The Workaholic and Academia: in defense of #AcaDowntime

Gemma Aherne is a PhD candidate at Leeds Beckett University. She originally posted this piece on her blog following a debate about #AcaDowntime on twitter. It is reposted here with permission. You can follow Gemma on twitter @princessjack.

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In 2012 my husband was in Intensive Care, or ICU as we like to call it in the UK. I was told he would most likely die. It was traumatic. My husband spent 3 weeks in an induced coma. It was terrifying. When he woke up still worrying about work more than his near-death predicament, a very wise nurse told him “There ain’t no pockets in a shroud”.

I can tell you there aren’t any publications either. Or titles. Or accolades.

I’m sure we have all had these moments. Losing loved ones, facing severe ill health, caring for ill relatives or friends. And we all see what matters in life is our health and wellbeing, and that of those we care about.

Yet in academia, workaholism is rife. It is normalised and dare I say it revered. If you loved your work enough you would answer emails whilst on annual leave/ at a funeral/ on maternity leave/ sick in hospital. You love your work, so why not do it 7 days a week?

Academia offers flexibility in working hours, which is why it appeals to me. But sadly flexibility often is often translated as available at all hours and working constantly. I’m here as an early career researcher to say no. If this is what academia is, I don’t want it. I love my work, I am so grateful to get paid work that I feel passionate about. But I am entitled to a life outside of it. We all are.

Spending time with your loved ones is not a privilege. Never let people tell you it is. Taking time out to rest, or watch Netflix, or read fiction, or watch films with your kids, or play with your pets, this is not a luxury. It keeps you well. Visiting your elderly relative in hospital, not a privilege. Seeing your old neighbour in a care home rather than taking on yet more additional work, not a privilege.

Not rushing back to work after a painful hospital appointment or upsetting health session, not a privilege. It’s called looking after yourself. I spent my time in 1st year trying to work the day after 2 operations, during my husband being re-admitted to hospital and the day my mum told me she was ill. Utter nonsense! Why? Because I felt guilty for a second off. Guilt and fear that I wouldn’t catch back up.

I wrote about self-care and the Ph.D here and I wrote about the trauma of research here. I have written on Happy Ph.D and M.E here, and blogging with health problems here.

Today I am working on a rare Sunday. Why? Because I am visiting 2 babies tomorrow on Monday afternoon. Since Christmas I have limited my working hours. I am more productive as a result, healthier, happier, and all my relationships have improved. I am a workaholic by nature, it’s anxiety for me and having health issues that I have to pace and deal with. But at Christmas when I felt guilty for having time off, I said no more. Friends on minimum wage didn’t feel guilty for taking time off. They felt lucky if they were able to take some time off, but not guilty. Why is it that guilt is so common place in academia?

I now do 40 hours a week. In marking season I will do more, or if I get a wave of energy for writing a chapter I will binge. But I take days off. Weekends off. I make plans. I enjoy my life outside of academia. I took my first holiday abroad in years in June. It was glorious. And that’s ok. It doesn’t make one less committed.

Today I see the #AcaDowntime hashtag. How good I thought! Let’s challenge current working expectations. It is not privilege to have rest time. Yes, we have times in our life where we are juggling jobs working all the hours we can to survive, but let’s call that out. Let’s not compound it as legitimate. It’s not showing off to join in with the hashtag, it’s challenging the dominant narrative that we must live to work.

Recently I read this For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University. Number 10 in the paper stood out to me:

Reach for the minimum (i.e. good enough is the new perfect). Rather than getting caught up in measuring worth by the number of peer-reviewed journal articles published or grant dollars procured, reach instead for the minimum numbers necessary to achieve important benchmarks (such as tenure and promotion). Reaching for the minimum allows for a focus on quality – rather than quantity – and acknowledges the need for balance. Imagine, too, an alternate CV or annual report with all of the other items of life included: relationships tended to, illnesses overcome, loved ones cared for, hobbies cultivated. Be unwilling to be undermined or belittled for not conforming to hegemonic agendas that are devoid of the responsibilities and joys of life beyond the ivory tower.

