What I did over my summer “vacation”

by Eszter Hargittai on October 4, 2013

An easy way to annoy an academic, if you’re so inclined, is to ask her what she did for her summer break. Few academics have much of a break over the summer, but they are not very good at communicating this to the public.. or even their students, including those who are on the academic career track. To address this, I decided to write up the various tasks that can keep academics busy during non-teaching months (recognizing that some people also teach in the summer). I was mainly drawing on my own experiences, which had the added benefit of reminding me that even during a summer that didn’t seem particularly productive, I had actually gotten a ton done. And to be clear, the reflection is not meant as a complaint about my job, there are many things about it that I love (I won’t pretend that I love it all, of course). But I do think that academics do themselves and also their students a disservice by not being more forthcoming about how they spend their time outside of the classroom. I will be following up with another piece on what obligations are added to our list once the academic year kicks in so I welcome items that are not on this list either because I forgot that they occur over the summer or because they mainly concern term time.



Salazar 10.04.13 at 3:41 pm

During my grad school years, I got the distinct sense faculty, tenured or not, took pride in NEVER taking vacations – and even found the suggestion they take private leave somewhat insulting. A tenured humanities professor for whom I served as an R.A. once almost boasted of taking a beach vacation over spring break. I think he was out of academia a few years later.


Eszter Hargittai 10.04.13 at 3:58 pm

Well, the point of this piece wasn’t to suggest that faculty never take vacations nor that they never should. I just didn’t include that part in the piece, because I was focusing on what we do for work (plus it seems the assumption is that all we do is go on vacation). I explicitly mentioned at the end of the article that the list does not include things I did for fun as I wanted to convey that we do find time – or at least some of us do – for fun things completely unrelated to work.


Llama 10.04.13 at 4:13 pm

Officially, I am not paid over the summer but of course I work daily. (We receive paychecks but our summer is supposed to not be paid and the 9 months we are paid for are spread over 12 months.) And Salazar–I do take vacations but I have never taken a vacation where I did not bring and do work–at least since my 2nd or 3rd year of grad school. I go to the beach but do work on the beach. Or others go to the beach and I stay in the hotel to write something for some encyclopedia I’m not sure anyone will ever read.

Friends and relatives–who are lawyers, teachers and some in the corporate world–were at my house recently and they claimed that there is never an event at which I am not working and that I always seem to be working. The night before my sister’s wedding I stayed up until 6 a.m to finish a paper and got up at 8 to get ready for the ceremony. Apparently, I did something similar at our cousin’s son’s bar mitvah. It’s annoying to everyone else to see me grading on Christmas eve. Do I have more work than other people or is my work like a gas that expands? I don’t even feel like I get that much done for the hours I put in so I cannot trumpet my remarkable achievements. However, other academics I know do better in that respect.

Then there is the problem that when you are not working you always think you should be working and there is the niggling feeling in the back of your mind that you could be working. I know people who put this into practice–they are virtually always working. How I envy them! Then, I realize that’s a little crazy. It would not be crazy for Michelangelo maybe but it’s crazy for me. But I think this feeling like be common among academics–you envy people the time they have to work and how much work they do and things in your own life only seem right if you are getting a lot of work done. So summer vacations perhaps cannot be enjoyed in the way people imagine if they do not involve work. ‘Time off’ is only time off from certain kinds of work to do other kinds of work.


Victor Wooten 10.04.13 at 6:41 pm

Avoiding the phrase “I don’t have time…”, will soon help you to realize that you do have the time needed for just about anything you choose to accomplish in life.


Nick 10.04.13 at 6:44 pm

You know, I appreciate the spirit behind this post, but at the same time, my father was a professor of American literature, and not a tenure-sucking dud either; he was more committed than most in his department to publishing. Every single summer of my life we traveled from his Midwestern university (state flagship) to Oregon and lived outside while he and my mother built a cabin. I have not one single memory of him doing academic work during those months.

So no, I totally don’t agree with this post. Do academics at the thousands of tenure-granting smaller schools throughout the States feel professional or personal pressure to work through the summer? I bet a lot of them garden and draw little doodles in the margins of Moby Dick.


clew 10.04.13 at 7:00 pm

That didn’t even mention fieldwork, which often has to be crammed into — or, worse, designed around — time not teaching.


Eszter Hargittai 10.04.13 at 7:23 pm

Clew, good point, I’ll have to include that in a future update. (I talked about research, but not the type that requires travel.)


