Academic life

The work versus the job

An academic job is actually many jobs in one: teacher, administrator, researcher, writer, mentor, project manager, curriculum developer, public expert… I could go on. So how do you decide, on any given day, where to invest your time, energy, hope, and aspirations?

Last week I was away on a writing retreat with three colleagues with whom I’ve been working with since 2012. Our project has explored various aspects of being, becoming, and doing the work of a feminist scholar in academia. (You can check out this work here.) Not surprisingly, our conversations often revolve around how to negotiate, survive, and maybe, just sometimes, make change in our institutions. Pamela and Roberta recounted a conversation they’d had a few months earlier about how to distinguish your “work” from your “job.” I was excited to share some of these insights on my blog (and do so with their permission.)

What is the work?

The work is anything feeding into the broader contribution you want to make, both inside and outside academia. It’s the meaningful part, where you find the fuel that keeps you going. It’s connected your most cherished values. Often, the work doesn’t really feel like work, like when you’re in the flow of a great class or your fingers are flying across the keyboard, lit up with new ideas. However, the work isn’t necessarily easy. Easy or not, it’s likely the place where you find moments of flow, inspiration, motivation, and even joy. Unfortunately, many academics find it squeezed out by everything else that crowds a typical day. In other words, the job is taking over.

Young woman biting a pencil while staring intently at a silver laptop.
Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

What is the job?

The job is all the stuff that you have to do to keep the institution functioning. It’s sending registration emails and managing waiting lists. Writing reports and submitting expense claims. Sitting on administrative committees. Filling in forms and tabulating grades. A million other things. Things that are tangential at best to your core values and mission.

Of course, these tasks (some of them, anyways!) are still important. Sometimes they’re even satisfying and enjoyable, and it matters that we do them well and with conscientious effort. But they’re not the place where we find the most meaning or where we invest our greatest hopes for change or progress in the institution.

Why this distinction matters

We can probably all identify pieces of “grunt work” that are clearly just part of the job. However, there are lots of things that may come along disguised as your work, when they might actually just be the job. In these situations, knowing what for you is really the work can help you decide where, and how, to invest your valuable resources.

Here’s an example. An administrator comes to you to ask if you’re willing to sit on a new gender equity reporting committee. You’re a feminist, you care about gender equity, so you should join this committee, right? It’s part of your capital-W work, right? The “shoulds” are piling up and you’re leaning toward yes even though you sense that frustration is in your future. Your careful analysis of power relations at your university and knowledge of how other equity “reports” have been received suggests that this might be yet another toothless lip service exercise.

Knowing the difference between what is your work and what is your job can help you re-orient this decision. Despite the importance of gender equity issues in your work, you strongly suspect that this committee will not truly contribute to the goal of equity among faculty. So, you can let go of the “shoulds.” You can say no without feeling as though you’re betraying the cause. Or, you could say yes but understand it as part of the job. Then you can invest your time, energy, hopes, and aspirations accordingly. In other words, do it as part of your job but don’t become attached to the outcome in the same way.

Choose wisely

The point of this post isn’t to tell you to always choose the work over the job. We all know a few folks who seem to do that all too well and they’re not the greatest colleagues to have! The job matters, but it can be done with a little detachment once you start to get clear on which tasks fall into this category. And knowing which projects, book chapters, collaborations, committees, service roles, etc. are likely to contribute to your work can help you decide what to say yes or no to, as well as how to allocate your most valuable resources, skills, and time.

Figuring out the difference between the work and the job can be tricky! Coaching can help. Let’s connect over on Facebook or via email!

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