Updated: Apr 5, 2021
The basis for a western economy is the exchange of money for value. The problem is that what is and isn’t seen as valuable is subjective. I think about this a lot…
When we train students, they need to know that they will always have a job if they learn how to create and report valuable results. That’s true for any employer in or out of academia. If they work in the research environment, its research results, if it’s in industry its industry results, if it’s in science communication is the result of stories placed in the media. Irrespective of the domain, we are paid for results. If the results we’re creating aren’t valued in your industry, it becomes difficult to remain in it. Do you know what value you’re creating?
It’s important to dispel any illusion that anyone in knowledge-based industries is paid for their time. The common idea among students that they are used as ‘cheap labour' has always been problematic for me. A student may spend a lot of time, but what that time produces is not necessarily valuable, or cheap either. The intention is that there be an exchange of value, where the student is training for access to a gratifying career and the supervisor gets the eventual payoff of valuable results. It’s always about value, so if our employers (clients) don’t see that value, we don’t last.
We don’t get paid for time, and yet, time is our most valuable asset. As post-docs and more acutely as lab-heads/leaders, the competing demands for our time becomes relentless. And this is where I think most of us need to rethink how we operate. In an earlier blog, I mentioned my struggles with keeping a calendar. Now, my entire working week is mapped out in detail. In addition to the normal meetings, time is blocked out for deep work on each result I aim to produce (front page of a grant, figure 2a for manuscript, difficult email etc…). I’m not quite there yet with self-accountability, but the idea is for 8 hours each sleep, work and time-off. Where the latter includes all the normal adulting, plus at least one hour of self-care such as yoga, a walk, or laughter with a good friend. I’ve read enough self-help to believe that sleep and time-off are essential, but limiting work to 8 hours is still challenging and still eats into time off more than I'd like (1). I didn’t value my own time for most of my life so its hard to unlearn. If this is you too, then don't be surprised when others don’t value your time much either. If you're like me, you likely never modeled its value.
My Schedual is set Monday mornings, then I use a visual timer to help me focus on getting the work done.
If you’re wanting to argue with me about the need for all that time off and self-care, neuroscience is against you. Study after study shows that you cannot access the creative part of your brain if you’re in burnout and don’t give your prefrontal cortex enough downtime. Worse, if you’re low-level stressed most of the time, the cortisol in your system is likely reducing your cognitive capacity and might be doing some long-term harm as well. As I write this I’m also thinking of A/Prof Erica Sloan’s work showing that stress is like fertiliser for cancer...
So, if we only have 8 hours at work what do we spend our valuable time on? Well, not the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee! Unless our institutions have signalled that it holds real value for them by having assigned a budget, strategic outcomes and salary-loading for the leader. But that’s the problem, right? Even when our institutions don't, most of us do want to spend some of our time improving organisational culture. In fact, most of us quite are passionate about it... But here's the problem, what I’ve seen my coaching clients do is procrasti-work with it. It’s so much easier (and gratifying-in-the-moment) to help others than the to do the hard work of shutting the office door to grapple with a new manuscript (2). My approach is to do service as an individual, not on behalf of my institution. In my own time, I can do whatever I like, but while I’m at work, I’m going to be doing the work of leading my team to create the most valuable results we can.
The results my institution values are grants, papers and student completions. Do they value it when women expend emotional labour to improve the institutional culture? Yes of course, but not enough to prioritise it with how money/resources get distributed. Has anyone ever received a performance bonus for running the ECR mentoring program? I don’t think so (I hope someone will write to me to tell me I'm worng). But I know from experience that high impact papers will get you one. The results funders value are probably even more limited. Yes, we all need to tick the ‘service’ box, but at assessment, that will not be prioritised ahead of the more conventional metrics of success.
I’m not thrilled that this is where we are. But there’s also no point deluding ourselves that the world is different than it is. So, what next? We must clarify what our value is and how it fits within our institutions. If you believe strongly that you have something valuable that is yet to be organisationally recognised, it's on you to explain that value so that you can keep going (3). Otherwise, my view is we focus on what IS valued until we are senior enough to have the power to make the changes we'd like to see. For now, I’m on the latter path; quietly subversive as I progress toward full professor and my ultimate ambition of professor emeritus. Once there, there’s no telling what might be possible!
Ok full disclosure, I currently work ~9-10 hours on weekdays but am trying to reduce that by increasing my efficiency. I rarely work weekends, and when I do it’s on the critical things like grants and papers only. The work/practice for my coach certification is ~10 per week in my time off.
I'm a repeat offender for this too. If you recognise yourself doing this, STOP IT. People-pleasing may have worked through to post-doc. But once you’re leading a team you need to prioritise the work that gets your team funded and you promoted.
This is a really hard row to hoe. I admire the mavericks who attempt it, but they, even more than the likes of me (who are on the traditional path) need to ration their time and energy.