Is academic life compatible with family life?


I sit on Cambridge University’s staff childcare committee. We’re investigating ways to improve the childcare provision available to all staff. So, I’ve been talking about childcare with friends and colleagues. This led to asking the wider question: Is academic life compatible with family life?

No! Not in the seventeenth century.

Go back four hundred years. All academic staff at Cambridge were male; most were forbidden to marry. Academic life was, by dictat, incompatible with family life. This might lead us to imagine a University stuffed with aging bachelors, gently pickling in port. However, I understand that it meant a more youthful staff. A young man would complete his bachelors (sic) degree in his teens, go on to two years more study to get his masters degree, then join the academic staff for five or ten years. He’d leave, aged 25 or 30, to take up a role in the outside world and, quite possibly, to marry. Cambridge in those days would have felt quite a different place. The students were all men, were much younger (mid-teens rather than 18-22) and the staff were younger too (mostly in their twenties rather than staying on into their seventies). It is not surprising that there were frequent fights between the young men of the town and the young men of the University.

No! Not in the mid-twentieth century.

The generation of Cambridge academics above me had a life that seems to guarantee that they could barely engage with their children during term-time. They were expected to work nine to five, Monday to Saturday; spend the early evenings running tutorials or attending meetings; then stay for dinner several nights a week with their academic colleagues, getting home at 9 or 10 p.m.. long after any children had gone to bed. Wives of academics (there seem to have been no equivalent husbands of academics) were expected to do all the child care and deal with having a husband who was almost never at home during University Term. In many ways, this reflected that University posts were considered not so much jobs as a lifestyle.

No! Not in the early twenty-first century

Today’s academics (both male and female) tend to take a fuller part in family life than previous generations of (mostly male) academics. But today’s academics also need to work harder at producing results. To be considered successful, one must publish regularly. To publish, one must do good research. To do good research takes time. To get the necessary international perspective and contacts, one must travel for several weeks of the year. An academic who treats the job as, well, a job – working a forty-hour week – will be unable to keep up with an equally-talented colleague who treats the job as a lifestyle – working an eighty-hour week. So whatever we say about work-life balance, there is a bias in the system that benefits those who get the balance completely out of kilter by defining their life to be entirely about their work. By this measure, any academic who tries to take a full role in family life must accept that their academic career is likely to progress more slowly than the colleague with no family or the colleague who disregards their family. If you want to be an internationally-renowned academic and also have a family, there has to be a compromise on the family side. Someone other than you, whether an unpaid spouse or paid staff, will have to do the bulk of the mundane housework and childcare, so that you can concentrate on your academic career. Because of the international nature of the competition, there is a limit to what one university can do to moderate this position.

Yes! Better than many other jobs

If a twenty-first century academic chooses to balance family life with work, and accepts the (possibly) slower career progression, then he or she has a job that is much more compatible with family life than many other jobs. Academics have enormous flexibility in organising their own time. While they do have lectures at fixed times and meetings that they must attend, these form a small fraction of their time. Preparation for teaching, marking, and the all-important research can be done at any time and, often, in any place. For example, this allows an academic, if he chooses, to pick up his children from school every day at 3:15 p.m., making up the time in the evening once the children are in bed. It may not be easy, but it is more flexible than many employers would allow. As for the long hours of work and the international travel: most professionals have to face this and cope. There are trade-offs in any life and the academic seems in a better position to manage or negotiate those trade-offs. For academics, so long as the work gets done, no-one particularly cares where or when you do it.

I realise that I’m writing this from a Cambridge point of view, where academic staff are given great freedom in organising their time. I realise that some higher education institutions are more prescriptive about things like office hours. But Cambridge’s approach is the one I know best. It treats academics as something akin to self-managing consultants: contracted to do a job that they partly define themselves and then left to get on with it. In most cases it leads to excellent results. I expect that most academics deliver more when given that freedom than they would if tied into “office hours”. If that also means that they can spend more time with their families, then so much the better.

The photo was taken in my study at Emmanuel College, Cambridge early in the twenty-first century. My daughter was then in Year 1 at Primary School. The building in the background is the chapel designed by Christopher Wren in the seventeenth century.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *