What does academic work look like?

As you probably know, in addition to being director of research training and blogging, I am an active researcher in the area of research education, particularly post PhD employability. Occasionally I like to colour outside the lines by dabbling in related fields of study. One area that interests me is the nature and extent of academic work – particularly over work. There is an appalling – and mystifying lack of research – on academic work hours, especially considering Academia is a huge, globalised industry employing hundreds of thousands of people worldwide and bringing in uncounted millions in revenue for governments and private providers.

There’s an old saying that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. To my knowledge, there is no recent time and motion study of academics so we really have no idea how many hours they work. Work planning for academics usually starts with an estimate of how they will spend their time to meet expectations, which is then negotiated with employers, with or without the help of a Union. I say this with love, but academics tend to be optimistic time managers who just work over time to accommodate their unrealistic promises.

Most academics I know work at least one day on the weekend and will answer emails at all hours. We do this because we love our work, which makes us very easy to exploit. Workplace exploitation has real consequences. I’ve been feeling compelled to do something in this area since I heard the sad story of Dr Malcolm Andersen. Dr Andersen’s story, and the grief of his family at losing him, really affected me. I stopped seeing this lack of research around academic labour as a curious oversight, and started seeing it as a matter of life and death that I wanted to do something about.

I started by writing a few thought pieces about it. I have a regular column in the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) newsletter The Advocate for about seven years now (it’s a great place to publish my most extreme political rants so that you don’t have to put up with it on the Whisperer!). I wrote a column about Malcolm Andersen here and I wrote about my own struggles with time ‘management’ here, where I declared my intention of using the app Timing to measure my own work hour and compare it to the expectations stated in my annual performance review. Late last year I reported back in The Advocate on that self experiment in an article called ‘Chewing on the FAT’. This post consists of an analysis of the data I had collected, which showed how much paid – and unpaid – time I was actually spending at work. Here’s a long quote from the article which has some of the results of my analysis:

Approximately 37.9 hours a week (2.9 hours more than I am paid for) were spent on ANU work. The rest was dedicated to my own projects, such as blogging. Due to the nature of my role, which is not a conventional faculty position, my work allocation is 50% teaching, 30% service and 20% research. Looking at my graphs, I am adhering to one part of this work plan directive: just over half my time is spent either in the classroom, or doing related tasks like preparing teaching and preparing reports. 

What is more interesting is the amount of ‘invisible work’ that I do to achieve this goal of 50% teaching – on the pie graph above it’s in purple (communication) and pink (administrative work, like filling in forms). Invisible work is a term coined by Anselm Strauss and Susan Leigh Star to describe forms of work that are not usually recognised AS work. It’s what my friend Ben Kraal calls “the work you do to do the work you do”. Teaching doesn’t just happen: teaching rooms must be booked, equipment needs to be working, tutors need briefings, guest lectures must be co-ordinated and administration systems negotiated so that marks can be sent to students. All this can be considered invisible work.

Although they might not name it as such, academics complain about invisible work a lot – for good reason. This work is rarely, if ever, measured, and so slips away from management view. My analysis shows that every individual email seems like a tiny spoonful of work, but clearing my inbox everyday takes more than 10% of my total time (some academics I know just ignore their overflowing inbox, but the nature of my role means this is not an option for me). Added up, the data show that for every substantive task I must add a 30% overhead of FAT (‘F*^k around time’). To avoid working overtime, I must squeeze other parts of my work to make room for the FAT. I can see the results in my service work, down to 5%, and my research time, currently sitting at 11% (half the time I am allocated). 

This invisible work is, I believe, the main reason academics complain about being ‘busy’ all the time. Tasks like email, meetings, attending to budgets and other administration work eats into the time academics have for other, arguably more important, tasks like teaching and research. PhD students directly feel the effects of this busyness. I suspect many of the complaints I field from students in my everyday work is the result of invisible work cutting into the time a supervisor would otherwise spend mentoring and talking about things related to the research work. The problem of invisible work is even more crucial for contingent faculty who are paid by the hour. An hourly rate of $42 for tutoring sounds ok, unless you factor in the three hours you might spend preparing and answering email. When I was a by the hour tutor I once worked out that I earned less per hour than I did working in retail.