The authors continue:

Slowing down involves resisting neoliberal regimes of harried time by working with care while also caring for ourselves and others.

A feminist mode of slow scholarship works for deep reflexive thought, engaged research, joy in writing and working with concepts and ideas driven by our passions. As a feminist intervention, slow scholarship enables a feminist ethics of care that allows us to claim some time as our own, build shared time into everyday life, and help buffer each other from unrealistic and counterproductive norms that have become standard expectations. Slow scholarship has value in itself, in the quality of research and writing produced, and also enables us to create a humane and sustainable work environment and professional community that allows more of us to thrive within academia and beyond.

This all day long. Our colleagues and friends who are mothers shouldn’t be answering work related emails on maternity leave, or feeling their part-time position upon their return means they don’t care enough, or they are lacking. Our colleagues with health issues, or caring for family or friends with issues, should not feel they have to choose between some respite, however short, or doing the obligated extras.

Academia actively promotes workaholism and that’s wrong. We need to look after our health.

I love my research, I feel lucky that this is my job. And thus it is easy to get sucked into working non-stop. But I have other commitments and things that need tending to in my life. If I have to choose between extra work and my loved ones, or resting up, or enjoying a hobby outside of my job, I am going to pick the latter. Not because I am not committed enough but because that’s what keeps me well.

I love the fact that in the Psychology department of my university there are a wonderful bunch of critical feminist researchers. They don’t email outside of 8-6 Mon to Fri. They actively encourage life outside the academy. And they are successful, kind, caring, and bloody brilliant.

We need to work and we want to make a difference in the lives of marginalized groups. We are very lucky to have this opportunity. But let’s remember that to carve out time for ourselves, or to opt for a radically different format of working, is not selfish or lazy, it’s absolutely necessary.

I shall follow and support #AcaDowntime. And tomorrow I shall look forward to meeting those two babies.

Academia: Survival of the Bitterest?

t4_-1069229323Jan Klimas is a scientist, artist, thinker and writer who’s interested in communicating with the public and using art to blend boundaries between the two disciplines. Check out his blog, and follow him on twitter @janklimas.

 

In dance, I call it Survival of the Bitterest. The choreographers who stick around are often the ones most comfortable feeling bitter and resentful. My artistic mentors were brilliant artists. But I do not want to live the lives they led.

Andrew Simonet

choreography-Amy-Siewert

Academia: a bitter dance for survival (Photo: David DeSilva)

What do dance and science have in common? What makes a successful choreographer or scientist? In this post, I speculate about the bitterness of the academic dance for survival. The academic competition is cruel and uneven. The fittest may not survive, but the bitterest thrive.

Before we dive deep into the murky academic waters, let’s define our objectives. Is survival worth the fight? Is it really a fight, or just a game? Survival is “a natural process resulting in the evolution of organisms best adapted to the environment” – academics would give anything to be the most evolved and the best adapted.

We strive to get tenure. Other occupations call it a permanent job. Few make it and most have to fulfill harsh criteria to keep their tenure, bringing in a lot of research funding, or taking on a heavy teaching load.

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Source: Oui Stock Images

Papers are the currency of our world. The one who has the most is the richest. Because money follows money, the more articles an academic co-authors, the higher her chances of getting more money (i.e., more research grants). Like tokens of appreciation, authorships on papers are gifts that some scientists give to each other as a gesture of appreciation, friendship or a promise of a future token. Agencies give grants to people with most of these tokens. Journal editors publish their friends’ work.

In such a system, the most published may not be the best; instead they are the most popular or they know how to play the system. In such a system, novice scientists’ willingness to park their writing integrity is challenged. Some may find refuge in writing non-academic literature, but for most, the peer-reviewed “romance” pays the mortgage.

Some big research centres are like fiction factories. They pay people to write articles; the purpose of those articles is to bring in more cash. Fiction factories operate like famous brands, where the name of a famous academic becomes a brand instead of signifying who wrote the paper. James Patterson, for example, “heralded as the world’s best paid writer, is the world’s most successful fiction factory,” writes Michelle Demers. Just like Patterson, the chief scientist comes at the end of writing, puts a few finishing touches and their names on the final product.

