The Nature of Academic Work

[Scott Weingart][] caught [this post][] addressed, ostensibly, to the brilliant undergraduate who finds him or herself considering pursuit of the PhD. The post is worth reading in its entirety, though it does seem to be fairly well inflected by the British academy experience, but I found its summation of the nature of academic work compelling:

> Academia does have the advantage that hours are often a lot more flexible than in the business world; it’s quite often possible and even expected to work at times that suit you, your metabolism, your external commitments etc rather than having to be present at a physical place of business 9-5 Monday to Friday. But the sheer volume of work is, well, not just enormous but essentially unlimited. The thing about not having any specific goals is that you can never really say that you’ve “done” a task, so you keep going.

Both my wife and I find ourselves constantly gritting our teeth when friends, and still some family members, say to us things like “You’re off now, right? When do you go back to work?” No matter how much you try to drop hints about the nature of academic work, like, say, as the end of the fall semester approaches and the Christmas break looms, you announce things like, “Oh, it’s going to be so good to get back to work. I’m really looking forward to digging back into that project I had to put on hold during the semester.” No matter. Friends and family somehow just don’t pick up on it. Even friends and family who themselves spend a lot of times at their desks, who dread going to meetings themselves, who dread the high level of bureaucracy that every large organization spins up and with which it ensnares its unsuspecting, and usually unwilling, congregants. Doesn’t matter. I’ve even tried comparing classes to meetings. They can be productive, but unless your business is to hold meetings, it’s still not what you do.

In our case, 40 percent of our business is, in effect, holding meetings. Another 20 percent is a mix of meetings and thinking: the academy calls this service. But the remaining 40 percent of our jobs, and the part that actually nets us advancement is creating knowledge and communicating it effectively. And that’s what we are doing sometimes when you see us wander outside in the middle of the day, looking puzzled at the big ball of light up in the sky: we have been deeply immersed, and I use that word purposefully in light of other recent posts, in trying to figure something out.

[Scott Weingart]:
[this post]:

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