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

Why Would A Mom and A Business Owner Get An MPA?

And what does she do with it?

By Alex Ellison

Photo by Dakota Corbin on Unsplash

I was accepted to the University of Chicago to their MA Program in Social Sciences. I visited, sent in my deposit and then backed out.

I moved out west. I started a business. I had a kid.

I applied to the Masters in Education Technology program at the University of Nevada. I started, realized it was not what I wanted and stopped.

I applied to the Masters in Public Administration program at the University of Nevada. I didn’t start.

Business grew. Kid grew…

I reapplied to the Masters in Public Administration program. 2 years later I finished. I did it for me. I wasn’t looking to get a job with the degree. I wasn’t looking to get a pay raise, since I was my own boss. I did it because I liked school and I also thought I might do more government contracting in the future (I was doing contract work with school districts), for which this degree would be helpful. But my reasons for getting my masters were largely personal, not professional.

I did get a research grant while I was in graduate school to go to Switzerland and investigate their dual education system and apprenticeship model. This work fascinated me and led to some interesting work in northern Nevada. However, once out of my masters, the umbrella was gone. The “home institution” no longer existed. I was busy with my work, but I tried to continue the research on my own, but it just felt futile without mentors and support.

I talked to another mom about this. She is a full-time teacher with 3 kids; she was a Fulbright scholar and she has two masters degrees. She too lamented over the difficulty in finding organizations, think tanks and fellowships to attach to when no longer available for, or interested in, a full-time research commitment, a job in the field, or a PhD.

I would love to see a conversation at MPSA’s Annual Conference this year around continuing our research when we are no longer officially “in the field,” yet we want to continue our research on the side and continue to be part of the political science and public policy community.

Alex Ellison will be a blogger at the Annual MPSA (Midwest Political Science Association) Conference in Chicago, IL. You can learn more about the conference and schedule here. She will be attending the Trying to Balance Work & Life andGrant Opportunities & Strategies sessions. Read more from Alex Ellison on Medium

MPSA in 2017 – Accomplishments Worth Celebrating (video)

 

This year was confusing at times and exhausting at others, but it also had its high points. As we say goodbye to 2017, we welcome you to join us for the MPSA highlight reel. Our thanks to everyone who played a part in making these projects a reality, including our program chairs, council members, committee chairs, program partners, donors, volunteers, and members. May the new year welcome only the best to you both personally and professionally! – MPSA Staff

Recap of Tuesday’s #PSBeWell End-of-Semester/Holiday Edition

PSBeWell-EndOfSemester

This month’s MPSA Twitter Chat featured a conversation about creating a less stressful end-of-semester experience for those on both sides of the syllabus, ways to balance work and personal time during the busy holiday season, and a few resolutions for the upcoming semester. Many thanks to our co-hosts for the discussion: Todd Curry, Assistant Professor of Political Science at The University of Texas at El Paso, Jacqueline Sievert, Research Fellow with YWCA Niagara, and Adnan Rasool, Doctoral Candidate at Georgia State University.

Read the recap below or look for the extended conversation on Twitter using #PSBeWell. 

Please share your ideas for upcoming #MPSAchat sessions at https://mpsa.typeform.com/to/tuWRlM.

Save the Date for the Next #MPSAchat: January 28, 2018 (2pm Eastern)

Recap of MPSA Chat (Work-Life Balance #PSBeWell)

Many thanks to our co-hosts for the discussion:  Todd Curry, Assistant Professor of Political Science at The University of Texas at El Paso, Jacqueline Sievert, Research Fellow with YWCA Niagara, and Adnan Rasool, Doctoral Candidate at Georgia State University.

Look for the extended conversation on Twitter using #PSBeWell and please share your ideas for upcoming #MPSAchat sessions at https://mpsa.typeform.com/to/tuWRlM.

 

An Invitation to Participate: MPSA’s Inaugural Twitter Chat #PSBeWell

A healthy work-life balance is important regardless of where you are in your academic career.

  • Every PhD has the first-hand experience with Grad School struggles.
  • Every tenured professor can remember the feeling of going on the job market.
  • PhDs in non-academic careers know how difficult the decision was to choose a non-academic career path.

Outlets like the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed often share perspectives and advice on combatting challenges we all face throughout our academic careers. For example, challenges like imposter syndrome are no longer hidden but are now acknowledged and widely discussed.

One of the biggest challenges we still face is asking for that initial help from our seniors, mentors and even colleagues. More often than not, most of us choose to not seek help when we are going through these challenges for fear of being judged or having it held against us.

Recent losses in the discipline and subsequent conversations in person and on Twitter have encouraged us to open the door for further discussion about managing the unique brand of stress that accompanies academic life and fostering a work-life balance.

While a Twitter chat won’t provide a quick fix, we hope that this conversation will reveal resources and help strengthen support networks that will prove beneficial to our friends and colleagues.

On Tuesday, August 22 at 2:00 PM (Eastern), please join us for MPSA’s first Twitter chat on this subject. Co-hosts for the inaugural discussion are Todd Curry, Assistant Professor of Political Science at The University of Texas at El Paso, Jacqueline Sievert, Research Fellow with YWCA Niagara, and Adnan Rasool, Doctoral Candidate at Georgia State University.

