Let me distinguish, for the sake of argument, among three stylized attitudes toward one's academic (tenured) position.
- A: It pays the bills; work is work.
- B: It's a fun and challenging way to earn a decent salary, but there is more to living.
- C: It's the best form of escapism from the rest of reality (recall here) and (let's stipulate), luckily, it is also justified by way of the best available argument.
Most academics I know cluster around C (that's sort of where I am [recall, also, Virginia Woolf]), although the better adjusted ones learn to adopt aspects of B strategically or emotionally. I have never understood folk like A who end up in academic careers. (I also know that some of the dysfunctionality of academic life is due to folk like me who are near C end of the spectrum, believing that folk like A should become lawyers or computer software engineers.) Of course, as universities have become more bureaucratic and less well-funded the fun may sometimes be sucked-out of C. It's also the case that until one has advanced through the ranks one rarely fully grasps how bureaucratic and political one's university really is. But for many academics teaching and research are not mere work something to be confined to 9-to-5 hours. In addition, while many academics I know love teaching, few are fond of grading and of dealing with demanding, entitled students who seem more focused on their grades than learning. So, the best part of being an academic is doing research (and, then, sharing it with others).
Problem with philosophical research (thinking, reading, writing) is that it requires time and attention. (The latter is non-trivial element of the writing life. A lot of scientific experiments, while time-consuming, can be left alone.) Now, I happen to know some folk who can 'do research' in spurts and in between other stuff. For example, I can do focused reading in just about any environment (train, airplane, but not bus or car, where reading makes me nauseous). But if I am writing a first draft of a paper, then I need a lot of time before I make any genuine advance. These days, I don't even bother to start writing if I have less than three hours available, although I much prefer to write when I have blocks of 6-10 hours. Often I only see any progress in the third our fourth hour of writing. (To the best of my knowledge I don't suffer from writer's block.) It just takes my brain time to get warmed up, and really see the issues and find the words and distinctions to convey them. There are, in fact, days, where my brain is so cluttered that I don't get any serious writing done.
While time is always scarce, it starts to become really scarce with children and a partner that wants to spend quality time with you! (Not to mention parents that may need care, etc.) Phenomenologically, one notices the absence of time especially the more sleep-deprived one is because one is restless in bed knowing that one really needs sleep but since one is awake one's time would be better used to work on the second paragraph of the new paper if only one could get out of bed without waking the child down the corridor or one's partner who one knows is almost awake because s/he is sensitive to one's present restlessness! Quite simply: there are not enough hours in the day to be a caring and loving parent, an attentive and loving partner, and a passionate and dutiful academic, and also leave time for quality research hours. Something has got to give, and the choice of what has to give is itself a source of great frustration. [Not to mention, the daily invitations to referee other people's journal articles or grant applications!]
This post is prompted by two lunch conversations last week with accomplished scholars who both have excellent, prestigious jobs. What they have in common is that they have young children, demanding professional environments, and partners that are loving yet (justifiably) demanding. In both cases these partners are professionals but not academics (and fall more in the B toward C spectrum).**
As an aside, in a lot of industries, this would be the place to say stuff about work-balance and scheduling issues. And, indeed, scheduling of seminars/colloquia can be very family-unfriendly; most of us recall that the APA was scheduled during family holidays (etc.). But the problem at hand does not go away with better scheduling. In some ways better scheduling only displaces the problem: for example, the more family friendly seminar schedules are, the more disrupted a given day otherwise free for one's very own research becomes.
Even after one has educated one's partner (and this is no easy matter) into the minimal professional time requirements one needs to succeed at one's job, there are no obvious solutions to the lack of time and the demands on one's time in my experience. I have heard it said that as one's kid(s) age(s), time demands become less, but in my opinion the jury is still out. There are stop-gaps (buying out teaching, sabbaticals, bundling teaching, etc.), but none of these are fully satisfactory or permanent or available. Obviously, if you could somehow change your comportment toward research (or the underlying needs that make it such an important species of escapism), then you would be better off. But, that's like saying C to be -C. So, what follows are some of my imperfect coping mechanisms in the spirit of eliciting more suggestions.***
- Don't be a perfectionist (about parenting, philosophy, bureaucracy). Being good enough is often sufficient. (The previous sentence is an homage to good-enough-parenting.) Luckily, this fits with the changing understanding of the journal article; it's not written for the ages anymore, but a contribution to an existing discussion.+ Having said that, one's peers notice the lack of perfectionism (and judging by the referee reports I receive, hold it against you).
- Take on or move forward editing projects. Editing is often a thankless job. But it is necessary in the profession. It also can be chunked into smaller pieces without much loss of quality. The upside is you get to be gate-keeper and stay abreast of the latest developments in the field, and your CV does not develop empty years.
- Take on admin positions for a few years. Essentially, accept that one's research 'productivity/output' is a lost cause and so one may as well perform service.
- Learn to say no to some referee requests. (I am still very bad at this.) The profession has a collective action and free-riding problem and it is not up to you to solve it.
- Compartmentalize. I have ruined more family holidays than I care to admit by thinking that I could 'also do some research' on them--the only (entirely foreseeable) outcome was that attempts at mutual accommodation led to mutual recrimination (and guilt, etc.).
- Trade 'time-off' with one's partner. My wife can go on ski-holidays whenever she wishes (with advance notice), so I can accept invitations to guest lecture (with advance notice) or go seclude myself somewhere to do research. Of course, this does not work so well when what your partner really wants is spend more time with you (then you are stuck)!
- Co-author with child-less people or empty-nesters who can write the first draft.
+Obviously, this also generates lots of other problems.
**I am deliberately abstracting away here from non-trivial gendered-issues/politics/patterns-of-exclusion.
***On facebook, Martin Lenz commented on the lack of a "political agenda" in this post. I plead guilty-as-charged. The post is not a call to arms, and maybe it ought to be!