an assistant professor, they are already in school. Also, on job interviews, people won’t worry that you might get pregnant – you already did that (sorry to sound so sanguine but it’s the truth).

    I am of course no one to speak, since I quit overworking before tenure not afterwards. But it is true, I think – tenured faculty, especially with good circumstances, can’t afford emotionally to stop overworking because if they did, they’d see what was happening.

  2. Or, another take: no, there is no work-life balance, and you have to give up on that. BUT at the same time, you have to take time off. In some weeks that can mean only working 30-40 hours. In some summer weeks it can mean being on vacation. But, in order to have enough time for the interesting part of the job, you have to keep up those 50-70 hour weeks some of the time, and more than that some of the time. I think not hoping for a balanced life is actually more restful … I just also think the more important thing is not to allow it to get chaotic, not to lose control of it … and I think that if there’s no way to get control of it, then yes it is time to throw in the towel.

    Of course, if I personally throw in the towel it will be to do something even less balanced (JD), so once again I am no one to speak.

  3. You comments about senior professors’ refusal even to consider seeking a work/life balance are so true. I work at a place I call Office Park University: as you can tell by the name, it is very much a group of self-important people with a middle-management mentality, lacking in joy or any sense of play. The atmosphere is very similar to the one you describe at UI (in your guest post at WorstProfessor).
    My solution has been to aggressively seek greater balance since getting tenure. I joined a circus, later co-founded another, appeared in nightclubs and at events for years as a performance artist/ buffoon, and created a vibrant circle of friends off campus. As a result, OPU increasingly seems like a job, not an identity: though I continue to write and publish, I feel little investment in my institution.
    I know your site is dedicated chiefly to graduate students and early professors, but I think many more senior folk could benefit from hearing the message that a life bounded only by academia is a narrow purview indeed.

    • Squadratomagico, thanks for inspiring us by posting here! During my sabbatical leave I started learning improv and hope to be in a performing group soon. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had, and I also think my improv skills will make me a more effective teacher. But the second part is incidental; having a fun life is the most important work any person can do. 🙂

  4. Thanks for this post! I was about twenty-two years old when I realized that my academic-driven life was becoming incredibly hollow. I was teaching part-time at a high school while finishing my degree. I literally told one of my students, who was obsessed with grades and becoming a university professor one day, that working hard in academia is great – but not at the expense of cultivating yourself as a person.

  5. Interesting. I agreed with all but the hypothesis at the end about why even tenured profs continue to work so much. My take on that question is that the whole system of academia selects very strongly for workaholics who are constitutionally unable to maintain work-life balance. If you’re a person who has outside interests, who wants to spend time with family, who is not obsessively focused on academic work, then the system will relentlessly work to weed you out, and/or will twist your soul so that you no longer have those unproductive outside interests. After the many years of hard labor required to make it to tenure, precious few remain who have any interest in anything but work. I see the effects of this very clearly in myself, and I’m not even that far along the path toward tenure.

  6. I’m still in grad school, in my fifth year and working on writing my dissertation. I had my first in my second year– was a complete surprise and given the pressure of grad school, quals, prelim, conferences, ‘publish or perish’ mentality, I had actually considered abortion (hate, hate to confess it). Then thankfully I came to my senses and had my baby. I worked too hard to keep the “academic” facade: taught undergrad classes, attended meetings and classes regularly, went to conferences and passed my quals on time. But faculty stopped seeing me as a teacher/researcher. They saw me as a mom. If they see me, they only ask about baby (which is fine), but then, I started hearing things like ‘oh we don’t know if she can teach or do that, she has a baby.’ Last year I found out I was pregnant, I told my advisor during a regular meeting, and the first thing she (SHE! and she had a baby just a year ago) said “oh I can’t work with you anymore”. Please note, I was still teaching, still dissertating, presenting at conferences..

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  8. Another way to look at it is to say that a lot of academics (myself included) feel that this profession is a kind of vocation and genuinely love the work. I understand that not everyone feels that way, but I’m not sure it’s the pathology that it’s made out to be in this post.

