Part-time work in academia

by Ingrid Robeyns on April 24, 2008

Part-time work is often argued to be one possible solution for working parents, so as to make the balance between work and caring easier. This post is not about the question whether this is indeed (part of) the solution in general – that is, for all types of paid work. Rather, I’d like to raise some doubts about the idea that part-time work is a good thing for academics who are doing research (in addition to whatever else they do – teaching or management). In this country, plenty of academics work part-time, and often standard lecturer positions are only offered on a part-time basis (often 80%).

Part-time academics can expect to get a part-time teaching load. This doesn’t seem to create much of a problem, since each course corresponds to a number of hours, and a part-timer simply teaches a percentage of the full-time number of hours (in theory, that is). From what I’ve observed among my colleagues (I only teach very little since I’m employed on a research grant), this part of the part-time work constellation seems to work fine.

Part-time academics might also get only part of the normal share of committee duties. I don’t know whether this is realistic – what is 80% of 2 committee posts? I doubt that in the allocation of committee duties large part-timers (say, those who work 75 or 80 %) are given fewer duties. Many other duties related to administration and management also require the same work from part-timers compared to full-timers: reading faculty reports, managing project administration, etc. etc. Similarly for other tasks that are normally expected from academics, such as commenting on work from PhD students and colleagues (of your own university or (inter-)nationally): if they ask you to read a piece, will you tell them you can’t, because you are working part-time?

But my biggest doubt whether part-time work is such a splendid idea for academics who are doing research has to do with the nature of research: whether one works on a full-time contract or a part-time contract, the literature that one has to follow to keep up to date with one’s area of research remains the same. There are ‘fixed costs’ (in terms of time and effort) for each line of research that one pursues. The consequence is that a part-timer spends as much time (in absolute number of hours) on keeping up to date with the literature, implying that she has fewer hours left for actually developing new research.

If these doubts make sense, then why would an academic who is actively pursuing research want to work part-time (and thus receiving a part-time wage), if she could get a full-time position? I can see two reasons. One is that an academic may be in a stable (tenured) position with no ambitions to get promotion or no strong passion for research. For those people, academic work becomes like any other 9 to 5 job, which can be done part-time indeed. The other reason is that part-timers work on fixed days, say, from Monday to Thursday. Friday can then be used for other things: doing voluntary work, seeing friends, enjoying a time-intensive hobby, or spending time with the kids. A part-timer is entirely entitled to be absent at meetings or other events at work on her non-work-day; if one works full time it is much harder to structurally spend time with the kids, since one is only allowed to take days off during the academic year if there are no urgent or important faculty meetings that day. (At least, that’s how it works in Dutch academia- and I’d be interested to find out whether the same applies in other countries.)

I am one of those people who (normally) doesn’t go to work on Fridays (and for the next couple of months I have one extra day off so as to be able to spend more time with our baby). I do enjoy the time I can spend with the children, and the fact that this extra day off slows us down a little. But I also sometimes feel I’m cheating myself, since it seems I am doing at least as much work as many people who are working on a full-time contract (with the difference that much of my work gets done in the evenings). In the end I am just not sure whether part-time work in academia is, all things considered, a good idea for those academics who are actively and passionately pursuing research agendas.

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Signifying Nothing
04.25.08 at 2:21 pm

{ 29 comments }

1

Z 04.24.08 at 9:45 am

why would an academic who is actively pursuing research want to work part-time, if she could get a full-time position?

Maybe because external factors also highly valued by this academic compels her to do so?

In the end I am just not sure whether part-time work in academia is, all things considered, a good idea for those academics who are actively and passionately pursuing research agendas.

I agree with that. In my experience, the daily life of an academic comes with a huge amount of fixed chores. Working part time seems to imply that this huge amount will become even more huge (relative to research work). In the end though, I guess that working part-time is rarely a good idea for someone “passionately” pursuing a career, being in academia or elsewhere.

if they ask you to read a piece, will you tell them you can’t, because you are working part-time?

Well surely a researcher sometimes has to decline getting involved in altruistic research activities because he has something else to do. So yes, I wouldn’t be surprised at all by this answer.

