The Thesis Whisperer

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

Research

Service

Other Activities

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.