Summer vacation is a luxury for the few in academia

I decided to take a – let’s say – long vacation this year. I attempted to stay away from email for four weeks. I planned to spend time on an isolated beach in the Mediterranean snorkeling and swimming with newborn turtles.

I made it to seven days in a row. The rest of the time I was checking email at least twice a day and spent on average two hours per day on the computer on ‘urgent’ requests and lots of unpaid service work. 

Like most small-sized research teams, mine also works as a self-employed business: managers’ tasks are not taken over by others. 

During my four-week vacation, I reviewed promotion dossiers for colleagues in the US and New Zealand, reviewed grant proposals for Irish, Israeli, and Czech foundations, reviewed six manuscripts for the journals I serve as an editor, served on Ph.D. students’ defenses in India, Spain and Greece, carried out administrative work requested by the Dutch national agency on newly funded projects, and prepared a keynote talk for an international conference taking place in August.

As a full professor, I no longer spend my summers writing grants, attending multiple conferences, or trying to catch up with the writing I had put aside during the academic year because of administrative tasks. Still, I find myself unable to take a long break from work. 

Small-sized research teams works as a self-employed business: managers’ tasks are not taken over by others

My friends aiming for promotion in the near future have been working non-stop during the summer. The same goes for their Ph.D. students. My newly hired colleagues have been working on grant applications and revising their course syllabi. Others are working on doing fieldwork that they cannot do during the academic year because of teaching duties, while yet others do service work and public engagement. 

What I learned during my summer vacation at the beach is that a good holiday break is impossible for academics, and for some is more impossible than others. 

What do we need? We need a global agreement across higher education institutions for specific periods of time when all work freezes. We need all unpaid academic work to become paid and undervalued service work to be recognized. We need promotion criteria and unrealistic expectations to drastically change through a systemic approach. 

Until then, summer vacation and work-life balance will remain a luxury for the few.




  1. Very timely post! I fully recognize what the author says and I can comment from a similar perspective (since I am also a full professor since roughly a decade).

    Yes, there’s an ongoing disaster in the academia (in most countries where at least research is a priority). Workloads throughout the year increase; the univ. administration and ministry heap up increasingly many additional tasks upon academic personnel; student numbers increase / financing decreases, whichever of the two, increasing workload again; obtaining tenure/advancing in career requires more and more effort; I also witness an increasing effort for getting the same ‘units of work’ being done (say, a paper in journal X) in comparison to 10..20 years ago.

    A lot of this is not under everyone’s control, e.g., when we have someone in tenure track, or at a lower career level. A lot of this _however_ is under quite some control from the individual. Like not accepting tasks during vacation; being able to say no to certain demands; formally objecting about one’s workload to one’s superior. It is all possible.

    As such, I half understand the writer’s plea (the agreements/changes mentioned make full sense); and for the other half I don’t understand it: Again, one with tenure/security can simply say ‘no’ to certain tasks (reviews, mails during summer, etc). The big question is: why doesn’t one say no in the latter case? Unfortunately, it may have to do with wanting the break but not willing to accept that this would pull one a step back from the vanity fair..

    NB: As said, I recognize all written; I also thought there’s no escape until roughly 10 years ago. A much more senior colleague from Germany told me to simply take a break – I will see the universe doesn’t end then. I did; it worked; since then, I am doing the same every year (I won’t post the break duration since readers won’t believe me.. but it’s higher than weeks).

  2. “I became a academic with a wonderful career but I have to work more than I want to’

    Yet another well paid academic who’s whining about the choices she made, please find a new narrative or choose another profession, I asure you that you’ll be crying about that too with this attidude.

    Cheer up a be glad with the things you got in life, it’s embarrassing to society when people with this much privilege complain this much. Think about the people that struggle to get by every day when writing an article like this

    • Dear student,

      You must be glad having the time of your life during the summer break. I hope you enjoyed your contact free weeks amd are all motivated again to get your degree.

      And when you achieve your undergraduate degree, I hope you are motivated enough to start a Master which will learn you that time is money.
      The time you put in your learning is paid with points. As a student, you probably hate
      It when you need to do more work then u get credit for. At least, that sometimes pops up in my course evaluations. Wouldn’t it be nice that you get your credits based on the amount of hours you put into your learning?

      Basically what Lucy is writing is that she loves her work! She loves it even so much that she even works a lot of hours unpaid. Wouldn’t it be nice if she (and all other professors who lack hours spending with family and friends) gets paid or a reward for her unpaid work?

      I think she has a valid point

      • This is a complex set of points: Apart from the ‘dear student’ part:

        “The time you put in your learning is paid with points.” Seriously, no, please don’t. Points reflect earned skills, not time put into earning those skills. At least, I sincerely hope so. I don’t think you want to give 100 more credits to someone who learns X than to someone who learns the same X [according to tests]. We want to test outcome – or so I hope. If not, imagine having a moron painter taking 10x the time to, say, paint your house. Will you pay him 10x just because he’s slow? Or, imagine someone taking 10x the time to do a paper [like, 10x after the conference deadline etc]. Would you allow it? They put the time into doing it, but they’re 10x slower. So?

        “Wouldn’t it be nice that you get your credits based on the amount of hours you put into your learning?” Would you pay someone 10x for doing the same job as a better one, all other things equal, just because they invested more time? Seriously?

        “She loves it even so much that she even works a lot of hours unpaid.” That’s her problem, has nothing to do with actually her main claim [that she doesn’t see this as being good/healthy].

        “Wouldn’t it be nice if she (and all other professors who lack hours spending with family and friends) gets paid or a reward for her unpaid work?” No, this wasn’t the gist of the original article. Wouldn’t it be nice if the respective people would not have to put up with this? There was no mention of $$ in the original article, please read again. The problem wasn’t $$, but peer pressure / admin pressure. Don’t confuse things.

    • I see your point, but the fact that there are many people in jobless or job-insecure/bad-paid situations doesn’t deny professors the right to fight for better work conditions. Neither me, nor you (I guess) are in that position to evaluate the workload and the pressure of that. (Note: what you see as ‘complaining’ and ‘whining’, I would interpret as fighting for your rights and raising awareness about them for a better future).


De spelregels voor reageren: blijf on topic, geen herhalingen, geen URLs, geen haatspraak en beledigingen. / The rules for commenting: stay on topic, don't repeat yourself, no URLs, no hate speech or insults.

Vul alstublieft uw commentaar in!
Vul hier uw naam in