Flexibility is wonderful, and horrible.


Academics have a wonderfully flexible job.

If my kid is sick, or has a performance at school in the afternoon, I can change my schedule. I can work from home if I’m not teaching. I can focus on a crisis, or a grant, or revisions and drop everything else if necessary. I can get new tires for my car on a weekday morning instead of the weekend.

This flexibility shouldn’t worry those who think that we somehow have it easy. It turns out that we university scientists work far, far more than the 40 hours that is contractually required of us.

The downside to our flexibility in scheduling is that we grow to depend on that flexibility. And we have the capability to schedule ourselves into traps.

Because we are accustomed to flexibility, we have the latitude to schedule things that other, more reasonable, people might not schedule. We have the capability to create untenable and inflexible schedules.

Take, for example, my schedule at the moment. I’m now somewhere remarkably far away from home for two weeks. Before this trip, I was away from home for a week and a half. So, I’m gone for almost the entire month of January.

I’m traveling for two good reasons. I’m now setting up some students with exceptional research opportunities And I also found it too tempting to turn down an opportunity to join a field course, which was fun but also an important obligation in my view.

I also have two, more important, reasons to be home. My spouse and my kid.

This is a very long time away from home, especially considering that I spend weeks away in the summer on fieldwork. At the moment, I am a delinquent parent and a delinquent spouse. While I’m away, I’m missing important events (both good ones and bad ones). I’ve put an undue and undeserved burden on my spouse, who I clearly owe big time when I get back home. I don’t want to be the oafish not-adequately-involved dad who prioritizes science and career over family. This trip, I’ve pushed that margin too far.

We agreed to all of these scheduled things in advance, but that doesn’t make the situation any better. It looks different on the calendar than when you’re actually away.

What’s the fix to the inflexibility of our own flexible schedules? How do we make sure that we don’t overcommit ourselves, just because we can? The answer is simply to say “no” once in a while. But of course it’s not that easy. If it were, I wouldn’t be in this mess, having a remarkably fun time, but far away from my family with whom I want to, and should, be with.

4 thoughts on “Flexibility is wonderful, and horrible.

  1. I agree wholeheartedly. I am constantly over-committing myself. The freedom an academic enjoys with our flexible schedules makes it easy to work 60+ hours a week including most weekends, even when we are at home. I love my job, but let it take up far too much of my life, and let it pull me away from my family too often.

  2. I read this post in the morning, and it’s been simmering in my mind all day. I’m starting a big experiment with a colleague today, big mostly in the new and exciting sense, but big also in the sense that it’ll keep me in the lab 9am-midnight at least four days in a row. These sort of hours were the norm in grad school… but I’m a married postdoc now, and have been trying to keep a more regular schedule — it’s healthier, I enjoy it more, and my wife sure does also! You wrote about leaving for a whole month — I can understand what that means as I’m agonizing over a few extra hours for just a few days. Why should I leave my partner alone all week, what justifies it, the scientific breakthroughs, my happiness doing research, the peace of mind of making progress? We’re also packing up and moving cross-country next week, something we both need to put 100% of effort into for it to work well, this adds just a little extra pressure to answering the question.

    At the end of the day, I suspect we’re not lucky to have the kind jobs we have or to lead the kind of chaotic lives we do, but blessed to have the support of our families.

  3. Terry, do you find that being at a teaching-oriented university makes your schedule less flexible (when classes are in session) because you have to teach more classes and therefore have more blocks of time that are pre-scheduled?

    • Well, yes. I actually prefer back-to-back when possible for this reason. (And there’s a whole post-in-the-waiting-to-be-written about when to schedule your classes, if you have any control over that. Not that the post has any answers or recommendations.) This semester that’s not an issue because (this is probably some minor kind of confession) I’m barely teaching this semester, because I’m reassigned to so many other things. Many of those are more flexible, but take a lot of time, so that’s even more rope to hang myself.

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