Photo: Working on the beach, © Yuvipanda CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia.org. Not a photo of me – you couldn’t pay me enough to sit on a beach, working or no.
I took a 2-week vacation this summer. I packed some Dick Francis mystery novels, sunscreen, my swimsuit – and a half-dozen theses and manuscripts to work on.
I gather I’m not supposed to do that last part. In fact, having mentioned it a place or two, I was treated to a little bit of work-shaming. That I got work-shamed may actually be quite a healthy sign for academia, because it suggests that many of us think academics needn’t, and shouldn’t, work 15-hour days 365 days a year. (Actually, while a few do work like that, it’s very few; many fewer than claim to, and many fewer even than believe they do.) I learned this lesson myself from a role model as a grad student, and I’m grateful for having learned it.
I still work on vacation, though. Three good reasons (at least, good for me):
I have the best job on the entire planet. Which is to say, I do science – and science is fun! Of course, science isn’t the only think I love to do*, but it’s one of them, so why wouldn’t I indulge myself a little on vacation?
- Good ideas strike anywhere and any time, but really good ones don’t strike that often. When one does, you seize it. I had a really good idea halfway down a trail through the woods while retreating from the thunderstorm dampening my niece’s baby shower. A flurry of texts and emails back and forth with one of my grad students ensued, and I’m happy that via a couple of hours of vacation work, we’ve taken what may be a big step forward.
Mentoring bright young scientists is one of the most rewarding parts of being an academic. And a few weeks delay can make a big difference to a grad student just starting to build a CV and facing a deadline to defend, submit a grant, or publish. This means there’s a large marginal value to dealing with a grad student’s draft even while vacationing**. (The same deadlines have less import for a well-established scientist, and so I prioritize my grad students above almost all else.)
Now, in case you’re gearing up for some work-shaming in the Replies, let me assure you that while I do work on vacation, I don’t work very hard. An hour or two a day often feels right. That’s enough science to tingle my brain, but not enough to interfere with the recharging that vacation ought to allow.
For that matter, when I’m not on vacation, I don’t work all that hard either. Or at least, not unhealthily hard. It’s important to me to come home at the end of the day and cook supper, and play a game with my son, and read a while, and perhaps watch a bit of baseball or a sitcom that I fully realize I’m not supposed to enjoy. That, and the weekend, and the occasional half-day off, keeps me refreshed and ready.
It’s all about balance – and for me, that’s a bit of science while I’m on vacation, and frequent bits of other things while I’m not. You should find your balance, too; it may well differ from mine. And if someone tells you you’re working too hard (or that you’re not working hard enough), remember that their opinion doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you’re working hard enough for the career you want but not too hard for the life you want.
Are there compromises involved here? Perhaps. At least in the short term, I know I could put in more hours and generate more science and perhaps I’d win some awards and get some headhunting phone calls. In the long run, though, that wouldn’t be my balance, and so those awards and headhunting calls can go to someone else without more than the most fleeting regret on my part. But I’ll still work – a little – on vacation.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) August 22, 2016
**^It’s all very well to argue that grad students (like everyone else) should plan around my right to a vacation, but they don’t always control these deadlines; and even when they do, I’m not sure I have it in me to sabotage a career to stand on principle. (Note to any of my grad students reading this post: this does not constitute carte blanche.)