We need further data so that we can see the nature and extent of the problem of academic invisible work more clearly. At the end of the article on Chewing the FAT I flippantly suggested that I had 11% of my time to do a project studying academic overwork, if the NTEU wanted to fund it. I’m grateful that Dr Karine Dupre, an academic in the field of architecture at Griffith university, who read the article and took me up on the dare. We started designing a study, starting with the idea of providing a group of academics with the Timing app to see if we could replicate my diary study at a bigger scale. Karine negotiated a small research grant from the Griffith branch of the NTEU and approached the developer of the Timing app for a discounted rate on the product, so we could enrol more people in the study. I then recruited my friend Dr Susan Mayson from Monash University. Sue is an expert on employment relations and human resource management and has subject matter expertise that Karine and I do not.

Setting up a study like this forces you to ask interesting questions, some of which sound quite basic, like: what exactly do academics do all day? For those of you not in the know, the usual way that universities try to divide up academic work is into three categories: ‘learning and teaching’, ‘research and the fuzzy’, catch all term of ‘service’. We think there is an emerging category of other, which we have added at the end of our list. This list provides a bit of food for thought in terms of what else might be going on your supervisor’s life:

Learning & Teaching

  • course delivery (face-to-face)
  • preparation
  • marking
  • administration
  • people management (tutors)
  • thinking and reflecting
  • travel (e.g. for class delivery/meetings)


  • PhD student meetings
  • PhD reading and reviewing student work
  • PhD administration (e.g. milestones review, assessor finding)
  • Project doing (analysis, data gathering etc)
  • Project meeting
  • Project administration
  • Project/grant writing
  • writing (articles, books etc)
  • Article follow-up (e.g. revision, media)
  • Management (e.g. steering committee)
  • Thinking and reflecting
  • Conference and workshops (organisation and/or attendance)
  • Travel (to conference, etc.)
  • Learning new skills


  • Reviewing (academic articles, textbook, NTEU documents, etc.)
  • Committees (LT, R, Equity, Health & Safety, etc.)
  • Faculty/Discipline/School/University meetings
  • Leadership activities (Program Director, HDR convenor, etc.)
  • External & professional engagement/leadership
  • Mentoring
  • Thinking and reflecting

Other Activities

  • Email
  • Blogging
  • Mainstream media engagement
  • Online engagement/social media

Reflecting on this list is a little bit exhausting! I’m writing about the work here as we are now recruiting for the study and I know that a lot of working academics read the blog and might want to be involved. Some students might even want to send this post to their very busy supervisor! We only have a small amount of funding and time, so we would like to start with looking at the work of academics working in the Australian system at level C (senior lecturer) or level D (associate professor) – and only Mac users at this stage, as Timing is not available on the PC (sorry!). Our hunch is that these people, as ‘middle managers’ are likely to be burdened with the most amount of invisible work. Of course, eventually we would like to broaden our enquiry to contingent workers and others to get a better sense of extent of the problems, but maybe next year. I only have 11% of my time to spend!

If you’re interested in taking part in our study, here is the link for the expression of interest.

What do you think of our list? Have we missed anything? Do you have other suggestions for what a diary study might encompass? Love to hear your thoughts in the comments.




44 thoughts on “What does academic work look like?

  1. john ting says:

    Hi Inger, excellent idea for a research project I think. I wonder if the results will be skewed due to the limitation to Mac users? Would it tend towards a certain profile? Just a question that I have no answer to!

  2. Tom Worthington says:

    Interesting that academics research everyone else but not themselves: a case of ‘”Physician, heal thyself”.

    It may be difficult to measure when an academic is “working”. I get a lot of heavy thinking done on the walk from home to the office. But you would not know to look at me that I was working.

    If academics work long hours and answer emails at all hours because they love the job, that is fine. But I worry they do it because they have not been trained in how to work efficiently and effectively.

