The hardest part of a professor's job

Aug 27 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Professor. It's a term used to cover a wide swath of job in the US, from people who strictly teach undergraduates to soft money researchers. The spectrum of people, jobs, situations and career options makes the title a grab-bag of many things. At each end of the spectrum you have jobs that are nearly, if not entirely, non-overlapping in their responsibilities and requirements.

Some professors find teaching to be the hardest part of their job. Others are mired in administrative bullshit or frustrated by the constant need to hump the leg of one's particular funding agency. But there's one stress aspect all of these jobs share:

Work / life balance.

It doesn't matter if you're single or married with 12 kids, I don't know a single professor under 50 who doesn't routinely struggle with meeting the demands of their work while maintaining some semblance of normal (whatever that is) at home. I've posted before about the fallacy of balance (spoiler: balance means doing at least one thing poorly all the time, just don't make it the same thing all the time) and it doesn't really exist. But there's lots of jobs that require a lot of hours, right? Yes, but one of the major benefits of academia is also what makes balancing it so tricky - there's no boss.

Some jobs have hourly work week expectations of their more junior people that are either institutional or explicit. Some jobs require a certain amount of travel. As a professor, you make all your own choices on how to spend your time. As such, I almost always hear people comparing notes about how each other spends their time.

"How much do you travel?"

"How many hours a week do you spend in your office?"

"How much do you work at home?"

"How many hours of sleep do you get?"

These are all questions I've asked or been asked in the last few months. Everyone is trying to figure out what the "right" balance is when the reality is that it is completely amoeboid. No two people's situations are the same, nor is any one person's situation the same from one month to the next. Workload, health, kids, parents, phase of the moon, mood of your administration, how needy your cat is, your town's climate, etc., etc., etc., all play in to what you can give and to whom.

And it's up to you to gauge how to spend your time, sometimes months in advance. The challenges of these decisions are really the one stressor that unites all academics, across the board.

14 responses so far

  • dr24hours says:

    I thought the hardest part was caring if your students learn or not?

  • Odyssey says:

    I don't know a single professor under 50...

    Ageist. Us oldies suffer from this too you know.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    The job is never done. You could *always* do more to advance your career and enhance your performance. In that way it is like a business. Perhaps small business owners have the same issues....except everyone understands "honey the store made 20% more money last month when I worked so hard". Outcome is less helpful when discussing how you gained 5 JIF points on your last paper.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    "Hey, look at my H-index!"

    And I know that more senior profs suffer the same issues, it's just harder for me to speak for that demographic.

  • Pascale says:

    Getting kids out of the house has improved things immensely. I rarely feel the pressures I did, especially before the youngest began driving.

  • neuropolarbear says:

    i was hoping this problem disappeared w tenure.
    guess not?

  • qaz says:

    @neuropolarbear - Sorry, in my experience/observation it gets worse after tenure. Somehow, tenure seems to select for the workaholic people who are driven internally more than by external pressure. (I guess that's the point, right?) In my experience/observation, tenure is the last thing that you can honestly "try for" (in the sense that you are working towards something that is expected if only you do a really good job). Everything after tenure becomes nebulous and its hard to know when enough is good enough. Also, after tenure, the number of things that get put on your plate (or that you take on because you care about them) seem to get even larger. Also, after tenure tends to correlate with hitting your stride and gaining recognition in the field, which means you tend to get more opportunities ("we'd be honored if you would serve on this major committee", "we'd like to invite you to speak the keynote at this conference", "will you write this review paper for our superfamous journal", "you're the only one who can do this"). Some of which are very hard to turn down.

    @proflikesubstance - really well said! My problem is always wondering how I am competing against people who are making other work/life balance choices. And even knowing intellectually that the people I most respect scientifically in my field are, in fact, not crazy St. K3rnists, I always wonder whether I am balancing things correctly.

  • Anonymous says:

    This is something I truly don't get about this career, and as someone with a perfectionist streak, it makes me think twice whether I really want to do this or not. Which is a shame because in a lot of other ways, I'm pretty well-suited for this. But I don't want a life of always feeling that I'm doing "doing one thing poorly." I understand that those without tenure just have to play the game, but why do those w/tenure continue as if this was a perfectly reasonable way of doing things? It's not -- it's crazy! And it makes me think that academics are more about show than substance, or more about what you can get away with rather than truly giving it your best. Honestly, I just don't get it.... I don't understand how the profession evolved into this or how it's good for science and/or teaching.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    The answer for why it continues after tenure is simple: people. You spend your pre-tenure years getting the ball rolling and gather a decent crew of good people in the lab. The next step is keeping them and, more importantly, keeping the happy and efficient. That takes money and money comes to those who are working to get it. I don't work crazy hours per week and I've established a schedule that allows me a lot of time with my family, but there's times when I have to put in the extra hours and that comes at a cost.

    Do you accept that seminar that'll take you away during your daughter's recital? How about that conference during that soccer tournament? It's all balance.

  • If you're faculty in a medical school, and you are good at grant writing and thereby keep your lab well staffed, you don't really have to work more than about 30 hours per week.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    But chances are you travel more than someone who is teaching. That's an added pressure at home, especially if your spouse is wrangling the kids. Again, everyone's situation is different.

  • M says:

    I am working on learning if not to balance this to at least find a flow that doesn't make me or the people around me crazy so that as I move between roles I leave the other behind and focus on what I'm doing at the time. Thanks for including people without kids too. I sometimes get the "you don't have kids so you can work all the time" from people and it's annoying. I have a partner, parents, friends, pets and a desire for a life outside of work. I am impressed by my colleagues who manage kids and an academic career and think they deserve more support (like lowering the costs of on-site daycare! ours is insane) I think I deserve more than work too.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Kids are far from the only stressor on people's time, even if parents imagine they are. I know people with extremely burdensome eldercare responsibilities that few consider, as one instance.

  • I don't think work/life balance issues are limited to professors. I think it's endemic (at least in U.S. society).

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