I am an MSc student and one future direction I have been thinking about is the potential of pursuing a professorship after I do a PhD. Why do I want to be a professor? I enjoy the back and forth of doing research - while at times it's frustrating to figure things out, I think it's a good proxy for workplace freedom (by my standards) and I know that I would enjoy teaching.

Where I don't think that I would entirely fit the mold of a professorship is that I am not so concerned with having the top publications or cranking out as many papers as I can, but that's not to say I anticipate producing one paper a year and then putting my feet up on my desk. Relative to others who are more concerned about having top publications or many papers, I would probably be the 'less preferred' candidate for the job - which is okay. I am in no hunt for accolades, awards, or praise.

But I think that approaching a professorship from a balanced and holistic approach where I can work on research, teach, and maintain a healthy work-life balance would be something that I could grow to love. However, my perspective and approach to a professorship might be naive, which would also be horrifying to find out when it's too late.

So do you think that it is possible to have a healthy work-life balance as a professor or is that approach to a professorship, at least early on, not realistic for the modern market place of academia?

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    Career - Work - Life - Sleep: pick any two. ;-) – Captain Emacs Oct 21 '19 at 16:48
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    @CaptainEmacs What's the difference between career and work in this context? – user1717828 Oct 21 '19 at 23:34
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    @user1717828 Good one! I was waiting for the question. Work is the content of your work - say, content-oriented research/publications only. Career means that actual promotions, influence, leadership duties, politics etc. The US system links both very tightly, but in the old European continental system, once having a permanent position, you could concentrate entirely on doing research and publish papers without aiming to pull up the career ladder or moving up the hierarchy. Perelman would be an prototypical case (or Feynman), only lucking upon a career because of their huge contribution. – Captain Emacs Oct 21 '19 at 23:54
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    @CaptainEmacs There's also Four Burners Theory - pick 2 out of 4: family, friends, health, work. – stackzebra Oct 22 '19 at 12:56
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    @stackzebra That's even nastier than mine ;-) – Captain Emacs Oct 22 '19 at 13:26

To add to the existing answers:

Can you be a (relatively) “lazy” professor and still hold a position?

Yes. Once you have a (tenured) position, you can probably be rather lazy and still hold onto it.

So do you think that it is possible to have a healthy work-life balance as a professor or is that approach to a professorship, at least early on, not realistic for the modern market place of academia?

The part about "at least early on" is crucial here. While you can (and some do) gear back a bit once you have tenure, you don't generally get into this position by being lazy. Academia is very competitive (as other answers have indicated), and to end up on top of a hiring pile you will need to be considerably more accomplished than your peers. For most people, being more accomplished means that you will have to put in the hours (and even then there are no guarantees, of course).

Generally speaking, the description of how you envision the job indicates more interest in a teaching-focused, low-research position. This is perfectly appropriate. Competition for such jobs may be a bit lower than at the top research schools, but is (at least in most areas of the world) still high enough that a truly lazy person will not see any offers.

However, and this is important, it is my observation that professors at teaching-oriented schools do not actually work less than their counterparts at research schools. In teaching-oriented schools, the teaching load will evidently be (much) higher, and individual students may be weaker (meaning that they often need more time-consuming direct support). TAs are common in research schools, but often rare or completely unknown in teaching-oriented schools. All in all, from talking to colleagues at teaching-oriented schools, I got the impression that they are putting in at the very least comparable hours to me (often for lower status and salary). You should not fall into the trap of envisioning a teaching position as the same as a research-focused professorship, with the only difference being that nobody cares if you do research.

It is still possible to have a work-life balance (in both, research and teaching focused positions), but it will require some planning and working smart and dedicatedly. It is unlikely that you will manage to get tenure by actively being lazy.

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    I'd give this a +5 if I could; there is far too much BS around claiming teaching positions are a stress-free alternative to the competitive R1 atmosphere. Teaching does get easier once you've gotten the hang of it and taught all your classes at least once, but even then it's still serious and focus-breaking work and a source of stress. – darij grinberg Oct 21 '19 at 16:04
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    The difference between the teaching and research is the predictability of the outcome. Teaching is difficult, but if you put in the work and have some basic aptitude, you will succeed (at least enough to keep your job). Research is much more of a gamble. Sometimes brilliant and hardworking researchers choose a topic that turns out to be a scientific deadend or just don't have luck in getting funding in the tenure-track timeframe. – WaterMolecule Oct 21 '19 at 22:28
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    Disagree with the claim that a lazy person (who doesn't otherwise have output) will be able to hold on to their tenured position. – einpoklum Oct 22 '19 at 16:09
  • "Lazy", "healthy work-life balance", these are all perhaps counterproductively vague. As someone in a similar position to OP, the question of interest to me is whether a young academic can plausibly expect 40 hour work weeks to suffice. (I tend to think not, which is why I choose not to pursue a faculty position.) – Ceph Oct 23 '19 at 20:51
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    The question has been edited to remove the word "lazy". Would you consider a similar edit? Expecting a healthy work-life balance is not the same thing as being lazy. – indigochild Oct 24 '19 at 17:39

I chime in with another answer for the German system (as the one from the user with the exact same user name 😉).

