Sunday, 15 July 2012

The Myth of the Four-Month Holiday

Warning! This posting is almost a rant. I won’t call it a rant because I edited out all the juicy stuff (sorry). I find it therapeutic to write what I really want to say (my form of venting), but then reflect on it for a day or so and edit it into something more politically correct. The result is less entertaining to the reader, but it allows me to stay employed.

A few weeks ago I heard someone jokingly remark about the “four month holiday” that academics get. The reasoning goes something like this. Classes are finished by the first of May and don’t start up again until the first of September. Just like K-12 teachers, professors get the summer off -- four months in this case. And they get paid for it. Great job (wink, wink)!

<delete offensive remarks>
<take a deep breath>
<assume a calm demeanour>

Over my 28 years of being a professor, I’ve heard similar comments often enough that I need to say something in a public forum. At the University of Alberta, a typical faculty member spends 40% of their time in support of teaching, 40% doing research, and 20% performing service (e.g., university committee work). September to April is the main teaching period for most professors, intermixed with some research and service. Come May 1, the teaching is done. Now it’s time to concentrate on the research.

Before I entered administration, I would spend my summers as follows:
  • Keeping current: reading the latest scientific papers in my areas of interests;
  • Doing research: thinking about ideas, fleshing them out, writing computer programs to demonstrate that they work, perform experiments to document the impact, and then iterating over the whole process again to come up with something better;
  • Writing: documenting your work and submitting it to the critical review of your peers is the cornerstone of scientific discourse;
  • Supervision: working with graduate students (which often numbered around 10), undergraduates (maybe one or two each summer), and hired staff (in my case, usually two or three research assistants and/or programmers);
  • Attending conferences: in computing science, these meetings are important for getting the hot-off-the-press research results and interacting with colleagues (more on this below);
  • Scientific service: this includes serving on scientific committees and refereeing papers that are under submission for publication;
  • Teaching: preparing for the coming year’s courses, and
  • Other duties. 
The end result was that I was busy all summer long. The difference with administration is that the administrative work never stops, even during the summer, so some of the above tasks have to be reduced/curtailed. For example, I am only supervising two students right now -- my lowest level since 1985. 

Academics are passionate about what they do. They are highly motivated and, often, obsessive. Being a professor is an open-ended job; you are the boss, you decide what has to be done. You can get by with a minimum amount of work, or you can immerse yourself. The annual reports of some professors are incredible in terms of what they accomplish in 12 months, whether it be extraordinary quality and quantity of research results, supervision of an impressive number of students, major commitments to the scientific community, and so on. To me, it looks like they work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Holiday? It’s an unknown word in some of their vocabularies.

Many academics do not take all the holidays that they are entitled to, and even if they do, they still work. For example, when on holidays I still try to keep on top of my email. That can be an hour or more each day, something that is an annoyance to my family. In 2007 I took three weeks off for a family holiday in Australia. I promised not to read email during that time and I was mostly successful. However upon returning home, there were over 2,000 messages in my inbox. It took almost two weeks to wade through this mess -- all done during my evening and weekend time of course.

Regarding conferences, I have occasionally heard a derisive remark that these are “holiday junkets”. In many disciplines, conferences are an important part of an academic’s life. They are a chance to hear the latest cutting-edge research (essential if you want to be publishing cutting-edge material yourself), engage in discussions with your research peers (research is becoming increasingly collaborative), and recruit graduate students (every academic wants to work with the very best graduate students). Most conferences are tiring experiences, with typically eight hours of formal meetings per day, and possibly many more informal meetings over breakfast, lunch and dinner. I doubt that many (any?) academics regard a conference as a holiday (although some, like me, often tack on a few extra days of holidays afterwards if the venue is in an interesting location -- at our own expense of course). 

Four month holiday? Yeah, right.