ChrisTS 10.05.13 at 1:48 am


Didn’t your father ever update his courses or teach new ones? Did he do no research over the summer? Did he never have committee work or other kinds of service work that ran over the summer? I find that hard to believe.


Nick 10.05.13 at 3:24 am

– yes, he would teach new courses, and no, he didn’t work on them over the summer. I can guarantee this, because even though I was only a young tyke, we were living under a plastic canopy in a pine forest. He also took four sabaticals over the course of my youth, which were also spent in the woods.

– no, he did not do research during the summer, we would camp out and cut down trees and pour concrete

– as one of the active publishers in his department, he did very little committee or departmental work, that was reserved for duds of which there were many

If you find this hard to believe, then you’re probably too young to know how sweet a deal tenured professors had in the 70s and 80s (and presumably before). Also, that you didn’t experience academia before the rise of the committee . . . Think about it — a major department in a large state university has dozens of professors, how many committees could there be? Back then, not so many. People volunteered for them to get out of teaching classes, they didn’t sacrifice their summers. And if it is a 3rd tier university, most of those dozens of professors are beside the point, research-wise. Do you think all of them spend their summers on call? You’d be hard-pressed to muster half of them on any given weekday during the academic year.


Meredith 10.05.13 at 4:45 am

Nick, I am not feeling hostile toward you, just agog at your personal anecdote as basis for sweeping generalization. So, to get personal. A couple of things I noticed in your remarks. Your mother, what did she do that might have supported your father’s summer freedom? And have you ever wondered what it might be like to be both a mother (and/or wife) and a professor? Not so uncommon these days. As a married wife and mother, I always longed for a “wife” in the 80’s and 90’s, when I was mothering at a furious pace (parenting doesn’t stop when they leave home, but let’s stick to those “child-rearing” years). But to be fair, fathering demands a lot more these days, too. Glad you could enjoy those summer months with your father, and your mother.

All that aside, I think Eszter’s column wonderful (and am a bit surprised at some resisting comments there). I’d second the summer as fieldwork time comments above. Botanists, geologists, archaeologists, others — people both relying on student apprentices for their own research and training those apprentices with a view to their field’s future — summers are the most intense time of the year. For those of us whose research really involves just texts and more texts (that is, books) and doesn’t rely on student researchers much if at all, summer may afford a little more time for gardens and such. But not much, given the time we need for our research projects/obligations to the larger professional world, course prep, and local service of myriad kinds (Eszter outlines all that so well). It’s hard to explain to people who don’t work this way, but I can be in intense throes when I look to an outsider like I’m just reading a book on my back porch in the summer sunshine. (Though I certainly am fortunate in those throes compared to many, many others. It’s just that I am not merely lolling.)


Nick 10.05.13 at 5:16 am

Sorry, I didn’t meant to write in an irritable mood. I think it’s valuable to consider this subject in light of other CT posts on fear and authoritarianism in the workplace. A professor in the most intense throes of labour, during the summer, still controls what they do, and is in a simply better position than someone with a boss and a work site.

I don’t understand what you mean by my mother — she lived with my father and the rest of our family. I don’t see how that affects my father not having formal academic duties in the summer, or choosing not to revise his course syllabi.

Also, as someone who has done fieldwork in geology and paleontology — yes, this is work of a sort, but it also bears quite a bit of resemblance to an extended drunken hiking trip and a crew of undergrad volunteers oozing hormones. Work of a sort, but again, not the sort of thing one wants to raise when pointing out how tough an academic’s life is.


maidhc 10.05.13 at 7:41 am

My father used to submit papers to summer conferences in interesting places like Sweden, New Zealand (well, it wouldn’t be summer there, but you know…) or the south of France. His travel would be paid for and he’d pay for my mother to come along. Of course he would participate fully in the conference. Meanwhile my mother would be busy because those kind of conferences usually laid on some tours and events for spouses and guests. When the conference was done they’d spend a week or two travelling around.

So it was work, but it wasn’t so bad. As Nick said, being a tenured professor was pretty nice back in the old days.

Of course that was only a few weeks, he was doing research and planning next year’s courses during the summer as well. But in those days you might only teach two courses at a time.


Agog 10.05.13 at 10:52 am

Who is that personification standing over there metaphorically cracking the proverbial whip?

