On the speciousness of “work-life balance”


Too often, people are apt to advise one another on how to live their lives. I’m not intentionally adding to this body of work, but remarking on it. I don’t intend to offer any advice in this post.

Let’s consider two pieces of career and life advice that we often hear.

Standard Piece of Advice #1. Choose a career that you love.

You need to pay the bills, but this should happen with a job that you immensely enjoy. Ideally, we love our job so much that it’s like a hobby. (And it’s that way for me. Science – the whole process – is a wonderful hobby. There are some parts I like more than others, but it’s a smashingly entertaining enterprise.)

Standard Piece of Advice #2. Don’t let work get in the way of living your life.

There was a well-written post about this written by a recently tenured Harvard professor about “how to stop worrying and love the tenure track.” The author, Radhika Nagpal, had a useful list to advise readers about how to not let the pursuit of tenure consume our lives and make us unhappy. Second on the list of seven items was to stop taking advice from others.

Depending on how well you follow Standard Piece of Advice #1, then Standard Piece of Advice #2 seems irrelevant, if not a little misguided.

Should we treat a tenure-track job like a 7-year postdoc? I imagine that this is a healthy attitude for Harvard junior faculty, considering rates of tenure. Is this a good idea outside Harvard? Well, I guess so. I don’t know if postdocs are expected to work with less effort than tenure-track faculty. If the phrase “treat the job like a temporary postdoc” should be read as “don’t let the job consume your entire life” then I suppose the advice is spot-on.

Is it important to make sure that you’re a complete person outside your academic job? Definitely.

Should you prioritize your loved ones over your work, and cultivate relationships outside of academia? Of course!

Should we expect researchers be complete people outside of their research endeavors? Hell yes!

Should we designate and separate working hours from non-working hours as a hard-and-fast rule? Should we make sure that we have a special amount of personal time each week that isn’t tied to research? Umm… I don’t think so.

If you really love research, then isn’t it okay to do it as a hobby?

Here’s what I’ve never understood about the “work-life balance” concept: Is not “work” a part of your “life?” Haven’t we academics argued for many decades that what makes our job cool is that we get to do exactly what we enjoy doing, and we can choose how we do it?

Isn’t my choice to pursue a useful, fun and challenging academic endeavor part of my own life? By trying to create a balance between “work” and “life,” then doesn’t that make work something we do when we are not fully living?

I reject the work-life dichotomy that governs thinking about how academics decide how to invest time into their research.

It seems to me that the methods to achieve “work-life balance” don’t seem to entirely add up.

I don’t want any work-life balance. I want the scale to be tilted to 100% “life.” My job is one of the few that allow me to do that.

When I’m doing research, when I’m mentoring students, and when I’m teaching, I don’t want to have that always placed into the “work” box because it’s part of my life.

At least some of us in academia have argued is that the job is wonderful specifically because the things we do for the job can have personal meaning, tangibly change the world and other people’s lives, and are often enjoyable. That’s something I shoot for. That’s a part of my life. Yes, it’s a source of employment, but I refuse to put it in the “work” box separate from my life.

How about we just shoot for “life balance?”  For some of us, that means “research-family-health balance.” For others, it’s “university-family-pet” balance.  Maybe it’s “university-political activism-family” balance for some of you.

My wife and kid matter everything to me, and as a corollary, so do my own health and happiness for their sake. That means that I can’t do research, teach, (and blog), in a manner that isn’t good for any of us. In all of my decisions about research, teaching and anything else about my employment, all of my decisions take them into account first, as well as myself.

Does my job demand that I spend a huge amount of time on teaching and research? Yes. But I happen to love it, and that’s why I took this job.

Does my job require me to do more teaching and research than is needed for me to have a balanced life? Not at all. Does anybody expect this level of work from me? Maybe, but if they do, I can tell them where they can stick their outrageous expectations.

