Academic burnout

An American PhD student, Janie Crosmer, recently completed a thesis on the causes of burnout and disillusionment among academics, and the results of her work were summarised in the most recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. She conducted a survey of 411 faculty across the whole of the US. Much of what she found sounds very familiar to those who are aware of the pressures on academics over here.

This, for example, is what she says are the causes of burnout:

‘Lack of time, poorly prepared students, cumbersome bureaucratic rules, high self expectations, unclear institutional expectations, and low salary. Research shows that the sources of stress have remained unchanged for 25 years. We know about the problem, but we’re not doing anything about it.’

And here she summarises some of the responses she got in her survey:

‘People said students are increasingly entitled and lazy. “My classes are too big, my service load is too high, my teaching load is too high.” Almost every person mentioned something about administration or administrative issues. People really seemed to feel burdened by a lot of things.’

The problem with this state of affairs is that it produces academics who are world-weary and often cynical, and who feel less and less motivated. In many ways, in fact in surprising ways, I still find many who are dedicated and determined to do the best they can, but often the levels of energy I might have found a decade ago are gone, as is the spirit of optimism. Public criticism of the university system does not help.

There is a challenge ahead for the universities and their leaders. Universities must discover and work with a common sense of purpose and a determination to find ways of escaping from this sense of gloom. And it is unlikely, right now, that the answers to this will be provided by government.

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26 Comments on “Academic burnout”

  1. Jilly Says:

    Of course this is a bad time of year to mention burnout to Irish academics, given that most of us are currently enmeshed in exam boards, external examiner meetings, etc. I would suggest that this month has seen one of the first truly tangible results of falling staff numbers and rising student numbers, in its impact on these crucial processes. Many departments in many universities are barely coping, and doing so at enormous costs to the individuals involved – I’ve been working 12 hour days for several weeks now, as have many other people I know.

    So here’s a suggestion for ways in which we may have to change how we run universities in these new(ish) circumstances. Let’s follow the logic of semesterisation and modularisation to its obvious conclusion: that we’re adopting the American college system. This would mean no external examiners and no exam board meetings. Lecturers simply upload their module marks and the computer will calculate the students’ final marks.

    I know this won’t be popular in many quarters (and I have huge doubts about it myself), but I would argue that the current system, which was designed for the student numbers and staff-student ratios of about 30 years ago, really cannot continue much longer in these conditions. And neither can many of the university staff…


    • With the same qualms and misgivings, I have come to the same view. We cannot try to run a system for which we no longer have the resources. It doesn’t make sense, and moreover by trying to do this we are persuading our funders that their cuts were manageable all long and that we were over-resourced.

      We need to change to reflect changing circumstances.

    • John II Says:

      Jilly has some interesting ideas. It’s undeniably Luddite to transcribe grades from excel only for the reverse process to happen at five-to-midnight in some registrar’s office.

      At my current university, student exams are anonymised. I submit my coursework and exam results separately, and there is no official mechanism for me to unveil the exam anonymity before the exam board meets. Last semester the registrar kindly provided my gradesheets at the start of the exam board. That was my first opportunity to find the coursework, (unveiled) exam marks and overall grades tabulated. Within a few minutes of receiving them, I was expected to speak on them. I’m sure the value-added of my few comments was immense.

      Lest the madness stop there, we are informed at the end of the exam board to delete all mark files and return our gradesheets for shredding. This, we are told, is for data protection compliance. Thus, when my students contact me for feedback, as they are doing today, I have (should) have no record of their coursework performance and no record of their exam — which in any case should be anonymised!

      It would be difficult to conceive of such a perverse set of arrangements.

      I am tempted to say that little would be lost if all assessment was internally moderated and simply uploaded/published thereafter – but I wonder what that would do for grade inflation?

      • Jilly Says:

        Wow. This will come as scant consolation to you, but this has cheered me up for the first time in 3 weeks or so. Someone else has a crazier system than we do! Sorry, as I said, that’s no help at all to you…


  2. Hmm. The 400+ academics can build a bridge, and get over it, in my opinion. Working in academia, as flawed as it is, even in Ireland, is a privilege. Marginal changes to ‘Administration’, or ‘Students’ or ‘Research’ or whatever else isn’t going to change the fundamental character of the job, because it’s been the same for at least a century. Yes, resources are stretched. Yes, 12 hour days are a pain, but unless we over haul the system entirely, we really should just get on with it.

