Thursday, August 13, 2015

Changes for the Next 40 Years: Balanced Academics? Is that even possible?

by Kai Chan
[Part 3 of 2—first encore! At 40, I’m still a prof, and still an idealist. In part 1, I identified four points of contention in my turbulent relationship with academia. In part 2, I pointed to three things that kept me in academia, three unexpected gifts. I was buoyed by the feedback I received from people enjoying my explicit consideration of balance, idealism and metrics of impact in academia. In response to multiple requests for forward-looking thoughts, I’ve added a two-part encore.]
It seems like an oxymoron, academics with work-life balance? If a balanced person becomes an academic,
Oxymoron or moron? Balanced and multi-tasking?
The truth is that this photo was taken for Grist,
after I won a survival kit including some juice.

don’t they inevitably become frantically overworked? And if a prof gets work-life balance, isn’t only because they’re academically ‘dead wood’? If I’m going to stick it out in academia for several more decades, here is one priority I’ll be working towards, actively and by example.
The prototypical professor is badly overworked, with little time for family and friends, perhaps judging his students in part on whether they’re in the lab on weekends. Times are changing, but not fast enough. Whereas my father missed my birth and the first few months of my life on sabbatical (no one faults him; it’s a long story), and many dads in his generation never changed a diaper, virtually every male colleague I know with young children took a parental leave to participate substantially in child rearing. Yet colleagues and I still hear profs demeaning assistant professors and grad students for not wanting it enough if they’re not chained to their desks long into the evening.
But we’ll change this.
First, we’ll challenge them. Whenever we hear someone casting aspersions on a colleague or student for not working extra hours, we’ll ask what really matters. We’ll assert, “Surely what matters is what we achieve with our time, not how long or when we work.” I have heard no rejoinder for such an assertion.
Second, we’ll challenge the system. The current system favours over-working, because of the current obsession with quantity over quality (see Fischer et al.). But there are pushes that would instead reward quality over quantity. For instance, the slow scholarship movement (see, e.g., ), which fosters slow conversations, deep thought, quality products, having fun with ideas, and creative outputs. Ironically, hastiness breeds hastiness: it takes time to distinguish meaningful, substantial contributions from meaning-light, superficial ones. But we can take the time needed to engage deeply with the literature, our own data and analyses, the manuscripts we review, etc. My lab group takes pride in various elements of slow scholarship, e.g., substantial peer reviews taking many hours, featuring high standards but also a truly constructive spirit (to foster this, we write our reviews in second-person, e.g., “Dear authors, … in your manuscript …”).
Playing with my family on the Deep Cove lookout hike.
Third, we’ll model the balance we want to see. I’ve been doing this since my first daughter was born, nearly seven years ago. Even when I wasn’t on parental leave, I had my colicky daughter most of the night, walking her around the neighbourhood for hours every night. The same happened for our second daughter. For the first four years of parenthood, I probably averaged 35 hours of work a week. I have my girls for hours every day, before and after work. Weekends are family time, except in grant season. When my wife (who works two days/week) was in Toronto with her dying father for the month of February, I ran the whole show, with the help of a wonderful group of friends and kind folks.
I mean no boast. Just as no one should be penalized for their commitment to family, I deserve no praise for mine. It’s simply my choice—my own vision for a good life and a sustainable world. Balance is deeply individual.
The Valentine's Day card I got from my daughter when I
was solo-parenting and running ragged.
Also, let’s not pretend that I’m some easy-going even-keel father and scholar. Not a chance. I’m only balanced in the sense that I’m equally (and extremely) intense in work, parenting, and exercise. (I do, however, protect my sleep and firmly believe the loads of research suggesting that it is crucial for long-term health.) In that crazy month of February, yes, we had fun for Family Day, Valentine’s, and Chinese New Year, but I also ran a very tight ship and I can’t pretend that I was ever really a picture of calm. And although I might have lots of time for family when I’m in Vancouver, I’m an intense workaholic when I’m not, e.g., working for fifteen hours straight on trains and planes to make the most of the quiet to ‘get it done’. I used to practice yoga and meditate, then I largely let it slip when I became a father. That slipping was right for the time, but I’ll get back to it before long.
Savouring the flowers with my daughter, after picking her
up from preschool.
Does role-modeling work? Well, my choices were certainly shaped by those around me. My parents and my mentors all displayed an intense commitment to family and fitness. My dad retired early to do 1000-km cycle trips with my mum (they have done at least a dozen), and he recently won bronze at the World Master’s Squash Championships (ages 70-75). And I keenly recall Gretchen Daily’s words of wisdom: “I don’t care when you work or how long. I just want you to be passionate about doing great research. If you draw inspiration from long hikes in the middle of the day, go for it.”
It’s time to spread such attitudes far and wide. There’s nothing more effective than social pressure. If you’ve got a story of someone pushing an unhealthy work-life balance, or a healthy one, or any other thought, please comment below. And if your vision of academia is one that embraces balance, please share this post.
What’s the one thing that you would do, to foster the kind of balance you seek? For me, I will strive to find time every single day for play (not just the childcare routine)—mostly with my daughters, but maybe I’ll even take up fancy dancing when I’m on the road….


  1. From time to time I revisit my college graduation and the speech my anthropology department head, Bill Durham, gave. He told us a story of learning to build a fire as a child. He first tried to stuff the fire with as much wood as possible, but then learned that to burn bright, a fire needs air and space. He reminded us to leave space in our lives so that we too could burn bright. It was especially poignant as at that same ceremony I was surprised by an award for work I had done that involved a long process of learning and many hours of waiting, watching and listening to people I met, to a river, and to myself.

  2. Waaw what an excellent piece. Thank you for such an inspiration read

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