How to Marie Kondo Your Academic Career
On Creating Balance and Joy
Academics are often pulled in many different directions at once. As a result, writing and other things we value land in the dust of our busyness. Many of us feel that incorporating more writing time into our schedules would require 60-hour work weeks that none of us have the energy to manage. Is it even possible to be a balanced human being—one that allots a desirable amount of time for writing tasks and our other work, while also having a life beyond academia?
It would be a gross oversimplification to suggest easy answers for this conundrum that would work for everyone. And we can’t ignore the realities, and culture, of overwork and burnout that have been exacerbated during the pandemic.
What I offer today are ways of thinking about balance, time, and the priorities that may help us take back some agency within the constraints we face. And yes, it’s also about asking that key Marie Kondo question: what sparks joy?
But first, the bad news.
The Structural Constraints
Neoliberal institutions are experts at extracting more labor from us even if that labor is not directly compensated in terms of money or other rewards. Consider the fact that we regularly give PhD students and contingent faculty the advice that they should publish more in order to get a tenure track job. Publishing, in this case, is not a requirement of their current job nor are they compensated for it, but the promise of reward eventually, i.e. that full time academic position, drives many to generate intellectual property without being compensated or even keeping the ownership of that work. I have also played this game in my career and intimately understand the pressure to do this sort of labor.
Service often functions in the same way. Many of us volunteer for committees, events, journal boards, or other activities because we hope that it raises our profile, counts on the road to tenure, lands us that academic job, or other eventual social or economic capital.
The problem with this aspirational labor is that there are no guarantees that the work we do will produce the job or promotion we want. (Check out this recent Slate article that breaks down these issues even further). The institutions we labor for still benefit from our work and we often feel the need to “be a good team player” in the hopes that others will recognize our contributions or potential. On top of this, requirements for achieving tenure are notoriously opaque and the job market is not a meritocracy.
A lack of transparency, consistency, or equity in hiring and promotion leads us to do more and more work because we are unsure what it will actually take to achieve that goal of secure employment. This precarity drives the culture of overwork in the academy.
Le sigh. Depressed yet?
As hard as it is to hear, it’s important to be clear why hegemonic ideals in academia compel us to willingly give more and more of our time and energy as a first step to doing something about it. We need to acknowledge how the academy works as a neoliberal institution in order to take back agency where we can in a system actively working to disenfranchise us.
Many of us want to be good at everything we do so we attempt to put 100% effort into every class we teach, every paper we write, and every project we take on. As Isabeau Iqbal notes on The PhD Life Raft podcast, it is a good thing to have high standards and drive, but we have to figure out how not to take that to the point of anxiety or paralysis. The problem with perfectionist standards, of course, is that time is limited and we cannot give 100% of our time and effort to every thing that desires our labor. In other words,
Some weeks I feel like a great teacher because I spend a lot of time preparing a lesson and it lands well with the students. But that same week my research productivity takes a dive because I devoted so much time to teaching tasks.
Some weeks I feel like I’m meeting my writing goals because I devote many hours and meet a major deadline. But that same week I feel like my students get a less prepared teacher who may have not been as clear as she could be when defining a difficult concept.
Some weeks I feel like a present partner who makes time for my relationship in meaningful ways. But that same week I might feel like a less than stellar teacher or writer.
When I started my first full-time academic job, I realized quickly that I was going to have to concede my perfectionism on a regular basis to pursue balance as a human being. I have accepted that nothing gets 100% of me 100% of the time and that acceptance allows me to be kinder to myself. This means
submitting articles before I feel like they are fully fleshed out
not redesigning a class that could be better because it’s good enough
not being the one to volunteer for the extra committee task
Prioritizing life outside of work
In order to do everything, I can’t set my standards too high in all areas all the time.
My balancing act is a living breathing thing, so that I don’t usually arrive at a perfect equilibrium that stays the same each week. Rather, my balance continually shifts in the boat as I ride the rapids and try to keep sight of the horizon, i.e. the career and life I want.
