Thursday, November 25, 2010

Big Thirsty from Alex from Arizona: How Do You Keep It in Balance?

I am finishing my first semester at a decent t-t job. I feel as though I worked hard to get here, had a fairly rigorous grad school slog, but I was unprepared for how much my full time job sticks with me.

I go home every day consumed by my work. I'm newly married as well, but I feel as though I've been inattentive at home.

I think about my students, my colleagues, my work, the college, and so on, constantly. Some grad school friends report similar troubles?

Q: How do those of you who are veterans keep life in balance? Do you have to "turn off" your work self in order to enjoy the real world? Does this lessen over time? If my attention to my career "lessens," will it mean I don't care about it as much? I want my career; I love my work. But I don't want it to overtake the rest of my life. How do you do it?

A: Post replies below.


  1. For me, I was overwhelmed by the way the work never ended. There is ALWAYS something more than has to be done.

    In the end, you have to have a self proclaimed stopping point, and then stick to it: a certain number of hours you are willing to devote to work, and then you turn it off. Otherwise, you'll work 24-7, because someone always sincerely needs you and your expertise....the responsibilities NEVER END in academia!

    I realize you are asking HOW to do that, how to 'turn if off'---but for me, it was just realizing that I HAD to turn it off that really helped. The work will never be 'finished' so to speak. There will always be a lot more to do, or that you COULD do. But if you allow yourself to burn out, then the system will end up with one less dedicated person out there who actually cares. Don't let that happen to yourself. By protecting your personal time, you are actually protecting your career long term.

    One small example is when I have essays to correct. I have developed a great rubric system that helps me be very efficient with my time, but let's face it. I teach Freshman Comp, and there is always more I feel I should explain. I used to spend 45 minutes commenting per essay. That DID NOT WORK for me. Now I spend considerably less, and I take note of the number of essays, the amount of time I feel is reasonable for each, and I just STOP when I get to that amount of time. If I can see that the student will need LOTS more help, I fill out the rubric and write "see me for more help with this" and move on. I do not find that the students are less well served, and I have considerably less angst when looking at that pile of papers, knowing I have a self imposed end in sight.

    Look at your life, decide how much time you need to devote to all of your priorities, pleasures and obligations, and never sell any part of it short. In this line of work (and in many others as well, I realize!) you have to be disciplined about protecting your down time!

  2. The job will take everything that you give it and more, if you let it. I once quipped in a faculty meeting that it was good that we had such balanced job expectations: 80% of our time for teaching, 70% for research, and the remaining 30% for service and outreach.

    I recall a conversation with our old department head in which he noted that I was looking a little frazzled and suggested that I take a little more time for myself. I informed him that I was trying to finish up two invited papers that had deadlines, teaching a full load, serving on committees, working on a K-12 outreach program, and mentoring my first grad student through the completion of her thesis -- and I said "What do you want me to give up?" He couldn't answer. For all his paternal concern, my department head wasn't about to address the real problem -- not when fear and insecurity about tenure, which the university was deliberately fostering at the time, was driving me to work so hard on things that made him look good.

    But you have to be able to answer that question when it comes, or you'll burn out like I did and not be much good to anyone. Set limits and stick to them. You probably won't get much help from the administration, who have a vested interest in milking you for all you're worth, but after a while you should get a feel for what really and truly needs to be done, what you can relax about, and what you can say no to. Maintain blocks of time and energy, relationships and interests, that academia is not ever allowed to touch.

  3. You keep it in balance by putting exercise first. Get to the gym or rec center every day for a swim, run, walk ... whatever. That reduces the stress and gives you time to think about students, research, school, and life.

