Man working on the beach

Working on “vacation”

Photo: Working on the beach, © Yuvipanda CC BY 3.0 via 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 ( August 22, 2016

*^Quick game of Boggle, anyone?

**^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.)

21 thoughts on “Working on “vacation”

  1. Eric Lamb

    I am a bit more protected about my time off, and I think we all should be. My practice is to leave any device that connects to my work e-mail at home. I am not so important (nor do I think there are any academics who are) that there is any administrative / work related task that can’t either be delegated before leaving or wait until I return.

    While I also agree that student manuscripts should be prioritized, I wouldn’t let that interfere with a vacation. My students know when I am going to be away, and any manuscript delivered at least 3 days before I leave will be reviewed before I leave.

    Good ideas can occur anywhere (and are more likely I suspect, when away from the day-to-day), but they don’t require immediate electronic connection – I carry a notebook; any idea that still looks good on paper when I return can be passed on then.


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Sounds like you have a practice that works for you – great. I’d argue with you, though, that statements like “we all should be” aren’t helpful – my system may not be your preference, but there’s no reason that yours should be mine!

      Your student policy sounds very reasonable. Actually, I’m perennially tempted to enforce the same rule; but odd circumstances have suggested exceptions to me. Stuff happens!

      Good point about the notebook not needing electronic connection. At least, not always. If simply writing ideas down for later attention is your version of working on “vacation”, go for it!


      1. Eric Lamb

        Good point on the “should” as we each need to find the system that works for ourselves. I, however, do know a few individuals who have become burnt out over the years (both academics and people in other lines of work). I wonder if more active encouragement to step back long before the burnout became a problem would have been beneficial in preventing it.


        1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

          Agreed! That’s why I think it was very healthy that I got “work-shamed” for mentioning it. We don’t generally need folks telling us to work harder and never take a day off – that pressure is all around us. Encouragement to find a work-life balance – whatever balance works for each of us – is much more what we need.


          1. Jeannette Whitton

            I was recently asked what I think the biggest challenge to faculty recruitment/ retention will be in the future (over the next 10 years). I said work life balance issues (and real estate prices, because Vancouver…). I see more and more very talented people who love science, are good at it, but say they don’t love it enough to give up what they imagine (or witness others) giving up. I don’t hold the opinion that we need more people who will (or will claim to) work themselves to the bone; in fact, I think this mystique is a mistake. We discourage talented people from the “best job on the entire planet” based on their meeting a standard of dedication that is likely unhealthy, unsustainable, and grounded in a reality that has not existed for a few decades (the single income family). Are there any studies to suggest that healthy work-life balance negatively impacts any industry?
            All that aside, I am still debating taking my laptop on vacation next week, in part because I know there will be no data and no wifi, so it’s sort of like bringing a fancy notebook. In my case, my intention would be only to work on my own writing.


  2. Jeremy Fox

    I’m totally fine with your way of balancing work and non-work. I’m here to shame you for your choice of beach reading. Dick Francis?! Really? Even if you want something light/pacey/pulpy, you can’t do any better than that? Elmore Leonard maybe?

    Just giving you a hard time, obviously. 🙂


        1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

          Both James and Rendell get a bit tiringly psychological for me at times (especially the non-Wexford Rendells). Ian Rankin? Ellis Peters? And British crime fiction is great, sure, but it’s rarely as much straight-out fun as Lawrence Block or Carl Hiassen…


          1. Jeff Houlahan

            Not to turn this into a ‘what I read on my summer vacation’ post but for sheer artistry – great writing that happens to fall into a genre – James Lee Burke, Ken Bruen and George Pelecanos.


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