    A way to combat workplace exploitation is to train academics in good work practice, and a professional approach. Answering all student emails as soon as they arrive is not efficient, or effective. Staff can be show how to answer queries, and more importantly, design course materials which answer questions before they are asked, to reduce workload, and stress on staff.

    Disciplines with a strong professional focus, such as engineering and computing, already teach professional skills. Students work in teams on tasks, learning to manage workload and team issues. This approach, I suggest, could be applied more widely to training academics to be professionals. Graduates are then more prepared to face workplace stresses, including those working in academia. ANU’s TechLauncher program is one example. https://blog.highereducationwhisperer.com/search/label/TechLauncher

  3. Narelle says:

    I look forward to seeing the results of this research!
    I do question the need for “other activities” though. Email is a fact of life (whether you’re an academic, EA or a CEO) so this cuts across all three allocations and should be included in all if for no other reason that to consider the loads across the three areas (i.e. I’d be interested to know if one has more email than the other). As for blogging, and media (social or otherwise), I see this as engagement and should be under Service. Engagement is a very important part of academic life and it needs to be valued more highly generally by the powers that be. How you do this engagement though (e.g. blogging vs outreach into schools etc) can be quite different for different disciplines and intended outcomes. I would like to see engagement in all its forms considered as an important and valuable use of time!

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Thanks Narelle – and excellent points. We are separating them out for now, but part of the work will be talking about how these are not clearly defined activities at the moment. As a consequence, they tend to slip away from management view, which has all kinds of consequences. Just putting a number on the amount of labour is our first step towards unpacking all these interesting questions…

    • richardhuysmans says:

      Agreed Narelle – on both counts. I think all “other” could easily move to one of the other three categories. I do note that for things like blogging, media engagement and social media to be in one of the other three, their value needs to be recongised as being a key metric for promotion.

  4. richardhuysmans says:

    I wonder if this extra work could be handled by an assistant. In larger corporations an assistant (on or off-shore) is seen as an investment. The executives’ time is worth $xxxx/hr and the assistants’ time is worth $x/hr (i.e. 1/4). The shifting of work to other people free’s the executive to do the work they have been hired to do – not manage email, meetings, bookings etc. I know that academics – through necessity, desire, force or other – have moved away from having an assistant. Is it time to bring them back? Will that result in a net benefit for the system? Academics already “exploit” PhD students to get more research done, why not engage an off-shore assistant to help with email and diary management?

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      I as talking with someone about this exact thing last night – it would provide more people with work, but I doubt the system could afford it at the moment. At least with current workforce structures and the caps on student numbers…

  5. Arushi Garg says:

    Thank you so much for this valuable post. I’m really looking forward to reading more about this project and your findings.

    I was curious about one thing. I realise the need to prioritise, but I was wondering why you chose to start with Level C and D posts. While I study in a different country, I would imagine that it is the TAs, fixed term lecturers and others on less secure contracts who feel the impact of the factors you describe most acutely. Especially if they feel they HAVE to accept unfair employment arrangements because they are not on complete funding, or because they need to get some work ex on their CV to land a secure job. Is this less likely to be true in Australia?

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, we talked about that a lot. In the end we decided to start with the people who we assume have the most ‘conventional’ academic forms of work, so that we can establish a baseline. It’s not to say they are feeling all the pressures, but it’s likely they will have a higher administrative load than early career researchers. Ultimately, we would like to map the whole workforce, but we’ll need a much bigger grant and sample size to do it. This is really proof of concept research – no one has tried to use this kind of productivity software to look at this problem. Finding out whether the approach works at all is a big part of the project.

  6. madnecessity says:

    Fascinating. Very excited to hear what you find out. Regarding other, potentially adding to the list professional practice? Its a bit of a grey area, but institutions I’m associated with expect that you continue some kind of professional practice in your area, but quite often this is hard to swing as “research”. Sometimes is paid by others, sometimes it’s not, but it always feels like work.

