Blurred lines in academia–what is work?


While navigating the unemployment system in Sweden, I’ve discovered that I need to report every month what I’ve been doing to find a job. It includes applying for jobs of course but also training. I should also include working on my CV, networking and other activities that improve my employability. I’ve also been warned that one shouldn’t “work” during this time and all work has to be reported (you can work for up to 75 days and keep your unemployment status).

All of this has me reflecting on what work is in academia.

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It seems to me that few other professions have the same structure as academic research. The only time I have not been working on something from a previous position was when I started research as an undergraduate. I was publishing undergraduate projects while doing my masters. When my PhD started, I spent quite a bit of the first year submitting, getting rejected, and resubmitting my masters research. I published my PhD work while first unemployed and then employed as an assistant professor*. So an implicit part of the system expects that you bring research baggage with you from position to position. I’m not sure how it works in other fields but for ecology/evolution, I haven’t heard of labs where students or post docs are forced to work on their previous projects on their ‘free-time’, ie time that they aren’t being paid for their current position. It seems to me that the implicit expectation is that these trainees will also continue to work on their current projects when they have left the lab. And pretty much everyone does.

Part of the reason for a lag between the salary for the job/project and the completion of the work is the turnover time of academic publishing. We can’t speed that up and I’m not sure we want to. But if publication signifies completion of the work, then there would be periods that you essentially couldn’t work on a project but need to wait for reviews, journal decisions, etc. It would be incredibly inefficient if people either didn’t start something new or get salary during this time. Hence the lag in project completion and overlap between positions. Even within a tenure track job, the same principles apply when transitioning between grants. None of this is necessarily a bad thing but it can cause issues when someone is without a position or decides to leave academia. Either the individuals volunteer their time to complete the project or collaborators have to take over. I wonder how many manuscripts lay unfinished because of the implicit expectation that academic research requires continuity in the field but there isn’t necessarily financial support for it.

Being an academic isn’t only about research so there is a strange duality of different kinds of work that make up the job. Some aspects of the job definitely do not carry over after a contract is complete. A university would never expect me to teach a course without paying me but would happily add a publication that I wrote to their research output.

In general, reporting my job search activities feels a little strange because so much of it falls under the umbrella of what would have been my work previously. Applying for grants is most definitely a job expectation of a professor but now that also functions as a job application because if successful a grant will provide me with 3 or 4 years of a research salary. Writing a paper is a more grey area, it is definitely the work of an academic but getting something published is an additional line on my CV that could be the difference between getting to an interview or not**. The same for a conference: work or networking to get a job? It can be both.

I think the system works reasonable well when people have a continuity of contracts/positions. Research happens and people get paid. But as we train more and more PhDs who don’t continue on as academics***, it might be good to think more about how the system can adjust to avoid volunteer work or worse science being lost to the file drawer.


*if I am completely honest I still have a dataset that I’ve expanded and still haven’t published but I began in my first field season as a PhD. Really must complete that!

**I think this is especially true if the paper is in a different field or topic so it shows you are capable in that area. Or probably if it is in a big flashy journal.

***again not necessarily a bad thing

7 thoughts on “Blurred lines in academia–what is work?

  1. Fascinating to think about fitting an academic job (or lack thereof) into the tick-boxes in a system meant for “standard” jobs. Academia is a very strange place, from the perspective of people who are employed more typically. My brother once asked me over dinner who my “boss” was. I’d been a prof probably 10 years at the time, and I’d never thought about that, and I was stumped… Eventually settled on my Dean, in an HR sense, but how strange that neither that nor any other answer made sense!

  2. This is a super important issue. Thanks for blogging about it. (It’s caused a lot of mental strife for some people I know, so I don’t think it’s necessarily a ‘good’ thing, even if it’s not necessarily a ‘bad’ thing.)

  3. A bout 10 years ago my sister-in-law in Sweden sent a book by an academic to me. It was called “Ten thoughts about time” (“Tio tankar om tid”) by Bodil Jönsson (Professor Emerita who started as a physicist but was involved in rehabilitation techniques in her later career – more here if you read Swedish One of the chapters that stuck with discussed work in academia. She argued that as an academic you are in part expected to think. At the same time, you are expected to appear busy, so it isn’t quite acceptable to put a “Do Not Disturb, I Am Thinking” on your door. Yet that is one of the key problems, particularly at small, primarily-teaching institutions (at least) in North America, where every day is chopped up by lectures and meetings. Yet, measurable productivity in research results from thinking and reading. At UNBC, where I worked until the end of last year, the summer months were the most productive ones, but the general public always saw it as professors having “time off work”. We did have 12 month contracts (I don’t think Canada has 9 month appointments, at least not as tenure track in public institutions), but in truth we rarely had time for a proper holiday because of research commitments.

  4. Great post! This kind of timeline is how things also worked out for me in my career. I will add that I did know some students/post-docs who arrived in a new lab and were explicitly told by their PI not to work on previous research on their dime! I thought that this was really dysfunctional, but some PIs get really hung up on how you are spending your time. These were often the same PIs who didn’t see the value in professional development opportunities for their trainees…

  5. Interesting post, especially as I have just finished a post-doc but am still working on papers for it. Contrary to what you said about employers allowing researchers to work on papers from previous projects, I have seen contracts that stipulated that researchers were only allowed to work on the project they were employed under. However, it’s very hard to enforce that rule without a PI looking over your shoulder all the time.

    Regarding the problems of researchers leaving academia and not writing up their papers, Markus Eichhorn has a thoughtful post on that cover the issue here –

  6. There definitely is some variation in the strictness of people being “allowed” to work on past papers but it seems rather counter-productive to me to forbid it if you expect people to continue to work on papers with you after they leave.

    And I completely agree with the general issue that the overlap, while not being a bad thing, doesn’t translate into being a good thing. It is hard to see how to change this lag without changing how we share our completed projects (published papers). I don’t feel like I have any answers but it is worth keeping in mind.

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