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CAREER ADVICE

A happy home life is possible in academia

It is a delicate balancing act.

By NICOLA KOPER | SEP 12 2011

Many reports about work-life balance within academia are really depressing. Maybe it’s because academics feel that it’s important to be introspective and critical of our own culture before we can constructively criticize others, but articles about work-life balance in academia usually suggest that there isn’t one. For example, in the 2009 University Affairs article, “Are universities family-unfriendly workplaces?”, the author suggests that “universities make much better places of learning than they do of employment.”

Certainly, the prevailing wisdom was enough to make me pretty nervous about choosing an academic career a few years ago. But it hasn’t turned out that way. I’m going to take a radical position and suggest that academia actually presents wonderful opportunities for developing a meaningful work-life balance.

Take today, for example. After several hours of field work, I’m now sitting at the cabin kitchen table to write and to edit a student’s thesis. I’m alternately distracted by watching the rain obscure the far shore of the lake, and by a hummingbird outside. A fire crackles and flickers in the woodstove. Not a bad way to spend a Thursday afternoon.

If a work-life balance means sitting in an office from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, and forgetting about it over the weekend, I’m definitely not there. This weekend I surveyed birds while my husband fished and gently paddled me around the perimeter of a northern lake. Last week I trained students in field research methods in some exquisite native prairies; the students showed me their “improvements” to our equipment, which they had created, suspiciously, out of empty Clamato bottles. (Their improvements worked well, as a matter of fact.) Eight-hour days? Forget it. But I couldn’t ask for more than this.

I think the key is that sometimes, there really are eight-hour days, and this provides those important opportunities to rejuvenate our home lives. This is an extraordinarily seasonal job; my spring and summer in the field are nothing like my fall and winter, during which I slog through snowdrifts with bags full of essays, rather than slog through wetlands with a backpack of equipment. Do I like the teaching seasons as much as the research ones? You bet. The classrooms are full of vitality and ideas, and the students laugh at all my jokes. Each season has its own focus and excitement.

And there really is time for family. As in any career, the work culture varies dramatically among universities and departments. However, I have found tremendous support for family responsibilities among my colleagues of all generations. Few careers have as much independence and flexibility as academia. For me, this has meant that most days I can work from home in the late afternoons, so that I can be home after school for my daughter; e-mail and wireless Internet have truly revolutionized my life.

I’m sure many families struggle with balancing academic and family responsibilities, but there are also universities out there that recognize the value of having fulfilled employees and which therefore facilitate that lifestyle.

I suppose now is the appropriate time to acknowledge the contributions of my husband. He’s been “volunt-told” into services as diverse as the aforementioned bird surveys, equipment modifications and babysitting while I’m travelling, and he’s done it all with only the occasional, good-humoured grumble. I admit it – I couldn’t have done it without him. But the flexibility of my academic position has meant that it was usually me who stayed home with sick kids or juggled play dates on teachers’ PD days. Like any couple, we’ve found our own kind of balance.

Before my colleagues decide that I’m clearly not sitting on enough committees if I’m this optimistic about my lifestyle, I want to point out the downside to our academic system: it’s pretty overwhelming for the first few years. Developing a single course initially took me as many as 20 hours a week; between teaching, developing a research program and publishing, there wasn’t time for much else. I can see why many young faculty members leave academia in the initial years. It’s a great pity, though, as the workload became more manageable as I settled into my career; you need to just hang in there at first, so you can reap the benefits of all that hard work later on.

Nicola Koper is an associate professor at the Natural Resources Institute of the University of Manitoba. She also blogs over at Careers Café.

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  1. Anne Marie / September 15, 2011 at 23:02

    As a brand new Assistant Prof this fall, this article was a nice pick-me-up on what to look forward to. Thanks!

  2. Jim / February 13, 2013 at 11:23

    Thanks for the article. I also think that an essential way to achieve this balance is to use your time effectively when at work. A university professor is subject to many random interventions over the course of the day which disrupt important work on long term goals. Inevitably, because of the long term nature of these goals, it is very easy to put them aside to deal with short term disruptions. A disciplined and planned approach to day-to-day work allows long terms goals to be achieved, while leaving much needed time for family, exercise, and other important things in life.

  3. Paula / February 16, 2013 at 22:36

    It seems unbelievable to me that a female academic who wants to tell us how to balance our home and work lives would not recognize the irony of describing her husband as a babysitter instead of a co-parent to her child. Makes me wonder what century we’re living in. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose….

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