Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Ask a Postacademic - Question 6

Here's another great postacademic question from a reader. I've covered versions of this Q/A before, but have never seen the question about time usage in and outside of academia asked to succinctly before. So I'd like to answer it, to make my viewpoint on this absolutely clear.

I'd also like to ask the other postacademics who are adjusting to nonacademic jobs to chime in if they have a minute, either in comments or at their own blogs. We all have different jobs and live in different cities, so my opinions and experiences certainly aren't going to be representative of everyone's. I'd love to hear a few more people talk about how they feel about their flexibility of schedule since leaving academia.

Anyway, onto the question...
I'm starting to get the idea that despite my "flexible" schedule [in academia], these 8-5ers have more of a life than I do and an easier time living it (with the schedule). Is this accurate?
I think your hunch is accurate.

I mean, don't get me wrong. Having to be in the office for a regular 40 hour schedule every week can be frustrating. My family and friends are about a half day's drive away from where I live now, and I do occasionally miss the grad school days, where even with my part-time job I only had to be in the office 3 days per week and was free to take long weekends to visit them without having to count vacation days.

But all is not lost. I do have vacation time and flextime, which gives me enough time to take about one long weekend a month and a few extra days at Christmastime. That might not seem like a lot ... but even in my grad school days, I wasn't going on weekend vacations more than once a month. (And as an aside - weekends away are a lot more satisfying when you don't have a pile of academic work to do!)

So if you're a grad student who takes long weekends every single weekend and who takes extended, weeklong vacations multiple times per year? You may find a regular 8-5 work schedule pretty difficult to manage while still keeping up that travel schedule.

But if you usually only take a few trips a year, most of which are just a few days at a time? Then I don't think you'll feel egregiously oppressed by only having a few weeks off per year. Really and truly. Most nonacademic jobs aren't that inflexible - particularly the types of jobs you'll be getting with your MA or Ph.D.

This reader goes on to say: 
Because I think the "perceived" inflexibility [of the outside world] is one of the scare tactics and I feel like my current "flexibility" is actually a pair of handcuffs with the word written on them. 
This is the rub, isn't it? Grad students and academics talk about how "flexible" their schedules are - and on the surface, that's true. There are few scheduled work hours and usually only sporadic meetings and scheduled events to attend.

But the tradeoff for this, in my opinion, is the mental handcuffs that academia places on you. You might be free of work demands in reality, but you rarely feel like you are. You're mentally shackled to ideas about what you should be doing, or could be doing, or what all of your colleagues and competitors are doing right this second while you are slacking off. I don't know a single grad student or academic who doesn't struggle with this kind of guilt and worry and fear and self-blame over what work they're doing. I'm sure there must be a few of them out there, but I've never met one.

And this is really the main thing I've noticed with regard to my outside/free time and "flexibility" since I've left academia. I may have a less flexible schedule on paper than I did before ... but my schedule feels a million times less hectic now that I have my 9-5.

In fact, in recent weeks I've been feeling a little restless, and have been thinking about trying to find a new hobby or volunteer activity. I certainly never felt like I had a lot of spare time for hobbies when I was in grad school - in fact, I stopped volunteering as a youth sports coach after just one summer because I didn't think I could afford to keep dedicating two evenings per week to it. Because if I had free time for hobbies, then clearly I wasn't working hard enough.

I have absolutely no idea why the myth that the outside world is an inflexible nightmare persists, because in my mind the mental inflexibility in academia is a million times more oppressive than just having to punch a time clock every week. And yet, the myth of inflexibility continues to be spread by academics for some reason that I just do NOT understand.

Now, I'm certainly not enough of a conspiracy theorist to believe that every professor in the world is in cahoots to make sure as few grad students/adjuncts as possible leave by spreading Big Scary Myths about the outside world.

And yet, somehow it keeps happening. Grad students keep getting told that every worker in the outside world is burnt out from a neverending, inflexible workload ... all while they, themselves, worry about whether they're working enough and sit at their computers through the night and on weekends with nary a break for a quick meal. They're told that their schedule as an academic is the most flexible and open-ended schedule in the world, all while they can't seem to find the time to see a movie or go out of town for a weekend or to do any of the things that their nonacademic friends seem to always be doing, despite their "horrible, inflexible schedules."