  7. Julia says:

    Excellent idea! Am not a Mac user, but have been self experimenting for a while keeping track of my time with an app called Manic time for PC. Might be useful for the PC user stage of your study? 🙂

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Hi Julia – if you have a good way of keeping track, I’d be very interested in talking with you. If you are interested, do put your name on the form and we can chat about how it might work. Thanks!

  8. Alice says:

    Great idea! I think you have missed writing references, for undergrad and postgrad students and for researchers, often several years after you have parted. This can easily add an extra hour to each week. And examining PhDs, if not already there. And I agree with the comment below which suggests duties/activities for professional bodies. This is a professional expectation, and as an engineer academic I am expected to be an active member of my institution. And I rather disagree with the comment suggesting that engineers are better at managing their time- I’ve worked for years in industry, but I don’t see either myself or my colleagues managing not to work excessive hours if we want to progress- or even stay – in academia!
    Good luck with an excellent project.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Thanks for the great suggestions Alice – I think industry engagement is much wanted, but the time commitments to do it well might be the reason it is moving slower than the government and others would like

  9. Katie Marshall says:

    Instead of using a Mac-only piece of software and potentially biasing your sample, why not use Toggl (www.toggl.com) which works on Mac, Linux, and PC?

  10. handstandby50 says:

    In the UK, ‘profile and PR’. Covers much of your ‘Other’ plus the work done promoting the school/uni to the outside world. Sadly I’d put most things badged as knowledge exchange into this category, along with the overseas trips to tout for business and endless drive to have a personal public online profile.
    And time study results will depend on proximity to REF and whether the uni is going through cuts/restructuring…

  11. Charles Knight says:

    The big problem of course is free labour. When I started my professional career, one rule that I made was that I’d never work for free. When I became an academic, I was astonished to find the profession was full of opportunities to provide highly skilled labour for free for mega-corps.

    I stuck to my rule of always needing to be paid and if it’s made a difference to my career I cannot detect it. It does mean however the job is manageable (partly because if a piece of work doesn’t get done, it doesn’t get done).

    I do have 70 hours of pro-bono hours that I use across the year (which actually reset on the 1st April) but these have to be for organisations and individuals who actually couldn’t pay. Megacorp journal does not get free labour for peer review for example.

  12. Katie Marshall says:

    Another missing category under “Teaching” is office hours–I spend ~5h a week meeting with students outside of class to help them through material (more during crunch times).

  13. Zoe says:

    Will your survey account for me doing a significant portion of email, much reading and some lecture prep on my phone, and that I work across 2 computers? I’m not even sure how to begin capturing where my work ‘happens’ just on the array of devices, let alone what was keeping me awake at 3am!

  14. Steph says:

    I’m not sure if you are aware of this but in the UK all universities have to return data on time use by its staff to HESA. I fill in a week’s worth of my use of time 3x a year. Also covers all admin staff, technicians etc. So the data for a large population already exists.

  15. andrewm says:

    Great project. There should be so much more research on workloads. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. My simple principle, followed neither by universities nor by most academics themselves, is “work is work”. It’s simple but no one ever quite gets it, which in itself tells you something (and I don’t think tbh that even the union quite gets it, which also tells you something). It means that anything we do for the university, in the course of our job, is work. That is, there are all kinds of academic work that for some reason or other, either academics themselves, or increasingly, administrators, treat as not real work (because it’s enjoyable, because it’s just an add-on, or training, or a workshop, or career development, or even research, or just answering emails, or it’s just reading, or because we do it at home, or it involves travel, etc etc etc). One simple consequence is that most work we do is simply not counted, not even in workload formulae (which are the alibis for management absence from real responsibility for the organisation of work, and not much more than this a lot of the time). I was once in Denmark in residence at a university. The people there kindly offered to take me to Berlin with them. The only other non-Dane in the room was an English person. We had a meeting to plan the trip. The Danes said ‘well of course we’ll have to apply for time off to account for the time we spend travelling and away from our homes’. The English guy and I shared a subtle but it has to be said astonished look across the room.

