Can you be an academic and have a life?

By Alex Wright (Editor)

We’re growing up. Inescapably, and probably faster than many of us would like. Ten years ago, I would have thought that at this stage I’d definitely feel like an adult. Lo and behold, I feel older, only slightly wiser, and certainly worse at staying up late. But I know we’re growing up because we’re starting to do things that mark our progression into what society would count as adulthood – we’re buying houses, getting married, having kids. Well, my Facebook feed shows it happening so it must be true.

Some of us, however, are in grad school and watching our peers take on these responsibilities, knowing that those experiences might be around the corner. And in our academically-minded, information-addicted brains, we think, “How can I plan every detail ahead of time so I can do it all in the best possible way, never screw up, be happy, healthy, successful, ambitious, kind, compassionate, economically secure, adventurous, stable, have kids, raise them to be independent but still do what I want, not play into gendered stereotypes, oh and what does the evidence say about doing all this?” And so on.

Granted, the information out there about navigating this stage of our lives doesn’t exactly provide clear solutions. Over the years we’ve had Sheryl Sandberg telling us to ‘lean in’, while Anne-Marie Slaughter tells us we still can’t have it all. We’re getting mixed messages.

In a recent effort to gather information on this topic, our Department had a ‘Brown Bag Lunch’ event in which a female staff member spoke with us about, “What if I want to be an academic and have a (family) life?”. The attendees, a group of female PhD students (interestingly no male students attended) hoped for advice and guidance direct from someone who had ‘been there’ – a key informant, so to speak.  

Our speaker spoke thoughtfully and clearly about her experiences as both an academic and parent. This event helped me to realize perhaps there aren’t always straightforward answers or solutions to these messy problems, but that we are fortunate to be walking the path where many have tread before, and they have some valuable words of wisdom for us. After a bit more digging, I’ve compiled some of the key messages from our academic forebears. Here’s what they have to say:

Academia is the most flexible profession you can have, which makes an enormous difference when you have children. [1] Yes, the workload can often be heavy. But you aren’t chained to your desk between 9am-5pm and it’s not unusual to spend one or two days per week working from home. Not being penalized financially or professionally when you need to leave early to pick up your child from nursery is a luxury many people don’t have. In a very popular article from 2012, Anne-Marie Slaughter writes,

Before my service in government, I’d spend my career in academia: as a law professor and then as dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Both were demanding jobs, but I had the ability to set my own schedule most of the time. I could be with my kids when I needed to be, and still get the work done.”

Having a supportive partner is a game changer. A significant other who proactively shares the home and caring responsibilities is critical for your sanity. However, if you’re a woman this can and will likely still be challenging even if your partner is supportive. For example, Rafnsdóttir & Heijstra (2013)[2] interviewed academic employees and noted that although flexible working hours were helpful to parents, women continued to have primary responsibility for household and caring tasks. This tension can be helped, however, by gender neutral family policies like parental leave[3] that are institutionally supported and subsequently utilized by both partners.

  • Being an academic and being a parent require different skills, so don’t try to apply the same organizational and operational approach to both. Treat each one as its own experience, and be aware that they will definitely come into conflict at times[4].
  • There’s no great time to have kids. You will never have a spare year in which having a child would fit perfectly. The good news, however, is that our academic predecessors report they became much more efficient and focused during their work hours when they had children at home; procrastination was the real victim in this situation. They also recommend that for early-career women in academia, having a full-time, permanent contract with paid maternity leave and job security is invaluable when you’re planning for children. This leads to the next recommendation:
  • Apply for that job. Women in particular will often not apply for a more prestigious role because they aren’t certain they are qualified or that they’ll get the job[5], even when they are in fact an excellent candidate. Applying is the first step, and for PhD graduates, this can make the difference between cycling through short-term contracts for years or establishing yourself in a permanent academic position. In addition, with the advent of initiatives such as Athena Swan, progress is being made in universities regarding supporting women’s and parents’ progression through an academic career. 
  • Take shortcuts. Forget about ironing and making your own vegan, organic baby food. Clothes get crumpled when you wear them, and grocery stores exist for a reason. And if you can afford it, pay someone to help with the housecleaning (again, that full-time contract is ever-useful).

And last but not least…

Make (difficult) choices. In academia, the criteria for markers such as promotion or submission to the REF are clearly written. Our Brown Bag Lunch speaker and other academics[6] are clear that the drive to publish 20 articles per year is an internal pressure, not one that is required by your Department or promotion panels. For example, former tenured professor Dr Karen Kelsky writes,  

My tenured colleagues never let up. They were always in their office. They were always working…Why couldn’t they slow down?...It’s my view that they don’t want to. Tenured professors have a choice, and too many choose to live their lives out of balance. Why, I’m not sure.

