What most affects the quality of life for academics? I’ll put this question another way: at the end of the workday, when we go home, what is it that makes our day go well? What allows us to be happy and satisfied on a daily basis at work? How does this translate into long-term job happiness?
In my opinion, the best predictor is how wonderful the people are in our departments and our own labs.
What are some other variables that are not as important? In my opinion, that includes funding levels, the type of institution, campus politics, commuting, and many other kinds of stuff.
I’ve talked with a lot of professors who love their jobs and are happy about work in general. And I also have known people who are somewhere between less-than-fully-satisfied to downright miserable. What separates these two groups, I think, is whether or not they have great colleagues. People who value their opinion, who they trust, who are kind hearted, unselfish, and are concerned about maintaining a supportive community.
Here’s a corollary: long-term job satisfaction might not be so much controlled by whether we work in a research institution, or a small liberal arts college, or a regional public university: it’s about the people we work with on a daily basis. And supportive colleagues are found — or are not found — all over the place regardless of institution types.
Discussions about academic life often revolve around advising people how to find routes for professional success, happiness and a balanced life. But we don’t talk much about how to identify and create a positive work environment, and there seems to be more of an emphasis on getting competitive edge over one’s colleagues. This approach seems to be a recipe for professional discontent.
I’m on my way home after spending a couple weeks at a field station with a group of the most supportive and warm people, in an environment that’s focused on the development of students working with us. Then, when the academic year starts back up, I’ll be joining folks that are just as wonderful, genuinely like one another, and are focused on what we can do to help one another and our students. I haven’t worked in a truly toxic place in the past, but I’ve been around the block enough to realize that I’ve been accepted into an uncommonly special community of scholars. I’m not deriving my main satisfaction from life from my specific place of work, but interactions with these folks are not a small part of my day-to-day experiences. Being able to work in a positive community that shares my priorities is valuable. I have to say that this seems to be a relative rarity, and I’ve seen some people become unhappy in what they thought was a dream job, because of the people who worked there.
When you’re thinking about what kind of academic job will meet your interests in the long term, I just wanted to introduce the notion that maybe it’s not so much controlled by your teaching load, or if it’s near a particular ocean, or what the national ranking is. A common regret that people experience near the end of of their life is that they should have worked less and spent more time with family. I imagine that, near the end of their careers, a lot of people wish they had worried less about productivity and impressing others, and spend more time providing opportunity for and supporting others.