I am not employed by my University in the summertime. I’m not on their payroll. That means that my summer is mine.  How am I spending it? Mostly on research, and mentoring student research. And a little teaching about ants. At the moment I’m on vacation, and enjoying it tremendously. I’m writing this for fun. I’m not writing it for my career. Is this “work?” Maybe, but that my job is one in which I don’t wish to create that work vs. life dichotomy.

How the heck can I have “life balance” if I’m writing this while away on vacation? Well, the spectacular setting and circumstances in which I’m writing makes it quite possible.

Maybe the phrase “work-life balance” is just a label. However, labels matter. If we academics do start to see our research and teaching as mere “work” in our own lives then we may have lost one of the few benefits that are tied to the profession. I’ll be the first one to point out that my employer is only entitled to about forty hours per week from me, and I’ll also probably be one of the first to exceed the forty-per-week mark partway through the week, if I have the opportunity.

Is it your right to consider a faculty job as a source of employment, to take a paycheck and perform your job description within forty hours per week? Definitely. I just enjoy it enough that I want to sneak in more when I have the chance. And when I do more “work” than necessary, I don’t worry that my life is becoming unbalanced. I’m just having fun.

6 thoughts on “On the speciousness of “work-life balance”

  1. My problem is not spending my personal free time on science. My problem is PIs pushing me to spend all my personal free time on their science and calling it ‘necessary passion to make it in academia’.

  2. I think that’ what you have written is great and just hope that your nearest and dearest are equally appreciative.

  3. That’s not good. Is there a particular reason that you don’t have ownership of your own project?

  4. Maybe it’s “university-political activism-family” balance for some of you.

    *raises hand*

    I think this is pretty accurate. The idea is that you want to have space in your life to do the things that are important to you, and this doesn’t necessarily mean dividing each day into rigid chunks. And there can be overlap – for instance, when I TA for our program for disadvantaged students, I consider that both “university” and “activism” (and also fun).

    My main concern with it is people with good jobs (not just scientists) being unwilling to see themselves as workers, who have concerns and interests in common with other labor and who may sometimes be mistreated by employers even while doing work that they love. And unwilling to acknowledge that colleagues might legitimately have different balances. You see this a lot, ironically, at progressive nonprofits, where people are often expected to work for low pay in poor conditions over long hours because after all, they’re not like other workers, they’re working for the cause. You also see it among tech company workers.

  5. To make it clear, it is not a continued problem. I came to terms with every adviser at some point. But in the past I had to fight quite a bit for some self-determination for how I spend my personal time.
    I did not take complete ownerships over my projects because I did not work on a project that was my idea from the beginning, yet. I only worked on projects I was ‘hired for’ – meaning, the PI had at least one specific experiment in mind I was supposed to ‘push through’. I did and do put a lot of myself in those projects, I feel responsible for the outcomes and I do expand and adjust them on my own ideas and experience. If I didn’t find the topic interesting, I wouldn’t have joined the labs in the first place.
    But I have more than one interest. In fact, and that is the weirdest part, every single PI said he took me in or hired me because of the broad interest and the knowledge and skills I learned outside the curriculum. But then I was told by the same people to stop ‘wasting time’ (again we are talking about my personal time, not work time) on personal interests not directly related to the project. At three or four occasions I was purposefully and very personally insulted and my career was threatened. People who had the power to ruin my career or give it a bad turn at least, threatened to do so if I didn’t do what they wanted in my ‘free’ time.
    From my undergraduate thesis on I stopped talking about my personal interests with colleagues and I don’t take suggestions about how to schedule my week and I sure as hell don’t take advice about my personal life from anybody at work. I became intense and reclusive in that regard.

    The good news is that lately I have loosened up again. But I am very sensitive to the topic. I was ones told in a single monologue, that the PI would respect my free time and wouldn’t tell me what to do in my free time, but that I should invest free time into science and when I did he would tell me what to do. How is that ‘respecting my free time’? And your argument up there is exactly the one used to pull this off.

    Your argument is great if people apply it to themselves. It is bad when PIs use it to intrude in ones personal space thinking they are giving you ‘good advise’.

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