I am a professor in Germany since some years and have been a junior professor in Germany. So I had to go through some evaluation of my research and my teaching to get tenure. I can assure you that it is possible to go through this with a good work-life balance. Maybe I have been fortunate with a supporting family and lucky with my publications, but for me it feels like a good life apart from the job is actually necessary for being productive in research and successful in teaching.

One rule I follow pretty strict is that I do not work after 5pm (and this includes answering any emails) and there are only two exceptions:

  1. When there are extraordinary circumstances. These are, for example, grant deadlines or conference deadlines (but I know these deadlines in advance so I can give my family a heads up), or when there are urgent matters with students (oral exam is tomorrow, but something unexpected happened... (Beware: This is a slippery slope! When these extraordinary circumstances occur too often, I have to redefine what we extraordinary means or change something else).

  2. When I actively decide to do so because I want to (you know, sometimes there are problems I would really like to solve and have fun trying...).

I followed this rule pretty strict and did neither miss any important deadlines nor got angry responses or complaints about not being responsive.

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    The hard part, of course, is to get one of those professorships in Germany. Though some would argue that befriending the right people is a matter of work-life balance :) – darij grinberg Oct 21 '19 at 18:40
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    May I ask if your comment intents to say that befriending the right people is necessary to get a professorship? I can assure you that this is not the case as I personally find it impossible to befriend anybody on purpose. – Dirk Oct 22 '19 at 4:35
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    I'd rather say that the hard part is to be lucky to find a position which fits your expertise in the time window where you are applying for positions (in some town which you find acceptable and to which nobody more fit applies to simply get a raise at their home institution). – Dirk Oct 22 '19 at 4:39
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    I have been involved in more than a dozen hiring committees in Germany. Getting hired without knowing the institution or their people is very common in Germany, too. I never had the impression that personal friendship is helpful - on the contrary: it can hurt pretty bad. Also there are extremely strict rule which forbids that close friends, former advisors or the like to be involved in the hiring process involved. Your saying "competence also counts" seems pretty off and should be here. – Dirk Oct 22 '19 at 5:47
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    @darij grinberg totally anecdotally on my part, but southern Germany (Bavaria) and also Austria, for that matter, work a bit different than everything North of the Weißwurst equator. – henning Oct 22 '19 at 19:35

I am in no hunt for accolades, awards, or praise.

My impression (from the US job market, at a mid-tier research university) is that to get a professorship, one must seek out accolades, awards, and praise. This is probably true, to varying degrees, at any university anywhere: they will receive hundreds of job applications and yours will need to stand out from the pile.

I would probably be the 'less preferred' candidate for the job - which is okay.

As I said, universities get hundreds of job applications. If you are the #2 or #3 job candidate at many universities, then you are likely to get job offers. If you are their #20 candidate, you probably won't be interviewed.

The good news is that most academics I know seem to have a positive work-life balance, with various hobbies and interests, often families, and not all of them are workaholics. In my observation, this has been true for academics at all career stages.

Concerning the "rat race" -- once you've earned tenure, and to a limited extent once you've been hired to a permanent position, you can swear off of it if you choose. But, as a graduate student or postdoc, if you hope for academic employment then you must work hard to attract positive attention to yourself.


Well, being lazy and having work-life balance aren't the same thing. Being lazy, by the standards of your university isn't a path to success. At some places you do a lot of research and less teaching, advanced courses mostly. At some places you do a lot of teaching (and course prep) and need to spend a lot of time on it. It is a lot of work no matter what sort of place you are at.

At very low tier colleges you might be able to get by with little intellectual challenge, but still a lot of work dealing with students.

The one big advantage, I think, of a professorship is that you largely get to determine your own schedule. If you prefer to teach only in the mornings you can probably have that arrangement (most of the time). But for a position in a research focused university or even a somewhat less prestigious "comprehensive university" you will still have a lot of work of various kinds, though you can choose to do much of it when you like. So, you can probably trade evenings at the computer for week-ends off, or other such things.

But the professorate isn't a 40 hour a week (or 30 or whatever) proposition. Most people put in much longer hours. But that isn't, generally, because they have a manager pressing them. It is because they are driven by ideas and work on those ideas more or less continuously. The pressure to perform is primarily inner-driven rather than forced from others. If you don't have that inner drive, then a professorship probably isn't your best choice.

