What is Work-Life Balance in Academia?

March 17, 2014

Being a scholar in school psychology is a rewarding career that offers opportunities for, collaboration and lifetime learning. This path also offers a degree of flexibility not found in many other fields. The flexibility of the profession requires having to carefully regulate motivation and work ethic and practice effective time management. In the absence of a fixed schedule, it is essential to define manageable boundaries between professional activities and personal relationships. Academics commonly work long hours, including nights and weekends, but want separation between their work and personal lives (Kinman & Jones, 2008).

As professionals, we all strive for work-life balance, or perhaps more accurately, some sense mutual fulfillment or overall contentment across our professional and personal lives. Here, we conceptualize balance as an alignment between the use of time and personal and professional goals and priorities—not necessarily equal distribution of time between professional and personal activities, but rather general satisfaction with one’s life (Berry, 2010). For early career scholars, this issue can be particularly salient when grappling with expectations for tenure, such as the perception that we must “publish or perish.” In school psychology, junior faculty also juggle teaching, supervision, service, and practice responsibilities.

These pressures can be exacerbated by the concern that they should work all the time and constantly do more (Solomon, 2011), making it difficult to rationalize and create time away from professional activities. Not surprisingly, early career faculty are especially at risk of burnout. Given these constraints, many scholars will find it beneficial to engage in purposeful activities to foster well-being and satisfactory sense of balance in one’s professional and personal lives. Research suggests that the happiest faculty are those who have a sense of control over their work and schedules and have support within their institutions (Kinman & Jones, 2008). With this in mind, we begin our discussion of potential strategies to assist scholars at all career stages in improving work-life balance with reflection.

Engage in Self-Reflection

Before you start crafting your desired professional arrangements, it is necessary to identify what you want. Ongoing self-reflection is essential to self-care and one’s sense of balance. Berry (2010) emphasized the importance of regularly assessing one’s values and priorities to identify professional and personal goals and to guide decisions about responsibilities, activities, and time management. This may occur at annual, semesterly, monthly, or even weekly intervals. Schultheiss (2006) provided a series of questions we can periodically consider and discuss with mentors or peers when assessing our professional roles. She recommended recording and reviewing one’s responses to the following questions at regular intervals:

  • What does workmean to you? (Note: Faculty may consider research, teaching, service, and practice separately.)
  • What roles does workplay in your life?
  • What supports and barriers are in place that influence your professional activities? What supports are currently missing, but may be possible?
  • What implicit messages might there be about gender, race/ethnicity and privilege within professional and family relationships? How do these shape your professional activities?
  • Do you connect with colleagues and share common interests, values, and goals?
  • Do you have a sense of alienation and isolation at work?

To this list we add some questions you might ask yourself to determine facets in your personal life that might deserve some attention:

  • What do I find fulfilling about my work?
  • What aspects of my work do I find least rewarding? Why?
  • How much time and attention to the fulfilling aspects require v. the unfulfilling aspects?
  • Why do I want to be an academic? How does this vision align with the three items above?
  • How does work creep into my personal life?
  • What interests do I have outside of work? Do I have a hard time having conversations that don’t relate to my work?
  • How do I make time for things outside of work that interest me (hobbies, activities with friends, personal relationships)?
  • Are there facets of my life where I feel unfulfilled?
  • How do I regularly take care of myself physically, emotionally, and spiritually?

Take time to reflect on each of these questions. What do they tell you about yourself and where you are professionally? The questions can be used to identify needed changes in thoughts and behavior to foster greater professional satisfaction. Avoid absolutist or perfectionistic thinking and instead think about your feelings, goals, priorities, and needs. Think instead about adopting an orientation of continuous improvement in both the personal and professional spheres. In next month’s installment of the Early Career Forum, we will explore strategies for fostering a satisfying sense of balance.

An earlier version of this column appeared in the April 2013 issueof APA Division 16’s The School Psychologist.


Berry, E. (2010). Achieving work-life balance: More than just a juggling act. American Medical News. Retrieved from http://ama-assn.org/amednews/2010/01/04/bisa0104.htm

Kinman, G., & Jones, F. (2008). A life beyond work: Job demands, work-life balances, and wellbeing in UK academics. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 17, 41-60.

Schultheiss, D. (2006). The interface of work and family life. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 37, 334-341.

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