  4. About 8 months into my t-t position my wife turned to me and said "You know, if we were to separate, the only difference would be that your salary would turn into a spousal support payment, and I would get the whole bed to myself for the whole night." Ouch. I'm grateful that my wife said that in such a blunt manner to wake me up, but it should never have gotten that bad in the first place. For me, I did ACTUALLY have to "turn it off", because there was always more to be done - tweaking exam questions, tweaking assignments, reading that month's crop of research articles, trying to write up and publish the leftovers from the PhD and postdoc...there's always more to be done, but it doesn't mean you should do it all, because you've gotta have a life, and don't feel guilty about having one.

  5. Alex, the first year is the hardest. By about 3 years in you feel like you're somewhat in charge of your life again. But in the meantime, establish some ground rules. Take one full day off a week. Have a once-a-week evening date. Do not work after dinnertime X days out of 7 (start with 1 besides date night, build up to 3 or 4). Insist on a hobby where you meet non-academics, who will remind you that students, colleagues, etc., are not the whole world. Take regular vacations with your partner. The work will get done, and more efficiently.

    Little by little this will recede into a job. But don't blame yourself if the first year is overwhelming. Good luck!

  6. Marcia is right. It gets easier. You'll start devoting less time to work because you get the hang of it. Other things, like kids, are more interesting so you start to focus on them instead. It works itself out.

  7. May I suggest "Life on the Tenure Track: Lessons from the First Year" by James Lang. it's an easy read and may help you think things through..

  8. I moved from adjunct to VAP to TT. I thought the VAP position would prepare me for the TT workload. I was wrong. The first semester, I felt as if I were working under water. In addition to my 5/5 load, I had a grant project, committee work, and a whole new city and department culture to adjust to. Oh, and I was also finishing my dissertation. It was so bad that when my father came to visit me and took my family out to dinner, I about had a nervous breakdown when I found out the restaurant he chose had a 45-minute wait. We ended up with takeout because I simply could not find that kind of time to be away from work.

    It gets easier as time goes on because the newness goes away. Once you get the lay of the land, you can relax a bit more. Carving out time for friends and family and setting strict boundaries for work versus play as Marcia suggested will help a lot. There is always more that you can be doing at work, and most schools will gladly take all you give and ask for more. It's OK to say no sometimes. Just be strategic about the way you do it. Your colleagues can help here because they will know who/what can safely be put off.

  9. As a person in her 4th year, I can say "Amen" to Marcia's comments.

    My first year, I was always behind the 8 ball. I did not expect the work to be as overwhelming and all-consuming as it was. Plus, I was planning my wedding. As you know, that's a tad bit of work too :P

    After doing my best just to keep my head above what that year, I swore I would be better prepared in the future. That helped tremendously.

    I spent the summer before my second year developing, planning, and preparing fall classes. I'm not T-T, so my main expectation is teaching. I spent that summer learning how to be a better, more efficient teacher. I did all the same things during winter break and the next summer break.

    My reward has now come! Soon (OK, in 2 more semesters) I will have a break from developing new courses (I've done 12 different courses in the last 3 1/2 years) and can turn some conference presentations into papers for possible publication. I've taken ENTIRE DAYS (almost) to myself.

    Planning and preparing in advance allowed me to worry less about the day-to-day course preps and focus more on the quality of my teaching and student learning.

  10. I always just ask this question: Will what I'm worrying about matter in 5 years? If not, cut yourself a break on whatever it is.

  11. I concur with most of the above advice. It does get better. Plan ahead. Take weekends if you can. Don't work after a certain time each evening, even if it means working through lunch. Give yourself permission to enjoy plebeian pleasures: bad television shows, the pub, whatever you prefer.

    My job has a teaching focus and I finally realized that I need not martyr myself to students who are unwilling to receive much of what I give. I do what I can. The students who seek out a collaborative learning experience with me receive a great deal but I'm not going to throw myself on the sword for the students who don't care. I only hurt myself and do them no good.

