Academic Tech Careers and Work/Life Balance

Earlier this month The Washington Post Magazine ran a story titled "Can Parents Share Child-Raising Responsibilities Equally?" This article is a good contribution to a larger discussion about work / life balance,

January 15, 2013

Earlier this month The Washington Post Magazine ran a story titled "Can Parents Share Child-Raising Responsibilities Equally?"

This article is a good contribution to a larger discussion about work / life balance, an issue that all of us face across a diverse set of household composition and living circumstances (beyond the two-working parent with kids households profiled in the piece).
In the article the author featured parents working in jobs that included: a lawyer, a journalist, a clinical pharmacist, a technology specialist, a communication specialist, and a landscape architect.

The article got me thinking about where academic technology professionals would rank in the ability to balance work and family demands?  

Are we better or worse off than the lawyers and clinical pharmacists and journalists profiled by the Washington Post? 

Put another way, if your work/family balance is an important goal for you, would you choose the life of an academic technologist?

My experience has actually been quite positive.   

Granted, my experiences are only my own, and it is always a mistake to generalize too widely from an N of 1 (particularly when you are the N).

The Good:

Less Travel: I think that the biggest difference between and academic and a non-academic job is that we academic folks travel less. Yes, we may get on an airplane a couple times a year for a conference. But this travel schedule is nothing compared to people I know who work for companies. People in sales travel all the time, as do consultants and marketing professionals and really anyone that has clients, partners, suppliers, or constituents. Business travel is incredibly disruptive for family life (at least if young children are present), and a job that allows as much autonomy and learning as academic tech without all the travel is a true blessing.

The Academic Rhythm: An academic IT job operates within the context of an academic rhythm and on the academic calendar. This means absolutely crazy times at the beginning or end of a semester or term, and increasingly a rush to get OS or application updates done between sessions. The academic rhythm also means that there times when campus life slows down, such as between Christmas and New Year's (although this is changing in many places), and a somewhat predictable flow of peak and less busy times. The predictability of the academic calendar at least offers opportunities for planning around family needs that are perhaps more difficult for technology and other professional jobs in the corporate sector.

More Job Stability (Maybe):  IT is a terribly cyclical business. I've seen wild swings in my career for demand for technical people, with large hiring and headcount growth and subsequent downsizing and layoffs when the various bubbles burst. In theory, academic IT jobs should be more stable than corporate jobs, and academic jobs overall should be more stable than positions in the for-profit sector.  My view is that we have enormous room to move all of our academic technology people up the educational value chain, getting them as close to students, faculty and the education process as possible. Sourcing IT platforms as a service should get our academic IT professionals out of running commodity applications (e-mail, storage, etc.), and in to the business of education. Education is a people intensive business, and therefore working in an education should be more secure than industries that rely less on personal, one-to-one contact and relationships. We shall see if this prediction bears out when the next crisis hits.

The Challenges:

The 24/7/365 University:  The thing with a work/family balance and an edtech career is that you can forget about having a balance. Sometimes you will be working all the time and sometimes you can focus on your family. The two will never be balanced, but always negotiated.  We need to give up the idea of a work / life balance because work is now something that happens all the time. If you work in academic technology you will find yourself working at those times when our students, faculty, staff, alumni, potential students, and lifelong learners are working.  And that time is all the time. The university never stops. People are accessing and working with university materials all the time. We have moved a great deal of our campus lives online, and now on to mobile devices, and somebody needs to be around to fix things when they break or answer questions when they are asked.  If you work in academic IT then you will be that person.   

The Growth of Blended and Online Learning: I love blended and online learning. I've made my career in all the various aspects of blended and online learning. And I know that blended and online learning is largely responsible for demolishing any barrier that may have existed between academic work and home life. We now learn, teach, and support classes on nights, weekends, and holidays. Blended and online learning is both effective and exciting, the most important development in higher ed since the G.I. Bill of 1944. As blended and online education grows we will need to re-think what we mean by "being at work", and re-evaluate how we structure our work lives and measure our productivity.  For now, for many of us growing our blended and online footprint is more a calling than a job, and we are happy to be on the ground-floor of building a new type of higher education.

What Leadership Should Do:

The most important thing that our academic IT leaders can do is to acknowledge the challenges of balancing edtech work and family, and to recognize that success in both spheres are necessary for a productive workforce. We should seek to build on the positives of academic employment, therefore retaining our best people and attracting new talent to our profession. At the same time, we should devote serious resources and energy to understanding the work/family stresses of our colleagues, and take whatever steps necessary to support our people as they navigate the challenges of the 24/7/365 campus.

What has your work/family balance experience been like?


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