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Academic Life in 2019

Today many of my colleagues are on strike. I’m not joining them today because I am on leave to attend the funeral of a university friend who died a few weeks ago in his mid-40s.  

His sudden and unexpected death has shaken me.  It’s frightened me more than other events this year – two of my fittest and healthiest friends had heart attacks. If these things can happen to them, they can happen to me. It has made me want to refocus my life and think harder about what is important. I don’t want to have regrets.

I spend most of my life at either 100 miles an hour or so exhausted that I can’t move – I literally had no option but to spend 2 hours yesterday napping on the sofa.  I was completely shattered. This kind of life isn’t good for my mental or physical health. It’s not how I want to live. It makes me scared that I’ll be the next person in my friendship group to have a major health problem. And that will have serious consequences for my family.

Despite the fact that I’m on leave today, I have spent the morning doing work activities. The lines between work and non-work are very blurred. It’s really effortful to create and maintain the boundaries between them when there is so much to do.

Academic life is engaging and exciting and full of responsibility.  I need to ensure my taught students get a good experience, can pass their assessments and receive useful feedback so they can improve their learning. I have PhD students to train and support as they learn to deal with the frequent rejections that come from reviewers. I have grants to write so that my post-docs have jobs – without funding they will be made redundant.  I have made a commitment to try to make my institution a better place for everyone to work in my role as Vice Dean Equality, Diversity and Inclusion. And I have promised to help those in my academic community by reviewing papers and organising conferences and to foster links between universities and schools by being a school governor. All of these activities give me a sense of reward and accomplishment. I’ve made all these commitments because I think they’re important and want to keep them. In addition there are frequent requests for reference letters to support people getting new jobs or going for promotion. And from members of the media who want comments which could help the public understand and engage with science. And other things that I can’t even remember right now.

No wonder I am exhausted.

But I’m not alone. This week Mary Beard tweeted…..

“Can I ask academics of any level of seniority how many hours a week they reckon they work. My current estimate is over 100. I am a mug. But what is the norm in real life. ?” https://twitter.com/wmarybeard/status/1198351088832962560

Responses seem to fall into a few categories:

·         Accusing her of lying: People find it hard to believe that can be telling the truth – who can work that number of hours?

·         Shaming her for having privilege: People accusing her of perpetuating a culture of overwork and unnecessarily increasing the competitive culture within academia

·         Sympathy and acceptance: People who recognise that they’re in a very similar position

UCL’s standard working week is 36.5 hours excluding meal breaks. Two of my colleagues shared the outcome of their attempts to track how many hours they’ve worked this year. By the end of August they had already worked their full annual allocation of hours. They work around 55hrs per week on average.  So September to December they will work for free.  Not standard weeks but still averaging around 55hrs per week. By the end of the year they will have worked an extra 50% above their contracted hours. I think this is common. It’s very difficult to say no to the endless requests or to deal with the guilt of letting someone down. Instead we put our own mental and physical health at risk, we do the work of 1.5 people, and our employers continue to take advantage of us.

Last year, in 2018, I went on strike along with many of my colleagues. As a result I lost a substantial amount of pay.  Whilst this meant that some of lectures were cancelled and students were impacted, the reality is that I worked throughout the strike period. I worked a standard week as well as spending time on the picket line and on a march.

Some will say that my actions undermined the strike action by minimising it’s impact. But my actions were necessary to support my own mental health. I couldn’t deal with the stress of a huge pile of work that would all have to be done in the weeks after the strike. The reality of academia is that if you are away on leave for any reason, no one covers your job for you. You just have to work harder and longer afterwards.

During this strike period I don’t have any teaching duties. Even if i did, going on strike seems like an ineffective form of protest – it might hurt our students in the short term but it leaves untouched those who have the authority to improve the situation for all university staff. I’m not sure whether I’m going to strike in the coming days. This is certainly a time for reflection about what matters.