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The part-time problem

Managing a part-time workload is not child’s play.

For the last couple of months I have been working part-time. This was fine initially, but now everyone knows I am back so the meetings and requests are stacking up. My life is becoming increasingly difficult.

If I had to guess I would say I’m currently trying to squeeze in about 80% of my “normal” pre-baby workload into 50% of the hours. It reminds me of the time my daughter tried to pour an entire jug of red cordial into her favourite green cup – which ended in a very sticky mess, a lot of yelling and a few tears.

It would be great if I could avoid yelling and tears at work so there has to be a solution. I managed to get a PhD, so how hard could it be to solve this problem with a bit of rational logic?

STEP 1: identify key aspects of my job

1) Supervising students (answering general questions, helping with experiments, reading documents etc.)

2) Preparing manuscripts for publication of experimental results

3) Applying for funding through fellowship and project grant applications

4) Teaching (giving undergraduate lectures and marking assignments)

5) Attending and presenting at conferences

6) Miscellaneous (writing references, sitting on committees, organising conferences)

STEP 2: just halve it.

Can I pick three of the six items above and stop doing those? … No, not really!

What if I do half of each item? … Yes that might work … OK, lets start with the students. I could ask them to draw straws to see which ones will no longer receive supervision … hmn, maybe not.

I could systematically only respond to half of the questions from each student equally, but this doesn’t sound practical. So I guess I will have to keep supervising my students and can simply pick something else to stop doing.

Submit half-finished manuscripts for publication … If only I could!

Submit half a fellowship application … Not a great idea!

Could I refuse to teach half of my lectures? … I doubt that would be well-received. Actually the “good news” is that I don’t have any teaching to halve because all of my teaching for the year was squeezed into the first four weeks of semester before I had my baby (one reason I decided not to submit any grant applications this year).

Attend half the number of conferences I would normally attend … DONE! Pity it means I wont get a chance catch up with colleagues and keep up to date with the latest research findings, but this is a no-brainer given how hard it is to arrange care while I am away anyway.

I can probably also say no to half of the “miscellaneous” tasks I am faced with in a normal week.

OK, great. So looking back over the list I see I managed to halve two of the six items. This gets me to 83.33% of my normal workload – and that sounds suspiciously like the 80% I started with.

I could joke that I have to simply accept some yelling or tears and that a few sticky messes will remain unattended until I return to work full-time next year - but it feels wrong to be so glib. This is a real issue affecting me and innumerable carers faced with life circumstances necessitating part-time work arrangements.

The sad truth is that, while it seems there is generally a way to find time for one’s essential responsibilities at work, it is the “extra” stuff that ends up being necessary for promotion or the next fellowship.

In academia, the reality is that it can be career-ending if papers and grants don’t get submitted (or, more importantly, accepted). Conferences and networking are also critical. So in the end it seems the daily jobs get done at the expense of all of the bigger things that contribute to your track-record and build a competitive CV.

While it is a difficult time, I get the sense that these issues are starting to receive more attention. I was particularly pleased to see that a recent scientific paper by Katherine O’Brian and Karen Hapgood identified a number of critical issues associated with part-time positions.

The authors used ecosystem modelling to demonstrate that the current funding pattern in which “success leads to success” disproportionately impacts people in part-time roles. While there is no obvious “magic bullet” to solve the problem, the paper provides a number recommendations for academics and institutes to help redress the imbalance or attempt to work around it.

Only time will tell whether the institutional changes suggested by this paper and the countless gender-equity committees will ever be implemented.

Join the conversation

7 Comments sorted by

  1. Deborah Lupton

    Centenary Research Professor at University of Canberra

    Hi Olivia

    As a part-time academic also with two children, I understand your dilemma. But I would question why you are supervising and teaching a full-time load of students if you are employed on a 0.5 position. Something to talk to your head of department about pronto, I would suggest. And rather than half-finishing journal articles, you will probably have to finish half the number you would otherwise manage if on a full-time load. And yes, you will need to be firm about saying no to requests to perform miscellaneous duties, again based on your 0.5 employment status.

  2. Brett Inder

    University Professor

    Hi Olivia

    Thanks - a good article. I am a great fan of trying to make part-time work work, for many reasons: gives more time for family and other interests, reduces our reliance on money and encourages us to live simply, etc, etc.

    Having spent the first 16 years of my academic life in a part-time role, I can sympathise with the challenges. There is no doubt career progression was slower, but on the other hand, a more well-rounded life of time with family, in volunteer roles, living simply, etc were great benefits!

    Nowadays the academic environment is much more pressured, so I am not pretending its easy, especially for those early in their careers. We need to keep working for a mindset shift among those who lead our universities to recognise how talent and quality academic work can be nurtured in an environment where people are not expected to sacrifice the rest of their lives in order to be valued. Hang in there!

  3. Sarah Hobgen

    logged in via Facebook

    Hi Olivia,

    Thanks for these great articles. I'm in the middle of my PhD and we have been thinking about babies. You are addressing many of the questions that have been on my mind. I'm just amazed that you manage to do all of those things and write interesting and thought provoking articles!

    Thanks again!

  4. Fred Pribac

    logged in via email

    Another option is to re-evaluate your criteria for success.

    It's amazing how much less important the aspirations and dogmas of the academic pathway seem to be when looked at from an external perpsective!

    In my observation those people that tend to do best at the highest levels of academia are not just brilliant and hardworking but often also married (or partnered) to a long-suffering life-support system. They have ability to invest the bulk of their time in the topic that absorbs them, and…

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    1. Craig Minns


      In reply to Fred Pribac

      Firstly, I'll add my congratulations to Olivia for her excellent and insightful series. It's a pleasure to read about her efforts to work out how to deal with her present situation which is obviously quite a common one.

      Fred, I'd also like to say I think your comment was very insightful and raises something that is not often accounted for in our rush to monetise the caring and supportive roles that women often fill. It used to be a truism that "behind every great man is a great woman", implying…

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  5. Rebecca Barnes

    Senior Advisor

    There is also the ethical issue of you being paid for part time work whilst continuing to work a fulltime/85% load which is a common issue for people working part-time. This contributes to the gender pay gap.

  6. terry lockwood

    maths/media/music/drama teacher

    Perhaps if 4 days a week was declared 'full time'. Once six days a week was the norm, then came the 8/8/8 work/life/sleep balance was declared. Saturday mornings disappeared as part of the standard work week.
    If working five days became 'overworking' and generally frowned upon. Wealth might become more evenly distributed, housing cheaper. You couldn't afford those vital lifestyle items that go to landfill in five years time. When someone asks "What do you do?", you may mention things other than your paid work - "I dance, garden, volunteer, etc."

    Work four days a week, permanently, and expect to be taken seriously? One day maybe. Not holding my breath.