Work-life Balance: My Personal Experience

If like me, you are a woman in academia or a scientist, you have probably already heard about the best seller "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead" by Sheryl Sandberg.  If you haven't seen or read the book yet, I suggest you get a copy as soon as possible. 

In this book, Sandberg (chief operating officer of Facebook) argues that in many cases professional women hold themselves back in their careers by failing to "lean in" to opportunities.  According to Sandberg, the main reason why women hold back is because of concerns about how professional positions might affect future life choices.  The author suggests that some women prefer to remain as associate professors or faculty members because they anticipate challenges they may face in leadership positions or the promotion process.  Sandberg also mentions that other women choose part-time or non-tenure-track positions as a way to avoid potential conflicts between academic work and motherhood or family.

Although I agree with the author that is difficult to balance work and family-life, I don't think that the situation is as simple as Sandberg describes it in her book.  As indicated in an article that Kelly Ward and Pamela L. Eddy wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education, "increasing the number of women in leadership positions means not only looking at the individual women, as Sandberg does in her book, but also looking to institutions to create environments that encourage and support women who want to integrate family life and personal goals with their career aspirations for leadership and advancement".  I would add to this that it also depends on the individual’s priorities.

Let’s see my case
Personally, I think that each person (woman or man) has his/her own reasons to avoid or pursue leadership positions.  In my case, I have consciously avoided to apply for leadership positions during the last five years.  Perhaps, one day I will regret this, but for the moment, I think that I am doing the right thing.  Two reasons have dictated my decision: motherhood and personal life.

As some of you know, I am a biology professor who has been in academia for the last 25 years, 7 as graduate student and 18 as faculty member.  Throughout all these years, I have learned many things about academia, but the most important one is that keeping a work-life balance is a big challenge. I would even go so far as to say that it's practically impossible unless you set your priorities clearly, and are prepared to assume the consequences without regrets.

In her book, Sandberg says "There is no such thing as work-life balance". Of course, her argument is supported by stats that indicate that in most disciplines, professors work 60+ hours a week.  Interestingly, professors work less than that, or are engaged in activities outside their academic lives are often perceived as not serious.  Even when trying to balance work and personal life, you still end working more than 50 hours per week; it’s really unavoidable the extra work in academia!

Now, don't get me wrong, I love academia most of the time.  I love to teach and enjoy immensely the contact with students.  Although I still love many aspects of research, I hate the stresses associated with publishing papers and writing grants.  So, although I want to be an academic, I also believe that success in academia should not require giving up on having an outside life.

What are my priorities?
My family is my #1 priority.  It's fundamental for me to have quality time with my children and husband.  Of course, this is not always easy because as most people in academia, both my husband (who is also in academia) and I don't work the typical 8 hours per day.  We both bring work to home, work until late hours, and often times have to work during the weekends. Our work-related activities often overlap with our children’s extra-curricular activities.

Although work at home is sometimes unavoidable, it is crucial that you know what you are willing to do and not do.  In my case, I figured out that if I wanted to be present for my family and have personal time for myself, I needed to prioritize things a bit differently than I used to do 5 or 10 years ago.  I guess, you have to do what it works for you, but for me what is working is to be selective and to learn to say no.  I have also had to adjust my definition of success to my current priorities.  Although it sounds simple, it’s not!

Balancing work and life is a continuous job that certainly requires a lot of practice and dedication.  I also find that you need to work on your ability to ignore negative comments or critical faces.  In addition, I keep reminding myself that we only have one chance to live, and that it is not necessary to sacrifice an outside life in order to succeed in academia.  I don’t want to wait until I retire to start living!

How do you do to balance work and personal life?

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