Managing time and expectations

By Joern Fischer

Our jobs as researchers are pretty nice in many ways — we get to work on stuff we’re truly interested in, we might get to enjoy the occasional sense of achievement, and we might even feel that we’re doing something good in the world. This good side of academic life has been emphasised by some; I’ve heard senior academics complain that we should stop complaining because really, our academic lives are so privileged.

While that’s probably true in general terms, many academics are also suffering from a sense of “too much”. Or, just as commonly, their families are suffering, or their collaborators, or students, because they have to engage with somebody who is stressed and evidently over-committed.

I’d like to make one simple point here: that we ought to do a good (or even excellent) job 100% of the time in which we work; but that we should not put up with pressures, incentives or norms to work more than 100% of time. When I worked in Australia, there was a pretty simple system regarding performance agreements. Once every two years,  you sat down with your boss and discussed how you would allocate 100% of your time to teaching, research and service. Teaching involved classes but also supervision of research students; research was, well, research; and service included committees and things like that within the university, but also communication engagement or editorial boards beyond the university.

There are three key benefits of institutionalising such performance agreements. One, nobody is expected to work more than 100%. Two, if you add a percentage to something (e.g. an increase from 40 to 50%), it’s clear that something else has got to be reduced. And three, not everybody has to be equal — some people might benefit their departments through service roles, others through teaching, others primarily through research. In extreme cases, an individual might drop one of the three components altogether.

What I see in Germany is starkly different. We are incentivised to be in more and more projects; raise more and more funds; “supervise” more and more students; travel a lot; sit on committees without reward; and teach a lot of hours — and all of us should be the same, in terms of teaching load especially. What this does is it causes immediate declines in quality in all activities (nobody can be great at everything, in more than 100% of the time), and you get a bunch of over-committed, unfocused professors, left, right and centre.

Since this is systemic, there is no easy solution. But I think we should be aware of such patterns, and fight them whenever we can. As I said before: it’s not about being lazy or unproductive. It’s about recognising  that ideas are created by people who are happy in the workplace, who are reflective, and who have retained the capacity to focus to get the job done to the best of their abilities. If “excellence” is the goal (and many institutions claim that it is), you can’t keep adding stuff to people’s schedules and get the same quality out at the other end.

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5 thoughts on “Managing time and expectations

  1. Whilst I agree broadly with what you are saying, Joern, to some extent the power to “do less” is in our hands: we have to learn to say “no” more often. One of the other wonderful features of our job is that it is relatively flexible, we can choose which journals to work with, which reviews to conduct, which collaborations to pursue and, yes, whether or not to blog 🙂 Learning to decline invitations is an important skill to develop.

    • Thanks Jeff — yes, you’re right (of course!), we play a big role in this ourselves. I guess it’s partly up to us to make the right decisions; but partly also up to us to work towards systemic change where needed. Cheers — J.

      • This is a timely post. As a student, I have been really frustrated with classes being cancelled so frequently because the teacher has something “more” important to do and/or has to be somewhere else “more” important than the classroom.

  2. “… to some extent the power to “do less” is in our hands: we have to learn to say “no” more often.” Absolutely yes! Though two absolutely *crucial* elements of that need to be clearly emphasized, I think.

    1) As mid-career or senior academics, if we believe what we are saying about “enoughness” (so to speak), then we will have to also advocate it to our colleagues, esp. in terms of advocating for retention and advancement of junior faculty who choose some variety of “enoughness.” While there is an argument some make with regards to what is essentially “academic hazing” in terms of junior researchers (over)working hard to “earn” the right to balance, this still penalizes them and their family to, arguably, no good effect. I have been consistently encouraging what a sometimes call “academic civil disobedience”, encouraging senior researchers to abide by (often explicitly stated) policies regarding work/life balance, average worktime expectations, and service and community connections counting as part of our job. In other words, advocating for tenure/promotion of people who actually live balance, and who may have a balance of work with more “service/community connection” than is typical in these research-obsessed times. (I personally advocate that those who balance more towards teaching & service should be particularly advocated for and those without significant community outreach–where it is part of their job description–should be questioned about it on promotion panels, as part of academic civil disobedience.)

    2) We need to engender/embody the “enoughness” in the culture we conduct ourselves. This is tricky, but mainly I refer here to self-policing the sort of “humblebrag” or inverse brag where one says, “Oh, I really SHOULD take more time off, but man, I just got in the zone and knocked out two manuscripts last week.” Or “Wow, you worked on that for 20 hours straight, [Student]? Well, get some rest.” Instead, we need to set example and also look askance at those who self-exploit among our colleauges and students. From my brief interactions with Joern’s group, it seems like many elements of fostering the kind of culture he calls for are indeed part of his group’s institutional culture.

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