Most faculty aren’t doing what they do for the money. But how can you prevent your academic vocation from burdening you and everyone close to you, and swallowing your family life?

Maike Philipsen, professor at the school of education at Virginia Commonwealth University, explains that a vocation is a double-edged sword—while the passion might make up for uncertainty and stress, it can also mean difficulty prioritizing family life over work. “[Academics] wouldn’t do the job otherwise,” says Philipsen. “And that makes it hard to set boundaries and to say no.”

For many, the concept of “work-life balance” usually just considers the “work” part, leaving the “life” part as a given. But as Lisa Wolf-Wendel, professor of higher education at the University of Kansas, says, “families are greedy” too.

One solution is to either push for family-friendly policies at work such as extended leave or suspending the tenure clock—or, as far as one is able, join a workplace that already has them. Yet, there’s policy, and then there’s reality.

In a study published by the American Association of University Professors, Wolf-Wendel and Kelly Ward, associate professor of higher education at Washington State University, interviewed 120 women who were on the tenure track with children. “We learned that managing work and family occurred in spite of institutional policies,” wrote Wolf-Wendel and Ward, “not because of them.”

“Most of these women had to negotiate their own solutions without much assistance from institutional colleagues or policy.” Several could not use family-friendly policies without fear of reprisal.

Family life and changing demographics

Academic administrators have to be aware of changing demographics within their faculty, and update their policies to match, Wolf-Wendel and Ward say. Colleagues also play a role. “Senior faculty can be mentors to junior colleagues who are raising young children… Fellow junior faculty members, who begrudge their colleagues for using work/family policies, create a negative climate.”

Those colleagues that resent people who take advantage of family-friendly policies may have bought heavily into a system that works to their disadvantage. Nazima Kadir, herself an ex-academic with a PhD from an Ivy League school, wrote in an article for Times Higher Education about why she left academic life—and often railed against the hypocrisy of the people she worked with. “They often vociferously articulate against inequalities outside the ivory tower but remain silent about those within it.”

The solution is to seek a supportive workplace that practices what it preaches—and whether you’re junior or senior, making sure that you yourself become an advocate for family-friendly policies.

Our free e-book on work-life balance has personal tips that can help you avoid burnout in family and academic life. Download it here.


Quin Parker

Quin Parker

Quin Parker is a Toronto-based digital editor and writer, and is Content Marketing Manager at Top Hat.