A quickie on academic work/life balance and the pressure to apply, apply, apply …

The other day, I read Rachel Moss’s post on the subject of academic work/life balance. She titles it ‘Choosing Not To Give,’ and it was timely for me, as she speaks about balancing the demands of having a baby with the demands of having an academic career, something I’m going to have to learn about in short order.

I’ve read a lot of Rachel’s posts on this broad theme of career expectations, and I remember finding her post about applying for jobs (which I came across when I really needed to read something reassuring!) really helpful. There, she pointed out that the common advice to early career academics, to stop being snobby about jobs and to look beyond Oxbridge, is based in a misconception about where the jobs are – and she noted, too, that when she got her own Oxbridge job, it wasn’t the most attractive option she was offered, it was the only option. It’s an awesome job, so her point is well made.

The two posts together got me thinking about the choices we make as early career academics. At the moment, career choices are on my mind, as I’ve just finished a 26 month postdoc as a Teaching Associate at Cambridge, and I’m currently freelance teaching on the same courses for a couple of Cambridge colleges. The transition from ’employed’ to the dreaded status of ‘Independent Scholar’ has been pretty gentle for me as a result of this freelancing. It’s let me stay in the same place, use the same libraries, teach the same courses (ish), and enjoy networking with the same lovely colleagues. I didn’t even have to ceremonially return all of my library books, though I have said goodbye to my office key. My situation is paradoxically both more and less scary because we’re also expecting our first baby in March. More scary, because – argh, a baby, what if I never write again and she screams all day and my brain dribbles out of my ears and I never get a job and we end up living in the gutter and busking with a repertoire of the more tuneful bits of Lydgate?

Less scary, because realistically, it gives me something to concentrate upon and a very good motivation for working hard. It’s made me prioritise. Yes, I could apply for exciting temporary jobs in the US, or starry visiting fellowships in European libraries. But it’s not really a good idea for me, in terms of that work/life balance. And, in the time I could have spent putting together applications for highly competitive, short-term posts, I have written two solid chapters of my book, which is now in much better shape than it was last October (aka, the end of the first trimester). I’m fairly confident that not applying for things was actually the right decision for me – so why do I feel a constant need to justify what I’m doing?

In academia at the moment, I think there is a pressure to be seen to be applying for every job, every grant, every opportunity – however time-consuming it might be, however unlikely it might be that you get it, and however much you might anticipate (deep down) a sinking cold feeling of dread at the prospect of actually having to do (relocate for, retrain for) said job if you got it. You can’t get the jobs you don’t apply for! people remind us. There’s an almost superstitious element to it: if you miss applying for one job, if you forget to salute one magpie, you might bring down the wrath of the Hiring Gods for next time.

At the moment, I’m trying to spend my time more carefully, applying for a smaller number of things. I worry that this can be seen, not just as the lazy option, but as the arrogant option. Some academics (ECR and senior) give the impression that you’re not doing every single thing you can (including, frankly, unrealistic things that waste other people’s time as well as your own), then you must be complacently assuming a permanent job will fall into your lap. So, we write defensively (as I do) about changing priorities, about the demands of our families, about the importance of self-care and health. All of these things matter, of course. But I think it also matters to acknowledge that sometimes, we apply for things because of this pressure to be seen to be applying, and that’s bad in itself, no matter what external work/life considerations we might be keeping in mind.

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About Jeanne de Montbaston

Researcher in Medieval Studies
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3 Responses to A quickie on academic work/life balance and the pressure to apply, apply, apply …

  1. Right? Job applications take SO LONG. I’ve written a lot now and so they take a lot less time to do than they used to, but still, it may be several hours. And as for grant/fellowship applications, which usually need more written-from-scratch material, you’re talking about days. I’m sure I put a week’s worth of work into my Leverhulme application (spread out over several weeks, but still!). If you’re applying for anything and everything, you will then have to neglect other parts of your life – and job!

    I was thinking earlier on that a lot of other professions also have the attitude that you should be prepared to drop everything and move/work 60 hours a week/get extra training in the early stages of your career – but that in most other careers that may well be happening before you have more complex family obligations (not just kids, but maybe facing issues of parental care by this point etc). Many “early career” academics are actually in their mid-30s or older. It does make choosing what jobs are worth applying for more complex. I’m not saying single 20-somethings have it easy – but of course they may have different priorities. I do think this is a distinctive feature of academic culture that people often don’t get to grips with.

    • Jeanne de Montbaston says:

      Yes, so true, Rachel! I have learned a lot from writing *some* applications – which maybe says something about the fit between those jobs and me – but for others, you can feel you’re spending more time than is sensible. Last year, I remember interviewing for a job when I was so absolutely exhausted (applying for multiple things, teaching, etc.) that I really don’t think I put in my best interview performance. So I won’t risk that again!

      I agree with you on the age issue, too. Academics are basically hobbits. We’re not adults until we’re out of our tweens.

  2. Labib says:

    It’s refreshing to read this, and I completely agree with you. As someone who was locked into short-term contracts for a number of years before finally getting a permanent job, I found it oddly empowering to make the decision that I was no longer going to apply for every single job in every single country of the world. When you feel that you have so little control over your career, being able to take something back (even if, at first glance, it looks like a pyrrhic victory) is very, very important.

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