Do Academics Stink at Work/Life Balance?

And is this scaring away students?

By Alex Ellison

At the 2018 Midwest Political Science Association Conference in Chicago, IL, I attended the session, Trying to Balance Work and Life with Joel Raveloharimisy from Andrews University, William Raymond from Benedictine College, Marjorie Hershey from Indiana University, and Jacob Holt from Columbus State University.

When I was in my second or third year of college, my advisor made the suggestion that I might like getting a PhD. “And doing what with that,” I asked. “You could become a professor.”

What?!

I was the first in my family to go to college. The daughter of a wine salesman and a waitress, I did not understand that college could be more than the place I learned; it could be the place I worked. I loved college, so this sounded wonderful!

Then I talked with my department advisor about my new plans. I was a German major and I would soon learn that because of the mass department closures happening around the country, the language professors were arguably the most bitter and resentful — not the kind of people who would offer encouraging advice for a starry-eyed undergraduate. He said, passively, “Yeah, sure. I suppose you could teach at one of the sister colleges.”

I heard similarly condescending remarks from a seemingly caring speaker at a conference on Cultural Diplomacy in Berlin. As we walked and talked and I shared my plans and ambitions with him, he said, “You know, it is very difficult to be a woman in academia.” This was in the year 2009.

Fast forward to my first job after undergrad, a service-learning coordinator at the University of Nevada, Reno, where I worked while applying to graduate programs. Their German department was on the butcher block at the time, and I made the mistake of seeking guidance from a few very angry professors, one who seemed to resemble Karl Marx more and more each day. Not surprisingly, these folks strongly advised against my future plans.

Despite the naysayers, I was admitted to the University of Chicago’s Masters of Social Sciences program. I was taking my first step toward getting a PhD! I eagerly met with one of the faculty members in the German department during the admitted student weekend, and he couldn’t have been more annoyed by my visit and showed no interest in me as a prospective student.

Needless to say, I finally got cold feet. At some point, the collective words of discouragement overrode my more fantastical, head-in-the-clouds side, and I declined the University of Chicago offer.

While my life is fulfilling and full of meaning and joy today, I can’t help but wonder if I would have also been happy in academia. Is academia as terrible — especially for women who want a family — as some of the naysayers would suggest? Even if a degree in German history was a suicidal mission, why was there so little encouragement along my path? The experience gave me the impression that professors are an unhappy lot. That they lack balance and are constantly stressed out.

But the same could be said for people across a wide array of professions.

Are people in academia less able to find balance? Does the nature of their work, with the competing pressures to research and teach, make balance impossible?

These questions led me to wander into the session on work/life balance at the 2018 Midwest Political Science Association conference. Marjorie Hershey offered some refreshingly sound and friendly advice. I found myself wishing I’d had her as an advisor and mentor while I was an undergraduate. To the academics with families, she said to get involved in your kids’ lives; get involved in your communities. She stressed the importance of getting involved in the world around you, no matter how busy you are with research and publishing. She gave this advice:

It is hard to create a relationship with people if you wait until you’ve done enough publishing. There will never be a time when you say, “I’ve done enough publishing, I’m done!”

She said academia is actually one of the more autonomous institutions to be employed; professors are allowed relative independence in their work compared to other professions. She suggested taking advantage of this and not falling into the trap of living by others’ rules or trying to mirror others’ lives.

Because of the relative autonomy and the ability to mostly choose research directions, she gave the advice to choose research pursuits that fit into our lives:

If your free time consists of what you have during nap time and nursery school, don’t become a political philosopher.

So, perhaps it is not a question of whether or not academics can balance work and life, but if they are in the appropriate academic domains given their life situations. However, it does seem like academics are uniquely positioned to fail worse than other professionals at the whole balance thing. They simultaneously need to be liked by their departments and offer their service to the university, research and publish endlessly, never ever really knowing what the magic number, and they are pressured to fill up seats in their classes with students who will give them high marks as teachers. The pressures are real, but perhaps not insurmountable, and perhaps not a reason to avoid the profession altogether.

So here are some tips from the panelists:

  • Don’t be discouraged and fearful about pressures — Know that pressure will exist in this space and experiencing that pressure doesn’t mean you are weak, unsuitable, or disliked
  • It’s easy to focus on what’s immediate rather than what’s important — don’t let yourself fall victim to this trap; prioritize work and life so that you can tackle what’s most important first
  • Don’t confuse the time you’re putting into a project with the quality of your work — “It’s not the hours you put in; it’s what you put into the hours.” — Jacob Holt
  • We can’t be all of the things at once, but we can be all of the things throughout our careers — Our careers are a marathon, not a sprint; you may be teaching heavy at one end of your career and research heavy at another end
  • Invest in something you are passionate about outside of work — whether it’s a creative project or triathlon training, you have to have something you care about that is not your teaching or research

And sometimes, work/life balance emerges naturally once a family enters the stage. When we’re single, work doesn’t necessarily need to be balanced with anything else. As someone from the audience shared, when he was single, he simple worked until his brain was fried and he couldn’t work anymore. The family is often the force that makes us create balance. However, it’s arguably a good idea to start working on balance, even if you don’t have a family; you’re probably not working as well as you’re capable of with that fried brain and 3.5 hours of sleep.


Alex Ellison is a blogger at the 2018 Midwest Political Science Association Conference in Chicago, IL. She is the Founding Director of MENTEE, a non-profit organization that helps immigrant, refugee, and low-income high school students gain career exposure through job shadows and mentorship. She is also an independent education consultant and college counselor. Read more from Alex Ellison on Medium