But ultimately, it's all just a myth. Academic work hours are flexible, but the social pressure to never stop working is overwhelming. And the outside world is less flexible on paper, but there is generally an understanding among your fellow workers that you have a life outside of work and that you will be tending to that - rather than even more work - when you aren't in the office.

Both schedules have their ups and downs, but I can tell you with all honesty and seriousness that I am happier and more relaxed and fulfilled with the nonacademic work schedule. So yes, reader ... I think that you are correct that academic flexibility is an illusion. I'd take my current 9-5 schedule any day.


  1. I am just entering grad school. A few days ago, I went for a compulsory orientation in my university. The dean gave the opening address. One of the first things he said was to treat research the way you would a significant other. In other words, you don't pay attention to your significant other only from 9-6 on weekdays. Likewise, you should not think that you can do research within normal working hours. He insinuated that we in academia should be working all the time or else we won't do good research (what???). And oh, he also suggested that if we can't find a job in academia, its because we did not take ownership of our phd. Right from the start, we are shackled.

    1. WTF???!!! Your DEAN said that? That's tantamount to verbal abuse and I would be filing a very large complaint to the council. That is waaaay inappropriate. S/he should be sacked.

      What s/he should have said was: "We expect you to treat this like any other full-time job - because that's exactly what it is"

  2. Another thing to consider if you go the non-academic post-PhD track is consulting. That's what I'm doing now and I have a schedule just as flexible as when I was in academia. But unlike academia, I'm not expected to work constantly. I do my hours when on my own time, and they are limited in number -- and I get paid for each one!

  3. I'll try to post something at my place later, but the short answer is yes, "flexibility" in academe felt a lot more like a pair of handcuffs than anything I've experienced in the 9-5 world. For starters, while I am indeed in my office for 8 hours a day, I don't have to punch in and out and I'm not chained to my desk or held to a rigid schedule. Meaning, if I get up early and come in at 8:30, for example, I can leave at 4:30. Or, likewise, unless I have an early meeting, if I get in at 10 instead of 9, no one minds. I just stay until 6.

    Also, my 8-hour day includes a 1-hour paid lunch break. Meaning, I can leave the office and forget all about work for an hour, go eat a nice lunch (and mot have to feel guilty about paying for it, either, because my salary, which includes this paid lunchtime, is much better than it was in academe), take a walk, and come back refreshed for the rest of the day. And if I happen to be gone an hour and 15 minutes? Nobody's gonna kill me, again, unless there's a meeting I have to be at or a deadline to meet.

    Moreover, my summers "off" inside academe were mostly filled with stress over my dissertation (and after that was done, pumping out enough publications to make myself a "competitive" candidate for the tenure track -- ha!). Mind you, I am a type 2 leaver who basically liked academic work, but I still stressed about it during my supposed time "off." And when I wasn't stressing over academic work, I was working crappy part-time jobs to make it through to fall semester and feeling guilty while working at them that I was not doing academic work. Jeez, what lunacy!

    So now, the 3 weeks of paid vacation I get per year, which really is vacation time during which I don't feel like I need to be doing ANYTHING else, plus 3 extra personal days, plus 80 hours of paid sick time (so, like, if I get the flu or need to leave the office to go to a doctor's appointment, I don't need to stress over finding a substitute or making sure my classes have something to do -- or using up my vacation time!) seems pretty feakin' generous. Plus, in addition to all that time, our office is closed on all federal holidays (there are 11), as well as the week between Christmas and New Year's. Meaning, in reality, I have a total of 6 weeks off, not including the sick and personal days, which I am paid for at the end of the year if I don't use.

    So, in a nutshell, in terms of flexibility and the time to have a "life" outside of work, my nonacademic job is a waaaaaaaaaay better deal than what I had in academe.