2

Great Zamfir 04.24.08 at 9:51 am

I guess this is not just a problem in academia, but for ambitious people in every sector (where ambitious doesn’t necessarily means ‘wanting to make lots of money’, but more in general ‘wanting to be very good in your job’).

3

Tracy W 04.24.08 at 10:23 am

I found in doing my honour years’ theses (is that how you pluralise thesis?), each day I worked on them it would take me about an hour each morning just to remember what I was doing last time and to get everything sort of loaded back into working memory. Doing the work just took lots of time, and I couldn’t think of a way of altering that while still being able to do the work at all.

4

Ingrid Robeyns 04.24.08 at 10:52 am

Great Zamfir: I agree completely with what you say.

5

Ingrid Robeyns 04.24.08 at 10:59 am

Yet thinking about it a second longer, what may be specific about academia is the numbers of hours ambitious people need to work to do their work well. The academics whose work I admire and who I know well enough to see how they spend their time, basically work all the time (except when they are with their kids), including most evenings, large parts of the weekends, during holidays, during care leaves when the babies sleep etc etc.. Of course, almost all of them like what they do, so it’s not as if they are excessively stressed or psychologically burdened (on the contrary), but the time-intensity of academic research does seem to put it apart from some other professions, I’d think.

6

chris armstrong 04.24.08 at 11:12 am

I do think that academia is one job where part-timers may experience particular problems, for the kind of reasons that have been outlined already. Anecdotally, two people I know who work as part-time academics (my wife, and the partner of a friend) work VERY hard when they are at work, but their contribution is always in danger of being underestimated. My wife recently opened her departmental handbook to see that she had not been included in the list of members of staff, and was then told that this was specifically because she was ‘only part-time’ (she then saw to it that she was included!).

On the other hand, part-time work is a valuable entry point for many people, most often women, and in the UK I sometimes wish there were more part-time positions open. A telling anecdote, perhaps – in 2001 I undertook a Postdoctoral Fellowship paid for the Economic and Social Research Council. The specific brief of this programme is to ease the transition of people into academia, especially if they might otherwise be lost to the profession. I was called afterwards by an ESRC administrator asking for any feedback I might have on the effectiveness of the scheme. My major point was this: if you want to ease the transition into academia of people who might not otherwise make it, WHY make the fellowships full-time only??? To date, they still are full-time only. Changing this would be, in my view, a cheap and easy way to do something constructive about the gender imbalance in our profession.

7

magistra 04.24.08 at 12:38 pm

If the only options for academics are full-time employment and not working in the field, then some people will be forced to get out of academia, and disproportionally it will be women who do so. If you look at the reasons women don’t progress further in science subjects, for example, the fact that if you don’t spend your whole life in the lab you’re regarded as not serious, is very significant.

The less time for doing research idea can be exaggerated in my view. I did a part-time PhD (while working and then raising a child) in six years, as opposed to most of my friends who took four years full-time. The lack of time actually concentrated my mind on study when I did have a work day scheduled, meant that I didn’t get fed up with the subject by never doing anything else, and also allowed me to spend time mulling over my ideas when supposedly doing other things. (If you’re talking soothingly to really small children, it doesn’t matter too much whether it’s about cute bunnies or ninth century sermons).

8

Rich B. 04.24.08 at 2:37 pm

Yet thinking about it a second longer, what may be specific about academia is the numbers of hours ambitious people need to work to do their work well. The academics whose work I admire and who I know well enough to see how they spend their time, basically work all the time (except when they are with their kids), including most evenings, large parts of the weekends, during holidays, during care leaves when the babies sleep etc etc..

I think you comments about what is “specific about academia” is borne out of unfamiliarity with other occupations.
An attorney who loves his work and becomes Bar Association Committee Chair, does pro bono work, sits of the Fee Dispute Committee, maintains and exceeds continuing legal education requirements . . .

A doctor who sees patients at her hospital, does groundbreaking research, participates in clinical studies, goes to conferences to present her findings. . .

Even among nurses (most of whom are female, and most of those take at least some part-time work due to child-care), there is a divide between the “regular” nurses and the few “hard-core” that write for nursing journals, do clinical nursing studies, teach courses, etc. The “hard-core” tend to be the single, lesbian, or otherwise childless career-full-timers, who never took a mommy break and became the Super-Nurses.

