The part-time problem

Tuesday, Nov 13, 2012, 11:20 PM | Source: The Conversation

Olivia Carter

Managing a part-time workload is not child’s play.

For the last couple of months I have been working part-time. This was fine initially, but now everyone knows I am back so the meetings and requests are stacking up. My life is becoming increasingly difficult.

If I had to guess I would say I’m currently trying to squeeze in about 80% of my “normal” pre-baby workload into 50% of the hours. It reminds me of the time my daughter tried to pour an entire jug of red cordial into her favourite green cup – which ended in a very sticky mess, a lot of yelling and a few tears.

It would be great if I could avoid yelling and tears at work so there has to be a solution. I managed to get a PhD, so how hard could it be to solve this problem with a bit of rational logic?

STEP 1: identify key aspects of my job

1) Supervising students (answering general questions, helping with experiments, reading documents etc.)

2) Preparing manuscripts for publication of experimental results

3) Applying for funding through fellowship and project grant applications

4) Teaching (giving undergraduate lectures and marking assignments)

5) Attending and presenting at conferences

6) Miscellaneous (writing references, sitting on committees, organising conferences)

STEP 2: just halve it.

Can I pick three of the six items above and stop doing those? … No, not really!

What if I do half of each item? … Yes that might work … OK, lets start with the students. I could ask them to draw straws to see which ones will no longer receive supervision … hmn, maybe not.

I could systematically only respond to half of the questions from each student equally, but this doesn’t sound practical. So I guess I will have to keep supervising my students and can simply pick something else to stop doing.

Submit half-finished manuscripts for publication … If only I could!

Submit half a fellowship application … Not a great idea!

Could I refuse to teach half of my lectures? … I doubt that would be well-received. Actually the “good news” is that I don’t have any teaching to halve because all of my teaching for the year was squeezed into the first four weeks of semester before I had my baby (one reason I decided not to submit any grant applications this year).

Attend half the number of conferences I would normally attend … DONE! Pity it means I wont get a chance catch up with colleagues and keep up to date with the latest research findings, but this is a no-brainer given how hard it is to arrange care while I am away anyway.

I can probably also say no to half of the “miscellaneous” tasks I am faced with in a normal week.

OK, great. So looking back over the list I see I managed to halve two of the six items. This gets me to 83.33% of my normal workload – and that sounds suspiciously like the 80% I started with.

I could joke that I have to simply accept some yelling or tears and that a few sticky messes will remain unattended until I return to work full-time next year - but it feels wrong to be so glib. This is a real issue affecting me and innumerable carers faced with life circumstances necessitating part-time work arrangements.

The sad truth is that, while it seems there is generally a way to find time for one’s essential responsibilities at work, it is the “extra” stuff that ends up being necessary for promotion or the next fellowship.

In academia, the reality is that it can be career-ending if papers and grants don’t get submitted (or, more importantly, accepted). Conferences and networking are also critical. So in the end it seems the daily jobs get done at the expense of all of the bigger things that contribute to your track-record and build a competitive CV.

While it is a difficult time, I get the sense that these issues are starting to receive more attention. I was particularly pleased to see that a recent scientific paper by Katherine O’Brian and Karen Hapgood identified a number of critical issues associated with part-time positions.

The authors used ecosystem modelling to demonstrate that the current funding pattern in which “success leads to success” disproportionately impacts people in part-time roles. While there is no obvious “magic bullet” to solve the problem, the paper provides a number recommendations for academics and institutes to help redress the imbalance or attempt to work around it.

Only time will tell whether the institutional changes suggested by this paper and the countless gender-equity committees will ever be implemented.

The Conversation