    1. Thanks, recent Ph.D.!

      Readers following along - what she describes sounds EXACTLY like my current job ... from the vacation/holiday allotment to the fact that no one cares if I show up a little late (since I will just work later). I usually don't take daily lunches - instead I'll just eat at my desk and leave an hour early at the end of the day - but I'm free to if I want to, and no one cares.

      So, same basic setup with my job ... and I'm in Small College Town in the middle of the country v. DC with recent Ph.D., and we're in completely different industries. So here are two stories for you, and two people who are telling you that there's more flexibility in the outside world. Don't believe the myths!

  4. I think it depends on your own personality. I've been working outside of academia for about a year now and overall, I think the type of flexibility non-academic jobs offer works better for me. Graduate school and academic jobs are supposedly flexible but if you are someone who is not good at compartmentalizing or establishing boundaries between work and home (like me), then the additional "flexibility" might just mean you think about work all the time. While in graduate school, I never took a vacation without bringing along work. Sure, I could do that work anywhere at almost any time but for me that translated into thinking/stressing about work all the time.

    My current job has less daily flexibility. I'm expected to be in the office every day (although, we do get to set our own hours within reason) and it's difficult to get out of the office before 4 or 5 pm. But I do get 5 weeks of annual leave, in addition to 3 weeks of sick leave, and I actually use that time off and relax during my vacations now. The lack of daily flexibility can be frustrating at times, but I actually prefer more "big picture" flexibility over the daily flexibility. The flexibility my nonacademic job offers is different but a better fit for my personality.

    I think many PhD-level jobs are similar to mine, at least in the major metro area where I work. They tend to pay better than academia (so you can afford to take a nice vacation), have generous leave packages, and a lot of other people with PhDs who also value flexibility and try to recreate certain aspects of the flexibility academia offers. While I can't work at home in my current job, many of the other places I interviewed have employees who work at home 1-2 days per week and EVERYWHERE I interviewed lets their PhD-level employees set their own hours, as long as they're in the office between the main work hours (10am - 3pm).

  5. The 2 Year Life of the MindAugust 9, 2012 at 11:23 AM


    You said "Now, I'm certainly not enough of a conspiracy theorist to believe that every professor in the world is in cahoots to make sure as few grad students/adjuncts as possible leave by spreading Big Scary Myths about the outside world."

    Personally, I think you're giving them (profs AND administrators) too much credit. I wouldn't say it's an active conspiracy. I say they are more like pre-programmed drones who are simply repeating what's been drilled into their own heads by the system.

    I once had a student walk up to me while I was talking to a dean, to tell me all about how she got this big problem solved and to thank me so much for being her "teacher" (this is college, mind you, and these are adults). When she walked away, the dean turned to me and said, "they need you" as if this was not a "job" but rather my "duty". This attitude is very apparent in the constant scheduling of meetings to fill up that so-called "flexible time" we are supposed to have so we can honorably do our "duty".

    This attitude is prevalent throughout the system and it irritates me daily. It gives me fuel to pour into my getaway car as I pack it in preparation for my great escape. It's not conspiracy, it's pure culture and everyone plays the game. Thanks for doing some myth busting for us. Your post is helpful.

  6. Even though I am temping and have only been doing the 9-5 (or 8:30-6 in this case!) schedule for two weeks now, I agree that it is much less exhausting than the "flexible" academic schedule. As soon as I walk out the doors of the office, I put in my iPod ear plugs and forget about the work day. And the weekends! I took a trip this past weekend, and it felt like such a luxury to only take reading that I wanted to do on the train ride - and to know that if I decided I just wanted to stare out the window and not read a thing, I could do that to.

    I found that even though I was always working and always exhausted in grad school, the "flexible" schedule meant that I had a really hard time getting on a regular sleep schedule - so I would have insomnia and then sleep in and then feel guilty for not getting up (and getting to work) earlier. Now that I have to be at work at a set time, I have no problem getting up in the mornings, and I am sleeping much better!

    On another note, I guess I should say that, inspired by your blog and all the other great post-academic blogs out there, I have decided to start my own :). Your blog has been immensely helpful to me as I've been making the decision to leave over the past few months - so thanks for all the work you put into it!

