Hard-Pressed Academics

With the Croke Park agreement in the news, there have been quite a few blogs and articles in recent weeks explaining how hard we academics work. It’s not just about giving the odd lecture, the hard-pressed academics plead. It’s the research grant applications, the progress reports, the marking, the replying to student emails, the postgraduate supervision, the committees, the writing of papers and books etc. etc.

And, yes, many (not all) academics work very hard indeed. But there are some crucial aspects of an academic’s hard work that distinguishes it from that of the under-pressure private sector worker. Many high achieving academics work so hard, not because they really have to, but because they love to work, or more likely, their ambition demands it. Academics work very hard because they suffer from ‘best girl (or boy) in the class’ syndrome. Most academics have probably been high academic achievers since an early age and being at the top is very important to them. Look at our personal web pages. They are monuments to our own self importance. We’re obsessed with listing and counting all the wonderful things we’ve accomplished. We compare numbers of papers, citations and impact factors; we sneer at colleagues who publish very little, we are incredulous at colleagues who publish too much. More than anything, academics, including me, want our peers to think we’re great!

This means that academic pressure, at least on this side of the Atlantic, is largely within our own control. It is very different from the pressure experienced in the private sector where failing to work long and hard might get you fired by a sociopathic manager who is unhappy with the hours you’ve billed or the number of phones you’ve sold.

Most academics can get off the thread mill, albeit in a planned or phased way, whenever he/she likes. This is true even if you have climbed the academic ladder. Academic promotions are, in general, a reward for past achievements and carry very little expectation of maintaining a similar level of achievement in the future. Saying ‘no’ is very much part of the academic vocabulary – at least when it suits us.

So let’s just be glad that we love what we do and that we have an awful lot of control over our own destiny. Those who do the 60-hour weeks should remember that that is largely their choice. In the meantime, I’m heading home at lunchtime today to look after my son. It’ll mean I have to work tonight for a few hours, but it is wonderful that I have that flexibility and control. I wouldn’t swap this job for anything.


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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