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.