Women in Academia: What’s Enough?

Yesterday, I asked graduate students on Tumblr how many hours a week they worked, whether they felt that they were working enough, and if they had any work-life balance. I expect that you all can guess what the answers were, but let’s make it explicit: almost no one felt that they were working enough, and a really disheartening number of people responded to the work-life balance question with “hahaha.”

Maybe some of the answers were exaggerated thanks to the impending deadlines that always seem to loom in the fall semester: grant applications, fellowship applications, TAing assignments, qualifying exams, and regular exams all conspire to make this a particularly stressful time of year. But overall, the Tumblr responses speak to the same trend that I’ve observed previously. I know I’ve talked about the issues of stress and work-life balance before, but they’re just such big, pervasive issues in academia that I feel compelled to talk about them again.

Out of the three questions I asked, the responses to “do you work enough,” really stands out. No one thinks they’re working enough. And yet, somehow, people keep graduating from these programs, going on to careers, and publishing papers. People see themselves as not working enough, and yet they continue to perform well ““ they are clearly working enough.

So from where does this discomfort come? Part of it comes from the nature of graduate school. When an open, flexible schedule is paired with work done on such large time scales that it’s possible to work for hours and not see a tangible result, it’s easy to feel as if nothing is getting done. When there’s nothing getting done, it’s easy to feel like more work is the answer. It’s not ““ reframing what it means to be productive is crucial for maintaining balance. In undergrad, writing a paper (a straightforward task with a tangible result) was a sign of productivity. In grad school, getting a paper published (a task that can take a year or more) is a sign of productivity. Using the same metrics to gauge productivity that have been used in your academic experience so far is just not going to work in graduate school. Being aware of that and making adjustments can be crucially important to feeling like something has been accomplished.

But that’s only part of the problem ““ the other part is the unhealthy, twisted graduate school culture that dictates that if you’re not making yourself miserable over your degree, then you’re not doing it right. It creates the specter of doubt that haunts a grad student’s mind (maybe I am not working enough?), and then prevents them from feeling comfortable talking about this feeling with other graduate students, except, possibly as a series of incredibly twisted jokes (I can’t let anyone know how I really feel, so let’s buy into all the sell-your-soul jokes).

Let’s try to break that cycle. If you’re having a great time in graduate school ““ great! More power to you! Think about what makes graduate school so enjoyable for you and work to make your lab/program/campus a happier, healthier place. If you’re having a tough time in graduate school, that’s understandable and you’re not alone. Talk to your peers, talk to a counselor, talk to your family. Remind yourself that yes, this degree matters, and yes working hard is important, but what matters most and what is most important is your health and your well-being. It’s OK to have busy, stressful periods. It’s not OK to consistently remove the things from your life that make you happiest (friends, hobbies, outside interests) in order to work more. You’re important. Your happiness and health are important. Give yourself permission to move them (and yourself) up your priority ladder.

6 replies on “Women in Academia: What’s Enough?”

I am about to begin applying to doctoral programs in education, and this is my biggest fear.  I already go through periods of self-flagellation based on my (usually) crazy belief that I am the most unproductive person on the face of the planet.

I’ve looked through the archives, but I don’t see much on the application process itself.  These posts are so great, and I can’t wait to read them again as a grad student, but I want some for me right now!  Waaah. ;)

I have found great success with lists: outlining projects and whatnot. Scheduling out those little tasks that make up a big project has really helped me a lot, especially given I have 4-5 projects due by the first week of December. I took a tip from LifeHacker last week and signed up for, which makes my multitude of paper lists come together in one place and I can get to it anywhere, and you can even upload the working files and whatnot. It’s also handy for getting all the stuff for job applications together (not that I’m applying left and right, in addition to taking extra classes: what was I thinking!?!)

Another excellent and much-needed post.

Having said that I’m currently experiencing the pervasive sadness that comes with realising that finishing a PhD doesn’t make that cycle end. I can never do enough work for my postdoc either. There’s always more – if I’m not working on my project I can work on a side project, and there are always articles to be written. Publishing is a ravenous beast that can never be calmed.

I can’t even pretend this is limited to the ‘prove myself’ stage of my career, because my boss, in her 40s, works all the time. More than I do, in fact, because she lives alone and isn’t especially interested in pop culture, whereas when I’m at home of an evening I want to be watching Community with Mr Rah. This morning I awoke to an email from her at 1.30am.

There was an article in the Guardian a few days ago that makes sobering reading, about how lecturers – currently working to rule due to a strike over pensions – are suddenly finding that they have work-life balance. Kind of sad.

When an open, flexible schedule is paired with work done on such large time scales that it’s possible to work for hours and not see a tangible result, it’s easy to feel as if nothing is getting done. When there’s nothing getting done, it’s easy to feel like more work is the answer. It’s not – reframing what it means to be productive is crucial for maintaining balance.

Oh god, I needed to hear that from someone else lately.  There were a few months a while back when I was trying to fix some arcane idiosyncrasy with my model where I got nothing tangibly done for weeks on end.  That was tons o’ fun!  And then I had to give a talk on my work, and much of it amounted to “I’ve spent the last six months trying to wrangle this giant model (which I set up on the department system from scratch, which I highly recommend not doing ever) into cooperating, and while I’ve got it generating nice pictures, I’ve not gotten to the point of doing anything productive with them.”  I thought I’d bomb it, but I got a surprising number of people (including profs) who afterwards thanked my for not glossing over the often immense amount of drudge work and head/wall smashing that goes into getting the nice results that we consider “productivity.”

Hilariously, much of my work (which egads, I might be giving away what exactly I do — don’t tell anyone! :p ), deals with loss of balance, what exactly do we mean by balance, etc.  Oh, the irony.

Thank you so much for this! You are totally spot on! This is super relevant to me as I am in my first term of no coursework and am preparing for canidacy exams. While I am enjoying reading stuff all the time, my life has started to feel super nebulous and unproductive. My partner, an engineer, who just finished a class on project management suggested that I “project manage” my dissertation, grant proposals, and general academic life. This involves breaking each project, research trip, deadline, or event out into steps on a series of looseleaf paper that I keep in a binder on my desk or kitchen table. I write down goal dates and check things off when I am finished. This reminds me that I am working/prevents me from freaking out absolutely all the time.

Thank you for this. As deadlines loom I’ve really been kicking myself for not working 24/7, even though I know from experience how unhealthy that attitude is. My second year of grad school has been going rather smoothly — I’m not miserable! Which makes me feel lazy instead. Argh.

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