Monday, July 30, 2007

Can a Life in Academia be Balanced?

I'm not sure, and this is why.

Many jobs require marginally insane hours, as many jobs require attention on the weekend and during other purported off times. An academic job requires insane hours at times and makes the distinction between time on and time off blurry at best, but the killer is that so much of the success of an academic job depends on the individual holding the job.

A lab makes or breaks because of the ideas of individuals: initially the PI's and later other members of the lab as well. Grant money is awarded to an individual based on their ideas and their ability to sell their ideas. Individual charisma goes a long way to making a story sell-able, how much more likely are you to remember a PI who gave a fantastic talk at a meeting? And how much more likely are you to be accepting of a bumper publication on that topic? The personality, drive and energy of the PI are critical to the success of a lab, and on a smaller scale, the personality drive and energy of a postdoc (and to a lesser extent a grad student) are essential for visibility, contacts and eventually a job.

Here I must say that I think balance involves a certain degree of dissociation from the job, but this is personal and may not be the case for others. With dissociation comes relaxation, perspective and professionalism, all of which make for a happier work experience. The things is, I cannot see how dissociation goes with the extraordinary degree of personal commitment that an academic job requires. The very basis of a successful academic career is an intense driving personal involvement, or at least it is in all the Biology labs in the United States that I have seen. So I don't if balance is possible with an academic job-in Biology, in the United States.

Do I have it wrong? Have I just worked in really intense environments? Which I have loved by the way, I love the buzz of achievement under pressure as much as any one. Is it different in other fields? Do I have an unrealistic view of academic positions? I don't know, and would to like to hear your perspectives, because I am increasingly coming to believe that an academic position in today's environment may not lead to the kind of balance that I believe is necessary.


la rebelde said...

i know what you mean. i think balance is possible. i have to keep believing it so that i don't go crazy! lately, i've been doing a lot of reflecting on what i want for my life--and i've decided that being a historian is only one of them. i'm not sure i'll be completely successful, but it seems like it will be a constant process of resisting making academia my life, rather than just one of the things i do. for my work--on community histories--it seems counterintuitive to stay in the past, without making links to current-day issues. still, it's been harder than i thought it would be when i first started grad school. i think they could have warned us about this before we started. not that it would have changed my decision to go into academia, but i might have had a better idea of what i was getting into!

Sunil said...

nope.....I think you have a pretty realistic view. But i've seen some exceptions to the rule here.

Just a few. And they're so fantastically good scientifically and otherwise that they'll sail through anything.

Anonymous said...

I don't know. I read so much about how hard academic life is, how everyone works 12 hour days, etc, etc, etc. Myself, I've rarely worked more than 40 hours a week. I don't consider myself overtly lazy. If I need to stay late for an experiment, or to analyze data, I do, but it just doesn't seem to happen all that often. I've been fairly successful (in your field I might add Veo), got through my PhD in a reasonable amount of time, had several publications from it, got a postdoc in a high profile lab, got a fellowship. So I haven't set the world on fire, but I've definitely done better than a lot of others I know. Maybe its because I do my work, don't allow myself to be caught up in useless minutiae, and don't try to be a lab martyr (i.e. someone who tries to do everything for everyone else, to their own detriment). I often think about work when I'm not there, and actually seem to come up with my best ideas in the gym, but I don't count that time as "work". Anyway, my point is, I've never understood the whole balance problem. I've always had it. Perhaps people without balance really are just bringing it on themselves? Maybe I just don't get it either, I don't know.

Veo Claramente said...

To La Rebelde:

I've often wished I had been warned as well, but then I think that I probably would not have listened. Do you think that many first or second year grad students are
likely to listen to the naysayers?


I hope we all turn out to be exceptions :)

To the anonymous poster,

It sounds like you've really got it going! I'm really glad for you. It may be as you say, that you have found the solution to the balance problem, ie that there is no problem, or it could as well be that there might have been some luck going your way, not to minimize what you have achieved in any way!

I am happy to hear of a success story, but my feeling , from observation and some limited experience is that the lack of balance is more often the norm, and while it may well be a function of the individual concerned, it may also be a function of the system.

Anonymous said...

Hi Veo,

Thanks for your kind comments. I wouldn't call myself a "success" story. I certainly don't consider myself to be a great scientist, or even that good, especially compared to some of my colleagues who have multiple Science papers. I think I've just resisted working in labs where the PI expects people to work crazy hours. I personally can't justify overworking myself for the pay that we as postdocs get. I have respect for people who work hard and do well, I just don't have the desire or drive to make academia my life.

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