Saying yes, saying no: 4 years tracking my voluntary academic activities

Recently in my Twitter circle, I’ve been part of a few conversations about academic workloads, work-life balance, and managing the pressure of early career researcher decision-making. It forced me to recall a post from January 2017, where I committed to putting some limits on the ‘voluntary’ parts of our job. But as you may recall from my post summarizing 2018, I kinda lost track of this once my youngest son weaned, my husband quit his part-time job, and I basically got more freedom to be a workaholic.

My favourite article on academic work-life balance of all time is this one by Radhika Nagpal, who still, in my opinion, works way too much but at least has a strategy for it. I like the upbeat tone of Radhika’s piece, and her genuine love of her job and her colleagues. Like me, she believes you need to set a sustainable workload wherever you are in your career, and not fob off life until you have your PhD/got tenure/insert life goal here. The strategy I took from her article is to set firm limits on the ‘voluntary’ things one commits to each year at work. As we all know, the academic world basically thrives on forms of voluntary and unpaid labour, and most academics work more than their 37.5 paid hours per week.We do actually need this labour to keep the system going, PhDs must be examined, journal articles peer reviewed, open days staffed, colleagues and student mental health attended to.

For the record, it is pretty awesome getting to have a career where you can, in many ways, choose what you want to do. The problem is, some of us ‘choose’ our way into time management nightmares, hurting our families and letting people down when we can’t deliver. In one of my earliest mentoring sessions as a new academic, a professor told a group of us that he kept putting off stuff until he got promoted, but by the time he was promoted he was also divorced. Grim.

So in 2017, I set some limits on some of the ‘voluntary’ parts of our job. I realise that these are not completely voluntary, and the further along in my career I get, the more responsibility I feel for helping colleagues, students, and making sure the university runs smoothly. But I need to remind myself that I can’t do everything, and I especially can’t do everything well if I am over-committed. In the table below, I track some of my activities over the last four years, in order to stocktake where I am as we come up to the middle of 2019. I’ve highlighted some areas I will discuss below in more detail.

Frequency (MAX) 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 (MAY)
Book Reviews 1/year 1 0 1  1 1
Refereeing Book Manuscripts/


1/year 0 1  0 0
Refereeing Articles 2/for every article I submit 3 3  4 1 1
Editing Books/special issues 1/5 years 0 0 1  1 2*
Monographs 1/10 years 0 0 1  1 1*
PhD Examinations 1/year 0 0  1 0
External Reviews of Curricula 1/year 0 1  1 0
Leadership Roles in Committees/

National Bodies

2 at a time 2 2 2 2
Overnight Conferences (Domestic) 2/year 1 1  1 1
Conferences (International) 1/year 1 3 1
Other international Trips 1/year 2 1 1 3**
Service Roles/

Committees in University

2/year 1 3 3  2
Organising Conferences 1/5 years 0 0 1 1*
School talks/local talks 2/year

(1/semester )

2 2 ? 1
New Teaching Modules 2 /year

(1/semester )

2 2 1  1
Grant applications submitted
2/year 1 4 1 1
First authored Articles submitted
2/year 1 3 2  3
Other articles (response pieces, 3rd author, or with students) submitted
2/year 1 1 3  3
PhD/Masters primary supervisions 2/masters per year, 4 PhDs at one time 1 PhD 2 Masters, 5 PhDs 2 Masters, 5 PhDs 6PhDs 6 PhDs
Second supervisions 1 PhD 2 PhDs 3 PhDs 5 PhDs 5PhDs
Chapters in edited books incl handbooks 1/year 1 1  1 2 4
Popular articles/


Flexible, depending on pay, timing, and work 1  5 3 1
PI on funded research projects 1/time 1 1 1*
Media projects 2/year 1 4 4

* These are the same project, repeated over multiple years, for example, I submitted and resubmitted my monograph 3 years in a row! The conference took two years to organise; the edited book is the same book over 3 years plus a new one beginning 2019. And so on.

