Balancing the multiple sides of academic life

I recently did a talk about how to balance teaching, research and administrative roles, as part of a career in higher education.

As academics, we are expected to excel at three types of tasks: teaching, research, and administrative roles.

For teaching, the work is cyclical, done in short, intense bursts; requires strong communication skills; and it pays to be an extrovert.

For research, the work is continuous, and demands sustained dedication. It requires strong analytical skills, and it pays to be an introvert.

If it’s already difficult to balance the demands of these two roles, because of their very different nature and demands, it can feel quite daunting when we add it the third type of tasks: administration. It is something that we, typically, do not train for. Yet, the more senior we become in our academic careers, the heavier and the more strategic the administrative load becomes. In my short talk, I offered the suggestions below, based on my experience.

First, know your strengths and, as much as you can, play to them. In my case, I am an INTP person. So, I try to stay away from roles that require a lot of in-person interaction, such as organising or hosting events. I also try to stay away from leading tasks were details could make or break a project, such as preparing an accreditation portfolio.

Second, look for synergies. This applies to both what you do, as well as how you do it. For instance, I try to teach topics that I also do research or consulting on (digital, services….), so my readings, examples, etc… serve both ends. I also use templates for tasks (e.g., slides), replies, etc… and I batch schedule my work. For instance, I schedule teaching related tasks (including meetings) for Mondays and Thursdays. 

Third, get comfortable with “good enough”. In my view, there is no point being perfectionist – for instance, when preparing a paper, a class, or a report. First, on most (if not all) cases, that extra work will go unnoticed and make no practical difference to the outcome. So, there is no point in sweating the small stuff. Second, when people give me feedback (for instance, a paper review), they often propose novel angles that I would not have considered. So, don’t try to (re)invent the wheel. In practice this means, limiting the time that I will spend on each task (e.g., preparing a class; reviewing a report, organising my office…).

Fourth, think in seasons. Just like a teaching term has a certain cadence to it (e.g., introduction, followed by development and, later, assessment of a topic), so will other things in our academic life. If possible, plan around that cadence (e.g., do not schedule candidate interviews during marking time); and, try to look up from the weeds and focus on the big picture.

What else helps you juggle the multiple demands on your time and attention?


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