And, your word "relatively" scares me a bit. If there are two candidates for tenure and/or promotion and you are "relatively" lazy compared to the other, you probably won't have a good shot, other things being equal.

Lazy, no. Flexible, yes.

  • I admit that 'lazy' was probably a poor choice of words. – GrayLiterature Oct 21 '19 at 13:30

It's hugely competitive--just look at the numbers. I don't think you will do going well into an academia career without a LOT of youthful "burn the candle at both ends and with a blowtorch in the middle" energy. It's just not the right choice if you already have a measured approach to work.

And I'm not making a value judgment...just saying the situation. You gotta be in the fight for this one. Both in grad school and as a pre-tenure prof.


Depends on the country, so maybe add a country tag (from your post history I would say Canada?). My answer below is mainly based on what I know about the system in Germany and what I have heard (here and in other places) about the system in the US, so make sure to double-check that it is the same in your country:

First of all, I think you won't get happy in research-heavy institutes with what you want to do. However, there are also a lot of positions with a focus on teaching, or an equal split between teaching and research (and thus not expecting top results that often), or positions where the research is less focused on top theoretical results that everyone will quote but rather on more practical problems like, for example

The organization funding us was wondering if X is possible. We split the research into three bachelor and two master theses, looking at different aspects of X, and then joined the outcome into a final report. Furthermore, we joined forces with department A, who produced a running prototype based on our theoretical analysis.

Such a research might not be considered top level by some, but it still is research, and on top of that it allows to combine teaching (supervising bachelor/master theses) with the research; something that might not be possible if you are the leading expert (read: the only one with your skill level and knowledge) in a field.

Overall, I think it is totally possible to live a happy life as a professor, including good work/life balance, fun teaching young minds and interesting research without deadly pressure to publish all the time. One of the main reasons for me thinking that is that I hope to get such a position in a few years, so if you happen to be especially interested in the German system just let me know.

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    There is an underlying assumption here that teaching and managerial work (that's what you are doing when you split up a research topic between 5 students) is less tolling on one's work-life balance than research. My experience has been the exact opposite. In research, you can proceed at your own tempo, and you are assessed based on multi-year moving average output. You can take a half-year break after a good project and no one will notice. In teaching and management, you have to consistently be there when needed, no matter how much rest your body and mind are asking for. – darij grinberg Oct 21 '19 at 18:45
  • @darijgrinberg Agreed. From my experience, it strongly depends on the individual. I assumed that OP is, similar to me, someone who works better with short term goals and (e.g.) weekly deadlines in teaching than with a looming giant project that you have to finish in a few years. There are some for which one is nicer, and others for which the other is. I did long term research, where no one cared what I did as long as after a few years there would be a result to show and I never had more stress, even though the daily work load was low compared to when I was teaching. – Dirk Oct 22 '19 at 7:55
  • @Dirk: From what I've been told, the "trick" with research grants (at least here in the US) is that you don't have to get the project done -- you just have to get something good done by reporting time. If it's on a different topic, fine. Still, it's a challenge, but a much more doable one when you are shooting for 50 stars and just need to hit 1. Is this different in Germany? – darij grinberg Oct 22 '19 at 16:21
  • @darijgrinberg: In my experience with university teaching (in a system without tution costs), there is unfortunately no quality assurance for teachers at all. Lectures can be abysmally bad or the teacher often away, yet there are no consequences. – Thomas Oct 23 '19 at 17:01
  • @darijgrinberg Similar, I think. And Thomas, you are completely right that there are really good and really bad teachers. And especially on a research heavy university, no one seems to care as long as they produce good research, which, yes, is sad. A friend of mine is a very good teacher and currently working on moving from lectures to a new teaching concept, that incorporates new learning methods like youtube guides, stackexchange and online ressources instead of being an outdated concept where one person reads from a book for an hour. But also said book readers still exist... – Dirk Oct 24 '19 at 9:21

It's hard for me to imagine any job that would have an easier time establishing a "work-life" balance than being a professor. You're only actually teaching maybe 12-15 hours a week and after you've done it a couple of times, you shouldn't need much prep for it. Office hours? Okay, maybe another 6 hours or so but you're mostly free to do whatever you want during that time. That's barely part-time and with 3 months off out of the year and the option to take a 6 month vacation and declare it as a sabbatical (on top of the 6 figure salary and ridiculous benefits package), I'm having a hard time seeing your point.

Maybe the real question is a "work-life" balance in general since if you con't do it as a professor, I don't see how you can do it anywhere.

  • VeRy InSiGhTfUl. ThAnKs. – Kugelblitz Oct 24 '19 at 19:03

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