Many assistant professors experience a particularly intense set of demands: they are trying to accomplish what is needed for tenure while raising young children. Even for those with tenure, having a family and an academic career poses claims on one’s time that often come into conflict. There is never enough time, and setting priorities is crucial.
The priorities for academics with families are quite likely these: to achieve excellence in teaching and research, while enjoying a healthy, well-functioning family. How can one manage all this? People have different criteria for what makes for a healthy family, and those criteria and what fulfills them change as children grow. Young children need only one good outside-the-home situation—excellent day care—but they need a great deal of one’s time and supervision when they are awake at home; older children, on the other hand, need to be part of many outside organizations and activities, but can in many ways function on their own at home. The changing capacities of children mean that where parents need to put their time—into diapering or driving—changes over the life course. And someday (all too soon!), children even grow up, leaving much more time for other activities. But during the earlier years, how can academics manage? In this essay I relay some views and tips gathered from colleagues along with my own experiences managing this dual challenge.
Helping students is a given part of our lives as professors. We are not only teaching students how to think and work in a discipline; we are also exemplifying values and leadership. In this way teaching is a lot like parenting: they both ask us to be our best selves leading the generations that follow. Giving our full and best attention to students when we are on the job, and becoming the best teachers we can be (with skills honed through teaching workshops, help from senior faculty, and so on) are tremendously important. Yet teaching has to be in concert with, not at the expense of, excellence in research. Fulfilling this second goal, excellent research, is more often a tenure-costing stumbling block for academics with young families. Yet many do manage it, and the question is how. As I see it, really great contributions in academics stem from two capabilities. The first is creativity: seeing the old in new ways, finding patterns others have not seen, or making applications from one field to another. The second is dissemination: letting the products of one’s creativity be known. Between creativity and dissemination comes doing the research for whatever are the products of one’s field, but getting research done is not usually an issue for people who have creative ideas and who keep the dissemination goal in sharp focus.
To allow these two elements of creativity and dissemination to flourish requires that academics set up their lives so that they can be creative and can write. This requires three things: a place to think and write, time to think and write, and a certain level of something like life satisfaction or spiritual/mental health so that those thoughts and words can flow. How one acquires each of these is a practical matter, and I now turn to some ideas about how to instantiate them.
Making a Place
To save time at home, consider farming out meaningless tasks so there will be more time for what really matters: time with family and time for work. For example, if one cares about a clean house but doesn’t really enjoy mopping floors, finding a way to hire household help is a good option. Some people find buying pre-cooked meals is worthwhile; others cook a lot on the weekend and freeze it. The extra expense has to be measured against the cost of not getting tenure.
Unless a couple has very flexible schedules, help with children is necessary to get really creative work done. The priority is to get people one feels good about, who have good values and personal characteristics. If a hiring mistake becomes clear, it’s essential to act quickly. Getting good work done depends on peace of mind, and parental peace of mind depends on good childcare. As for how much childcare to have, faculty with young children should probably buy as much childcare as they can afford and as they might possibly need. Knowing help is there reduces stress and one can always let help go home early.
How can one save time at work? My strategy is to establish a weekly schedule that I adjust each semester. At the beginning of the semester, I print a blank schedule of the week, Monday through Friday, 8:00-5:00/6:00. First I block out time periods with no options: teaching time, as much teaching preparation time as I need before each class, and other set appointments. Then I scrutinize when three- or four-hour blocks are available to save as times to write. I block off writing times, then schedule in individual graduate student meetings, office hours, advising appointments, regular committee meetings, and other smaller time blocks. It is very important to set the time for class preparation, because keeping it in limited blocks keeps it focused and productive. I stray from this schedule only for occasional events or meetings that are extremely difficult to schedule at other times. A different strategy of many professors is to work at home every morning, never scheduling anything else then. Academic productivity researcher Robert Boice advised setting aside even 45-minute blocks to get writing done. One has to find one’s own optimal pattern, but the important thing is to be sure that as much time as possible—once one’s teaching and service requirements are met— is free for creativity and dissemination. Teaching and service, important as they are, can easily take all one’s time if one allows them to.
Regarding the number of hours in a work week, there are periods, in the thick of each semester, when I find it impossible to get what I need to do done between 8:00 and 5:00/6:00; and during those times I work after the children go to bed or before they get up in the morning. I try never to work in the house when the children are up and about, because work requires too much concentration, and it feels unfair to my children and the work. But these times are limited: my creativity and dissemination lag when my hours are too long, and I find that if I put in good solid time from 8:00-5:00/6:00 and take the rest of the time, including weekends, completely off, I get more good work done all around. Put another way, burn-out is easy to create in academic careers, and keeping it at bay by minimizing the amount one overworks—wherever that line is for you—is extremely important to doing well.
Burnout crops up on a micro-scale too, and it is important to keep tabs on one’s level of engagement in writing, and take a break when it flags. If I work at something too long one day, I have trouble getting back to it the next day; if I stop when there is still something I want to say, and I leave a note on my desk telling myself where to begin tomorrow, my writing keeps flowing. In the middle of a long stretch of writing, I sometimes find it helpful to take small breaks and attend to other tasks.
Other tips I have collected from particularly productive people:
Other Rules to Save Time at Work:
Peace of Mind
If one is in a lifelong relationship and hopes to stay that way, one has to prioritize the relationship, and that priority has to come from both partners. Most couples have to work regularly at a good relationship to sustain it. Children distract one from that mission—indeed studies show that marital satisfaction declines every year from the birth of the first child until they leave home! It is surely better for children to witness a healthy relationship than to have more time with a parent in an unhealthy relationship, so for peace of mind parents need to take the time they need.
Equally important to peace of mind is keeping one’s mind clear of upset and bother. Research shows that clearing one’s mind of emotional bugs by writing is worthwhile. People who write just 15 minutes a day for 3 days about an emotionally upsetting event are less likely to go to a physician over the following three months than are people who write about non-emotional events. If something is bugging you, consider taking a short break and writing about it—the time lost will be regained.
Guilt is an emotion we all experience, and working parents can feel more than their share. There are two things one can do with guilt. Either use it to make yourself get work done—it can be a very useful emotion—or send it out the window, because, after all, we are trying to do a lot; and it is no wonder we cannot always achieve it!
Finally, consider the issue of fit. If you cannot lead a reasonable life at the university where you are, consider going somewhere else. We all have a personal level of productivity, and it should match the expected level in one’s department—no one wants to be the departmental dud, or to hurt one’s family to stay at a place where one does not fit. Some might be better off considering other career options. There are many ways to lead a meaningful life, and being an academic with a family is just one wonderful one of them.