Explaining the academic system of self-inflicted overworking

The workloads in Academia are bad.

This is not news, this is a long complained about state of academia. In fact, it’s so much not news that it’s got to the point where if I say something so cliched on Twitter, people tell me to stop going on about it – particularly other academics, who I suspect are just annoyed to be reminded of it all the time.

But when I talk to people new to academia or from the outside, they don’t always seem to understand why the workload is so bad, and quite how self-inflicted and self-destructive it is. Because it is, it’s a system that has made us all impassioned overworking workers

I’m not going to lie, this isn’t the cheeriest blog post. I’ll make a fart joke at some point to lighten the mood.

Causes

One of the first places fingers get pointed at for ludicrous workloads is management. Now Academia has some horrible managers. There are plenty of people who shout at staff, demand hours that borderline on the illegal, or simply make work places a magnification of the worst possible working practices. Heck, I can think of several of those managers in my own university (they are the ones HR refer to as having “a robust management style”) not to mention those I’ve heard of elsewhere.

But these people aren’t unique to academia. Industry and other carriers have their own fair share of terrible shouty managers. While certainly horrible and a big part of overworking, that is (for the sake of this discussion) a slightly separate issue.

In academia the workload and stress is not solely the creation of bad management but from the academics themselves and their response to the system as a whole.

Academia functions on three basic metrics: papers, money and (more recently) student feedback.

Your job as an academic is to write as many papers as possible, bring in as much funding as possible, and get reviews on student satisfaction surveys that borderline on the sycophantic.

It varies from post to post and department to department, but if you bring in the papers, money and adoring reviews, then you are either rewarded with more money, promotion or simply just freedom to do what you’d like. If you don’t fulfil these metrics then these are clearly indicators that you are not as good an academic as someone who is hitting them. You’re a bad academic and you should feel bad.

Now rarely does anyone look at these metrics in association with other conditions. As a young researcher you may have joined a project that for various reasons out of your control didn’t work. Maybe the external partner went bankrupt or the study on the rain effect on fields wasn’t helped by the longest drought in living memory. Doesn’t matter, you didn’t get any papers out of it and the follow-on funding didn’t happen. You’re a bad academic, feel bad accordingly.

On the other hand, you might have joined a project just at the right moment as a technology matured and basically became a papers factory. Some times it’s as simple as ‘you were the person that runs a bit of equipment the day it became a buzzword’. Lots of papers and the future impact is obvious so have a big pile of money. Well done, you’re a good academic.

Then you have a million shades in-between, affected by everything from the differences between fields (in soil science these may be literal fields) or even the need to take a career break. I once saw the replies to a grant which consisted of the person taking the the number of years since the applicants first paper dividing it by the number of papers and saying “this person isn’t very research active” didn’t matter that they didn’t work in academia for half the time in between.

Regardless of any extenuating circumstances, all academics are being compared by the same metrics of papers, funding, and student satisfaction. Internal through performance reviews, in funding applications or thanks to constant reporting on Web of Science and internal funding announcements, academics themselves can track their own status compared to others. Basically there is a live global score board constantly tracking all of us that we can all see and are all being judged by for jobs.

So with that score board constantly in mind come Friday evening and it’s time to go home, as an academic you instead stay and finish your paper.

You don’t decided to stay because your boss is shouting at you to finish, you do it because you’ll get it finished sooner and get on to the next paper sooner, which means more papers which means higher on that imaginary scoreboard.

On Saturday you could go to the cinema or you could write more of your fellowship application to go work with another group. You can’t do it during work hours because it’s applying for funding somewhere else, but it’ll only be maybe 10 to 15 evenings tops and that’s worth possibly getting another 3 years funding right?

Students thrive on feedback and directed support. Fantastic, but this takes time, time I for one greatly enjoy but time that is now not spent doing all the other things I’m being pressured to do. Reading and giving advice on a student PhD thesis properly, takes around a solid week. I’m rarely working on anything that can be parked for a week. So I can either delay it, mess up projects or and you might see this coming, do it in the evenings and please everyone (except me).

My slides for my lectures would be better if there were some nice graphics and animations. They’ll explain things brilliantly – but who’s got time to animate the krebs cycle? Someone who can animate while eating a sandwich during their lunchtime.

All these are examples of how the system as a whole is set up to reward extra time spent doing these tasks. For some it’s great – they get to spend more time doing what they love and they are rewarded for it. For those that equally love it but have to go care for their sick relative in their evenings, they get to feel like they are not some how ‘cutting it’ in academia.

Fix it, fix it, fix it

Re-educating mangers about the virtues of helping staff work an appropriate load just isn’t working. Good managers do a great job of helping but there are too many bad/uncaring ones and reputably asking them to “please be better at manger-ing” is not solving anything. Not that we shouldn’t try, just that I think targeting people whose greatest gift to academic management is their ability to clear a meeting room on burrito Wednesday might not be all that effective at solving the problem.

Next is obviously asking the people doing the work to stop that at once. However, asking researchers to not do things that clearly help and benefit their careers is similarly about as effective as asking a 3 year old to please stop eating ice-cream, while you pour on more chocolate sprinkles.

Which leaves the buck firmly with the people providing the ice cream and adding the sprinkles, the funders and employers. Funders are addicted to metrics (even if they don’t admit it) or I should say the reviewers of grants are addicted to metrics. And combined obsession of never ever (ever, ever, ever, ever) accidentally funding the wrong thing, this has resulted in a system obsessed with only funding the people that perform top in those three categories (mostly just the papers and funding really).

Personally I think we maybe need to spend less time globally evaluating everyone on a giant scoreboard and devote some of those resources to hiring more researchers and looking at them on more of a locally assessed nuanced level. Comparing the number of papers published between me and a researcher in a different country  who worked in a world lab with more facilities and staff is about as demeaningly meaningless an evaluation of my contribution to knowledge and teaching as possible.

5 Comments for “Explaining the academic system of self-inflicted overworking”

Marta

says:

Another brilliant post!
Is this constant pulling into many directions exclusive to academia? Or are people who want to succeed in companies and other contexts also expected to take on projects that go beyond their job description and thus take up time and effort outside their work hours?
Maybe some of your readers can shed light on this question…

Marta

says:

Another point… This overworking culture definitely disadvantages women and is part of the reason there are so few women at the top echelons of academia.

Take my case. As a postdoc with two small children, I feel this constant pulling into many directions very acutely. I need to do the research for the grant that pays my salary, but I also need to think of ideas for my own research, meet and liase with the appropriate collaborators, write up grants and do some teaching. Well, that doesn’t all fit into working hours, so I will top it up in the evenings and weekends. Except those are the only times I get to see, interact and play with my children (and also shop and cook for them, take them to their extracurricular activities, do the laundry, tidy the house up, etc, etc, etc)…

If anyone had told me before that it was possible to survive on such little sleep, I would not have believed it!!!

says:

Couldn’t agree more. The current system very highly favours single people with no strong local attachments that can move frequently.

The first time I had to decided between working on a grant that was due in and taking my kids out to the park on Saturday afternoon was a really horrible moment.

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