Thursday, September 19, 2013

Administrative myths

Being an academic is strange. It is hard to explain to in-laws that we do have work to do over the summer. It is hard to explain to parents that being a post-doc is not the same as being a student. I will not have to live in a dorm. It is hard to explain to friends that I do not have a boss. It is hard to answer the question "When do you have to get that paper/experiment/data analysis done by?" because the answer is always "last month."

I have no boss. This is wonderful. I have no deadlines. This too is wonderful. I have an administrator who want me to declare which 20 days of vacation I took last year. This is confusing. I have a contract that says that I am being hired to work 39.5 hours a week. That is laughable.

I dream of that job. I dream of being able to work 40 hours a week and take 4 weeks off, and still be competitive enough to give my child a school that he can go to for years and years and years without having to move, to give myself a neighborhood I live in for years and years and years so that my partner and I have friends.

I know it is a fiction. I know that I can count the number of academics I know who can do what they want to do in a 40 hour week  on one hand. I know that this year, like last year, I will make up dates of my vacation to make HR happy.

There should be something illegal about this. At least my department chair at a previous university had the spine to admit it. He told me that he knows that I am a postdoc at University A, and that post docs here do not tend to take as many vacation days as all that, but that this is something passed down from the University's legal office. It is a safeguard against people being denied their vacation rights. He said the last in a way that implied that it might be the department administrators and security staff being denied their rights, rather than post docs working for demanding heads of labs. Whatever, at least there was a breath of honesty in his admission.

I was talking to a friend of mine who claimed that in his pre-academic industry life, he regularly worked 60-70 hour week as a banker. It was a high pressure, highly paid job. I wonder what his contract looked like. Did it have a list of hours that he is supposed to work listed on it? Did it have vacation days that he had to take, or lie about taking?

I am not complaining about the hours I work. I do so mostly because I love my work. I am complaining about the contract I sign, about the myth of a normal life I am supposedly allowed to have. I have strong opinions about not giving labor away for free to "THE MAN," and I voice it strongly to friends who agree to work overtime without extra pay for nice bosses or managers at the local bookstore, or coffee shop.

In my case, it is the university who is turning a  profit from my teaching and research. I would be much happier with a contract that states that my university cannot bar me from taking X days of vacation if I so chose.

Except, I know that it is not the answer. In my current emotionally exhausted state of mind, I am tempted to let this rant morph into one about taking steroids in sports. People argue that we should let professional athletes take steroids. I argue that if it were legal, then those that did not want to would feel pressured to, in order to compete. In the end, it would be a de facto requirement, even if one's contract read that it was not.

My contract states a 40 hour week with 20 vacation days. Competitive academics don't work those hours. If I want my next post doc, or my first TT position, or tenure, or a nice grant, or the named chair, or the pay raise, or the extra funding for graduate students, or, or, or... I will not work according to my contract either.

This is not just a problem with me. It is the same dilemma my banker friend faced, I am sure. It is the same problem my friends working extra hours for nice bosses at the local book store face. If they are nice to their boss, even though it goes against contract, they are more likely to be promoted.

Life goes on. I need to find 20 days.


  1. I think there are lots of similarities between academic jobs and corporate jobs: the expectation to work way more than 40 hours each week, the expectation that you simply work from home on "vacation days," the stress and the pressure. The big difference is that corporate jobs pay better. Academics are expected to do all that simply for the love of what they do.

  2. I say this now... I cannot say what I would say if my salary suddenly doubled, but I do not think it is the lack of payment I am objecting to. I really just do not like the fact that I have to lie every year about how many vacation days I took. Call me idealistic or legally paranoid, but these are legal documents I am putting my name to....