Managing academic workloads


After our successful mid-career event in December 2016, Prof. Helen Lovatt (University of Nottingham) reflects on managing academic workloads, avoiding burn-out and saying no.

Managing academic workloads: Reasonable duties to take on

We are all asked to do extra work around the core activities of our jobs, much of it unpaid citizenship duties, such as refereeing articles and reviewing books. I have recently tried to set limits on what I will agree to do in any period of time. Everyone has their own circumstances that will affect what they can manage, and it is important to tailor your limits to your situation. Having a limit set for yourself in advance can make it easier to say no, since you have already in effect made the decision. It is important to do some refereeing, or the system will cease to work (we all know how dispiriting it is to have an article refereed by someone who knows nothing about the subject or has no time to give a proper report or helpful, constructive criticism). Some things (keynote address at conference, major named lecture) are important sources of prestige and recognition, but many only have a small cumulative impact.

Book reviews: reading a whole book thoroughly takes me a very long time nowadays with my sight problems. I would not do more than one a year, and struggle with that.

Refereeing book manuscripts for publishers: again I would not do more than one a year of these, and for edited collections of articles which tend to be longer and have more problems, I am reluctant to do that again. (Think fourteen refereed articles…) This is normally paid, but not nearly enough.

Refereeing articles: two a year. Another colleague suggests that one should referee two articles for every one journal article that you submit to a journal, so that you contribute to the system as much as you take.

Editing books: one every five years or only one volume on the go at any one time. This job takes me a huge amount of time. I have a friend who seems to do dozens, and they must have an efficient system, but I find this a very stressful and difficult job.

PhD externalling: not more than two a year. One would be better. Again, it takes a very long time for me to read a PhD.

External examining: definitely not more than one external examinership at any one time, preferably a gap of three years between stints (but I haven’t managed that). I try to take on roles that don’t involve too much travelling, will be interesting and are not too onerous, and I might agree to a role that fits these criteria to protect myself from taking on something worse.

Membership of committees/national bodies: only one active role (currently CUCD education chair) and I would again aim for a break between stints.

Conferences: I very rarely volunteer to speak at conferences; only when I want to get into a new area and know that no-one would invite me unless I show that I am working in the area. This can lead to being typecast in previous areas of work, but I find it is good to keep my research interests going since I often still have things to say on areas I have previously worked on. I particularly try to avoid conferences during teaching term as it is very stressful to re-schedule teaching. Conferences can be a really useful way of coming up to speed quickly on a new area, particularly for me as it involves listening rather than reading. But they are also tempting distractions from the required work of writing, publishing, teaching and departmental admin.

Organising conferences: not more than one major conference every three years. One day events are much easier to organise, and I can manage one a year of those. For the CA conference, not more than once a life-time would be my recommendation! Again this is a lot of work and best done as an enthusiastic early career researcher, keen to get your name recognised.

Schools talks/INSET days/local CA talks: not more than two a semester, preferably one. These can also take a great deal of work, including days of travel, weeks of writing or preparation.

New teaching: not more than one new module a semester, preferably one new module a year. If I have a new or major admin role I will try to avoid any new teaching.

PhD students: take up an enormous amount of time and emotional energy, although also very rewarding. Be sure that you really want to spend the next four years seeing this person regularly and that it’s a topic you are really committed to and interested in. My university regards number of PhD students as a promotion indicator, but I think it might be a good idea to set a limit on the number I take on at any one time (three, perhaps, as a colleague does?). The problem is that in a competitive funding situation it’s hard to know which students are likely to come through.

Articles in companions etc: These are usually unlikely to be REFable but they will get you known among students and academics. I would not do more than one of these a year.

When I was finishing off my last book to meet the REF deadline I cut back on everything that I could, including pulling out of conferences and edited volumes to which I was not committed enough, and on which I had not already done any real work, or felt I didn’t have anything to say. I don’t like doing this, but circumstances can change. If you let people know as soon as you can, well in advance of any deadlines/events, politely and explain the circumstances, you usually don’t damage relationships too much. But it’s better to think through what you take on in the first place. Better to drop out than to keep putting it off and never actually produce.

Some questions to ask when you are asked to do something:

Am I the only person who could do this? Is this really my job?

Am I the best person to do this? Could someone else do it better? Could someone else benefit from doing it?

Will this job help someone or create a better system?

Will it be fun, interesting or rewarding? Does it fit with my current aims and priorities?

How much time will it take and do I have that time available to fit with the schedule?

Burn-out avoidance

This is essentially my plan to avoid burn-out. ‘Burn-out’ is a condition of stress or mild depression when you lose motivation, concentration and the ability to prioritise and make decisions. It is usually caused when there are far too many things to do, you have lived on last-minute adrenaline for too long, and your long-term aims don’t match with the activities on which you spend the majority of your time. I do sometimes feel that I spend a lot of time doing things that I am not very good at, and I need to try and avoid this feeling.

Academic external tasks are often enjoyable and interesting, but even then, if there are too many of them, you will lose the will to live. It’s important to do something intellectually stimulating towards a long-term goal every day, if only for half an hour. It’s also important to take proper time off when you do other things that you enjoy (in my case, playing the tenor horn in a brass band), to which you have to give your whole attention. Also, take all your annual leave. You will be more productive in the rest of the time!

I do know some successful Professors of Classics who say that they always say yes to everything. They are men.

Ways to say no

Dear friend

Thank you for thinking of me to referee this article/book/participate in this conference. I’m afraid I’m already overcommitted next month/next year and I can’t take anything else on. However, my former PhD student X who is now teaching at Y university might be a very good alternative choice.

All the best and sorry I couldn’t help on this occasion.



Dear publisher

I might be interested in writing a book on X, but my current research direction is more Y. Would you be interested in a book on Y? I would only be able to begin writing it after I have completed my current major project, so not for at least three years.

All best



Dear school/CA person

Thank you for the invitation to give a talk. I would normally be delighted but unfortunately I have to finish a major project this year and can’t take on anything extra. I’d be very happy to do it next year.

I do hope the event goes well!

All best



Prof. Helen Lovatt


  1. Helen King

    Excellent advice, which deserves to be widely read! On the ‘how many PhDs being supervised at any one time’ question, when I wrote about this on https://theretiringacademic.wordpress.com/2016/12/05/phds-what-are-we-doing/ I suggested four, but maybe your ‘three’ is a more sensible figure. I know colleagues who do more, and at an earlier point in my career I’d have been grateful even for one, but those who haven’t done this have no idea how much time it can absorb…!

  2. Liz Gloyn

    I think the only thing where I would give different advice is on the conference front. I’ve found that if I have something in the early stages of research, then committing to give a conference paper on it is a way of moving the writing of the article/chapter/book forward. That’s worked particularly well for my just-finished sabbatical. For that to work, though, you do have to be the sort of person who writes out your talks in their entirety rather than someone who prefers to prepare slides/handout and improve.

    1. Helen King

      Yes, I’ve often advised colleagues to schedule papers as part of planning a large project. The stress of the deadline means you really do need to have done some work, and the method helps with splitting a large project into stages, in my experience.

  3. Gavin Dingwall

    Extremely helpful advice – thank you. What was particularly helpful was that the advice emphasised the need for ‘good citizenship’ in academia but came up with practical solutions to avoid being swamped by these tasks. All the best for 2017

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