Choosing balance

Wayne Chan is a Physiotherapist at Chi Lin Nunnery Elderly Services and a Visiting Lecturer at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

He was formerly a full-time lecturer, and taught a number of subjects ranging from paediatrics to geriatrics. He is interested in geriatric rehabilitation, dementia, and active ageing.

He tweets at @WaynelsChan.

Photo by Eaters Collective |
Photo by Eaters Collective |

When I graduated from university, I never thought I would study for a PhD.

I’m a physiotherapist and love taking care of people with needs.

I hate being stuck behind a desk doing lots of writing and data processing on computers.

Due to the economic recession, however, there was almost no jobs available for physiotherapists.

Around this time, I joined the geriatrics program at The Chinese University of Hong Kong as a research assistant. With a passion for clinical research and having built a reputation for being reliable, I was given the chance to study for a doctorate.

The reasons I decided to do a PhD were two-fold: to give myself more options, and bargaining power, to choose what I would like to do at work, and to be less affected by the changes in overall economics. I had never previously thought about being an academic.

After finishing my PhD study, I jumped to a local non-profit organisation and became a front-line physiotherapist for more than a year. During that “gap year”, I enjoyed my time with my lovely patients. I got to know more about their needs and perspectives. I felt inspired, even gathering some new ideas for clinical research.

When it came to looking for the next step up in jobs, I applied around a range of advanced physiotherapy positions, and one of these happened to be a teaching position at the department where I completed my bachelor degree. Against all my expectations, I was accepted by the department and became a lecturer.

At first glance, this change of career direction appears really exciting. I set two goals for myself: to teach at least at an acceptable level and to create opportunities to participate in clinical research (even though I wasn’t supposed to do any research according to my job description).

Once I was in this role, I got more anxious as time passed. I didn’t have any experience in teaching university students and most of the subjects I taught didn’t align nicely to my expertise. I invested lots of time and effort preparing myself for classes, both physically (to read literature and compile presentations, etc.) and mentally (to overcome the fear and uncertainty). Together with the administrative loads and clinical work (seeing patients at the university clinic was one of my duties), I was overwhelmed and very stressed at times during my first year of teaching. On top of all that, I didn’t have a chance to participate in research.

During this time, I started noticing changes in my lifestyle. I’d work on weeknights and weekends. My 9-to-5 was fully occupied with regular duties, so I had to use my off-work hours to prepare for lectures, send emails, reply to messages from students, and complete other miscellaneous administrative stuff. I skipped exercise classes, cancelled dinner plans with friends, and became a coffee-holic.

I started questioning myself. Do all academics (especially new ones) have the same work pattern? Why would any academic work harder (even overwork) if it didn’t bring a higher chance of success or only created problems with work/life balance? While I was finding ways to keep up with the pace, I also took a sneak peek at the routines of my colleagues. I found that most colleagues did have long working hours. I could rarely saw them finishing work at 5pm, or hitting the gym on campus for the whole morning. Working on Saturdays was also very common. “Deadlines are there every week, so we overwork every week to meet those deadlines,” a colleague told me.

At the end of my first year of being a lecturer, I thought it was time to embark on my clinical research. I consulted the head of the research committee of my department and sought his advice. “The department will support you, for sure, but you have to take the initiative to look for resources and collaborators, write up research proposals, and apply for research grants,” he said. So, I tried to prepare for my research, using my off-work hours and weekends once again.

A higher intake of students derailed my plans, however, as it meant I needed to take responsibility for new subjects and more administrative duties, and had to start teaching on Saturday afternoons. As a result, my writing process was sluggish and fragmented.

In the end, I did finish a proposal, but I didn’t think it was strong enough to persuade the committee. When I submitted the proposal, I felt ashamed that I’d let myself down and didn’t achieve my full potential. As expected, I didn’t get the grant.

I tried to review why I failed to write up an up-to-standard research proposal. While time was definitely an issue, I found that I had poor knowledge about the current research culture, strategies in writing proposals and networking (and I hate the fact that I got to know the Research Whisperer after I left academia – definitely too late!). I didn’t have access to research resources at the university, and I couldn’t join the research committee to get updated information. Looking for collaborations was tough, too, as people didn’t expect that I would participate in research. In their eyes, my ability and dedication were in doubt.

In addition, I noticed that there were always some colleagues (usually veterans) who never took up any new teaching and administration duties. I realised that this is how they managed their overall workload. This phenomenon consistently reminded me of what the Vice President said in the university’s welcoming speech to newcomers: “You can only be good at teaching, but you can be excellent at research”.

There is a not-so-hidden agenda in academia: sparing time and effort for research is of paramount importance. We are surrounded by a culture that demonstrates that only research can help academics attain tenure or further promotion. That’s why lecturers (or those early in their career) are very important to universities: to do the dirty jobs.

At the end of my second year, with mixed feelings of anger, frustration and pain, I decided to leave academia and get a professional job outside the university.

Now, I work 45 hours a week, which is slightly less than the average in Hong Kong but kind of normal in my profession, and finish work at 6pm sharp. I receive no intrusive emails or messages when I’m having dinner or watching movies with my beloved friends and family. My favourite weekly ritual is the painting class on Saturday morning. In addition, I carry out clinical research at my organisation and became a part-time lecturer at the same department, teaching a group of postgraduate students.

Though I left academia, I miss my university life, particularly being able to be flexible in arranging my own schedule and a good amount of autonomy in my workload. But I believe that academics can only achieve a decent work/life balance if their workload is reasonable and their work environment supportive and nurturing.

I’m not sure whether I’ll be a full-time academic again in the future. I love my current life and have no urge to change it. That said, I do remind myself that if – IF – I was to do so, I’d be determined that the opportunity still gave me the kind of life I wanted to lead.

At the end of the day, what bothers you at work should be remain at work. Get a life!


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