To recap, the key questions are:
How do we deal with the fact that academic institutions interpolate us into a culture of overworking without appropriate compensation for the extra work we do?
How do we counteract the fact that many of us are A+ students that have a hard time lowering our standards and saying no to every opportunity for aspirational labor?
One strategy for working within this hegemonic system is to manage your time according to priorities you set and to what brings you joy within this career. This means conceding that some things are out of your control because the system doesn’t necessarily have your best interest at heart. It’s about doing what you CAN do within that system, not focusing on what you can’t.
And while it’s important for all of us to consider collective action to fight systemic overwork and burnout in our workplaces, I also think it’s important to try individual solutions that help bring some semblance of balance in the meantime. Change is a long game, after all, and we need the energy for it.
How Are You Evaluated at Your Job?
One first step is to consider what criteria you are evaluated on wherever you sit within the academy. If you have a contract, then you can take a look at how the contract divides up your time between teaching, research, and service. Here’s some guiding questions:
What would it look like to divvy up the work in your calendar with a corresponding number of hours allotted for each of those areas you are evaluated on? (e.g. 50% teaching, 30% research, 20% service).
Accounting for any structural constraints and life circumstances, how close can you get your schedule to your ideal?
In which areas should you lower your standards in order to achieve a balance that better reflects your ideal time allotment?
If you are a PhD student, are on a short term contract, or you aspire to be at an institution with different time allocations, then you might adjust your priorities according to where you would like to be, as much as possible. For example, when I was a lecturer on a one-year contract, I devoted a greater amount of time to research than my contract stipulated because I was on the job market for positions that placed higher value on research.
What Sparks Joy?
A second step is to consider what sparks joy. Yes, I’m recommending that you Marie Kondo your academic career because if you want to stay in this job for the long haul, you must find joy even within less than ideal structural conditions. Make a list of everything you do in the areas of teaching, research, and service. After you make that list, consider
Which tasks do you really love doing?
Which tasks do you have to do for advancement?
Which tasks do you not enjoy or even hate doing?
Perhaps this exercise reveals that you really love being on a professional organization board, but it’s not valued by your institution in the same way you do. It brings you joy and fulfillment, so you decide it stays.
Perhaps this exercise reveals that you are on that board out of some sort of obligation, but it doesn’t bring you joy. You actually dread each meeting and removing it from your schedule gives you more time for the things that are important to you.
When doing this exercise myself, I realized that I did 15 peer reviews of academic journal articles last year. For my first few years post-PhD, I generally just accepted every peer review that came across because I thought it would be a smart career move to be in good favor with editors at reputable journals, aka aspirational labor. While I don’t mind doing a few peer reviews here and there, it doesn’t help me get tenure because it's very low on the scale of things that “count,” it takes time away from other things that I value more, and it doesn’t bring me joy. Editors beware, this year I won’t be accepting nearly as many invitations to review.
On the other hand, writing this newsletter is also not going to get me tenure, won’t really count towards my merit review each year, and doesn’t provide me compensation. When I first considered starting Publish Not Perish, my biggest reservation was the time it would take away from other things that are valued more in the tenure track hustle. In the end, I decided that one of the things I love most in my career is mentoring and coaching, so writing this newsletter each week brings me joy. I may even want to more formally offer coaching services at some point, so this newsletter is also a way to explore this potential path for myself.
It’s worth it to me for the career and life I want.
To sum up today’s meditations on balance, I’m suggesting that balance is a constant work in progress where we acknowledge structural constraints and reflect on how we are evaluated at our jobs or the jobs we want. We then work at creating schedules that lower our standards in some areas and cut things out that we don’t need to do and don’t really enjoy.
Our institutions are unlikely to give us more time to do the work we most value or a life outside of work, so we have to take it back for ourselves.
I want to hear from YOU! What is something that sparks joy in your academic career that isn’t necessarily valued by your current place in the academy as highly as you value it? How have you learned to embrace that joy?