The road to tenure is paved with the PhD students that an academic supervises. This inflates the need for scientifically-trained workforce whereas the sole purpose of taking on a PhD student is, in many cases, to get the professor closer to the tenure. We don’t need so many PhDs. “PhD ‘overproduction’ is not new and faculty retirements won’t solve it,” writes Melonie Fullick in her speculative diction at University Affairs, “Yet somehow no matter how many PhDs enroll and graduate, academic careers are the goal.”

Overproduction-dependent career progression and dubious writing practices are only two of the many symptoms of a sick system. The best way to navigate such an unhealthy organised science is to bring both passion and dispassion to the task. Build up a dispassionate, bulletproof shield of resilience, unless you are willing to get sick yourself.

Some are born resilient. But for most, it takes years to become hardy. Much like Erickson’s stages of psychosocial development, resilience grows in stages. A crisis happens at each stage of development. A developmental task must be fulfilled for progress into the next stage. The infant learns hope by resolving the trust vs. mistrust crisis. A young adult breaks through the isolation, discovers intimacy and acquires love.

My own anecdotal evidence suggests the following developmental stages of early academic career: i) solitude, ii) despair, iii) good science/bad science, iv) fear and loathing, and v) workaholism. Getting through these stages takes you pretty far on the bitter road, but get ready to be the bitterest if you want to stick around.

Stages of development

  • Solitude: For the extroverts, this stage is excruciating. As they focus on the work, their social networks suffer. The computer becomes their best friend. Introverts find working alone easier, but it can be hard at the start. The junior scientist embraces loneliness in exchange for better concentration.
  • Despair: Some come into academia with genuine prosocial intentions. When they hit the brick wall of loneliness and parked integrity, they collapse. Too much science is done only for the sake of science and for personal interest. Finding the right balance between the need for helping others and promoting oneself moves the young scientist to the next stage.
  • Good science vs. bad science: OK, so if I can’t change the world through science, let’s just do it right so that the bad guys don’t win. Unlike fairy tales, the good scientists don’t always win. Bad science informs policy. Bad science receives funding. The fight for good science is endless. New researchers must decide which side of the battle they join.
  • Fear and loathing: power and control, greed and envy are common in academia. Fear is a natural reaction of junior scientists towards the loathsome deeds of some senior scientists. Scientists are humans too. They err. Some err too much and don’t acknowledge their mistakes. It is up to the junior scientists then to stay or to leave the kitchen if they can’t stand the heat. Learning to detach resolves this developmental conflict.
  • Workaholism: The balance is not static. It changes all the time. Latch on to the dynamic, forget about the static. The early-career scholar’s task is to make a healthy lifestyle their number one work tool.

The path to academic success is rough and bitter. Bitterness is the key to survival, but happiness lies in enjoying the journey, rather than focusing on the bitter end.

Academics with BEER!

I love beer. So does Elena Milani (@biomug). When the Italian Neuroscientist and SciComm expert realised that no hashtag yet existed for academic beer-lovers, she set about creating one. This is her call to arms! 

tapsThe Internet and social media are plenty of cute fluffy cats, because kittens sell, especially among academics. Everybody knows that!

But what about beer? I love craft beer (and kittens, of course), and in Twitter I’ve found many hashtags on beers such as #beer #craftbeer #beerbods #beertography #breweries #beerselfie and so on.

However, there isn’t a hashtag for academics who love beer, as me, and I was curious if beer could help me to engage others scholars in Twitter. So, I started “an experiment” launching #academicswithbeer with the help of Cristina Rigutto.

A lot of people replied, retweeted and favorited this tweet! And you are invited to join the conversation too!

You can tweet:

  • Quotes
  • Selfies
  • Sketches
  • Sketchnotes or mind maps
  • Other pics or texts

But you must include beer in your pic/text/tweet!

Now, join the #academicswithbeer stream 😉

This post originally appeared at Elena’s blog, SciCommLab.