I was off work for about a week and returned to work a week ago. Since then I’ve been struggling to catch up and I confess I’ve found it really hard. I’ve never really been properly ill during term-time before (that’s pretty lucky isn’t it?!) – it is exceptionally stressful. Pressure comes to return to work from your employer, from your students, from yourself – about possible student complaints, about dissertation anxiety, about delayed/late marking etc etc.
Moral of the experience: do not get ill. The work just piles up and you still have to do it all.
This got me thinking anyway…
The weird thing about any job, but (in my experience) academia especially, is that there’s lots of things you do not learn until they happen. The PhD is supposedly a form of training but it is a tremendously poor preparation for any role beyond a full-time researcher. Some postgrads get some teaching experience, which is good – but it doesn’t prepare you for what I found to be the most surprising and perhaps testing parts of the job: managing the weight of adminstrivia and dealing with your pastoral role. The way I have experienced this is: admin just keeps coming, and will only grow; and: students’ lives are bewildering.
Relatedly, the only advice I think I’d dare give a colleague new to the job is: make sure you take care of yourself. I’m afraid no one else will. The job will take all you can give and want more. The things I continue to negotiate to handle this are:
- Decide how much of yourself you are willing to give to your job/career. This fundamentally changed for me when my son came along.
- Think about how your work and life ‘balance’, for example: in my experience commuting is not a long-term career strategy, especially with small children.
- Try not compare yourself to others. Just because they are doing things you privately perceive to be ‘better’ than you does not make it a valid comparison. Feel proud about your own achievements, celebrate others’ success (if you feel able – we’re all human!) and keep muddling along.
- Do not let performance management systems rule your life – think about how what you want to do can be spun to answer the requirements. AND >> keep a handle on your self-worth, sometimes expectations are unrealistic – this doesn’t make you “bad” or a “failure”. Talk with those whose opinion you trust and talk with those going through the same thing, you do not need to be alone (plus: join the union).
- Prioritise what you must/want to do and then find ways of firmly but politely saying “no” to the other things.
- You may find you actually have some latitude to change things, like re-scheduling tutorials etc. If this makes things easier: do it!
- Most importantly: enjoy the job, regardless of the things we all know are difficult about it, teaching and researching for those who are interested can be very rewarding.