Tuesday 10 March 2015

The academic parent #2 – work-life balance

A recent article in Nature nicely highlighted some of the difficulties associated with juggling both work and parenting responsibilities whilst trying to maintain some semblance of a social life. Needless to say, it isn’t easy. Whilst I found the article to be an honest and frank assessment of the trials and tribulations of parenthood and academia, I couldn’t help feeling that part of the discussion was missing.

We are introduced to several research active scientists who plan weeks ahead, call on friends/colleagues/parents to help with child care, work into the evening once their child has gone to bed, all in the quest to maintain their pre-child levels of work. For instance, during maternity/paternity leave one couple “planned to use [their child’s] nap times and evenings at home to work on data analysis, manuscripts and grant proposals”. Another example tells of how the “couple typically works side-by-side in their home office for three to four hours” after they have put their daughter to bed.

It’s great that these individuals are managing to find time to be a parent and be productive at the same time – although their social life seems to have suffered somewhat. However, my issue with the whole article is it presents two options (1) maintain previous work patterns and be a bad parent or (2) change work patterns but maintain the same working hours and be a good parent. At no point is the concept of working fewer hours brought in for consideration. I’m not saying this is the correct solution, but surely it is a viable option? Everyone agrees that academics can work long hours, reviewing papers in the evening, spending all night finishing a grant application, collecting data on the weekend. Given this common agreement, why is it not remotely conceivable that one might want to cut down on these hours once one has a child?

My issue with a lot of articles on “work-life balance” is actually that exact phrase. The word “balance” seems too positive a term for what is essentially a decision about what to sacrifice in your life. The above examples from the piece in Nature have, although not explicitly stated, sacrificed their social life in order to maintain work hours whilst spending time with their children. That’s fine, but this sacrifice should be explicitly acknowledged. Personally, I work slightly fewer hours than I used to (trying to be more productive with those hours I am in the office) and go out with friends a lot less. I have also sacrificed any time to myself in the evening. Once my child is asleep I spend time with my wife, as we rarely get time alone during the day. I consider this a relatively “balanced” life considering how much upheaval a baby causes in one’s life, but I have had to sacrifice quite a bit to reach that balance.

The point I am trying to make is that a lot of talk about “balance” is directed towards cramming more stuff into the same number of hours. Instead I think we should talk more openly about what is and what isn’t important. What we can give up and what we need to maintain. Only then should we discuss how we can use the finite number of hours allotted to us to carry out the tasks that we have prioritised.


  1. Fabulously put, Aidan. I am very interested these days in the role of sociopsychological construction, overt and covert workplace pressures, and labour rights in the decision of individual academics who want to work the long hours that they do. There's a smaller number of academic jobs compared to the number of competent people who could fill them; is it time to think of job sharing in academia?


    1. Not quite sure what sociopsychological construction means, but I'm sure jobs shares would work in some situations (and not others). Personally, it wouldn't work for me.