The Juggling Life of Research Staff

Written by Thalia Eley, Professor of Developmental Behavioural Genetics, Director of the EDIT lab, King’s College London & wife of Giles, Mum of Justin, Pasco and Theo

There are many wonderful things about life as an academic. You get to spend your time answering interesting questions; the job has huge variety in it and it offers the opportunity for lifelong learning. You get to travel, both on conferences, and many even manage to live overseas for periods of their career. Perhaps most important of all, it offers the opportunity to work with highly intelligent people who are often very passionate about their work and are usually motivated by their interest in the subject. These relationships can last for decades, and are for me, the greatest pleasure of this life.

There are also many difficult things about being an academic, and as is so often the case, the difficulties tend to mirror what is good about the work. Because we are so committed to our work and to our colleagues, many of us get drawn into working very long hours. This issue of work bleeding into parts of the week when many people are not working, can affect our relationships outside of work. Here are a few ideas that I have tried along the way.

Agree a schedule

For most people, it is easier to cope with the hours someone important in your life is working if you are clear about what those are, and give plenty of notice of any changes. What can really help is if you have a very clear line between when your work hours end and when your non-work time begins. I am a great believer in limiting the amount of time you allow yourself to work for. At different life and career stages this will vary, but the critical issue is that you settle on a work schedule that suits you and allows space for those outside of work. Once this is clear, the key thing is then to organize yourself to use that time as usefully as possible.

Accept there will be tough patches

I have long been a believer in the value of time off, and it is very rare that I work outside normal office hours other than for bits of email clearing or writing the occasional blog (which doesn’t really feel like work anyway!). This has been the case for the majority of my career, even before I had children. That said, inevitably there will be times when more hours are needed, and the only thing one can do is to make sure those around us understand that this will be a busy period. During the final year of my PhD my write-up took up much of my week, partly because I wanted to have a decent break before starting my post-doc, so there was a bit of a rush to finish early. I clearly remember one beautiful sunny Sunday my brother’s girlfriend (now wife) being utterly amazed (and a bit offended) that I was choosing to work rather than go on a bike ride with them. Sometimes, for a specific period, this kind of single-minded attention is required to get a task done. It does mean that inevitably others in our lives come second, and as I’ve progressed through my career I’ve recognized the times when such periods are on the horizon.

Preparing for deadlines

Much of academic work is very flexible, and you can work to your own schedule, but there are some tasks where an external deadline is imposed and these can sometimes lead to (hopefully brief) periods of very intense work. I think it really helps with such phases to make sure any key figures in your life understand (a) how important the goal is to you and that (b) it will only be like this until the deadline. I think it can help to plan some time off, or even just a nice meal out or weekend outing straight after the deadline to reconnect with those you’ve inevitably neglected during this period. A couple of times in the run up to a grant deadline I’ve worked repeatedly in the evenings, and basically only seen my husband for a brief chat whilst we eat something. Similarly, when I got my first big grant and my team suddenly expanded I had underestimated the hours I would need to work and thus not arranged sufficient childcare. For around a year I worked 3 evening a week to make up the hours. I have to say that was one of the most exhausting experiences of my life and looking back I wish I had made the decision to get extra childcare earlier, but I was really enjoying my days at home being a mum too… Hard choices.

Involve others in your decisions

One issue I think many of us have to be careful about is not automatically saying yes every time we are asked to do something, and being more strategic in our decision-making. I’ve written a blog about “saying no” before, but in short, if you are asked to do something, it is worth reflecting on whether this adds something you need to your portfolio (as well as inevitably being useful to the person who asked you). If it is more teaching, or an admin role, have you already said yes to enough to meet any formal expectations of you? If it is an invitation to speak at a meeting or another department, have you already done quite a few such talks recently? Or even if you would like to do more of this general type of task, will this particular opportunity allow you the chance to do something a little different from what you’ve done previously, so that it broadens your CV, or is it just more of the same? If the request is for you to do something that requires time out of regular office hours and/or travel, then I really recommend as an automatic response saying you’ll need to consult with your partner/sibling/house-mate/dog-sitter to see if this is convenient. This allows you to get over the initial warm glow of being flattered to have been asked, and to make a more rational decision in the cold light of day that is in keeping with not just your career needs, but the needs of those you share your life with.

Stick to your schedule

So, I noted above the importance to me of working limited hours. Inevitably, this also improves our relationship with those around us, if they know they can rely on us to stop working when we said we would and focus on them. However, for most academics this is only possible if you are really organized about your day, and plan to do tasks at the times that work best for you. I have written before about finding time to write, and also thoroughly recommend a booklet called “The balanced researcher” by Vitae, which you can access here.  In short, it is worth making lists of what tasks you need to do, and starting with the most important when you first begin each day and week. Turn off email alerts and deal with emails in 2 or 3 short bursts in the day, and plan meetings in blocks so that your time is used efficiently.

In the end, if you find you are working far more than standard hours over a long period of time, in a way that is not sustainable then you need to do some careful thinking. Are you working efficiently? If so, are you doing jobs that go well beyond your job remit. Keep in mind if you are at an early career stage, that many senior academics will expect you to say when you have enough on your plate, and until such time as you do that they will continue to give you tasks to do. When you have decided for yourself that there is enough or even too much on your plate, the next step is to talk about this with whoever is your line manager or supervisor. Whilst this requires you to be brave, and can be hard, I have never received anything other than a respectful response when I have told more senior academics that I am unable to take on another task at this time. Sometimes it can help soften the blow if you can offer an alternative solution, perhaps someone else who could do the task, or a delay to the task of a specific amount of time to allow you to complete other more urgent tasks. Either way, take charge of your career, of your life, and make it work for you.

We are so very lucky to be in this profession, but we do need to stop and think at times to make sure that we nurture all our relationships, not just those we form at work.

You may also find my blog on balancing different activities in your life useful.