A mobile researcher’s manifesto: balance research with other aspects of life

One year ago, 1 AM in a hotel in Milan. I am alone and having a breakdown. I have been locked inside for 3 days since I got here and now I am waiting for a final e-mail from an author in order to finalise a special issue for a journal I have been co-editing, while neither having time to exit the room for a walk in the city, nor working on the collaborative paper with my colleague in Milan, the reason I went there in the first place. This is a classic scenario, along with “have a productive weekend” wishes form our colleagues, nights of cramming over deadlines on top of more deadlines, burnouts and subsequent depressions, all because of work basically taking hostage all other aspects of our lives, indefinitely.

I believe the capitalist narrative of having to always be doing something (read work) in order to validate my existence and prove my worth  has never been more relevant than in the field of research production. In the rat-race of “publish or perish”, there’s a constant pressure for us to produce more “success indicators” (i.e. articles for academic journals with high Impact Factors or other internationally recognised standards of academic quality). Another type of pressure is the myth of “doing what you love”, in which we are expected to do what we “love” all the time, otherwise we’re not dedicated enough and we don’t belong here. Whenever I was telling my previous colleagues that I do not intend to work during the course of the weekend, which was often met with raised eyebrows, I always felt I have to justify myself for wanting to have a personal and a social life, needing a break or a vacation or simply wanting to do other things for a while.

 

“And internalised values are hard to shake. Nadine Muller, lecturer in English literature and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University, suggests that academia promotes the blurring of lines between the personal and the professional – often described as “doing what you love”. This means that doctoral and early-career scholars are seldom trained in how to firmly draw that line and value themselves beyond their work,” says Muller.

In reality, doing only what you love is a privilege reserved to few at the top of the academic hierarchy, the ones who get to think big thoughts, decide who does what and for what money. The lower you go down the chain, the more menial, time consuming, draining, boring and alienating the work becomes. Think data entry and coding material, which my previous boss referred to as “monkey work”.

There are other factors that contribute towards this effect of work colonising our entire awake time: the flexibility of our schedules and the cumulative pressure of disparate demands unaware of each other. While in theory we enjoy the flexibility of not having 9 to 5 schedules, in practical terms this means no boundaries for pressures to always be working, be that 9 AM or 1AM. In addition, academic research is amongst the professions where setting firm limits on how much is enough is the hardest to do, due to the demands that come from disparate, independent sources, unaware of their cumulative effect (e.g. writing papers, dealing with bureaucracy, answering e-mails, doing reviews, coordinating reports, sometimes teaching, grading papers, coordinating theses etc.) There is constant pressure for you to do more, and more, and then some more, if not directly from your superior, then from other colleagues, and let’s be honest, we suck at saying No to other people’s requests. No wonder there are no more lines between work and the personal life we are entitled to.

I intend to become good at drawing those lines.