‘Hey boss, where’s my research day?’

Whenever I look to weeks ahead in my diary I keep an eye on two things: whether I can get to the swimming pool a couple of times, and whether I have a ‘research day’. The research day is an interesting convention. It’s not in any academic contract I’ve ever encountered, nor is it factored formally into any workload model I’ve seen, yet many of us (especially in the humanities) see it as a right.

I want to think about the research day here, and propose something that may initially feel retrograde but seems to me worth saying. I wonder, in short, whether our fixation on a research day is helpful. In particular, I wonder whether it may exacerbate stress: that sense that there’s never enough time to do our jobs. All the evidence suggests that that’s not getting any less of a problem at Exeter; indeed nothing worries me more about my department than the reported levels of stress. So stick with me; I’m on your side.

Let’s start with an English professor’s mathematics. Our workload model says that an academic on a standard ‘education and research’ contract, without grant funding, should be devoting 25% of his/her time to research. Actually that’s quite a lot when one considers that roughly 85% of our income comes from students’ fees. One might expect the students would want us spending more time in the classroom; in fact, though, we asked them about this when the fees were increased, and they accept the arguments for allowing education income to subsidize research. Up to a point, anyway.

So, if a lecturer is working the standard year of 220 x 7.5-hour days (which is what the research councils tell us we do – 1650 hours – so who’s to argue?), that means that our employer expects 55 days of research per year of us. Now, if this lecturer takes a research day each week of 2 x 12-week teaching terms, and another research day in each of six weeks otherwise devoted to preparation and marking, that gets him/her to 30 days. Then there are another fourteen working weeks: let’s say s/he focuses on research through those, but takes one day per week for teaching and/or administration. That, then, is another 56 days. So s/he is devoting 86 days (39% of the 220) to research.

And what about research leave? Old expectations of rotas may have broken down (in some places, old expectations of research leave itself have broken down), but let’s just say that this lecturer gets six months of research leave once in four years. This means 110 days devoted to research, which we might add to the 301 days from the other 3.5 years in the cycle. That’s 411 days out of 880 in a four year period, or 46%. And that’s before we factor in grants.

I accept that these figures are artificial. I accept also that not many academics work as little as 220 x 7.5-hour days; although I’m not so sure whether we overwork (i.e. exceed what our workload model expects of us) more on teaching or research. I suspect we do a bit of each. But I think my point, which is simple enough, stands. I’d be very surprised if I had a single colleague who was not working the days of research expected – and funded – by our employer.

Therefore (and here’s the point), if there are weeks in term-time when the pressures of preparation and marking are intense, why should we worry about spending that prized ‘research day’ catching up on teaching duties? Some people do worry; they’ve told me. Why not think about the twelve-month period – the four-year period, even – and remind ourselves that actually we’re doing ok? And if that sounds like a head of department urging his colleagues not to work so hard, maybe that’s exactly what it is. All the evidence suggests that many of us work too hard.

Objections? Somone will say: ‘but I can’t afford to drop my research in term-time’. Well, that’s not what I’m suggesting: we all need to devote some time to research during the term, but maybe not that whole day every week. Someone else will say: ‘it’s alright for you, but how am I going to get promoted if I don’t stack up the publications?’ That’s a tougher question, but I genuinely believe that quality matters more than quantity when decisions about promotion are made. And I also believe that it should be possible to produce quality, in sufficient quantity, in the time that we are allotted. The REF asks for four items in six years; how many of us produce significantly more than that?

And someone else again will say: ‘but I like working more than 1650 hours in a year, and I want to publish more than four items every six years’. Actually, I suspect quite a lot of us would say that; we’re fortunate, most of us, in having jobs we enjoy. But there’s always a risk that our pleasure becomes our default pastime, and our default pastime becomes our source of stress. This is one reason why I look, when perusing my diary, not just for the research day but equally for the sessions in the swimming pool.

And finally another voice will say: ‘What planet are you on, buddy? I haven’t been able to take a research day all term.’ That’s the response I fear most of all, because it’s not easy to fix, but it would be helpful to hear it.

This is why I’ve been heard to mutter about ‘the myth of the research day’. It’s a prevalent myth, and on the whole an attractive one. But it’s important to recognize it for what it is – one model for balancing our different responsibilities – and to be prepared to put it in a wider context of workload management.

Thoughts? Mathematical corrections?