    1. Ditto on the sleeping schedule... For some reason going to bed at 2am while in grad school was normal for me (sigh) I truly hated it, but now going to be at 10.30pm or even 11pm (what a treat!)

  7. I'm looking forward to a regular, dependable schedule myself. I'm also looking forward to the day when my work schedule doesn't hinge on "enrollment" and the possibility of the work schedule changing suddenly due to "enrollment" and the fact that I have to sweat "enrollment" every semester. Pardon me, but fuck "enrollment".

    1. It was "enrollment" that finally prompted me to tell Scheduler of Adjuncts to go fuck himself. I'd been teaching 3 classes in the fall, which was what I needed to just barely scrape by, and I'd been promised 3 in the spring. Then, a week into January with classes starting the end of the month, they tell me due to "enrollment" I will only get 2. Fuck that, I said, and left. In retrospect, it was probably a good thing, given that it got me to wake up, take a nonacademic job I might not otherwise have considered, and get the hell out.

  8. I have one of the coveted "teaching only" jobs which means I'm supposed to be in love with the job. Like all college positions, it's become increasingly corporatized (even without the research...probably more-so because of this). Students are customers and they demand they get their "orders" of "two A's and an A minus", lest they "send it back to the manager".

    The problem is that unlike the 8-5 schedule, while mine is more flexible, I often feel like I have never ending work (teaching 6 classes is tough, sometimes 7 per semester). Add in all of the silly committee work that never accomplishes anything,which means I end up with a very busy, hectic schedule that makes me feel like I accomplish and produce absolutely NOTHING throughout the day despite working hard.

    The current ("coveted" mind you) job makes me feel kind of useless with the same issues and classes over and over and over again, and duties that never seem to end.

    That 8-5 sure looks nice and has become my ultimate goal. Of course, I don't DARE share this with anyone, lest I become a defector, so it's been a real test of my acting skills. I also can't tell them this is "just a job" because that's not how it's viewed (more like a "calling") and there are 20 other people who are "called" to what I'm doing. What I don't understand is the legions of people who just LOVE this type of work because it's not the "scary, outside business world". It's actually acceptable to be completely flaky and crazy in this job.

    Hopefully this is my last academic year (or semester) as an "actor".

  9. haha! I just wrote a post about how great paid holidays are over at my place before I read this. Ditto the insomia, the handcuffs, the frustrating-ness of not being able to schedule the admin you need to do to keep your life in order when you have a 9-5 job, but kudos to employers who allow you to have some flexibility when you need it. Now, if I could just get rid of the need to wear boring office clothes and attend obligatory social functions, I'd be set. Still, having a roof over my head and being able to eat are important outcomes that I have compromised quite a lot to be able to achieve, so who cares right?

  10. I'm only two weeks in, but I have to agree 100%. Although I don't have open, endless space in my "free" time because I have children, when I walk out the door at 4 pm, I don't think about work until 9 am the next morning. And my weekends are 100% mine, no scavenging for a few hours to read or write. I've had more peaceful, present moments since starting work than I have in 8 years because I am not on the grad school grind, and I am not worried about money.

    I think part of this myth is tied up in fantasies about what it means to be a smart person. I think I once believed that I was smart and intellectual and therefore could never be appropriately challenged or satisfied through the menial grind of a desk job. Like, "Oh, NON-smart people are satisfied with that, but I couldn't POSSIBLY THRIVE in that kind of situation." It came 100% from ignorance, and from movies like Office Space. Right? But really, I like having a job. I especially like getting paid.

  11. I'm really late, but: another thing that irritated me about the "flexibility" of grad school was how much of an illusion it was due to my perpetual State of Brokeness. Yes, I could go to the beach before the summer rush, or take a trip mid-week; but usually if I had the time to do these things, I didn't have any money with which to do so.

    It does get a little annoying being locked inside on nice days--and I HATE grocery shopping after work and on weekends--but as everyone else says, when I am off, I AM OFF. It's lovely to not drag an extra bag of books everywhere I go like an albatross around my neck. And for the groceries, well, that's what Peapod is for.