If you haven’t participated in a live Twitter chat before, here are a few tips:

  • A moderator from MPSA will post a series of numbered questions over the course of the hour to help prompt response from participants. (Q1: What is your ideal “work-life balance” for the new academic year?)
  • To share your answer to a specific question, just begin your response with “A1” and include the hashtag(s) designated for the chat.
  • The live chat will last approximately an hour, and you are welcome to participate for some or all of it. We hope that the conversation continues using the hashtag so others can catch up on it later.
  • You may choose to use your regular Twitter account to follow along or you may opt to use online tools created specifically for Twitter chats. Here are three examples and instructions for each.

We will be using two hashtags for the inaugural Twitter Chat (#MPSAchat and #PSBeWell). #MPSAchat will be carried forward for each monthly chat and we hope that #PSBeWell will be used exclusively when work-life balance topics are in focus.

Future MPSA Twitter chats will be on the fourth Tuesday of each month with a focus on topics including professional development, public engagement, advocacy, research, publishing, teaching/learning, and work-life balance.

Alone and Working: Making the Transition to ABD

Alone and Working: Making the Transition to ABD

The change from being a PhD Student to a PhD Candidate is a big one. The moment we cross that threshold of becoming ABD, we fall in to a kind of purgatory where we are no longer students and not yet peers of our professors. This purgatory, or as it is better known as ABD, is something that no one prepares you for. One of us (Harold Young) went through the process in the last two years and the other (Adnan Rasool) just started down this path a couple of months ago after I defended my dissertation prospectus.

Here we share our common experiences.

So what changes? What do we do? Why it matters and how do you survive this process?

The biggest change is that you are on your own. As one my professors keeps saying “you are on a little island all by yourself, trying to find a way back”. That is the reality and the way back is finishing the dissertation project. While the first few years of grad school provide the tools and framework needed to survive, during this phase there is little to no accountability leaving you alone to figure out how to harness the discipline needed to complete the dissertation.

But how does one go about doing this? Well you start figuring it out when you acknowledge and accept that you are virtually alone in this now. That realization eventually does hit even if it might take a few weeks or months. But when it hits home, that is when you realize a host of other things as well.

Firstly, you are no longer treated as a student. You are treated like a future peer. This means that the way your work is viewed is significantly different and the expectations are much higher. The kind of mistakes you could have made and powered through are no longer acceptable. More importantly, you cannot depend on constant guidance and advice of your mentors and professors because that part of the program is over. The only time you will get detailed feedback is when you submit significant chunks of your dissertation project.

While the department remains cognizant of you and wants to see you finish on time and hit the job market, they leave it to you to decide when to do that. What we mean by that is, the only time you will go back to the department is when students are specifically required to be there (e.g., student symposiums), need signatures or for scheduled practice sessions for job interviews. Otherwise, the only departmental contact you have is with your committee and specifically with the chair of your committee.Alone and Working: Making the Transition to ABD

Secondly, you will very quickly realize that your cohort is splitting up and going their own ways. Because everyone is working at a different pace on different projects, the tendency is for the comradery of the first few years of grad school to dissipate. You need to be prepared for your social circle to slowly thin and change over time. There is a certain amount of emotional toll the ABD experience and dissertation writing process takes on you and that should be expected. The best thing one can do is to prepare for it in advance by acknowledging this will happen.

Lastly, acknowledge and understand that this will be grueling process but ultimately you will be rewarded. You are here because you love learning and producing knowledge. This is the most time you will ever get to dedicate yourself to the singular pursuit of knowledge, so enjoy it. And while you do this, keep an eye on the job market. Your timeline depends greatly on the job market you wish to enter. The decision to enter the job market after writing a few chapters or waiting till finishing the whole project determines how you settle yourself in for the long haul. So, keep an eye on that and make reasonable accommodations.

Reach out and thrive!

The purpose of this piece is to talk about not just surviving but thriving during the hardest part of the PhD. Program. The clichés ”you cannot edit your head, so write” and “a good dissertation is a finished dissertation” ring true. However, getting to that goal is fraught with mental, emotional and physical stress. So, reach out to those are in the same phase or have recently succeeded, acknowledge your fears, discuss strategies and make new friends in the process. You will be pleasantly surprised at the friendships you make as they are the only people who can relate. That is actually a major reason we are such good friends.

The going can be tough but that is the whole point of academic rigor and pursuit of knowledge at the ultimate level. You can do it and, when you succeed, be there for the next ABD newbie!

 

About the Authors:

Adnan Rasool is a PhD Candidate & Student Innovation Fellow 2016-2017 at Georgia State University. He is also the recipient of the Taiwan Fellowship for 2017 by Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ROC. His research focuses on role of bureaucracies in democratization and populist clientalistic appeal in new democracies. You can also find Rasool on Twitter and his website.

Harold Young is an Assistant Professor at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. His research area is Public Law and he examines an American and comparative perspective on judicial institutional changes and decision making. Previously he was a social worker, a health communications project manager, and an attorney-at-law. He can be reached via email at youngh@apsu.edu.