Sit back, relax and enjoy the ride

19th August 2015


One of the nicest things about an academic career is the opportunity to do the work that most interest yourself. In many cases you get to choose your own projects and determine the best method of approaching them. This freedom and flexibility is a beautiful thing to have in your life.

Unfortunately the freedom and flexibility afforded in an academic career does come with some downsides. One such downside is the sole dependence on yourself to drive your career forward. This can manifest into the idea that you are only as good as the time you put into your work. This last point is commonly stated by academics (maybe not those exact words), which can be a source for long working hours and a reduced work-life balance.

This blog is not about me explaining how I have managed a good work-life balance. I don't particularly know how to adequately solve that problem. This blog is an opportunity for me to think about what makes this job enjoyable and some of the many positives things that I have experienced. Hopefully, what you read here will make you think differently about your own career.

Don't take yourself too seriously

I think that this is very important in achieving a better work/life balance. The more serious you are about the work your are doing, the life you are trying to lead and how to put that all together, the more unhappy you will be about the whole situation. Being serious all of the time does not open up the opportunity to realise what you are doing that is actually fun. You may see that you have to write paper X, or debug code Y. This can result in the feeling that if you can't finish those tasks your work will stagnate. You may have not had that feeling, but I have. This feeling puts pressure on each of the tasks that you "must" do—making them more of a chore. Chore is not a word that is regularly associated with fun.

The flip side of all of this is that there are many fun components of jobs that "must" be completed. In my situation, if I focus on the need to complete a paper, I fail to realise that I actual enjoy the process of writing. Being able to put words down on the paper in a coherent way gives me a sense of satisfaction. With other jobs that need completing, there are always some parts that provide enjoyment; making the complete process much less arduous.

Take the time to enjoy yourself

We are very focused on results and results only come about if you put in the work. However, if you are not satisfied with your current situation, it can be difficult to get the results that you want. This becomes a never ending cycle, which only you are able pull yourself out of.

The idea that you are only as good as the time you put in is not necessarily correct. It is certainly not correct for me. I experience diminishing returns in my productivity the more work I try to do. There is an optimal amount of work for me; after that point I get less and less from each additional hour.

One thing that I am trying to better embrace is that your ideal number of work hours may not be the same every day of the week. It may fluctuate on a weekly—or even daily—basis. Understanding your productivity cycle may help you relax and enjoy what you are doing and get the most out of your time.

This really plays into not taking yourself too seriously. Working in an academic career gives you the freedom to set your own hours and work when it best suits you. If you feel that you will be better off leaving the office early one day, either to relax at home or meet up with friends, the enjoyment you gain from this can make you more motivated for when you enter work the next day. I find that the more relaxed I am within myself, which comes with being more flexible with my hours and schedules, the happier I am. This increased happiness translates into better work and a much higher productivity.

Embrace what this life throws at you

It is too easy to see the negatives in things. I am guilty of that. However, seeing the negatives can greatly affect your ability to see what is really good in your life. Lets face it, there are many negatives in an academic career that can really get you down. These can include, getting a very poor review for a paper, being burdened with administration or teaching and the seemingly difficult task of trying to find positions and funding. These things, and more, can really make the job of an academic feel like a labour of love than an exciting and interesting career.

Pursuing an academic career has resulted in me and my wife living in separate countries. This is the result of a previous point—the difficulty in trying to find suitable positions. However, this separation should not be seen as completely negative. It is important to embrace the positives that stem for such situations and some of the great aspects of this job. In particular, an academic position allows for much freedom in the work you do and where you do it. Since my research occurs predominately on a computer it is possible to perform my work from anywhere. It is not difficult for me to pack up and travel to England to visit my wife over a long weekend. Further, I am able to continue close collaborations with colleagues in Sydney by having the possibility to work from UNSW.

I would like to finish this section talking about travel. This could be seen as one of the most enjoyable aspects of being an academic. There are many opportunities to travel to conferences in different parts of the world. This can also be one of the most stressful parts of the job. There is much that goes into attending a conference; in particular, preparing the material you wish to present and organising the travel itself. Since most people will not see work travel as negative, it emphasises the idea that from every negative something positive can be found.

Many different perspectives

I have presented my own thoughts on how to be happy in an academic position. There will be many different perspectives about the fun you can have in an academic career. We all pick our own path, so get out there and have some fun.

© 2018 Stephen J Maher
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This page was last updated Tuesday, 23 January 2018.