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New Study Explores Life and Career Attitudes of Young Professors

Mar 05, 2010

A recent study conducted by Harvard examines how 'Gen X' faculty approach their scholarly careers and work-life balance. The survey found that young professors value work-life balance and interdisciplinary work more than the Baby Boomers, but are happy overall with their careers.

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Harvard University Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education

The new study is part of Harvard's ongoing Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE), a consortium of over 130 colleges and universities seeking to improve the academic workplace for early-career faculty. COACHE primarily distributes the Tenure-Track Faculty Job Satisfaction Survey, which aims to provide participating institutions with data that they can translate into policy change in less than a year.

New Challenges, New Priorities: The Experience of Generation X Faculty draws from a combination of extensive survey data and 16 qualitative interviews with administrators and faculty at three institutions: a large public research university, a small private liberal arts college and a private master's institution. All but one of the interviewees is considered a member of 'Generation X,' defined as people born between 1964 and 1980. They came from a variety of disciplines, including business, chemistry, English, law, medicine, theater, education and engineering. The goal of the study is to determine how Gen X faculty approach their jobs, long-term careers and work-life balance. Furthermore, the study's authors hoped to see if and how the reports of generational clashes in the broader workforce play out in the academic environment.

Baby Boomer and Generation X

Working Side by Side

The New Challenges study found that the inter-generational clashes that the media often reports in the workplace don't seem to arise as much in academia. Although there are clear differences in attitudes between Baby Boomer and Gen X faculty, none of the participants characterized those differences as conflicts. One person commented that this may be because academia is an inherently 'staid' environment - 'a professor is a professor is a professor, regardless of how old they are.'

Two of the intergenerational differences perceived by the interviews were the level of formality in teacher-student interactions and comfort with technology. Both of these reflect broader cultural differences between Baby Boomers and Gen X'ers - the younger generation tends to be less formal in most aspects of their lives, and has had the advantage of being more immersed in new technologies throughout their lives.

The study also found that Gen X'ers emphasized both interdisciplinarity and cooperation with colleagues more than their older colleagues. This takes many forms, including collaborative projects, mentoring and a desire to foster an environment that's more supportive than competitive.

bright future

Looking to the Long Term

Tenure is a hot topic in higher education right now. The number of tenure-track positions is dwindling, and a number of academic groups are calling for better treatment of adjunct faculty members. In spite of the preciousness of the tenured positions, the perception remains that Gen X faculty aren't committed to their workplace. One Baby Boomer administrator speaking to the study's authors noted that members of Generation X expect to change jobs many times in their lifetimes as they seek the 'next best thing,' leading to 'a willingness of faculty and other professionals to look at a tenure track appointment, or a tenured appointment, as, perhaps, a stepping stone - as something that doesn't necessarily represent a permanent commitment.'

However, the New Challenges study found a completely different attitude. Thirteen out of the 16 interviewees reported that they had no plans to leave their current positions within five years or, in most cases, ever. The remaining three were seeking higher-level administrative positions that were unavailable at their current institution, or expecting to move for personal and family reasons. All three of them indicated that they did not plan to continue 'job hopping' indefinitely. The overall sense was that, contrary to the Baby Boomer's perception, Gen X faculty see stability as a crucial element to job and life satisfaction. As one participant put it: 'I want to put some deep roots in, and fully invest, and commit, and serve a community.'

professional and parent

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Quality Over Quantity

The Gen X 'slacker' is another stereotype that the study's results contradicted. All of the interviewees made it clear that they are fully committed to excellence, both in research and teaching. However, their definition of excellence differed from that of older colleagues - the concept of quality over quantity emerged over and over again. When it comes to research, Gen X academics felt that it was more important to focus on their most interesting and significant research and apply for top-tier journals, rather than accumulating as many publications as quickly as possible. This sentiment seems to be in defiance of the traditional 'publish or perish' mandate that led many past generations to focus more on quantity.

Gen X faculty also value efficiency in their work habits. The participants felt that simply putting in 16 hours a day doesn't make someone an excellent professor - on the contrary, it's a sign that someone isn't using their time effectively. One business faculty member put it in terms of diminishing returns: '…if you start allocating more time to, say, research beyond what it takes to max out your reward at the expense of allocating time towards something else, then you've sub-optimized. You're pursuing excellence in an area for no return, and you're giving up something where you could get a return.'

The premium that Gen X faculty place on efficiency seems to come from their strong desire for work-life balance. The study notes that achieving this balance is both one of Gen X'ers' highest priorities and greatest challenges. Every single interviewee pointed to at least one aspect of their current work-life situation that they wanted to change. Faculty in all disciplines (and degrees of tenure status) were stressed by the pace of their jobs, feeling like they were 'running, running, running' all of the time. Many noted that they struggle to spend time with their spouses and children around meetings, lectures and other commitments outside of the usual workday.

Family balance was especially challenging for parents, both male and female. While most participants indicated sharing childcare with their spouses, many indicated that the responsibilities still fell more heavily on the mothers. This imbalance has also been noted in previous studies, which have found that women in academia - particularly the science field - tend to stay off the tenure track due to family commitments.

In spite of these challenges, most participants indicated that they're happy about their current work situation. All felt that they were sometimes overwhelmed by workload and the sheer number of different tasks, but were in agreement about the benefits of their jobs - freedom, flexibility and the satisfaction of being both a teacher and a scholar.

collaboration

None of the interviewees felt that their institutions were responsible for fixing the negative aspects of their work experience. Nevertheless, the study offers a number of policy suggestions that would help academic institutions provide better support for Gen X faculty, who will soon come to dominate the workforce. These proposals include:

  • Prioritize interdisciplinary work by offering a diverse range of opportunities in the realms of teaching, research and administration, as well as better financial and logistical support.
  • Modify current reward systems to value quality over quantity, and eliminate policies designed to foster competition.
  • Create formal campus mentoring programs and encourage informal mentorships.
  • Support different strategies for achieving work-life balance, such as not scheduling important meetings after 5:00pm and making it easier to work at home when necessary.
  • Assist the development of a community by encouraging both formal and informal interactions at and away from work, such as attending lecture series, sporting events, book discussion groups or theater.
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