This article is loosely inspired by two books, Thanks for Typing, edited by Juliana Dresvina, and The Wife Drought by Annabel Crabbe, the article Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature: The secret to creativity is ditching housework, and my own experiences.
Once upon a time, academics had wives.
Wives managed the household and any children, they made sure there was food on the table and clean clothes in the cupboard. They dealt with the minutiae involved in moving across the country or the world for a new job. They managed a social circuit with your colleagues and networks. They did your typing and perhaps helped your research as a driver, RA, translator, or secretary. For single academics, that role was often picked up by the institution, for example by a Residential College or a secretary. Like a good secretary, wives cleared everything else aside so only important correspondence and bills ended up on your desk and the other things were taken care of. Your wife might not have been full time on your team, but if she had a job of her own it took up less time and energy than yours, and your work could take priority.
It’s not that academics weren’t busy—they were—but they had a team.
You may know these old school academics, You may even know some newer school academics whose ‘wives’ were lawyers or accountants or post-docs when they got together, but who became the back-up team when kids came along or when a massive international move came up. (Not all of those ‘wives’ are women).
So what is an academic doesn’t have an ‘academic wife’ to do? It feels like you are supposed to be a superhero who can do it all alone, but that’s impossible and a route to burnout. Instead, I’m going to suggest that the only solution to succeeding as an academic is to build a team.
It’s time to invest in your research career team
As anyone who has ever had a group of friends or belonged to a village or had an extended family knows, there are many ways to bring together a group of people who help you survive and thrive, when you can’t do it alone.
Obviously there are things you can, should and must do yourself. If you find yourself thinking ‘I love this task! I find it fulfilling and would like to do more’, then try to keep it. Some jobs just are in the description. You do have to have your ideas, write the words that you are claiming authorship for, turn up to teach your classes. You have to be there for your friends, and take care of yourself.
But often, people feel they need to do everything themselves, otherwise they are imposing on others. It is not an imposition to give another person an entree into the field, to barter tasks, or to give another person a chance to make some of their living doing stuff they love (which may be stuff you don’t love! people are allowed to be different!)
Sharing work among a team can always become exploitative if you aren’t fair about it. But builiding a team is not inherently a problem. Pay people a fair amount (whether that’s in money or paying in kind), and pay on time; offer opportunities for professional development where appropriate; be clear and realistic about boundaries and expectations; keep people in the loop; say thank you; and perhaps most importantly address any issues swiftly, straightforwardly and with compassion—including places where the shortfall is with you.
It’s easiest (but not necessarily most effective) to create a team if you take the traditional route of marrying or hiring someone; but everyone will build their team somehow. If you are in insecure academic work, you may have a very limited budget, or not yet have had a chance to build up your barter networks. As you get more established, and as your reputation and experience develops, you might start to have enough freelance opportunities lined up to feel secure in outsourcing some tasks so you have time to take on more rewarding ones; or have enough favours out that you can expect to be repaid. Your team might take time, but you can start now.
There are three kinds of team members you need to build an effective research career
People you outsource to. They can get a distinct job done, with basic instructions. Can you replace an hour of work on a job you are terrible at and hate, which you can then replace with another hour of teaching or leadership or applying for grants?
They may do it more quickly, more cheaply and better than you. They may be competent but not quite as good as you would be if you did it yourself. Don’t be a perfectionist about other people’s work, when fixing up the odd mishap is going to take less time than having to do the whole job every time.
- examples: editors, copy editors, indexers, proof readers
- research assistants, translators, specialist illustrators
- carers, cleaners, mechanics, dry cleaners etc!
People you work alongside. Some people in your team are co-workers. You need to work alongside each other to get the job done: contributing to documents, checking each other’s work, both turning up to meetings. You can’t delegate your grant application to the central Research Office person, but you will find everything works much better if you work together in a partnership.
- grants, ethics and data officers
- co-authors, research teams
- housemates, life partners, accountants, etc.
The third kind are people who make you do your own work. Motivating yourself, keeping yourself accountable, setting and tracking long term goals are all really hard to do by yourself. Sometimes it really helps to have another person who helps you to stay on track, persist, problem solve and get back to work.
- supervisors, and managers
- accountability coach, writing buddy, or Shut Up and Write convenor
- personal trainer, therapist, life coach.
Contributing to the academy we want to be part of
You’ll need a huge mix of people on your team—and in turn you will be in a huge mix of other people’s teams. If you are going to build an effective research career, you need to be networked: supporting and being supported in global and local places; at work and home; financially, socially, practically; in terms of time, effort and costs.
My friends over at the Whisper Collective talk about creating the kind of academy we want to see, and this is what I’m talking about. Rather than having a class of invisible, undervalued faculty ‘wives’ propping up our research careers, we can build a whole ecosystem of communities of care and collaboration.
Who is on your team? Whose team are you on? How are we, together, going to get that world-changing research out into the world? Let’s go.