A Life Worth Living – A University Career and More

By Andreas Føllesdal, Co-Director, PluriCourts

This blog post is a report from a PluriCourts Publish and Flourish seminar "A life worth living – a university career and more" which was organized on June 7, 2016 in cooperation with the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights and the Gender Equality and Diversity Committee at the Faculty of Law.

The challenge of finding a good work-life balance strikes most academics at the PhD and Postdoc stages. This was also the main topic of the seminar A life worth living – a university career and moreFor instance, all researchers – men and women alike – may hit a 'glass-ceiling' when the universities are more hesitant to offer permanent employment; and global competition becomes more prevalent at many faculties. Some dilemmas are particularly urgent for everyone with care responsibilities.

Professors Inga Bostad and Andreas Føllesdal opened the seminar and identified some central topics of concern. It appears that many bright people decide against pursuing academic careers at universities because of the sacrifices and tradeoffs they are faced with there. Central questions thus become:

  • Which are the tradeoffs and tensions, especially facing scholars who face a global market with strong competitors – and who also want to maintain rewarding personal lives?
  • Which of these tensions may be alleviated by changing policies by the university, faculty, department, and centres?
  • Which techniques, skills and mindsets can we use and develop to deal better with the tensions which will still be there – mindful that each of us may benefit from quite different tools?

The event then turned the focus to the situation at the Faculty of Law, where gender imbalance continues to be a concern. This concerns both how to recruit more well qualified male students, and how to recruit more women among the permanent academic staff.

Researcher Trine Rogg Korsvik is currently conducting interviews with professors and associate professors of parts of the Faculty of Law (at the Department of Public and International Law, Department of Private Law and the Nordic Institute of Maritime Law) in order to analyse the recruitment situation and career development in a gender perspective. She reported that several of the women academics at the Faculty have benefited from informal role models, as well as the formal mentoring and specific measures to facilitate research. Professor Anne Julie Semb also valued the university's coaching groups, etc.

Pro-Rector Ragnhild Hennum underscored that the university employees often experience high job demands, sometimes self-imposed. To encourage motivation and engagement and avoid too high levels of stress and burnout, job resources must also be high – including physical, social and organizational aspects.

Dean of the Faculty of Law Dag Michalsen maintained that one important leadership task was to maintain a supportive collegial atmosphere. He also emphasized the value for young academics to establish their own networks, domestically and internationally.

Central themes

The challenges of temporary positions

Trine Rogg Korsvik noted that the problems of stress, insecurity, and work load mainly affect the temporary employees due to their insecure work situation.

Several panelists and participants from the audience underscored that the way the so called "4-year rule" is implemented is very harmful to young scholars, especially when the universities increasingly rely on short term funding and thus are reluctant to make permanent hires.

When to satisfice, optimize, sacrifice?

Postdoctoral fellow Silje Langvatn and Trine Rogg Korsvik urged us to figure out in which areas of life you want to be a 'maximizer' – being perfect with 100% success – and a 'satisficer' – good enough to get by, but not stellar. Where do you want to be perfectionist, and where more happy-go-lucky? Read this article for some background. The original text is Herbert Simon, "Rational Choice and the Structure of the Environment," 63 Psychological Review (1956) 129-138.

Postdoctoral fellow Matthew Saul noted that among the tools in the toolbox for handling family ties and academic achievements may be both to not waste time on yet other matters, and to seek to blend the work – life segments where each get their share. For instance:

  • Don't overprepare your lectures and public talks!
  • Only start preparing for a lecture no more than two days before the lecture.
  • Which activities do you decide to cut out completely?

Research, partner, parent, blogger, musician, twitterer, public intellectual, Facebook contributor, teacher, colleague, solving the problems of the department…  you cannot be a maximizer in all of these areas! It is important to decide which do you want to prioritize and which you might stop doing – at least for a while.

Competition, cooperation – or both?

Professor Heidi Mork Lomell asked how we can combine the expectations of being competitive – in order to publish and get jobs – and being cooperative colleagues and human beings. These are not incompatible – there are great personal benefits to being generous with comments and support – but a department might only be able to cope with very few non-cooperative competitively-minded members.

Fostering helpful cooperation is an area where there are many opportunities for creating positive incentives, especially among colleagues who agree that good ideas, constructive suggestions, and published articles is not a zero-sum game or a scarce good among themselves.

Jasna Jozelic reminded us that competition has benefits insofar as it makes us better – but that it must be combined with support and acknowledgement.

The importance of support

Several of the participants recalled how important it is to get support and acknowledgment, for example when an established role model tells you that your ideas are worth pursuing, perhaps as a PhD project, or as a paper.

When and how to say no to requests?

Professor Anne Julie Semb and Research Assistant Eirik Torsvoll insisted on the importance of saying no to some of the requests. The question is which? Semb recommended sometimes turning down requests for taking on extra teaching, as it is not necessarily the researcher’s duty to make sure a specific course is provided. Rather, it is the department’s responsibility to solve its teaching needs. Trine Rogg Korsvik and others insisted that it is appropriate to ask 'what's in it for me?' when considering which of these requests to grant. One of the challenges is to figure out the answer! Here, friends and mentors may help you decide.

By Andreas Føllesdal
Published June 28, 2016 1:41 PM - Last modified June 28, 2016 1:57 PM
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