Why, it is none other than Fear, the first-cousin of Greed, and great-uncle of Status Anxiety!

(Which is not to disagree with any of the above, naturally)


Eszter Hargittai 10.05.13 at 1:38 pm

Nick, this comment alone shows how far from today’s reality is the experience you describe: “People volunteered for [committees] to get out of teaching classes”. I have never heard of someone getting out of teaching for committee work. And by the way, when you add up department-level, School-level, and University level committees, there are plenty of them to go around.

All that said, I want to emphasize again – I already noted this in the original article and the post here – that the point of the piece was not to complain. I love my job and yes, one of the reasons is that despite the many obligations, I do have a ton of flexibility. I wrote this up, because I truly believe that academics do a horrible job of communicating to the public as well as students all of the responsibilities and tasks that academics have to juggle. While it is the case that some academics don’t work that much over the summer, I know of few such cases these days.

The mere fact, Nick, that you are so skeptical of all this suggests that communicating all this is in fact very important and needed.


Eszter Hargittai 10.05.13 at 2:04 pm

And Nick, Meredith’s point about what your mother did presumably concerned whether she had a full time job and a career of her own to build and tend to. What does this have to do with your father’s academic responsibilities? For one thing, if household labor was not equally divided during the academic year among your parents then this presumably would have left your father much more time to do his own research and tend to other academic duties than if he had been a full participant in household labor as well as childrearing, both of which take a ton of time and emotional energy, and siphon off from availability for academic work.


Cranky Observer 10.05.13 at 3:12 pm

I monitor a couple of academic science/STEM blogs (primarily via Scientopia) and from time to time I see post about how any academic with less than {tenure + 10} under her belt needs to work 20 hours/day 7 days/week, how they mercilessly haze new grad students who enter the program thinking they might get a few weeks vacation during the year, how they are either at the lab, writing papers, running into a classroom at the last second, or sleeping – no other human activity allowed, etc.

And every time I read one of these posts I think, this is supposed to be a reality-oriented and research-based community, and yet they seem totally unaware of the extensive research performed by the FAA and USAF in the 1970s and picked up and expanded by the nuclear power industry in the 1980s on the limits of human performance and the counter-productivity of excess work hours. Bottom line: a human being can work productively 5×10 for extended periods, and gain additional productivity from short bursts of 5×16 or 7×12. But beyond a few weeks’ burst additional manhours at the controls, whether of an airplane, process plant, lab bench, or research desk, result in negative productivity and danger to self and others.

Apparently academics – particularly STEM – are a different breed and immune to these otherwise-universal observations. Someone should start a research project to figure out what the differences are.



Nick 10.05.13 at 3:24 pm

Hey, I didn’t mean to be confrontational! There’s something about comment threads or myself that brings it out, I’m sorry. It’s just that I still think of being a prof in the terms that I saw my father live under, which were total freedom during the summer and the annoyance of teaching two classes/semester in the fall. I’m not in academia myself, when I went to grad school in the 90s I realized that the chances of my getting the same deal he had were pretty small, and I quit with a masters — but I was lazy too . . .

I also apologize if my point of view seems unreal — perhaps because my father was a professor, I always assume that people with PhDs are a generation older than I am. Maybe that’s not true here. The thing is, he got his PhD without a great deal of angst in the 60s, from a great university but without extreme distinction, immediately received three tenure-track job offers, and then taught for 30 years at one of them. His summers were free, he spent one year in Eastern Europe, and he published several books; he would have liked to have worked in a department that was able to attract good graduate students, but though he had opportunities he didn’t land one. To me that seems like the job of a capable, but not exceptional, academic — his major regret was not having the professional community of scholars and students that a better school would have. It’s too bad if it doesn’t exist any more, because it was a pretty good life.


Nick 10.05.13 at 3:27 pm

Think of my opinion as an archaeological remnant from an age when academics still administered universities.


Anonymous 10.05.13 at 3:31 pm

“Do academics at the thousands of tenure-granting smaller schools throughout the States feel professional or personal pressure to work through the summer?”

As an academic at one of these schools (and, previously, at another): yes, yes we do.

Here is some of the work I did over the summer: attended a teaching development workshop; revised and submitted several manuscripts for publication; began work on a new manuscript; worked on developing the three new courses I’m teaching this academic year; taught myself rudimentary particle physics so that I could participate in a conference on my campus this fall; pulled together some information about my department’s students in anticipation of our upcoming external review; as a member of the faculty senate, dealt with an issue of shared governance that came up.