  9. Gosh, shootmenow! My assumption was always that one could not have children if one had any kind of career, but that is because my mother had this 50s mentality … but this is *exactly* why I was taught in graduate school not to have children, it meant one would not be seen as “professional.”

    I am somewhat different than others, though, in that I do not see work as the opposite of life, nor define life as family.

  10. I think that the main reason my tenured colleagues don’t let up is because, at this point, they have none to very little life outside academia — they didn’t cultivate any hobbies, they don’t have kids (and as they grow older no other family close by – or alive), and all their relationships are through work. This is particularly the case when in a couple both are academics. On top of that, all but one of my female colleagues are childless. This is also the reason why I think many of them past 65 do not want to retire.

  11. shootmenow and Z: that’s terrible that your advisor wouldn’t work with you anymore just because you had a child. Z, I think it depends on what people think of as a “career.” I think a woman can have children, it just depends on how illustrious of a “career” she wants. If I had to pick between career and kids, I’d pick kids hands down everyday.
    Also, these people who say have your kids in grad school, well, that’s not possible for everyone. There’s medical costs, insurance and not to mention, a partner. I’d definitely advise dating in grad school (now whether you want to date your colleagues is your business, I would say date someone in a different career field, but that’s just me. For heaven’s sake, get outside the academic bubble) because dating only gets harder the older you get.

    • A partner is definitely handy, hehe. As for insurance though, while every institution’s insurance policy is different, I imagine insurance might actually be a good reason to have children in grad school (in addition to the flexibility, etc), especially during those early years with frequent vaccines and well baby checks. I’m in the tail end of it (going to defend my dissertation in a week, gasp!) and had a baby in 2014. When I became pregnant, I first felt that singe of worry about the stigma, about completion, about career, the whole gamut. Those worries were mitigated by the knowledge that being in grad school meant all my prenatal, delivery, and well baby care would be covered (And from my insurance at the time, even an electronic breast pump, though I ended up being gifted with one by a friend).

      Absolutely none of these things occurred to me before my pregnancy, and I felt rather glad to have had my child when I did, especially against the backdrop of a possible benefits-free adjunct or jobless situation in the years after graduating.

  12. Some people love work. Why does working very hard mean you don’t have both work and life? Yes, I spend a LOT of my time working, but I do many things most people only dream of doing (going to the beach, skiing, skydiving, marathons, going to the park every day with my kiddo, etc.) while not sacrificing my time for research – we are capable of multi-tasking. For the life of me, I don’t know why some people who have never held a job before worry about work-life (something they have no idea what that means). Let’s not forget, we’re pretty darn lucky and have an amazing job – I love this work! You can find flaws in any job, but if you focus on them, you’ll never be happy… ever. Don’t believe me? Go work in industry for five years. We’re teaching everyone to aspire to values that only some people hold. Stop!

    shootmenow: I’m so sorry that happened to you. You’ll find that varies widely by your faculty. One of our doctoral students got pregnant. We told her to take off as long as she liked and do what she felt was best.

  13. While I generally agree with most statements (especially the exploitation one), I’ve seen proof of the contrary. There are professors that really live as if fueled by pure cocaine and meth! They wake up at 3-5 am, work, breakfast, go to work (work more), network, organize meetings, teach, deal with students, work, go home have a happy family, work more, have diner, relax and sleep.

    It’s as if they are coked up scientific athletes! I’ve seen professors party until 2-3 am and chair a session at 8 am FFS! I keep searching for a pentragram in their offices because those I know should’ve made a pact with Satan.

  14. Karen, thank you for writing this! 2011, 2016, 2025, doesn’t matter, it’s still so relevant! Reading this (and Anne Marie Slaughter’s points about caregiving being undervalued in our society) makes me dream wild dreams. I envision founding an institute that explicitly values and prioritizes caregiving. One that supports researchers part time with a fair salary (like 50k) and benefits, and where their children attend on-site daycare, get this, staffed not by low wage workers but by the researchers themselves, on rotation. Everyone is taking care of everyone’s children as part of their pay, yet they can conduct research and write and have hobbies and achieve beautiful work life balance. :: cue in rainbows and unicorns, but a girl can dream::

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