Whew, I’m just coming through a stressful personal and professional time. Never has it been clearer to me exactly how academia is both very flexible and completely inflexible at the same time.
Of course, academia can be flexible. You can control your schedule in many small and large ways. I can choose to work on early spring flowering species or late summer ones, for example. Those study system choices will alter how my research is run and when the intensive data collection periods are. There are lots of ways we can control our schedules on a daily and yearly basis by deciding the kind of work we do (lab or field or modeling or something else), the conferences we attend, whether we work in our backyard or across the globe. Writing, data analyses, peer reviews, and on and on are often all flexible when and where they happen. So lots of us find flexibility to work when we want and academic life can be quite forgiving for scheduling. I’ve known night owls who never show up on campus before 10am, professors with young kids who are gone at 3pm and all kinds of variants. I’m grateful for that flexibility as we raise our kid and I manage a longish commute to work. I have been taking full advantage as we return to normal after my husband had surgery last month. Even more than usual, I am appreciating that I don’t have the kind of job that requires me to be in a particular place for 8hrs each day.
However, science/academia can also be extremely inflexible. One acute example is grant deadlines that don’t care about anything happening in your life. I had two in the last month. Because these opportunities come up once a year, not submitting means a long wait for funding. My current position runs out at the end of 2015 so just skipping this year’s grant round would likely mean a year of unemployment (still a possibility for me). Sometimes students balk at deadlines or rules found in the syllabus and generally I’m reasonably flexible when I can be. It wasn’t until I started to do my own research that I realised how often you have strict deadlines (and guidelines). Granting agencies don’t give extensions because you or your family is sick. Journals can send back your paper without review if the formatting is incorrect. It can be hard for outsiders to appreciate the ways in which academia and scientific research can be rigid, when the stereotype often portrays the mad scientist pursuing their own interests or the ivory tower professor unaffected by daily concerns.
My takeaway: academia is flexible, until it is not. The further I progress the more inflexibility is incorporated into my schedule. But having said that, I’m still grateful for the flexibility I do have and take full advantage when I can.