And for all this, I was not–officially–paid, since we are on nine-month contracts. Nonetheless, I did these things because (i) I like my job and most of its duties, (ii) I take pride in my work and in my College, and (iii) you can be damned sure that the administration is paying attention.


cormac 10.05.13 at 4:35 pm

Cranky observer: we don’t hear enough about such studies, very interesting. I think one big difference would be interest/motivation. Most people who are successful in academic research tend to be extremely interested in their subject, resulting in a blurring of boundaries between work and play, and so harder to analyze.
I’m writing this from my office on a Saturday afternoon and there is no place I would rather be at this moment. We had a lucky break in our research this summer that I am furiously writing up before someone else gets there first. Yet those studies you quote are not to be disregarded – last week, I ended up in a shouting match with our college president , and I’m sure it’s not unrelated to the fact that I haven’t had a day off in months


Eszter Hargittai 10.05.13 at 5:33 pm

Thanks for clarifying, Nick. The tone of comments is indeed often hard to figure out.

It’s doubtful that I am a generation older than you are given that I got my BA in the mid 90s, went straight on to grad school and received my PhD in 2003. I am in my late (granted, very late:) 30s.

Addressing both Nick and Cranky, I’ll say again for the nth time that I was not complaining and I do think this is a very good life. But it is not one where most people simply sit on the beach for three months in the summer. That was the point of the post, not to criticize academic life.

Cranky, the things I described are possible to do, if done efficiently, without going crazy with weekly hours worked. I did lots of fun things this summer. I mentioned one in the article: a watercoloring class I took. I did many other things as well. I didn’t include them, because (a) they are not central to the fact that many of us have lots of work during the summer; and (b) I personally just don’t write that much publicly about my private life.


Hector_St_Clare 10.05.13 at 6:37 pm

Re: Botanists, geologists, archaeologists, others — people both relying on student apprentices for their own research and training those apprentices with a view to their field’s future — summers are the most intense time of the yea

I’ll support this, as a botanist (just got my doctorate in May from a Big 10 midwestern research university, started a postdoc at another one about a month ago). Most of the other people working in plant sciences that I know would kind of laugh at the idea of summer vacation. Spring and summer (April through August, more or less), is my busiest time of year. Some days in the summer I work roughly 8 am to 9 pm or so.

Also, at least at the school where I just finished up, most of the professors I know have research as their main focus, teaching is something of an afterthought (that would be different at community colleges, liberal arts schools, religious schools, etc.). Time off from teaching just means more time available for research. The professors I know who do research are generally *busiest* in spring and summer.

Of course, academia has a lot of perks and privileges as well.


Hector_St_Clare 10.05.13 at 6:41 pm

Re: Also, as someone who has done fieldwork in geology and paleontology — yes, this is work of a sort, but it also bears quite a bit of resemblance to an extended drunken hiking trip and a crew of undergrad volunteers oozing hormones. Work of a sort, but again, not the sort of thing one wants to raise when pointing out how tough an academic’s life is.

I certainly would never complain about ‘how tough an academic’s life is’, and when people do, I suggest they compare themselves to the life of a coal miner. That being said, yes summer fieldwork is a lot of fun, and the things you mention, but there are plenty of other jobs like that too. That you can have fun and socialize while doing work, doesn’t negate the fact that it’s work.


Salazar 10.05.13 at 7:02 pm

Eszter: I understand “academics-going-on-vacation-or-not” wasn’t the point of the OP. This said, both your post – and comments like Llama’s at #3 – help explain why the humanities and social sciences professors I knew in my grad school days – mid-90s – just didn’t feel they could take time off without work: They just had too much to do! Yes, they could travel overseas during the Summer. But they always took work with them, did research, attended conferences, translated books, etc, planned the Fall courses, etc. In short, they worked Summers, only in more pleasant settings. Hope this clarifies.


MG 10.05.13 at 7:28 pm

I think one thing I’ve worked with three different types of academics in my field (public policy). “Type A” academics go into the office year round and worked at their desk – answering email, etc – and take vacations with definitive start / end dates. “Type B” academics are pretty scarce and impossible to reach during the summer and but they are kind of squirrelly about what they are doing when. “Type X” academics are the ones maybe like commenter #3 – they never stop working – either on your vacation or their vacation – and it makes people kinda miserable.