Your thumbnail of academia can apply equally to any “professional” position. Meanwhile, an academic can make a happy part-time living at a Community College, with minimal research requirements.

In general, unless you have a “rank and file” position with a limited skill set, your part-timers will be at a distinct disadvantage. I think your argument necessarily expands far beyond you intended it.

9

geraldy 04.24.08 at 2:40 pm

Do you really know that the academics that you admire “work all the time?” In my experience, I’ve observed a perverse Puritan streak amongst young academics which leads them to overstate and exaggerate how much time they actually spend working.

(Of course, this is probably an adaptation to the screwed up nature of the tenure process).

Also, doesn’t “keeping up to date with one’s area of research” really just mean finding enough sources to adorn one’s work so that others deem such work publishable?

10

Z 04.24.08 at 3:33 pm

what may be specific about academia is the numbers of hours ambitious people need to work to do their work well.

I honestly believe this is not true. Chances are the academics you admire are top social scientists in their respective fields, at least at the national level and probably more. Meet anyone playing at a comparable level, be they musicians, sportsmen, cooks, engineers, sky controllers or accountants and I bet you will find them slaving under their own passion.

11

peggy 04.24.08 at 4:14 pm

I work part time, only 40 hours a week. The lament of the female postdoc in the biological sciences who has a child.

12

Ken C. 04.24.08 at 4:48 pm

Rather, I’d like to raise some doubts about the idea that part-time work is a good thing for academics who are doing research

This is obviously true: the more time and energy you have to put into something, the better at it you’ll be, and the result of increased investment can be more than proportional to the increase (that is, work half again as long, and your accomplishment is likely to be much more than half again as much).

An additional nonlinearity is that most fields have a “career ladder”, and the higher you climb, the more resources you’ll have available to accomplish more. So effort invested now may pay off in better students, a reduced teaching load, etc.

The career ladder is particularly difficult in academic fields, with the make-or-break of tenure, and the (justified?) perception that the best work is done by younger people. These conditions are particularly difficult for those who want to have, and take care of, their children.

A contrary effect is that the gain due to increased effort goes only up to your capacity for work. This may be true even beyond just the need for sleep and rest: in my experience, for example, the work of taking care of kids is different enough from computer science research that one is kind of a break from the other.

But after spending the day watching the kids, making meals, watching the kids, cleaning up, watching the kids, going to playgrounds, watching the kids, and reading bedtime books, there isn’t necessarily much energy left to think great thoughts. So it’s a choice: do you want to be the best researcher you can be possibly be, or you do want to have a life? By social pressure and personal choice, women seem to choose the latter more often than men. This is a loss for men, as well as for women.

13

Phil 04.24.08 at 5:43 pm

Why do full-time academics have to spend so much time at the university? Surely it is possible in many cases to structure one extra day away from the university. I know someone about to start working two and a half days a week for the Open University and will only have to be at her office for one day a week. Okay the Open University works differently to most universities but academia seems to to be the kind of environment where this kind of flexibility could be accommodated quite easily. I think part academic work should be more linked to output than to hours worked.

14

Ingrid Robeyns 04.24.08 at 6:17 pm

I would be all in favour of looking at output rather than hours worked let alone hours present in one’s office – but the fact remains that there are many meetings to have, and it’s not generally not accepted if one says that one cannot attend because one wants to spend a day with one’s kids. One could of course organise a department easily in such a way that everybody is expected to be presented three specific days of the week, when all meetings will take place, and that in addition one can work where and when one wants, and only output counts. But reality, here at least, is that except for people with untenured positions, or those that are hoping for a promotion, output doesn’t count; there are enough full professors who haven’t published a decent article for years, without any risk to either the level of their salaries or their job security. So lots would have to change before such an ouput-model could really become functional…

15

F 04.24.08 at 6:18 pm

This is closely related to the problem that much academic research is time-sensitive, that is, one is always worried about being scooped by other researchers working on similar projects. So if one chooses to go part-time, the probability of such scoopage increases.

