When, on the eve of my third-year review, I announced that I was expecting my first child, a colleague quipped, “Your career is over.” Indeed, in some ways he was right: my career as I had known it up to that point was over because a new chapter was just about to be drafted. The next several years brought considerable change to my family’s routine. Gone were the last-minute trips to conferences, the late nights at the library, and the marathon engagements with the computer to complete an essay in record time. Yet, if the narrowly-focused career I had enjoyed up to that point was quickly turned upside down, the hybrid and diffuse job of “profmom”– as my children soon named it – yielded many rewards, while bountifully bestowing challenges, adding responsibilities, and demanding choices. Time acquired a whole new meaning, and the remaining years left before my tenure review looked terribly short.
Undoubtedly, the tenure period is a trying time for all academics, regardless of their families’ make-up. Mine was the experience of a mother of two, with a spouse who juggled his commitment to our family with the demands of being a federal government lawyer in Washington, D.C. While in many ways typical, ours is just one of many possible experiences in the family-cum-career(s) challenge. We have numerous colleagues whose family-make up is significantly different (I consider “family” in its broadest possible definition), and who faced substantially unique trials, made different choices, and yet were equally successful in achieving their personal and professional goals.
The question, then, is whether it is possible, and indeed useful, given the wide spectrum of differences in various types of families, to draw some kind of generalized map to help one successfully navigate the tenure shoals and continue to thrive even after the tenure port is reached. My guess is that it is. Though respectful of personal differences and individual work habits, one should not fall into the quaint conceptual presupposition that sees academia as a world suited for brilliant and independent minds, unfettered in the idiosyncratic application of their unique gifts and skills. In spite of the self-serving appeal of this myth, talent and training have been traditional partners, and understanding the latter is absolutely necessary to nurturing the former.
Shifting Perspectives: The Big Picture and the Interim Goals
This practice has obvious quantitative rewards: in emphasizing economical and non-dispersive work habits, it allows one to both become more productive and find more time for family, hobbies, exercise, socializing, relaxing, and so on. It also encourages setting realistic goals for daily and weekly work sessions, and thus eliminates the urgency of a single all-encompassing deadline and the pressure of unstructured, stressful handling of multiple and unrelated tasks.
More importantly, this practice yields qualitative advantages as well. Learning to evaluate one’s work-in-progress by systematically tackling its component parts (even those that seem completed) may be regarded as a time-consuming effort, particularly during the fast-paced pre-tenure years. I would rather suggest that it generates efficiencies and improves productivity, especially at the early stages, when it is still economical and feasible to limit redundancies and correct inconsistencies. It also helps to discover implications, establish connections, and highlight patterns in what will become a stronger academic portfolio, one developed according to synergetic rather than mere seriality principles.
Control and Flexibility: Establishing Routine, Mastering Change
Though the pressure to offer limitless availability and unbound commitment in the early years of one’s career is undoubtedly heavy, I would argue that a young academic’s first professional achievement consists of learning how to set realistic boundaries. Particularly in a demanding profession that does not rely upon the conventional nine-to-five, Monday-through-Friday office schedule, establishing limits for the beginning and the end of one’s work day helps to both create a manageable routine and carve out time for non-work-related activities. It also helps avoid unrealistic engagements with deadlines that leave one exhausted and unprepared to face other challenges and creatively engage with new projects.
Within whatever limits one decides are reasonable, studies recommend working in brief sessions, breaking one’s work day up into “manageable sub-units” (Boice 55), each unit devoted to different topics and projects. If someone, like me, works well in the early mornings, it is worthwhile to set that time aside for scholarly writing and other challenging forms of intellectual engagement (such as reviewing a difficult study, writing a demanding grant proposal and so on). Teaching preparation comes next in my schedule. Late afternoons (often at the pool, waiting for a child to emerge from practice), I devote to easier but often time-consuming tasks, such as checking non-graded homework, planning trips, replying to e-mails, and sifting through correspondence.
Daily schedules like the sample one I just sketched allow for a certain amount of “positive routinization,” which reduces the effort of getting started, facilitates transitioning from one task to the next, and helps get one’s reasonable goals accomplished. Positive routine also avoids the danger of overworking on one project at the expense of all others, burning out, running out of time, and feeling out of control.
Of course, routine works best without surprises, and I, for one, hate surprises, even though they occur nearly every day. In my experience, the dreaded daycare call was the toughest challenge to my perfectly choreographed routine. With no warning, scholarly writing had to be shifted to managing the ear infection of a screaming toddler, and last-minute quests for available babysitters interfered with my “manageable sub-unit” devoted to class preparation. Even worse, there have been times when I had to cancel or postpone trips, bring my bored children to my office hours, improvise in class, and return graded exams a week later than I would have liked. But I never missed a crucial deadline. I had a contingency plan.
Serenely accepting the inevitability of unexpected and repeated derailments from one’s work routine is a necessary, though difficult, first step when devising a wellmanaged family-and-career contingency plan. The second step consists of minimizing the impact of such derailments; this can be done in a number of ways, such as systematic advance planning, managing time economically, and building a peersupport group. Unexpected disruptions can be counteracted by looking ahead and budgeting extra time for completing projects and thus meeting deadlines: for example, blocking a two-week time frame for what would be normally completed in ten days, or setting earlier “personal” deadlines in order to meet the later “official” ones. It is always easier to change course when one is not overextended and can rearrange a controlled schedule with relative ease. Learning to delegate tasks that, given the unexpected circumstances, can no longer be considered as top priorities becomes especially effective when one has made the effort to build a support group that can assist (and be assisted) when necessary.
Self-evaluate, Monitor Results, Reassess
Finally, this kind of careful monitoring also allows for a more thoughtful and relaxed reconsideration of the larger goals for one’s career and family. Sometimes, such candid re-evaluation involves making momentous decisions and moving toward substantial change. For example, my family’s choice to live half-way between Washington D.C. and Charlottesville was just fine before we had children, but it became far less rewarding as some of the family needs and priorities shifted. Selling a home, changing commuting routines, and rearranging work schedules caused both excitement and anxiety, but we succeeded in keeping anxiety in check through the reasoned planning and assessing that went into the decision-making process.
When change is neither unexpected nor imposed upon, but is rather chosen through this kind of self-evaluating practice and pro-active engagement, it comes with a warranty: if the current robes no longer fit, changing them will only be beneficial, for one special family, at one specific time.