**I don’t know how to count this, I had an international travel fellowship, so visited 7 countries in 3 months, my family was with me for some of this. I counted the trips away from my family.

On Leadership Roles

Well, as we can see I have quite frequently gone over my limits, but also in other areas have been better at cutting back. But I think what I need to be careful of is cutting back on high visibility, low effort activities and overdoing it on low visibility, high effort activities. For example, when I got pregnant in 2018, I pulled out of a lot of international and national leadership roles. While I certainly don’t miss these and I am enjoying working on an edited book, I think in retrospect, I could have taken maternity leave and retained those roles via skype or Zoom pretty easily. This is because if every time a woman has a baby she pulls out of leadership roles, we are not going to have very good leadership around issues that affect women with babies. I take some inspiration from Jacinda Adern here! Instead, what I did was retain all the roles that I felt someone ‘needed me’, probably out of a false sense of self-importance. The glaringly obvious thing here is an overload in PhD supervisions.

On Supervision

In order to better track how much time I really spend on PhD supervisions, I added a second row, which are the students where I serve on their committees but am not primary supervisor. In my primary supervisions, the committee members are not expected to do a lot. The workload is, in most but not all cases, probably 80% me, 20% them. But in some of my secondary supervisions, I find that the workload is more like 60/40 or even 50/50! There is a lot to be said here about supervision styles and personal experience of being supervised, gender, experience as an international student, and more. A lot of it is ‘my own fault’ and ‘my own choice’. But the reality is, when the sh*t hits the fan, I put in the time to get it done, over and above my other work, even if I am not ‘responsible’. So I need to take that into account when I let things go or take things up. It is very hard for me to watch people I have some kind of relationship with flounder, and near impossible to let them fail. Sometimes, if I am consistently doing extra work with a student, they end up transferring to me as first supervisor. This isn’t ideal, but does at least help make the work of that relationship more visible. But at this point in my own journey of personal development, the best solution is to not take on more relationships.

On academic vs popular outputs

You will note here I put limits on journal articles, but not on popular articles. I also have added some new tracking on media projects and funded research projects. I wonder what people think here. I am currently starting to think journal articles are mostly a wasted of time. I understand it is part of my job and I will continue to do it, but really, I don’t know if I even really want to talk to other academics that much. I mean, I can easily write journal articles — I am well past the worries of an early career/PhD scholar who is not sure if they can get their work published. But when I look at my downloads of and citations on journal articles compared to readers of this blog — well, the impact is not super high. I have enjoyed writing some more popular outputs, and also experimenting with media communications. I hope to start a podcast on making other world’s possible when I am done on my current video projects (one of which is here).

I also want to make sure the journal articles I do produce are high quality, the result of deep work and thought, which can then inform my other activist and real world work. For all these reasons, I think I need to limit journal article submissions. But I think I need a better way of measuring it. I like helping PhD and Masters students get publications, but I also need to make sure I am advancing my own intellectual project. So first authored articles should certainly be doing that. I also need some better way to track and decide on open access vs paywalled. Paywalled articles seem really dumb in this day and age, but so many open access journals look crappy.

On saying yes and saying no

  • I do know I need to get better at saying no.Spending more time at home working and less time in the office helps a bit.
  • But also don’t want to lose the element of richness and surprise that comes with saying yes to interesting things. Being part of rich international networks helps.
  • Having a limit on things is useful, but I need to think about where I am consistently making decisions based on feelings of guilt and responsiblity, and to take stock of the things I really want to do.
  • On the other hand, running a programme and university takes collective responsibility, and I don’t want to land my colleagues in it by refusing to help.
  • The problem with metrics is that they become targets, rather than limits.
  • I want to say yes to some amazing and unexpected things without the fear of dropping everything else — but I also want to recognise that in the next period (having a breastfeeding baby) it’s OK to say no more than yes.

So what are your thoughts on these limits? Do you have limits on your ‘voluntary’ work? What are some of the rich surprises and greatest stressors?

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