Too many jobs, not enough quiet: In which I am spread too thin

My group office, in a rare quiet moment

My group office, in a rare quiet moment

To be in academia is to multitask.

As a principal investigator in a big university, it is becoming increasingly apparent that investigation is not my principal role. Yes, I run a lab (which is in turn defined by multitasks: supervising researchers; writing papers and grants; taking part in departmental activities). But I also have a heavy teaching load, sit on several committees, act as a formal mentor, and have recently taken on the mantle of Athena Swan lead for our division’s charter renewal application next year.

None of this is new or surprising – it’s been ever thus and, with dwindling resources, is not likely to change any time soon. But sometimes it distresses me to be so divided in focus. And my feeling of perpetual dishevelment is enhanced by the current craze for group offices. I think back to my various solitary cubbyholes with real nostalgia: spaces where you could think in perfect silence, or brainstorm freely with colleagues in person or on Skype without fear of collegial disapproval. But such spaces are a thing of history, as surface area is carved up and repurposed for the greater good (breakout areas and soft seating for students, for example).

Of course I understand the arguments about interactivity, but am pretty sure that packing many scholars into small spaces is ultimately more counterproductive for their work. Indeed, I thought it was telling that, in a recent pro/contra piece about shared space in academia, even the pro voice had to admit: “Staff are much more visible now and that is a positive – it makes the place buzz. They do still say that if they are trying to do quiet work, they use the library more or work from home.” So research staff have effectively been given offices whose specifications mean that the only way to do all their work is to not come to work at all.

One of the reasons I can no longer blog here as often as I’d like is because the fractured role I play in academia has started to encroach severely into my private time (as each role can expand to full-time if you let it). Being a working mother has also taken its toll. I know that these things come in cycles, and this term happens to be a particularly stressful one, coinciding with my son’s sudden relapse into broken sleep patterns. So I’m hanging on to the thought that the Christmas break isn’t far away, and I should be able to recuperate from the accumulated burden of sleep deprivation and 24/7 stress.

Once day I’d love to recover the time I need to write properly. I’d like to blog more here, and I’ve got a completed novel to edit and a new novel to continue beyond chapter one. But it might not be possible, and I need to accept that if it’s true. Even as I write these words, I know the chances are slim.

But no time to be sad: my lunch is eaten, and I’ve got a tutorial to plan, a broken autoclave to deal with and a presentation to polish.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
This entry was posted in Scientific thinking, Teaching, The profession of science, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Too many jobs, not enough quiet: In which I am spread too thin

  1. Philip Ashton says:

    Thank you for taking on the Science is Vital campaign, in addition to all these things Jenny. You are a true hero!

  2. Thank you! SiV is a group effort, but I must admit to a big sigh of relief that the latest instalment is largely past.

  3. Titus Brown says:

    Great post – since our lab is computational, everyone is encouraged to work where they work best (and most focused). So the lab is often empty or at least sparsely populated. We’ve started doing fika (Swedish coffee hour) twice a week to compensate for loss of society – seems to be working well so far.

    Good luck on the rest of this semester!


  4. Thanks Titus. I like that strategy – quiet when you need it (which is probably the majority) and socializing on occasion to keep up the interactivity. At the moment in many places it’s all skewed towards the wrong end.

  5. Laurence Cox says:

    I have experience of working from small offices (2-man) up to very large offices (100+) in my career in industry and government, and I have no doubt that the small offices win out every time. For me, the transformation from a small office to a large office came around the middle of my career when the organisation I was then working for decided that they wanted to rationalise their many small office/lab buildings into a small number of large buildings. Their attitude was exactly the sort of rubbish spouted by the estates manager in your link. I know of several very senior staff who, faced with having to work in a large office for the first time, took to working unusual hours, even coming in as early as 4 am in the summer to assure themselves of undisturbed working conditions. Because of the nature of the work, the site was actually open 24 hours so it was possible to do this.

    Back in the small office days it was always standard practice to get together, usually for coffee in the morning and tea in the afternoon, so there was always the opportunity to interact with colleagues; the large offices do not give any gain in communication beyond being able to see if someone is in more easily.

  6. I totally agree about the coffee break culture – it was a key part of lab life when I used to work at the CRUK London Research Institute (ICRF as it was known then) in the late 90s. The entire building went for tea at 3, rain or shine. I must say these days most of my colleagues wolf down their lunches and drink tea at their desks while working, so maybe such time luxuries are thing of the past…

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