I far prefer to work with “Type A” academics and I bet they have less of problem explaining what they do during the summer because it’s not so different than the rest of the time. Maybe lack of presence is an issue? Or just communication about when someone is taking an actual vacation? (rather than working at home).


MG 10.05.13 at 7:32 pm

Argh – the first sentence just begin with “I’ve worked”.


Nick 10.05.13 at 8:22 pm

Here’s one thing that I don’t understand about this thread. Tenure still exists, though it may be rarer — so what are the new constraints on a tenured professor? What happens if they vanish after the last final exam, and pop in a couple weeks before class starts?


Meredith 10.05.13 at 9:30 pm

Nick @27, whether the professor has vanished in order the better to get work done (and many do, certainly in the humanities, if they have a quiet place at home to work — email has changed everything, btw, so that even things like tenure reviews can be conducted with those doing the review together each working from home), or because a garden needs constant tending (or a combination — I use gardening chores as a break from research), people will figure out eventually whether you’re being productive. If you don’t pull your weight in departmental and college service, and especially if you don’t publish or aren’t otherwise productive (e.g., performing if you are a musician), your immediate colleagues will certainly know, and at most colleges (perhaps virtually all), the powers-that-be will become aware through mechanisms for review, ranging from annual submission of your CV (and possibly other materials) to the dean, to full-professor reviews. My husband, who has taught at a state college for almost 30 years, just submitted his review portfolio, a five-year requirement if you want to move on to a higher pay-grade.
I think the landscape of academia has changed beyond recognition since your father’s day. Like all change, some of it is good, some not.


ChrisTS 10.05.13 at 9:58 pm

Thanks for your response. I’m deep into grading madness, this week, so I have been slow to respond.

I honestly don’t understand how someone could create a new course and prep for it without doing most of that work over the summer. I couldn’t manage that even when I used pre-selected texts/edited volumes. Now, I put together all reading materials online.

When I worked at a place with a 2/2 load, I could get at least some research done during the academic year. But, on a 3/3 and with various service commitments, I can only do preparatory work before summer. Besides which, I feel the need to keep reading whatever might improve my courses while teaching them, as well as over the summer.

I began teaching in 1983. Perhaps I missed the Golden Days (this is universally true, yes?). But, as someone pointed out upthread, a woman professor with children is going to be burning the candle at both ends, in most cases. Perhaps that is another difference.


John Quiggin 10.06.13 at 3:55 am

I’ll cop to being Type X, but it’s more an absence of work/life boundaries. I’m commenting now, obviously (Sunday afternoon in Oz), which is sort of work for me. I’ll get back to writing a paper soon, aiming for 1000 words this PM. OTOH I’ll often go for a long swim, cycle or gym session during office hours (too hot to run in Brisbane in daytime), as well as lunch and coffee breaks and arriving when I feel like it. So, I’m never fully off work, but rarely fully at work either.


QS 10.06.13 at 4:57 am

For single academics or academic couples, we have great geographic mobility during our “vacations.”* For many, research, writing, and teaching prep can be done nearly anywhere in the world. The internet and laptops enable a great deal. I’ve “worked” on the beach and in the cafe many thousands of miles from home. This is an obvious perk of the discipline: for a significant amount of time per year, I have no employer demanding that I be in a particular location. Simply, they demand I get my work done.

*Obviously this experience is limited to those who aren’t tied to a lab or a particular research location.


Dave 10.06.13 at 8:43 pm

yes, but did any of it matter ?


Tabasco 10.07.13 at 5:43 am

“What happens if they vanish after the last final exam, and pop in a couple weeks before class starts?”

Salary increases of zero, being assigned the worst courses to teach, general freezing out.


Eszter Hargittai 10.07.13 at 5:05 pm

Expanding on Tabasco’s helpful response to Nick’s question: many academics don’t have a grand salary, which means that raises matter. If you’re not being productive in any way, neither contributing to research and your field nor to local service then you are likely to be at the bottom of the list for raises, which are, at least at some institutions, decided based on merit. And indeed, teaching and service duties aren’t all equal per se either and you’re unlikely to receive sympathetic considerations if you’re not being a team player.

While it is indeed the case that many faculty don’t get paid over the summer and thus the university likely has limited ability in requiring work then, it would be much harder to be productive during the year (e.g., with your own research) if you didn’t do anything over the summer.

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