  16. andrewm says:

    PS many academics do love their work (there are aspects of it that I still love) but I actually think things have moved on from that. In many academic workplaces it’s now simple a matter of very high workloads being squeezed out of academics more or less by threat, coercion and what is really a panoply of demands that are increasingly forceful with regard staff time and on the nature of their work (and what it is that in the past made academics love it). A great deal of love is lost here, but the workload only increases.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      I fear this is what is happening – for a long time universities have relied on the, for lack of a better way to put it, ‘vocation’ oriented employee. I wonder how much longer they can make the assumption that love for the work will outweigh the drawbacks of very long weeks. I know the only reason some colleagues are still in academia is the assumption that they have limited options ‘outside’.

      • andrewm says:

        Yes. The previous VC here once said something such as “but isn’t it a vocation?”, as he introduced one neoliberal “reform” after another. I guess I think on this that academics are in some ways not their own best friends (which is better than calling people their own worst enemies). We add and add and keep so much of the old (some of which should be kept but some of which is pretty outmoded … e.g. intensive competition and exaggerated cultures of mutual surveillance, as Stefano Harney once put it). Academics (and their institutions which add and add in another way .. mostly I think because the way you prove yourself as a manager these days, in line management, is to fulfil your KPTs via adding processes and moving on) need to learn to subtract, especially processes, and not individually but collectively. Although, I often think we are losing the collectivity of the academy, if we ever had it (so I’m grateful to find it within networks such as that here energised by your blog and those of others). You’re also right on limited options ‘outside’ … I certainly feel that way to a large degree (and I’m older so … ). I often say that when it comes to universities, everyone outside of them wants to get in, and everyone inside them wants to get out. However, some days I wonder whether, if more organised, there might not be many paths to the outside. Personally I give universities such as they are, especially in Australia, and the UK, maybe 5 to 10 years anyway before they collapse under their own weight, and via challenges from all kinds of other provisions of learning (and I guess research although this will not be the main factor). I know too many people on the outside who are too good at what they do, and there are too many media-technical means available now that make this breakdown of the university possible, and universities are simply too expensive for what they provide to students.

        • andrewm says:

          PS thanks so much for this. I’m currently working on a workload project myself. Basics of why it goes so wrong but also deeper principles.

  17. Jo VanEvery, PhD (@JoVanEvery) says:

    This is so important. I’ve been thinking about the invisible parts of academic work myself, in relation to helping academics organize their workload and set priorities (and make more realistic commitments). Most of that work is NECESSARY if invisible. So email is a means of asynchronous communication about something in one of those other categories. It beats the heck out of having people phoning or knocking on your door to interrupt you. However, because of that, some people are less thoughtful about what they are sending by email and how they are communicating than they could be, which creates a lot of unnecessary work of filtering out things and doing a lot of emotional labour around deciding whether and how to respond.

  18. Kate Bowles says:

    Hi Inger, sending a wave to this very good initiative from my current workplace: airport while travelling. So familiar.

    I have some questions about what’s missing from your teaching categories. Things that don’t fit easily into your list for anyone working with large classes include all student-related “people management” in addition to normal academic consultation, including processing of formal requirements such as disability accommodation or system-managed extensions, withdrawals, analytics-driven interventions, etc. “Marking” is a thin description of everything including assessment committee processes, calibration and lodging of grades, work that in itself increasingly comes with a QA piece. QA as a whole, in fact, is a large gap, especially as more universities are teaching across locations including offshore. Curriculum design, and the associated committee processing, is missing — this is the equivalent of grant and project design in research. And the whole LMS piece is missing, a very substantial piece of routine and repetitive labour — the work you do in order to make invisible the work you do, to remix Ben Kraal.

    I’m really interested in the fact that so much of the invisible labour of teaching is literally invisible even to people who are looking to list it. I think this reason might be that this under-layer has expanded very, very rapidly in the last 3-5 years. We don’t yet have a language for it, but the twin drivers of casualisation and quality assurance have created a really big sinkhole under the traditional labour of teaching, and both casual and secure academics are falling through it.

    Really good luck with this great project.

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