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Understanding The Causes Of Overwork In Academia

Understanding the causes of overwork in academia

I’m coming down from a particularly heavy semester, in which I have had a few weeks of 70+ hours, while still having to make the 4pm pickup at school. Things have been particularly rough, in other words, and I was contemplating my Life Choices.

Why is it that overwork is so rampant in academia? On paper, my only fixed requirement are the few hours of lectures that I have each week. How did my agenda get so full?

Looking at some of the literature, I saw that the causes for overwork are often identified as the following:

  • The vague notion of academic excellence: In academia, there is an unspoken rule that good isn’t good enough; excellence is the goal. This drive pushes professors to go above and beyond, often at the cost of their personal time. Whether it’s conducting research, publishing papers, or preparing lectures, the quest for excellence can lead to long hours and overwork.
  • Being always available: With the advent of digital communication, professors are often expected to be available beyond traditional office hours. Emails, virtual meetings, and online student interactions mean that work can encroach on personal time, making it difficult to switch off.
  • Rising competition: The academic field is highly competitive, at an international level, with professors under constant pressure to secure funding, publish, and stay ahead in their research. This competition can significantly add to the workload, as staying ahead often means working longer and harder. Moreover, when applying for positions, candidates are competing with the best of the world, which adds extra stress.
  • Systemic overload: Direct administrative support is gone, teaching expectations are rising as students consider themselves customers who can demand high quality, administrative tasks are increasing, and we need to publish more than ever. Just typing this out already makes me tired.

So, how does this workload pan out in real life? Here are some of the practical insights in the workload of professors:

  • Varied responsibilities: Professors’ responsibilities are not limited to teaching. Research, administrative duties, mentoring students, and contributing to their academic community are all part of the job. And at all levels, the expectations are rising.
  • Long workweeks: Studies suggest that the average workweek for a university professor can exceed the standard 40 hours, often reaching up to 50-60 hours. This includes time spent preparing for lectures, grading, conducting research, and carrying out administrative tasks (writing our beloved status reports).
  • Seasonal fluctuations: The workload is not consistent throughout the year. It often peaks during the semester, with grading periods and research deadlines contributing to longer hours. The middle part of the semester is always that time when the semester hits the fan,
  • Impact on personal life: The extensive work hours lead to challenges in maintaining a healthy work-life balance, and can ultimately result in empathy fatigue or even burnout.

Understanding what causes our overload is the first step, making systemic changes so that the workload is not so high will require nothing less than a little revolution.

How do you experience your workload?

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