Escaping the ivory tower- if only for a little while

dani-barringtonDr Dani Barrington is a Research Fellow jointly appointed by Monash University and the International WaterCentre.

Her work focuses on water and sanitation in developing communities, meaning she is often referred to as ‘The Toilet Lady’ by strangers and ‘Sani Dani’ by at least one of her friends.

She tweets at @Dani_Barrington. Her ORCID is 0000-0002-1486-9247

Detail of Borugak Jagyeongnu, an enormous Korean water clock
The water clock, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Put your hand up if you feel guilty leaving the office at 5pm.

Keep it up if you feel it makes you a ‘bad’ academic.

I realised a few weeks ago that I consider myself a ‘bad’ academic for having a healthy work-life balance. And this really p*ssed me off.

I made a deal with my supervisor when I decided to apply for a PhD: I was over the undergraduate student lifestyle, and I would only do a PhD if I could treat it as a ‘real’ job, where I worked normal hours and took normal holidays.

Otherwise, I was going to accept a graduate position in an engineering firm (the fact that professional engineers may not have a healthy work-life balance was not apparent to me on graduating in 2007, pre-Global Financial Crisis, especially when taking an engineering position in Perth seemed the ‘safe’ option).

I LOVED studying for my PhD – I was making a fortune (well, compared to my previous casual income of $100 a week plus Youth Allowance), I got to work on stuff I was interested in, and I travelled overseas to conferences.

Yet, throughout my PhD, I kept attending seminars where I was reminded that if I wanted to continue in academia I was going to have to dedicate my entire life to the cause, including working weekends and potentially neglecting family obligations.

As a result, I wasn’t that interested in staying in academia when I finished my PhD.

When I submitted, I headed to Nepal for nine months to volunteer with Engineers Without Borders. At some point, I decided to see whether I could combine my passion for international development with my high level research skills and, on returning to Australia, I started applying for research grants to do just that. It couldn’t hurt, I thought, and there were no jobs in professional engineering by then anyway.

Through a process of networks, a good track record, and a reputation for being easy to work with, I ended up as Principal Investigator on a Category 1 grant.

Suddenly, I found myself employed as a Research Fellow at a top university, even though I considered myself a ‘bad’ researcher. I couldn’t reconcile this. “I must be a fake!” I thought, “I make it a conscious habit to not check my work emails outside of normal hours, and I very rarely work weekends. It’s only a matter of time before I’m found out…”

I started noticing the routines of other academics. Yes, their emails time-stamped 2am on a Sunday morning made me feel guilty that I’d spent my weekend drinking wine with friends and walking the dog (not necessarily in that order). But, more interestingly, a lot of the time when I visited them during my work hours, they’d be watching rugby on YouTube. Or out of their office taking a three hour stroll around campus. I began to realise that they were making choices as to how they wanted to manage their academic workload – and so was I.

When I’m at my desk, it’s ‘work time’ (although I do admit to the occasional sneaky Facebook check!). My supervisors seem happy with my work; I publish, I manage a team, I conduct fieldwork, and I take on service duties like editing a journal and mentoring students. My efficiency during work hours allows me to do this and have a life at the same time.

This isn’t to say that I’m never stressed – that would be a complete lie, as there are often times where I lay on the floor of my office meditating after receiving particularly distressing emails. But I have decided that, for my own mental well-being, I HAVE to leave that stress at work. If I let myself work regularly on weeknights and weekends then I will probably be committed within months.

So, I go home…and, again, despite all my big talk about work-life balance, I feel guilty as I lie on the couch watching Breaking Bad with my mate. “I’m sure there are still people at work in my building; how dare I be wasting brain power on Walter White’s exploits?” (yes, I am completely behind the times in that regard).

A couple of weeks ago, I was interstate for my sister’s wedding and a holiday with my partner. On returning to work, something clicked, which really helped me feel better about my choices. I realised that I am more than just ‘The Toilet Lady’.

I had spent my break being a sister, a daughter, a girlfriend. I had dived with sharks, swam with manta rays, and watched a turtle lay her eggs by moonlight. Apart from using the bathroom myself, I got through most of the week without thinking about my research. I felt loved and appreciated by my family, despite the fact that I wasn’t publishing articles or writing grants. They like me for all the other things about myself that I often put on the backburner when I stress about needing to prove myself as a researcher.

It has reminded me: Although research will never be ‘just’ a job, it is, in fact, a job.

I can’t say that in the future I won’t have to reassess my lifestyle – I know that those of you with teaching loads or children are probably laughing at me right now. But I do know at least one full professor in her forties who doesn’t work weekends and has hosted her own TV show. I’m holding onto her as my work-life role model.

Plus, I figure that if Leonard and Sheldon get weekends off, then so do I.


  1. I think it’s so important to set those boundaries to make time for the other important things in life. I have young kids and I usually leave the office by 5pm to make sure I’m home to read to them and be part of their lives. I also keep weekends strictly free of work. Sure, I’ll do some more work after the kids go to bed and I am guilty of the late night emails, but I arrange my workload to make time for my family, exercise and leisure. Balance is vital if you’re academic career is going to be sustainable.

    Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is great to hear. I completely accept that one of the great things about academia is the flexibility- especially when you have kids- so you can plan to work however is best for you. I am not morally opposed to working weekends/weeknights if that is how my time is best shared around to spend time doing things I want to do (like hang out with my kids).

      However, like you, I feel that if I don’t set myself boundaries, even if I do have to reassess them every now and then, then it’s a slippery slope to a 7 day work week! And, for me at least, that is not sustainable!


  2. Thanks guys- it’s so good to know that I’m not alone! Part of me writing the article was because I was feeling so mixed up about things in my head and felt it would really help me to get them down in a coherent fashion for reflection (now and later)- and then realised that I couldn’t possibly be the only one feeling this way!

    It is a constant struggle to balance the work (and the guilt/stress), but I find that compartmentalising in this way greatly improves my quality of life (and who ever said that you should give up the fun things in life to do a PhD/Postdoc/academia? What’s the point in living if you aren’t enjoying yourself? If we keep saying “once I’ve finished *** I won’t work weekends”… then we will always work weekends!).


  3. Thanks for writing this. It reminded me of a post I wrote about new student inductions and the rhetoric of “this degree/PhD/job will take over your life” that is often part of them.

    I think these inductions set us up for failure (and as you mention, potentially put off good academics who think they can’t do it and have other interests/responsibilities). It’s not a healthy narrative, it’s one most people can’t live up to, and it’s potentially discriminatory given that women are more likely to have caring responsibilities outside the workplace.

    Good for you for resisting the pressure. You sound like you’re doing a great job and enjoying yourself at the same time.

    Liked by 1 person

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