    Sure, sometimes academia sucks, right around this time of year especially. The administrative minutiae, not to mention the sheer bonkers nature of some of the examination practices, can cause lots of stress.

    Sometimes it’s utterly brilliant, like the half hour after you get the email saying your paper or book is going to get published.

    Every job has those moments.

    But apply this test: out of each of the 411+ academics surveyed, how many of them *left* academia to do something else? I would say 1, plus or minus 1. This is a great job, and relative to almost any other job I could think of doing, things would have to become utterly draconian for me to consider leaving. The true test of ‘burnout’ is just that, leaving academia to do something else. Dr Crosmer’s recommendation–that academics play nicely with each other a bit more–just doesn’t seem like a big enough change for me. The most interesting finding imho is the factors causing stress haven’t changed in 25 years, despite the wholesale changes to the academy in the US in that period.

    • JPM Says:

      Well said, sir!

      • Al Says:

        @ SK
        I think you would have to admit though, that academic assets are being ‘sweated’ at present.
        And the outlook is for more sweating too!
        I dont mind this personally, but there needs to be a conversation about third level on terms of quality and quantity.

        With X amount of resources, on average, we will get Y no. of students at Z quality.

        Whatever the actual numbers X,Y, and Z are, Govt seems to want to increase Y and decrease X and assume no change to Z!
        Done in ignorance it is foolish,
        Done informed, it is dishonest

    • Jilly Says:

      I’m thinking about doing it. And I mean seriously thinking about it. The problem is that I now have a mortgage, so I can’t go back to living on the income I earned when I was younger. I do think that it’s worth bearing in mind that people’s reasons for NOT leaving are likely to be bound up with considerations like mortgages, children etc, so that like most other professions, many people stay because they feel they don’t have much choice. This is especially true over a certain age, when changing careers dramatically is harder (this is more true of some academic disciplines than others, I realise).

      • Jilly Says:

        Oh, and no I can’t just sell the house to get rid of the mortgage, because it’s in negative equity….


        • @Jilly,

          That’s one of the reasons the finding strikes me as interesting–the average age of the respondents was 50–they would likely have exactly the issues you mention.

          I should say I’ve got a mortgage and kids, too, so I know what you’re talking about. Leaving any job with kids and debt is a scary prospect. But really, I can’t imagine any job better than the one I’ve got right now. The day I find it, UL is toast ;)

          @Al,

          Certainly the system is under pressure-that’s how increases in productivity normally get generated in the private sector. In our case, we might be incentivised to stream line our various bureaucracies, and teach in a different way. Or, keep doing what we’ve been doing, and restrict the supply of students. My preference is for option 1.

    • wendymr Says:

      @ Stephen:

      But apply this test: out of each of the 411+ academics surveyed, how many of them *left* academia to do something else?

      The trouble is that through this method of survey you won’t find the people who left academia to do something else, because… guess what? they’re not in academia any more.

      *points to self*

      I left. In the couple of months before my leaving date, and just among people I knew personally, in there was someone who retrained as a plumber, someone else who went to farm sheep and goats in northern England, and a couple of others who went into consultancy and private sector work for a combination of pay and workload reasons. In my current place of employment, a small non-profit employing around 35 people, there is another ex- been-there-done-that-never-doing-it-again academic. That’s two of us. All anecdotal, of course, but we’re out there if you look hard enough.


      • Hi Wendy, it would be simple: take the 411 people, one year on, if 409 of them are still in academia, ask the two that aren’t (you and your colleague, say) why they left.

  3. Jilly Says:

    SK – it’s not that I don’t like my institution, or my students, or my colleagues. All are very good…within the parameters of what the profession has become. That’s why I’m not thinking of trying to change institutions, but am left wondering about getting out of the profession altogether. The reason is that it is rapidly becoming (has become?) not what I felt I was training for, and I strongly suspect this will only get worse. In particular, the possibilities to focus on teaching and research are disappearing in the face of mounting administrative tasks, so that I’m sometimes left feeling that I might as well have gone to work in a bank or the civil service. The 12 hour days would be just fine if they were spent on teaching and research, but they’re not.

    On the other hand, maybe I’m just burnt-out!

    • Al Says:

      @ SK

      Apologies if I am replying in the wrong tributary!

      That sounds a tad simplistic!
      How do you define productivity?

      I put it to you that there is an equal chance of corners being cut as actual gains in productivity being realised?

      Your preference for Option 1 is presumably an increase in productivity on your own terms, as opposed to having changes imposed upon you?

