Is there ever balance on the tenure track?

-guest post by Michele Schlehofer

I was in a workshop last summer and someone—a retiree who, among other things, taught time management—made a statement that will forever stick with me. He said something to the effect of “I hate it when people say they ‘don’t have the time.’ Of course you do! There are 10,080 minutes in a week. If you sleep 8 hours a night, that leaves 6,720 minutes. If you work full time (40 hours a week, plus an hour a day drive time), that leaves 4,020 minutes. Let’s estimate another 3 hours a day devoted to getting ready for work, cooking dinner, and doing errands. That still leaves 2,760 remaining minutes a week, or 46 hours! Where does all that time go?”

Assuming I did my math right, where does that time go, indeed? Put like that, I am at a loss to explain why I haven’t yet cleaned off my desk, started to remodel my bathroom, or learned to cook gourmet food. I offered to start this month’s blog post on “work-life balance” because I think this is an important, but often overlooked, concern that we should have. How can we, as new faculty members, obtain work-life balance and still achieve the coveted “tenure”? I see “balance” as one of those elusive concepts—we all want it, we all suggest that others have it, we are respectful of those that have it, and yet, at the same time, many (most?) of us can’t quite seem to obtain it for ourselves. I often have such a hard time with just what I call my “work-work” balance…that is, balancing my teaching and research…“life” seems to get squished in around it. And personal time? Once I add in the fact that I’m a mother of a toddler, I find very little (or no) time for myself.

I remember starting graduate school with the philosophy, “hit the ground running.” I was going to go in, wow everyone with my diligence and productivity, and make it to the top of the class. I am not sure if I actually accomplished all that, however, I can say that I worked to the point where I felt unable look out of windows because natural light hurt my eyes too much. Then, my advisor dropped the bomb: graduate school was the “fun” time, and I should enjoy it now, because the workload would only increase once I obtained a faculty position. My immediate thoughts were something like: What?!? Even the military only gives 110%. And, is it possible to hook an energy drink up to an IV?!?

Then, while I was working on my dissertation, I had my son. At the time I was also a single parent. Finally, a revelation: I physically, mentally, and spiritually could not live the rest of my life putting work first, second, third, and fourth. So, at that point, I started to take other’s advice on balance much more seriously, and make “balance” a personal goal.

Now in my second year on the tenure track, I like to think that I’ve improved a bit upon work-life balance since my graduate school days. There are concrete markers of this; for instance, I no longer have to wear sunglasses indoors because my eyes hurt. However, I also think I have quite a ways to go. I’m balancing things much better: I do all the usual tactics to prevent work from overwhelming me, such as be very selective in my commitments, learning to say “no,” becoming more organized, prioritize, etc. However, that old friend “guilt” nevertheless creeps up on me at the most inopportune moments, reminding me that my personal and family time is short-lived, as tasks are hanging over my head. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I haven’t been able to let myself enjoy a family function or even a movie because I can’t stop thinking about everything else I “need” to be doing. Or, how many times I’ve brought work to a family function to do during my “downtime” (usually, when everyone else is having a great time playing a game of touch football or eating pie). Unfortunately, I think that those of us who are parents also get guilt both ways: guilt that I have to stay late in the lab, or that I have a weekend work commitment, and hence will not be home to spend time with my son.

So, my questions for us all are: What have others used to try to achieve balance on the tenure track? What has worked, and what has not? What can we do to alleviate this “work is hanging over my head” feeling, so that the time we take for our family or ourselves is more enjoyable? And, what can we as new faculty members do to support one another in these efforts?

[Note: This post was originally contributed as part of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues Early Career Committee 2009 blog.]