Tag Archives: work-life balance

Reviewing my reviewing hours

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Review wherever and whenever you can. Astronaut Shannon Lucid reading on the Mir Space Station in 1995. I have no evidence that she was reviewing, but it’s possible. Source: NASA.

The life of an academic involves an awful lot of reviewing, such that the constant stream of critical judgements can exact a mental toll. Quite apart from how we feel about this part of our work, another issue is how do we fit it all in? We are frequently expected to review manuscripts, post-graduate theses, grant proposals, job and promotion applications, and often to tight deadlines. This is in addition to the normal assessment cycle of undergraduate degree students that forms the core of our business.

Having recently started a new job and a family, I’ve been trying to set a few ground rules for how I would like to restructure my routine. Part of this involves developing a better work-life balance. This is necessary given that for the last few years the work-work balance has been hard enough. I am aiming to be on campus for no more than 40 hours a week, Monday to Friday only. That this is framed as an ambitious target is itself an indicator of how unhealthy my relationship to work has been in the past.

For the first month it’s gone well, but that’s due in part to the light workload I’ve been granted during my first semester. Gradually, however, I’ve noticed a pile building up in the corner of the office: all my reviewing. This week I had to take a day off sick and the first thought that crossed my mind was “Oh good, I can catch up on the reviews”. Is my mindset unhealthy as well?

Over the last 15 years I’ve got used to the idea that reviewing is something that happens outside work, preferably at home in a comfortable chair in front of the stereo. This means it happens almost exclusively at evenings or weekends. I have generally found it to be a relaxing activity for this reason, and that trying to review while in work only makes me agitated about all the other jobs I ought to be doing with that time. When I draw up my list of jobs for the day, the reviewing gets deferred until later.

Am I unusual in my working practices? There’s only one way to find out: ask Twitter!

I can understand why reviewing during normal working hours should be seen as the default. It is part of our role and the expectations of an academic life, and therefore counts as our day-to-day activity. If it’s work, do it at work. But based on an admittedly small sample size, a majority of fellow academics don’t agree, or at least don’t follow this argument through in practice.

Why might we not review during office hours? For the most part we volunteer to take on the reviews, and our employers rarely if ever pay us for it. From their perspective it’s something to tolerate rather than encourage given that we could be writing another paper, working on a grant proposal, teaching some students, or dealing with the endless flow of administrative chores. Every time we say yes to reviewing a paper it costs them some of our time and therefore their money. Yes, this is a cynical view of higher education, but I worked in UKHE for a long time so you should expect that.

When we are paid to review — mainly for some grant-awarding bodies, or as external examiners — it’s not our employers who foot the bill. This is additional income and therefore feels to as though we should be doing it in our own time. Once again we have chosen to take on this additional work, and while we probably don’t do it for the money (which barely compensates), the presence of a cash incentive does change our perception*.

I put down the final option of travelling because I know a number of people who deliberately use what would otherwise be ‘dead time’ to catch up on reviewing tasks. If you have a long commute on public transport, or spend lots of time in airports or hotels, this is the kind of work that can be done anywhere. I suppose then the question is what else you might do in that time, such as reading for pure pleasure or catching up on sleep. Is reviewing while travelling a way to continue working during normal hours, or an extension into what ought to be a time to relax? If we don’t take work home then does that imply that any time outside the home can be used for work?

How am I going to resolve this? Well, today I’m working at home, and getting some reviews out of the way in the process. I’d be interested to hear how others fit their reviewing commitments into a normal working routine.


 

* The Swiss national funding agency sends its reviewers boxes of chocolates by way of thanks, which is a nice touch, and has no bearing on the quality of my reviews because I don’t much care for chocolate.

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Diary of an academic mid-life crisis

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I won’t be needing these any more.

In a few weeks I’ll be moving to a new position at University College Cork in Ireland, in the wonderfully named School of BEES. This entails moving home, family and job to another country. Combined with the recent birth of our son, it has been a summer of upheaval, reflection and transformation. It’s a chance to reconsider who I am and what I aspire to do with the remainder of my career. In short, I’m having an academic mid-life crisis.

