For the last week or so I’ve been laid low with a ‘bug’ and I’ve been thinking about the pros and cons of academic life.
One of the main ‘pros’ of this career is flexibility, something that is invaluable if you have young children or if you have health issues or if you have any kind of commitment that requires you to be able to work flexibly. The downside of this, however, is that the boundary between work life and home life becomes blurred and you end up in a state in which you are never really ‘off’. But overall, I think the flexibility we enjoy is something that many workers in other jobs can only dream about.
But there is a downside to the academic career and it’s this: our work comes with a huge amount of responsibility. Although not feeling well this week I still have final year project theses to mark, end-of-semester exams to mark, papers to review and an external PhD to read. These tasks are not easily delegated for obvious reasons.
I’m remembering now the time I fell down the stairs and broke my collarbone. When a delivery guy arrived to my bioprocessing lab and asked me to sign off on a package, he commented on my arm, which was in a sling, and suggested that I should be taking time off to recover. My reply was “who’s going to run my labs then?”. The thing is, I could have asked one of my colleagues to step in but that would have been a huge imposition on them and, no disrespect to colleagues, it probably would have affected the quality of the lab which I have run for many years. In a way, being an academic is like being self-employed.
And, when I had a kidney transplant on Jan 1st 2011, I marked, a few weeks later, all my Semester One exams, not because I was being heroic but because it was my responsibility to ensure that the assessment of my students was done as accurately and fairly as possible.
In the long run none of us is irreplaceable, but replacing us at short notice is not easy, not just for colleagues who have to take up the slack, but for the students who deserve to be assessed in the fairest and most accurate ways possible.
Having said all of that, I do think the pros outweigh the cons. There are very few jobs that allow you to indulge yourself the way the academic life does. Every single thing we do provides us with opportunities to be creative and innovative and that’s something that you don’t find much in other jobs.