16

crack 04.24.08 at 8:40 pm

I have to say this is an incredible bit of navel gazing. It’s one thing to say that academia is the only thing you have on which to do your analysis. It is another thing to claim that it is uniquely positioned when don’t have anything with which to compare it.

17

Eli Rabett 04.24.08 at 9:04 pm

Full time is 9 months. That’s what they pay you for. That is part time.

18

leederick 04.24.08 at 9:28 pm

“There are ‘fixed costs’ (in terms of time and effort) for each line of research that one pursues. The consequence is that a part-timer spends as much time (in absolute number of hours) on keeping up to date with the literature, implying that she has fewer hours left for actually developing new research.”

I think the time factor is interesting. It might work in part-time researchers favour. Once fixed costs are taken into consideration, if you’re a tax accountant and it takes you 2 hours to fill in a tax return then productivity is linear – if you work 20 hours you’ll do 10 tax returns, if you work 40 yours you’ll do 20.

I’m not sure academic research works like this. I suspect there are substantial diminishing returns so that your 4th hour is much more productive than your 40th. Maybe some types of research are constrained by time they way tax accountancy is – say if you’re screening anti-cancer compounds and it takes you a day per drug. But otherwise all it takes is a good idea, and you don’t only have these the hours you’re clocked in. Einstein kicked off his career as part-time researcher. I’m sure it’s not as productive as full-time research, but I’m not sure it’s that terrible either.

19

R 04.24.08 at 9:51 pm

If the only options for academics are full-time employment and not working in the field, then some people will be forced to get out of academia, and disproportionally it will be women who do so. If you look at the reasons women don’t progress further in science subjects, for example, the fact that if you don’t spend your whole life in the lab you’re regarded as not serious, is very significant.

I think this is an important point.

I’m a part-time academic, and no, its “not good” for my research. If it meant that I did bad research now, I’d see it as a problem, but it just means that I don’t do much research.

I’d already accepted that I wasn’t going to be a “star” academic when before I decided to work part time when I had a child. I think it’s true that it’s hard to be a star working as a part-time academic, and that if you have ambitions to be a star and get pushed into working part time, you’ll end up feeling exploited. But I think that’s true in any field that has stars. There are very few careers where being at the top of the filed
doesn’t require more than “full-time” dedication.

If universities feel that part-timers do lower quality work than full-timers (not just less work), then that’s a reason to decide that part time work isn’t good for the institution.

But I find I bristle at people discussing whether part time work is good for me, as an academic. That’s a choice I make, within the constraints of what the university is willing to offer me, balancing all the various interests and commitments that have a claim on my time. I’m quite capable of making it with my eyes open, even if I’m not always happy with all the available choices.

20

ben saunders 04.24.08 at 11:18 pm

Chris (#6) I applied for an ESRC postdoc last month and there is a part time option. (Whether it’s attractive may be a very different matter, but it’s there).

Geranlly, I’m with #18. The arrival and maturation of my ideas is not necessarily closely related to time I’m ‘officially working’ (if such exists). Given the choice between one year full time and two years half time, I bet I’d come up with more in the latter. Of course, the problem is that life is finite and the real choice is two years full time or two years part time – but then the latter probably includes a much richer balance of other things…

21

LogicGuru 04.25.08 at 2:09 am

We need more part-time positions, not fewer. In my (humanities) discipline part-timers usually have the same qualifications as tenure-track faculty and quite often serious research interests. These part-time positions function as (1) post-docs and (2) fall-back positions for PhDs who, usually because of pure dumb luck, didn’t manage to get on tenure-track. Having lots of these positions available means that new PhDs can buy time and get experience and that more people who can’t get tenure track jobs for whatever reason can still stay in the profession and in academic, to teach and do research–rather than retraining, or going for cab-driving or secretarial work.

Converting these part-time positions to full-time tenure-track jobs with benefits and goodies simply means employing fewer–far fewer–people because “regular” academic jobs are expensive. The availability of poorly paid, non-benefits-eligible part-time jobs, lousy as that sounds, means that more people have the chance to stay in the profession, to teach and do research.

