Is academia only for the very devoted?

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Is academia only for the very devoted?

Postby VDW » Thu Feb 17, 2005 2:27 pm

Hi everyone,

I'm actually posting this question as a wife of someone who has been a post-doc for 4+ years in lifesciences. He loves doing research and wishes to pursue a tenure-track position. But he also loves his family and doesn't work 80+ hours/week. His research hasn't gone as well as planned, and with his humble publication record he's having a hard time on the job market.

Even though there're all kinds of factors involved in one's productivity, I strongly believe there's a positive correlation between the time/efforts you put in and the results. If he would work evenings and weekends like many of the post-docs in his field do, he'd very likely increase his productivity and hirability.

Is there a place in this terribly competitive academic field for someone who wants to maintain a work-life balance, or is it only for the very focused and devoted? I just wonder if compromise has to be made to make one a higher priority and adjust our career and life goals accordingly.


Is academia only for the very devoted?

Postby Emil Chuck » Thu Feb 17, 2005 2:55 pm

My answer to the various questions:
1) Yes, there is a place and there should be a place for someone who wants to maintain a balance with work and family life in academe.

2) One always compromises or adjusts to the situations when it comes to changing one's lifestyle after getting married, having the first child (or adopting), or dealing with a family loss. That's life.

3) One should not SACRIFICE things they feel are important unless necessary. In my own opinion, no one should feel compelled to sacrifice a family for tenure, or conversely. Yet I recognize that is exactly how the workplace seems to be rewarding academics (NSF report, etc.). Be absolutely sure that the institution where you work or want to work is supportive enough both in policy and in culture so that you can be free to establish your own balance.

A couple of resources:
1) Chronicle for Higher Educations Discussion Forums has a section on balancing work and family: . Should be free.

2) Even though I haven't personally read it (yet), I have had many people recommend a book based on advice columns in the CHE. Specifically, Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia by Emily Toth : . Don't let the "advice for women" throw you.

I will also state... sometimes you have to be really lucky to get the academic position too. Of course, there is also the statement that people make their own luck.
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Is academia only for the very devoted?

Postby Doug » Thu Feb 17, 2005 3:03 pm

YES, YES, and YES! In fact, some (including myself, at least part of the time) would replace "devoted" with "obsessed." Depending on your definition of "successful," acadademia can require almost-slavish devotion. Many folks I've talked to (especially those who went from academia into government work) support this supposition.

On the other hand, one can quite easily find examples of those who have handled/are handling the work/kids circus with aplomb. But I think it takes good attitude, good organization, and good spouse-o' plenty.

I'll mention a recent development I've heard about in Canada. Something to the effect that for female faculty positions, having kids cannot by law affect hiring and tenure decisions. (And furthermore, a child counts for one or two pubs, but I'm less certain about this.)

Is academia only for the very devoted?

Postby J.J. » Thu Feb 17, 2005 3:27 pm

I can assure you that there is, in fact, almost no correlation between working all the time and positive results. There is certainly a correlation between working smarter and positive results. Props to Madison on some great posts on this issue. In fact, I'd read her old posts on how to conduct your postdoc research with an eye towards getting a faculty position.

When I first read your post, I was tempted to flame (poor guy-his wife thinks he's a slacker), but then I realized that not everyone understands how scientific research works. In other fields, working harder does lead to success. Science is different. There are ways to focus and target your research to stack the deck, but these skills are rarely taught in grad school.

It sounds like your husband is in need of some career counseling that might help him to increase his marketability. He might benefit from a mentor within his department to let him know how he can improve his CV. He might also benefit from increasing his exposure at meetings and conferences.

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Is academia only for the very devoted?

Postby Andy » Thu Feb 17, 2005 3:43 pm

Academics does take more overall time. The tradeoff is that you have more intellectual freedom.

It's not simply a matter of putting in more hours to increase one's productivity. When you are a PI with your own lab, you set the tone. If you don't come in until 9:30 am, odds are your students won't either. If you leave by 6 pm, odds are your students will as well.

When students and postdocs see their mentor putting in dedicated hours, they are much more likely to do it themselves.

PI's who lead by example are the best at demonstrating the committment it takes to succeed in academia. Since most students need to work extra hard (at LEAST during grad school), that often means long hours for PI's no matter how you slice it.


Is academia only for the very devoted?

Postby Elsie » Thu Feb 17, 2005 3:46 pm

I'm not sure how much working evenings and weekends helps productivity. Sometimes it might be necessary, but if it's done continuously could lead to burnout mighty fast. In our lab, they guy who has been working 9-5 monday through friday is the one who has put out the most papers in the past few years. He is very, very efficient, doesn't spend a lot of time socializing or surfing the internet, and has a family at home.

That said, I think there's also a difference between all of academia and the tenure track. When I was in grad school I knew somebody who had been a student for, like, 10 years. He loved doing bench research and having the time to do it well. He wasn't interested in being super competitive, didn't like teaching that much, and didn't like writing much. He just liked doing bench research. Eventually he became a postdoc, and finally he wound up with a kind of staff scientist position...kind of a permanent research job but not a tenured faculty position. Actually, our lab manager has a Ph.D. too. He's in academia but not running his own lab. Someone who loves benchwork and is always around to help troubleshoot is an invaluable resource for other postdocs. I think such positions in academia are becoming more common, as they should be.

What about having a balanced... or... healthy life?

Postby Whitney » Thu Feb 17, 2005 4:01 pm

What about family resposibilities?

What about having a balanced... or... healthy life?

Postby Madison » Thu Feb 17, 2005 5:04 pm

Sorry, I can't be of any help about family responsibilities because I'm only responsible to my husband (also an academic) and our dog. I don't think that your husband will increase his productivity if he puts in longer hours. He needs to analyze why he isn't productive with a normal working schedule. Bad atmosphere making him terribly unhappy (perhaps depression undermining his productivity? - been there!)? Is he unfocused? Does he do experiments without a long-term plan for a publication mapped out? Does he wait for his PI to tell him what to do? To run a lab you must lead, not follow - and search committees look for evidence of this. Does he have a strong, independent personality? Do people often think of him as a bit arrogant or a bit agressive? If not, this may not be the right career path for him.

The people who work the most in the lab are usually the least productive (sounds weird, but it's true). You can't be successful at science by beating your head against the wall. You also can't just drift from one experiment to the next. You need to open it up, and engage your brain the entire day while you're doing science. You also have to have a strong, focused, detailed plan.

I hate to say it, but if your husband wants an academic career, and he's been a postdoc for 4+ years, he will be in trouble if he doesn't make some major changes IMMEDIATELY. The time window for success is very small, and he's nearing the end of it. He should seek out a hot young professor, get a meeting, and have a long open discussion with this person on how to make it. There is still hope. He can improve his chances by getting some money - get him to apply for one of the K awards (career development grants) from the NIH - this will improve his marketability.

He needs some direct one-on-one career counseling - and not the kind that you get from a career support office! He should talk to someone who knows him, and has been through this whole thing recently (things have changed a lot, and are much more competitive, in the last 10 years).

Best of luck to both of you.

Is academia only for the very devoted?

Postby VDW » Thu Feb 17, 2005 5:16 pm


I appreciate your response and advice very much. I just have to make it clear that I don't think he's slacker!

On the contrary, I'm feeling rather guilty that family is kind of in the way for him to pursue his dream career. At least it seems to me to be so at this moment...

Is academia only for the very devoted?

Postby Dave Jensen » Thu Feb 17, 2005 5:36 pm


Perhaps your husband should consider a move from academia to industry, where a bit more attention is paid to the work/life balance. While it may not be his dream, its funny how adaptable we can become with time. His dream can simply change venues, and he can be a productive industry scientist instead,

"Failure is a bruise -- not a tattoo." -- Jon Sinclair
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