It is so easy to get overwhelmed. Right now, I am overwhelmed. Many of my peers are overwhelmed. It’s just a busy, busy time in my department. It’s normal to have periods of intense activity: grants always demand a lot of time, patience, and pain, manuscripts will have demanding deadlines, and for people who collect their own data, there will be big pulses of activity surrounding data collection. But often, the feeling of being overwhelmed goes beyond those normal upticks in workload.
Engagement with outreach and optional teaching duties (seminars on teaching, larger time commitment to classes than is absolutely necessary, etc.), and all of the other general duties that follow from embracing a university’s holistic commitment to education and knowledge can be very interesting and rewarding, but they can lead people to take on too much. For many universities, especially land-grant or public universities, the goal to serve the public is stated right in the mission statement; unfortunately, there is inconsistency and sometimes non-existent support for the students and faculty who take that mission statement to heart.
It’s odd that there isn’t more support for these outreach activities at universities. I understand that on one level, there are limited hours in the day and that work that directly benefits universities (landing big grants, writing books, patenting inventions and processes) will get preference over other university activities. There are also a lot of commitments that faculty have ““ department meetings, for example ““ that also require some of that limited time. At the end of the day, most of the hours will go towards keeping the university functioning within itself, not reaching out, and given the work just that takes, it makes sense.
On the other hand, not only do universities state that their goal is to serve the public (and at the very basic level, you can see that in extension offices), but more and more funding agencies are doing the same. My experience comes with applying for grants in the sciences from a variety of government agencies. Each of these, even the most interested in “pure” (meaning more theoretical than applied) science, are putting more and more weight on what they like to call “broader impacts.” These broader impacts cover everything from working with undergraduates to engaging with parts of the general community: farmers, businesses, after school programs, home-owners. And not just interact with them willy-nilly, but in a way that makes your research and your work relevant and helpful to them.
I expect that as these funding organizations put more emphasis on outreach and community involvement as part of the grant-review process, academia will provide more support for these endeavors (even if that support just comes in the acknowledgment that outreach is valuable and thus worthy of people’s time). But right now, we’re in a sticky middle ground ““ pushed to work full throttle on our research and publications, on our teaching, and on our outreach. Time management is a priority: it’s easy to get pulled into too many directions, to take too much to heart the idea of being academic Supermen, and get overwhelmed that way.
Most importantly maybe, this time crunch necessitates a reflection on what is important to you as an academic at this point in your career is crucial. There are many different ways to be in academia now, and while that’s scary as hell sometimes, it can also be very exciting. There are many expectations, but the beauty is that there is also some flexibility. I very much want to see a shift in academic culture, and I fully expect it to happen ““ in the meantime, I am happy to find the silver lining and use this as an opportunity to define what matters to me.