The choice to work all the time is just that, a choice.

These observations make sense to me, and I’m appreciative of this learning. Some questions remain, however. Given the flexibility of academic working hours, how do you avoid spending both your nights and weekends answering emails and finalizing deliverables? Personally, I find that it’s simply too easy to think of those hours as fair game for working when deciding whether to take on another project or responsibility. Particularly in a context of an increasingly competitive job market[7],[8], in which university employers are looking for what Pitt & Mewburn (2016) call an ‘academic super-hero’: a multi-talented, always ready and available worker capable of being everything to everyone. As mentioned with regards to jobs above, the employment situation you find yourself in will be of fundamental concern – you’ll be worrying about your position and family finances, let alone whether you can afford the relative luxury of hiring someone to help with the cleaning. And this often leads to the internal pressure to work harder, publish more, apply for more grants, attend more conferences. If we’re to be and remain competitive, how do you resist or adjust that internal pressure? I think that will be an ongoing struggle for some of us.

These professional challenges are often paralleled by perceived pressures regarding the raising of children. In my discussions about work-life balance with academic colleagues, I find that this set of pressures is brought up less often. However there is a growing recognition in both research and media that new parents, mothers in particular, are under societal pressures to be ‘perfect’. Saying this, the metrics by which one is measured against to achieve this ‘perfection’ are often completely subjective, constantly changing, and neglect the reality in which people live.[9] The ideals and social norms applied to new mothers have now reached new heights (including the necessity of always cooking from scratch and raising a baby Einstein), imposing an unrealistic identity onto new mothers who understandably are then prone to feelings of inadequacy.[10] Interestingly, these trends have spawned a ‘counter-reaction’ by some parents who rebel against the demand for perfection, and attempt to make decisions about their parenting approach pragmatically while “staying within the realm of dedicated motherhood” (Hall & Pederson, pg. 645).

So academic parents must make choices about their approaches to parenting and to their work. But as our predecessors suggest, these are the tough choices that are necessary. Distinguishing what is objectively necessary to advance in our careers and raise families from what we put pressure on ourselves to accomplish. Welcome to being an adult. To make these decisions easier, perhaps it isn’t about ‘balancing’, or conceptualizing work and life as separate, competing entities. I’m inclined to agree with Dr Melissa Terras from UCL:  

“You’ll spot that I haven’t mentioned ‘work-life balance’. I don’t believe in it. There are only 24 hours in a day, and it’s all my life. My work is my life, my home is my life, my family is my life, and my addiction to mid-century Belgian ceramics on eBay is also my life.”




Note: This blog post only briefly touches on critical and inseparable discussions about societal expectations surrounding gender, work, and family. Although I haven’t delved into those here, other writers for IANS have touched on these topics. For example, I highly recommend this related IANS article by Katie Hartin.


Acknowledgement: Thank you to Dr Morag Treanor for speaking at the recent postgraduate Brown Bag Lunch event on this topic, and for sending us the referenced Guardian article.

[1] Terras, M. (2012, February 17). The superwoman fallacy: what it really takes to be an academic and parent [Web blog post]. Available at:

[2] Rafnsdóttir, G. 7 Heijstra, T. (2013). Balancing work-family life in academia: the power of time. Gender, Work and Organization, 20(3), 283-296.

[3] Lundquist, J., Misra, J., O’Meara, K. (2012). Parental leave usage by fathers and mothers at an American university. Journal of Fathering, 10(3), 337-363.

[4] Kinman, G. & Jones, F. (2008). A life beyond work? Job demands, work-life balance, and wellbeing in UK academics. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 17(1-2), 41-60.

[5] British Medical Association. (2008). Women in academic medicine: Developing equality in governance and management for career progression: Full Report. London: BMA. 

[6] Kelsky, K. (2016, January 30). Work-life balance? Post 1 of many [Web blog post]. Available at:

[7] Pitt, R. & Mewburn, I. (2016). Academic superheroes? A critical analysis of academic job descriptions. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 38(1), 88-101.

[8] Wolff, J. (2015, April 21). Doctor, doctor…we’re suffering a glut of PhDs who can’t find academic jobs. The Guardian Online. Available at:

[9] Figres, K. (2012, November 3). Postnatal depression: the pressures new mothers face, now more than ever. The Guardian Online. Available at:

[10] Gram, M & Pederson, H. (DATE). Negotiations of motherhood – between ideals and practice. In Motherhoods, Markets and Consumption: The Making of Mothers in Contemporary…