What’s bad about the current system is that departments usually don’t accord part-timers basic respect or the goodies that are free–e.g. participating and voting in department meetings. And they don’t get support for research even if they qualify according to the same merit-based criteria as full-time tenure-track faculty, e.g. travel money and internal funding for research.

My modest proposal is: pay them lousy and don’t provide benefits so that more of them can be employed and then treat them exactly like full-time tenure-track faculty. If people are sufficiently motivated to sacrifice to stay in the profession, and lots are, we should provide that option to as many people as possible.

22

laura 04.25.08 at 3:06 am

I’m on a part-time line right now. I teach 2 classes. (The normal course load is 3). I have don’t have to serve on any committees, but I do write recommendations and go to departmental meetings. There aren’t any grad students here, so no reading dissertations. I work on my research over breaks. I’m not expected to put in late hours at meetings at the university, so I can get home in time to help the kids with their homework, make them dinner, and then I can go back to work in the evening. Childcare continues to be a challenge.

Ingrid, it’s a compromise. A way of getting time with my kids and doing what I like to do. It’s not great for me career-wise, but it is great for me sanity-wise. And, yeah, I’m being cheated – no tenure, less prestige, no guarantee of a full time position in the future, last pick of teaching time slots, and I’m certainly not paid for all the time spent doing research. Sometimes I’m bitter about it, sometimes I’m cool.

23

Tracy W 04.25.08 at 10:38 am

suspect there are substantial diminishing returns so that your 4th hour is much more productive than your 40th. Maybe some types of research are constrained by time they way tax accountancy is – say if you’re screening anti-cancer compounds and it takes you a day per drug. But otherwise all it takes is a good idea, and you don’t only have these the hours you’re clocked in.

It may differ from person-to-person and from field-to-field. I am not an academic, but when I was doing my theses, in engineering and economics, the only way I got good ideas was by clocking up the hours studying my problem. The 40th hour was more productive than the 4th because I understood the problem much better.

Then there’s all the testing and disproving of the good idea until I eventually would come up with an idea that was not merely good but also right – a very important thing in engineering where wrong ideas are extremely obvious.

24

katherine 04.25.08 at 3:49 pm

It’s a truism in the commercial world that a part time employee works the same amount as a full time person, but gets paid part time. Various factors are at play – managers aren’t experienced at allocating work for a part-timer; the part-timer feels under pressure to work smarter to prove that they are not a liability, that sort of thing. It all adds up to indirect sexual discrimination as far as I am concerned.

Also, what are all those male academics with kids doing? Not spending time with their kids? How sad.

25

phil 04.25.08 at 4:29 pm

Katherine, I guess some male academics with kids will work part-time. Others will work full-time but still manage to spend time with their kids, but maybe not in a structured way, and some will pursue their careers and not spend much time with their kids.

26

Ken C. 04.25.08 at 7:11 pm

Also, what are all those male academics with kids doing? Not spending time with their kids? How sad.

Yes, maximum pursuit of career success means less time with the kids, and for many people, even men, less time with their kids is a negative.

27

laura 04.25.08 at 9:59 pm

Another problem is that although I’m only teaching 2 classes rather than the full timer’s 3 course load, I actually have more students in those 2 class than they do. That chili pepper on Rate my Professor must help. So, I have twice as many papers to grade and twice as much e-mail to respond to.

28

R 04.26.08 at 4:30 am

Laura (#22) put it well. Yes, its a compromise — but I look at my friends and colleagues who are holding out against that compromise and can’t imagine living their lives. Which isn’t to say that I wouldn’t prefer it if I was working a little closer to full time, and my spouse a little less insanely more than full-time…

29

Katherine 04.26.08 at 7:59 am

” Also, what are all those male academics with kids doing? Not spending time with their kids? How sad.

Yes, maximum pursuit of career success means less time with the kids, and for many people, even men, less time with their kids is a negative.”

My point, lest it be misunderstood, was not to malign male academics and suggest that they don’t care about their kids, but to point out that the whole work/family balance is not just about mothers and their children but fathers too. Discussions about going part time after children is almost exclusively about women. There are obvious practical reasons for this – to do with the giving birth thing, and breastfeeding – but in the medium to longer term I continue to be surprised at the slow development in the number of men realising that family life can include time for them, too.

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