Stress in Research. Part III: The Trouble about Freedom

By Charles Sutton on May 5, 2018

The third post in what is becoming an increasingly long series on stress in research.

I joked before that there’s no reason researchers should feel stress: how stressful can a job be if you’re not expected to roll in to work until 10 o’clock in the morning? But more seriously, this flexibility is itself a source of stress.

Academics don’t really have bosses, despite what our senior leadership sometimes seem to think. We do have a head of department, of course, but the relationship isn’t like having a supervisor. I don’t have weekly meetings with my department head to report my progress on my current projects. And I would never go to my head of department and say I’ve got too much to do, can she tell me how I should prioritize my workload so that I focus on tasks that are most important to the University. The very idea is laughable.

Instead of having a boss, we have sources of work. Students from our own university and around the world ask us if we can supervise their research projects. We review and comment on reports from our own students. We are asked to evaluate finished PhD theses from students at other universities, in our own country and worldwide. Funding agencies from our country and others ask us to review proposals for multi-million pound research projects. Representatives from the government ask us to discuss connections with problems of national interest. We organize workshops and conferences. We meet researchers in other universities and governments to learn about their work and explore potential collaborations. The great thing about the blog I just linked to — it is actually called why academics feel overworked — is that it tries to make a complete list of where academic work comes from. My list just above is incomplete because I’m only mentioning things that I can remember happening in the past week. (And this, with me on sabbatical; I’m not teaching this year.) All of these sources of work are people who are asking politely for our help on important work of their own. None of these sources of work know about each other.

To be successful, of course it is important to learn to say “no”, and to learn to say “no” often. There are tricks about how to say “no” better, in a way that helps the person who have asked. Many other blogs talk about that, so I won’t go further now. It’s enough to say that even if you say “no” a lot, you will still have a lot to do.

Instead, I want to talk about flexibility. It’s no surprise that having a lot to do creates stress. But having the flexibility to choose what to do also creates stress. The problem is that flexibility creates guilt. Suppose I have tasks A, B, C, and D to do — too many — and my boss instructs me to prioritize C, even though I think A is more important. I might be annoyed or dismayed by a poor decision being made, but I’m not responsible for the poor decision.

When I prioritize, I am responsible. When I choose to do one thing, I’m keenly aware that there are many other things that I could be doing, behind each a person who would like a few minutes (or a few hours) of my help. For every thing I choose to do, there are other people that I feel like I am letting down. I am never quite sure if the thing I have chosen to do is the right one. Sometimes I’m quite sure that the thing that I’m doing is not the most important, but maybe simply the most important that I have enough energy for.

Why is the flexibility necessary? Why couldn’t academic work and research work be managed more directly, like other types of work? Our situation is not as unusual as it may seem — in any career, the more senior you become, the more you are expected to set the agenda rather than follow an agenda that is given to you. In academia and research specifically, there are two forces that mandate flexibility for good work.

The first: If you do not have freedom to prioritize, you do not have intellectual freedom, because part of intellectual freedom is deciding what to think about.

The second: The job of a researcher is about creating positive externalities. Our work is to perpetuate and create a large portion of human knowledge. When we succeed, the value of our work is enjoyed by society as a whole, rather than the institution that employs us. This is why the idea of going to my department head for advice on prioritizing is so laughable. We cannot ask the institution what is most valuable, because so much of the value that we create does not return to the institution. You become an academic because you believe the specialized knowledge that fascinates you has, in some small sense, importance to society as a whole. Another responsibility, and another stressor!