After 13 years at Nottingham, occupying the same office the entire time, I’ve accumulated a lot of detritus. The last few weeks have been long process of throwing away many things that I don’t need (reprints, project reports, old posters), giving away others (books, consumables) and whittling down the remainder until I only retain what I think I’ll need. After carefully preparing a list of my career objectives, the criterion for whether I pack something into a box is whether it will directly help me to achieve those goals.

This seems like an obvious strategy, almost trite. But the urge to retain only what I need comes into conflict with the things I might keep ‘just in case’ or because they have some sentimental value. For example, should I keep hard copies of the PhD theses of former students? I have them in electronic form, and the only reason they’re on the shelf is for display. I literally don’t need them.* But looking at them fills me with fond memories, so into the box they go.

The other and most difficult set of decisions surrounds datasheets and specimens. Some of these have been in my possession for 20 years or more. Simply being aware of them raises pangs of guilt that they have never given rise to the publications that would reveal them to the world, not that the world would show a great deal of interest either way.** My rule has been that if I haven’t touched them, have no intention of ever using them, and can foresee no future role for them, then they go in the skip.

The idea of disposing of data or specimens provokes a visceral feeling of dismay among scientists. All that work, the long hours in the field, the grant money spent in obtaining them, and it’s come to nothing. No wonder that people have tried to stop me:

Scanning is a nice idea but there are simply too many. I would be spending days that I don’t have stood in front of the scanner, collecting files that will then sit instead on a hard drive and be ignored for another decade or two. Time is my most precious resource and using up more of it on lost causes is Concorde fallacy.

Even in the most optimistic scenario, if I kept the files, what might happen? I would spend still more time entering and analysing the data, then writing and submitting a manuscript, which even if published would simply add to the growing mountain of mediocre and unimportant science that lies unread, uncited and uncared for. It’s not only my time but that of several editors and reviewers. With the best will in the world, these data probably don’t deserve to be published. There are bigger and better things I want to do.

There is an even more powerful case for throwing these old projects away, and it comes down to my mental health. A new job is an opportunity to make a fresh start, to redefine myself. It’s a chance to shed some baggage that I acquired during my PhD, added to over the course of a few post-docs, then shoved in the corner of my office and ignored.

In the same way as there are positive reasons for retaining possessions, such as the warm glow an old PhD thesis gives, there are also negative ones. Data can go bad, and after a while it begins to influence your mental health. I don’t need the guilt to follow me any longer. It doesn’t need to cross the Irish Sea with me, and reminders of previous failures don’t need to take up space in my office or on my hard drive. Some projects are also bundled up with more personal recollections of the people or events they were associated with, and which make them even harder to return to. I’m not the person I was then; I’m not the scientist I was then either.

So away it goes. I can tell myself that I no longer care about the canopy heights which orang utan occupy as they go through rehabilitation; the frequency of leaf damage types in different rain forest environments; the distribution of sub-canopy scrub pine in Russian forests; succession in herbivore exclosure plots on the island of Lundy. It was all interesting to me once and, to be honest, it still is. It was all worth doing at the time and I don’t regret it. But enough is enough.

I’ve got some big ideas and several exciting projects that I can’t wait to start. I’ve made space for them now and I’m looking to the future. Wish me luck.

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For some reason I still had four pre-viva copies of my doctoral thesis. Four! One for me, one each for the examiners, and one spare… All now in the bin.


* The only time they come down is to show a current student the overall structure of a thesis. That’s a very limited task and one that could be accomplished by showing them almost any thesis.

** There is the remote possibility that someone might read the appendices of one of my minor papers and demand to see the physical evidence. This is a moral reason for retaining specimens but not, to my mind, a strong one. It happens so seldom in the career of any scientist (and never yet to me) that I doubt it will ever occur. And one day I will inevitably die, retire or leave science, at which point they will be lost regardless. Pretending that anyone will mourn the specific loss of my collections is just vanity.