A session of my Leadership Coaching Groups for PhD students is dedicated to getting people together over coffee to facilitate conversations between successful academic staff and current research students who are aspiring future academic leaders. I know what you’re thinking – why would they aspire to that?
Topics of discussion in higher education that are currently flooding blogs, tweets, and editorial are the impacts of stress from research workload management, isolation, employability anxiety or workplace bullying, on mental health in academia. Now, I think these are truly important discussions, and serve to raise awareness of some really difficult issues and generate an evidence base from which to begin to generate support structures, and a culture change.
Nonetheless, from my standpoint, coaching isn’t about cutting off options, and neither is leadership a topic that lends its weight to dwelling on a deficit model. Not the way I do it anyway. Rather I have tried to create ways to celebrate good practice, be that in mentoring, supervision, or in academic career management. In the latest academic-leaders-spill-all session students got to unpick what an academic career is all about, from those who have experienced it positively, and managed it (within tolerance levels). So what did they do? And how?
“It was refreshing to hear that although the academic culture likes to paint a picture that to succeed you must work long hours every day, the speakers’ tip was to not get drawn into that way of thinking and be very strict on what hours you work on your research ensuring that those you do work are really effective.”
“I learnt academia is a unique atmosphere, but it is possible to manage a high-pressure career while having a healthy work and personal life. I was amazed when I heard the last contributor explain how she combined having children, training for sports events, and her husband was also in academia. It made me realise it is possible to have a family and a successful academic career.”
“I’m at the stage where I am deciding whether I have what it takes to hack it as an academic, and whether it’s a role I’d actually enjoy. For me it confirmed what I already suspected were unwritten rules of the academic lifestyle; the hours are long, the responsibilities are great, and the freedom and autonomy of the work is the reward that makes it worth it. Most positively, it was heartening to see such accomplished academics with family lives, suggesting that perhaps it is possible to have at least a bit of it all.”
“I enjoyed the fact that all the academics were very honest about answering all sort of questions, not always giving the most expected or politically correct reply. Most of the questions were about their choice to work in academia, their motivation at work and their work/life balance. I think the session highlighted how academic life is very demanding and that in order to succeed in this role you must be prepared to give up a lot of personal time and make serious compromises with the rest of your family”
Not surprising this topic came up is it? Work life balance is a frequently used term in academia. It’s usually followed by LOL! However, lets ask, is balance the key? Is it that black and white? Can we speak about this more positively, and use complementary, rather than competing priorities?
“If you’re seeking ‘balance’ you’ll never achieve it”, says Stew Friedman in a blog for Harvard Business Review. “The idea that work competes with life ignores the more nuanced reality of our humanity, the interaction of four domains: work, home, community, and the private self. The goal is to create harmony among them instead of thinking only in terms of trade-offs. It can be done.”
So, my question to you is where do you stand? Is your best strategy a combined complementarity of all the roles you have to play? Or do you fare better when you can section off your home and work lives? The choice is yours, but it’s something to consider as you plan your career in academia or beyond. One question I’m asking myself is: am I happy I’m posting this blog at 23.02. And my answer is…er, yep!