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.



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