  12. I second Marcia, Ben, etc. This is the hardest year. It will get better, and almost overnight. Just ride this out for now, and ask your partner, if you have one, to ride it out with you, promising him/her it'll get better. Advice: well, this advice contradicts some of the above posters', so take what you will from it. Leave all teaching prep and other teaching-related duties until the last possible moment. Don't do a shitty job, just figure out how long this stuff will/should take you, and give yourself only that amount of time. This will feel increasingly easier as you figure out what you need to do, which corners you can reasonably cut, and that your teaching is better if you don't over-prep. Devote the rest of your time to research, even a little bit squeezed in here and there, so that you remember why you're doing the job. And then take one day off to remember why you're living the rest of your life. You probably won't be able to stop thinking and talking about it (the way people with young children can't stop talking about them) for a while - this is a very consuming moment in a very consuming career. You probably need to be a little obsessed for a little while. Some of it will go away over time, but to be honest, some of it won't. Most academics I know are a little bit obsessed with their work, and I guess I'm not sure I think that's always a bad thing. It makes us a bit peculiar, but I'm not sure that's a bad thing either.

  13. Issyvoo hit my big one. Don't work on the weekend. Just say to yourself that you'll never work past 5 pm or on Saturdays, or whatever. Make some time sacrosanct and never let the college bite into it. That will help.

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  15. Hang in there: as the others have observed, it does get better after the first year. I can't offer you much advice on how to live a balanced life during your early years since I did such a lousy job of it (and it helped that I was single), but I can warn you to avoid a mistake I made: being too eager to please, and never saying "No" to anything. It didn't help that my department had senior faculty who were frankly incompetent with no research background, and gleefully heaped more and more on me, seemingly as an exercise to see how much stress junior faculty could take. You don't have to put up with that: the next time someone invites you to do something extra that isn't necessary for tenure, say, "No." Depending on your university and department, you probably need to be establishing a research program and publishing, and you probably need to be teaching well or at least adequately: don't do any university service beyond the absolute minimum required, including serving on committees and recruiting. Service never gets anyone tenure.

  16. One of my biggest problems is telling the difference between "slacking" and "doing what I have to do to cope with a mental illness." On the other hand, people who don't know about the mental illness look at what I do and STILL say "Damn, that's a lot."

    So yeah. Whatever, slacking.

    From Atom Smasher (aka: Physics Boyfriend) I learned the "control the time you give to work because it will take ALL OF IT" trick. My hours are longer than his, but I still have boundaries. It helps. I don't have tenure, but I would like to think that the boundary thing will stay with me. I've also noticed that the boundaries help me do better work when I AM working...more efficient, etc.

    Also, exercise. Might sound pointless, but isn't. It helps me a huge amount, particularly in the realm of reducing insomnia and general anxiety.

  17. Alex, I asked this question in my first year, too. The veteran I asked had taught for 40+ years and came in every morning with a big, genuine smile. He told me:

    1. Work is one of many equally important areas in life. The others include family, community, sexuality, spirituality, physical health, and creativity. Every week should include at least some of each area.

    2. Don't get caught up in campus politics. In 40 years he never was department chair or any sort of higher management on campus.

    3. Until you have tenure, "sit" on committees. Show up. Act alert. But under no circumstances should you volunteer to actually do anything.

    I've tried to follow his advice, and here's some of my own to add to the very good advice from Marcia, Ben, Issievoo, et al.

    -- Practice the following sentence: "Oh, I have a commitment that day/evening/weekend." The commitment may be to sleep in, watch the Daily Show, or read to your kids. The Powers That Be don't need to know that.

    -- Practice this one too: "Well, right now I have enough on my plate." (Instead of just "no," this one implies that you, the new T.T., are actively managing your time with quality control in mind, but that perhaps in the future, you'd be open to, oh, rewriting the department's entire curriculum.)

    -- Get a dog. It will make you exercise twice a day by walking around the block (at least), where you will get (relatively) fresh air, remember which season it is, and maybe meet some neighbors. A dog is also a good excuse for singles for getting off campus at a decent hour.


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