      I have heard rumours of one place of learning seeking to decrease the lecture slots time by 30% in order to increase the amount of lecture slots per lecturer to deal with the increased demands.

      Would you consider this to be innovation?

      • kevin denny Says:

        I would. I think the 50 minute lecture slot is too long for students to remain concentrating, at least thats my understanding of the evidence. It may be convenient for us, the academics, but I suspect a lot of the time we are talking to the wall after about half an hour.

        • Al Says:

          Surely with enough planning and prep, a good lecture could last over an hour?

          A point worth considering is that students need to develop an attention span for successful deployment in their chosen careers?

          The academic environment should challenge them to up their game just as much as it challenges us too!
          A Simpsons episode is 22 mins long!
          That sound about right?


      • @Al,

        The productivity question is very difficult in any service Al, the changes are almost always imposed upon you, sadly. The reason I’d go for option 1 is that the pain doesn’t get spread to students’ educational outcomes, at least not right away. The changing in the lecture slots just might be innovation, I don’t know. Perhaps a little experimentation with lecture formats, on a trial basis, and alongside traditional lectures, might be a good idea? Perhaps we should all give TED talks, or 30 min synopses, followed by 1 hour practical sessions. They do this in Aalborg, Denmark, right now.


    • Hi Jilly,

      The great thing about colleagues is that they can take some of the admin load when things get too much, I certainly have experience of being stressed out, and having colleagues help me out when I needed it. On the flip side, the option always exists to say ‘no’ to committee work. Apparently the great economist Paul Samuelson, who died this year after 70 years of academic life managed to get away with never sitting on any internal MIT committees! So it’s possible to find a balance. I hope you do!

  4. kevin denny Says:

    There seems to be two issues here: burnt-out-ness amongs academics generally and recent trends in Ireland. Doubtless academics aren’t unique, I’m sure bus-drivers get burnt out too but we are less likely to hear about that (note I didn’t pick taxi drivers). So even in a steady state it will happen but one might want to think about ways of remediating it.
    Sabbaticals are an obvious solution (speaking as one who is currently enjoying one). I don’t know about the other universities but certainly there is no regular scheme for them in UCD although I think its quite accommodating about facilitating them.
    The administrative load has certainly gone up, introducing modularisation but retaining the worst of the old British system. On the other hand our teaching loads seem quite low relative to American universities and it doesn’t stop them doing research.

  5. cormac Says:

    I love working in academia, but a simple example of stress/burnout that is a direct resource of limited resources is the issue of shared offices.
    Like many IoT lecturers, I share an office with 6 people; between staff conversations, constant phone calls and students coming to the door, it is extremely stressful trying to get any real work done – generally I end up working late almost every evening, tird and annoyed

  6. John Says:

    @SK

    Steve the Ålborg model sounds very interesting… do you have a link? My googling hasn’t thrown up much.

    We’re battling with 30/60% attendance at lectures and tutorials respectively. High non-attendance is encouraging administrators to schedule larger groups in smaller rooms — the airline model of overselling.

    Many colleagues are of the view that overselling affects causality: perhaps it’s the cramped conditions during week one which contribute to rapidly declining attendance thereafter?

    In any case, a poorly attended lecture hour is a waste of everyone’s time. Some colleagues are now trialling all-in-one “lectorials”, how similar is that to Ålborg’s model?


    • @John, they’re a bit short on detail in English, here’s a taste: http://studyguide.aau.dk/programmes/program/economics-and-business-administration(55465)

      I visited there 2 months ago examining a PhD thesis. The 1st year UGs get 30 mins of lecture time, for terminology, etc, then it’s project based work for the rest of the time with the lecturer. They get their own rooms to do projects in, and get marked on both final exams, and projects. There’s a range of psychometric tests built into the assessments, too. The instruction becomes much more standard after 3rd year, to be fair. It’s an interesting model to look at.

      • The Other John (Not a Real John) Says:

        @Steve
        It sounds like problem-based learning (PBL)? I was fascinated by the PBL approach when we covered it during my PgCertEd. I can imagine good students really engaging with PBL and benefiting from it, but I wonder what happens the remainder who usually get by on osmosis and regurgitation. Problems aside, I think there’s huge scope for introducing more PBL in u/g economics and I’m looking forward to doing so.

  7. John Says:

    That was the other John.

  8. Actual John Says:

    I’m glad that’s been cleared up. Bye.


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