Careers, Guest blog

Guest Blog – A balancing act

Blog from Dr Yvonne Couch

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Warning: This one is going to be opinionated. I suspect I will get in trouble. This post was inspired by the coincidence of two different things. Lunch with a friend and a wonderful article by Hilal Lashuel titled ‘The busy lives of academics have hidden costs – and universities must take better care of their faculty members’.

The lunch was the usual academic affair. We got together, drank wine and complained about our jobs. This particular friend is supposed to be on maternity leave but has persistently attended meetings, replied to emails and read theses. I remarked that I had been on leave a couple of weeks previously and had ended up writing a grant. We concluded neither of these things were good but also concluded that we didn’t know what to do about them.

After leaving I happened across Hilal’s article in the Nature Careers Column which was on the hidden costs of academic life where he eloquently described a hectic working week where he ended up, amongst other things, getting very little sleep and spending very little time with his family.

But what is it about academic life that drives this kind of attitude? I believe there are a number of problems we need to think about and address but for the sake of brevity, and your sanity, I will reduce them to the two following things: money and culture.

We’ll start with culture. In a book called Gender, Science and Innovation Laurel Edmunds writes a wonderful chapter entitled Resistance to Women in Academic Medicine in which she uses empirical evidence to explore the culture of academic life and the possibilities we might have to change that culture. Broadly, she concludes that the dominant culture of most academic institutions has been set by the baby-boomer generation (1945+) where the ‘norm’ was that men went to work and women stayed at home. In this culture, excessive hours and hard work were perceived as markers of masculinity and success.

The Athena Swan Charter is a framework which is used across the globe to support and transform gender equality within higher education (HE) and research.

Whilst we now have the Athena SWAN initiative in the UK, a set of principles which fosters structural changes to encourage women in science, the reality remains that the masculine work ethic is still prevalent and is often hidden or ignored in many large institutions. As an example, I know many groups who have their lab meetings either very early in the morning or very late in the afternoon or evening. Athena SWAN encourages all meetings to be between 10 and 4, to allow those with childcare responsibilities to carry them out but this is often simply ignored. The big professor is busy and this is the only time he can do it, like it or lump it.

This kind of attitude is particularly detrimental to women in academia. In her chapter Laurel notes that “if the benefits of investing time in a career are not likely to achieve advancement, regardless of whether they have families or caring responsibilities, why would women sacrifice their time or remain in workplaces where they perceive lack of identity-fit with the dominant culture, and few prospects for promotion?

A knock-on effect of this attitude is that you end up with fewer women in leadership roles. The empirical evidence from Laurel’s study demonstrated that this resulted in significantly fewer role models and mentors who had successfully navigated the prevailing culture and achieved a good work-life balance. And as we learned in my post on mentorship, having good mentors and role models is vital to having a happy career in academic research.

If your boss works every weekend, replies to emails at 1am and has an autoreply for when he’s out of office but replies anyway then there is already an unspoken assumption that this is normal. By having a supervisor who is more flexible, who specifically says ‘I’m not replying to emails because I’m on holiday’ or who has a healthy attitude to work-life balance you will automatically adopt a healthier attitude yourself.

I happen to be a morning person, I like to miss the traffic and have my afternoons for things like the gym and coffee dates, so I start work at around 7am but I very firmly tell my students they do not have to be in the lab with me, they can work the hours that suit them. If they don’t function well until 10 then that’s when they can turn up. The trouble with this is it results in the much-abused phrase ‘you do the hours required to get the job done’. So, if you have to work a couple of 16 hour days occasionally then that’s ‘normal’. And this would be fine if it ended there but that kind of thing can spiral easily.

But why is this?

This is where we talk about money. In the UK at least the reason is likely to be the inherent instability of academic science. We use the excuse that we don’t ‘need to’, that we ‘choose to’ work those hours, or work on our leave, or email students at the weekends. The reality is, that often we feel we ‘have to’. If we don’t get that paper we won’t get the grant, if we don’t get the grant we won’t remain employed.

For those of you enthusiastically checking out Hilal’s post in Nature you could stop by and read my own whilst you’re there. I aimed to spark a discussion on how we define success in academia. For those of you not enthusiastically heading there to read it I shall boil it down to its basics. A career in academia requires you to be good at, and do, a lot of things all at once. And they don’t tell you this at the start, when you’re a keen PhD student, they let the jobs creep up on you.

Being the first or last in the lab shouldn’t be a badge of honour.

So, you start in your first post-doc by writing a small grant on the side whilst optimising your Western blots. Then your boss needs help with their project licence, or some finance calculations for a grant, so you do those whilst you’re generating a new plasmid. Then because of the grant and the couple of papers you wrote during your PhD you’re asked to review a paper, which you squeeze in between genotyping your mice. Suddenly someone notices you’re around a lot at this big institution and perhaps you should do some teaching. You carve off some afternoon time to teach, meaning the genotyping and the blot and the plasmids all have to be crammed into a morning. But when do you do the prep work for the teaching? Or that second paper you’ve been asked to review? Or that new grant you want to work on? Gosh, I suppose you’ll just have to start working on the bus, or maybe the odd evening won’t hurt, it’s only this once because you’re super busy.

You can see how it can easily get out of hand, right? And part of the problem is the instability of the job but could Universities do more? Laurel’s chapter found evidence that women in particular felt they did not ‘belong’ in their workplace, that they “reported less congruency between personal and institutional values”. Beyond the instability of the job, the other part of the problem is that early career researchers simply do not know what their University wants from them, what their institutional values are. Am I to bring in big grants and do shiny science or am I to teach well? I feel like there are not enough hours in the day for me to do both with no support and am left feeling, as Laurel says, without a sense belonging.

Now I can hear you saying “this one likes to whinge, doesn’t she?” and the answer to that is yes, yes I do. Partly because I feel if we don’t normalise some of this conversation then it never gets talked about. Partly because whinging makes me feel better.

But I don’t want you going away thinking I hate everything about my job because that simply isn’t true. I genuinely love research, I love problem solving, I enjoy writing and reading, I love learning new things and sharing ideas, I even occasionally enjoy teaching. But I also enjoy gardening and cycling, I like walking my dog and I enjoy baking bread (no, not sourdough, I’m not that bad), and I feel like all of the former should not take precedent over all of the latter just because of institutional pressure. I am happy for the former to take precent over the latter occasionally because I do love what I do, but it should be my choice. I shouldn’t be doing it because everyone else thinks I should.

I’ll close this one with a couple of quotes. A friend, talking about academic life, recently said to me “it has to be fun; you know? As soon as it’s not fun, that’s when I leave”. And he’s right. And for me, it’s still fun. But we’ll finish with an official quote. Allegedly Malcolm Forbes, of Forbes magazine fame, said that “no one ever dies wishing they’d spent more time at the office”. Change ‘office’ to ‘lab’ and let my institution know, will you?


Dr Yvonne Couch

Dr Yvonne Couch is an Alzheimer’s Research UK Fellow at the University of Oxford. Yvonne studies the role of extracellular vesicles and their role in changing the function of the vasculature after stroke, aiming to discover why the prevalence of dementia after stroke is three times higher than the average. It is her passion for problem solving and love of science that drives her, in advancing our knowledge of disease. Yvonne has joined the team of staff bloggers at Dementia Researcher, and will be writing about her work and life as she takes a new road into independent research.

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