Early Stage Stress: Conquering An Impossible Workload

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You have landed your first academic job – congratulations! You have beaten off huge competition, and are ready to get into your new role. However, before you start, it is very important that you are prepared, both mentally and physically, for the new challenge that awaits you. The aim of this short piece is to give some useful advice, based on a combination of previous experience and useful tips. handed down to me very graciously by senior colleagues.

Get ready to make your own work schedule

Your first day will normally involve an induction through meeting your department colleagues, and being given your teaching workload. You will soon realise that the work of a full academic is much different to that of a PhD student. Teaching loads, especially for new academics, can be heavy and intensive. While some universities will ask you to teach specifically within your area of expertise, it is becoming more common to teach in areas outside your main specialisms. To do this, a significant amount of additional reading would be required to formulate your course catalogue and prepare lecture materials. This can be a daunting task, but one that is manageable with effective time management, and if you construct your own work schedule.

After receiving your schedule, examine it carefully and ask yourself a very important question: how much can I realistically be expected to accomplish in one day? It is important to note that if you do not establish this basic target for yourself, then it is possible that your job will take over your life, and dramatically affect your personal relationships. As stark as this warning may sound, it is important to understand this possibility from the outset. Yes, your job is important, but the best advice I was given was by an old colleague who said I should “work to live, not live to work”.  Therefore, if there is something that can be left on your desk until tomorrow, leave it until then.

Also, remember that your role is normally divided into three sections: teaching; research and administration. While junior faculty will be given some administrative duties, it should not be as onerous as senior faculty. Nevertheless, setting aside time to complete these tasks is important. For example, when I was a junior faculty member, I set one day per week aside to do all my administrative tasks. This meant that I retained discipline with myself – all administrative tasks would be completed on a given day, and the rest of my time would be devoted to teaching and research.

Be patient with yourself

The phrase coined in the USA was ‘publish or perish’. There are now unprecedented pressures on academics to publish. However, for early stage academics, much of your publications will be based on converting your thesis into a publishable format, whether it be as a series of articles or as a monograph. One quickly learns that the benchmark standard for publication is even higher than that for attaining the PhD qualification. Be ready for rejections, don’t take it personally and see it both as a character-building exercise and as a means of improving your work. Very few academics get it right first time, and learning to cope with rejection is all part of the process.

Learn to say no

One of the hardest, but most important things that one must learn to be to maintain is a balanced life and mental state. While agreeing to help colleagues and students is all part of being collegial and providing ‘service’ for your department and university, agreeing to all requests will result in you being swamped. Therefore, an element of selfishness is needed here so that you do not lose the focus of your goal: to ensure that you are successful in your work. To achieve this, it is often best to examine whether it is essential for you to do a certain task. Did your department head explicitly say that you must do it?  If not, and the task in question is onerous, then it may be a good idea to find a polite way to say ‘no’. While doing so may appear cruel, nothing should be done that would put undue pressure on you in an already pressurised environment.

Finally….take time to enjoy your job, and enjoy your leisure time even more

Many studies have already acknowledged that it is impossible to complete all the required tasks of an academic within the standard working hours. Therefore, while it is almost expected that academics will work additional hours to meet the demands placed upon them, it is important that you also take time to enjoy your successes and accomplishments. Defining an exercise schedule, while time consuming, has positive mental and physical effects on your body. As an early career academic who worked too many long hours, I suffered very badly from lower back caused by sitting behind a desk for too long every day. The recommendation of my doctor to go swimming a few times a week certainly helped me to feel better, and allowed me to enjoy my leisure time. Most importantly, a balanced approach to work and life will ensure that you can enjoy your leisure time to the full, and spend time with the people who mean the most to you. Enjoy your new job, and enjoy your life even more!

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