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Are academic careers compatible with achieving work-life balance?


Okay, maybe the story is more nuanced and complicated.

For my wife and me -- we being a dual-academic couple -- the answer to that question is undoubtedly a no.

We have great careers and wonderful lives, but there is certainly no balance. Instead, we scramble and scrape -- run hard and try to find opportunities to catch our breath.

What about you?

In thinking about this question of the compatibility of academic careers and a sane sort of life, I always think about my dad.

Recently retired after nearly five decades in academia, my dad seemed always to get it right. Growing up, my dad’s academic job never seemed to dominate our lives. His job was part of who he was but did not define him.

Mostly, my dad seemed to have time. Time to cross-country ski on the weekends, hang out and read together in the evenings, and take vacations uninterrupted by work.

My wife and I start our days early and are often doing something work-related or another long into the evenings. We work weekends. Unlike many of our colleagues, we are committed to taking our vacations -- and trying to stay off-line when away. But dealing with work-related issues while on vacation, if only to triage email on our phones to avoid being overwhelmed when we return, is standard operating procedure.

So the question is if my dad could have a productive and impactful academic career while maintaining an excellent work-life balance, why can’t we? (And here, the “we” is my wife and me -- but you might also count.)

Is the story of academic careers and work-life balance a generational one? Or is it a mistake to try to generalize across generations by emphasizing changes in the academic career environment? Instead, should we be looking at individual choices rather than structural constraints?

While the story of my dad’s academic career and my own are only just that -- stories -- I think maybe there are some things to be learned.

The first generational difference in our academic career experience that comes to mind is a shift from growth to retrenchment, abundance to scarcity.

When my dad got his Ph.D. in 1970, higher education was in a period of rapid expansion. There was a growing demand for professors, driven by a combination of favorable demographics and enhanced federal funding.

By the time I finished my Ph.D. in 1999 (at the same school and department as my dad), the academic job market was in sharp decline. Tenure-track jobs were then, and continue to be, scarce.

I bring this up to recognize that today’s academics operate in a vastly more competitive job environment than our academic parents. Those of us lucky enough to be on the tenure track (not me) had to work incredibly hard to secure that position and then have had to fight for promotion.

Another generational difference, I suspect, is the proliferation of the dual academic career. My wife and I see our work as a single academic career. This has meant that I’ve been a trailing spouse three times over. We do our best to balance our dual academic careers, if not our work, with our lives.

For my dad, and many (although not all) of his contemporaries, only one partner was pursuing an academic career. Nonacademic partners are both more portable than academic partners and are likely more able to find work in their profession independent of location.

External to academia, there are also reasons why academic work-life balance may have eroded.

Nowadays, life is more expensive than when I was growing up. The major expenses that families must navigate, housing and education, have increased dramatically since the 1970s.

My dad was able to buy a house on his academic salary and then watch that home rapidly increase in value. At the same time, the college tuition he paid for my undergraduate years was dramatically lower (in real dollars) than what my wife and I pay for our kids.

One of the reasons we work so hard as academics is that life is incredibly expensive.

There are other environmental factors I could point to in trying to unpack changes in work-life balance across academic generations. My dad was early to use computers in his work, but his academic career mainly unfolded in the predigital hive-mind era.

Email was not a thing in the first part of his career and did not exist while I was growing up. Lacking digital communications platforms like Zoom or Slack, my dad’s collaborations with colleagues took place mainly in face-to-face meetings and conversations.

We could go on looking for structural reasons why work-life balance has eroded for academics. However, I’m a bit skeptical that the changing academic environment tells the entire story.

In the end, my dad chose to prioritize balance.

He made active choices to be present for his family and to sacrifice some of the status and monetary rewards that a “big” academic career can bring.

My dad sort of “rightsized” his career so that it was engaging and productive and impactful, but not overwhelming.

As my dad points out, many of his colleagues chose to prioritize work over family. When he was department chair, he made certain that departmental meetings ended promptly at 5:00 p.m. so that parents were able to pick up their kids and transition to family responsibilities. The idea to constrain campus meeting times to match the needs of parents seems to have been a new concept back in the late 1970s.

The example that my dad set of how to navigate an academic life is one that I wish I could be better at following.

Perhaps it is not too late.

How do you think work-life balance has changed over the years in academia?

How is your work-life balance?

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