My sister is a professor. I was visiting her over Thanksgiving break and my father (who is also a professor) told me not to hang out with her because she had a grant proposal due. Is this normal for professors or is it just my family?

This happens almost every time we have a family reunion, and my father never wants me to talk to my sister because she always has some sort of deadline. It gives me serious doubts about going into academia.

  • 59
    Sure, it's normal. It's also normal for professors to have families and spend time with family over the holidays. Some professors (like my advisor) even invite their PhD students (who might be mainly international students) over to spend Thanksgiving with them and their family. Different people take a different approach to work-life balance. It's not clear what kind of answer you're looking for here.
    – ff524
    Nov 30, 2015 at 5:40
  • 37
    My sister is a musician. I was visiting her over Thanksgiving break and my father (who is also a musician told me not to hang out with her because she had a concert due. Is this normal for musicians or is it just my family? ... It gives me serious doubts about going into music.
    – Pål GD
    Nov 30, 2015 at 9:14
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    Yes, this happens in any profession where there are specific deadlines for work and where it is expected that work will be completed by the individual in their own time. Lawyers, accountants, architects and many others experience this. Likewise most people who are self-employed will find themselves in this position frequently. Of course, one can argue that maybe your sister could have managed her time and workload better so as to be available for Thanksgiving. Nov 30, 2015 at 9:31
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    You might consider asking your sister, if you can get permission to talk to her. Nov 30, 2015 at 22:54
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    What’s definitely not normal is your father not wanting you to talk to your sister. Dec 1, 2015 at 8:34

5 Answers 5


It gives me serious doubts about going into academia.

Let me try to put your mind at ease about this by first of all answering a slightly different question from the one you asked: it is very, very, very normal for academics to have families, and to spend a very good amount of time with their families over the holidays and at many other times.

Put differently: there are some valid reasons why a person may not want to go into academia, but this isn't one of them.

Now, getting back to your actual question: is it normal for people in academia to work too hard, at the expense of time with their families? Well, it is indeed somewhat common, at least in the U.S. But this is by no means unique to academia; it is also common in the U.S. for people in many other industries and occupations to work too hard. The fact remains that there are many many people, both in academia and outside it, who manage to lead a very successful and productive professional life while maintaining a healthy balance between their personal and professional lives. Your sister's situation sounds rather extreme and unhealthy to me. Deadlines are a common (though not universal) feature of academic life, but usually one knows a long time in advance that a deadline is approaching, and for most people it is not too difficult to plan ahead and finish a project sufficiently in advance of a deadline to make allowance for things like holidays, family reunions, or any other commitments or plans. If your sister isn't doing this, I can think of several possible explanations:

  1. Your sister is a young researcher who still hasn't polished her skills of managing a complex schedule. She will improve with time.

  2. Your sister is the kind of person who is most productive under the pressure of a deadline. She may also improve with time as she finds that such things interfere with her personal life, or she may remain like this indefinitely.

  3. Your sister has poor relations with you and/or other members of your family, and simply prefers to do work (or to pretend to do work) during family gatherings.

While some of these possibilities are indeed troubling, and you have my sympathy for the frustration that this is causing you, they are unique to your particular family situation and are by no means indicative of a general trend in academia. As I said, academia is a big place and you will certainly find in it all sorts of people leading all sorts of lifestyles, both healthy and unhealthy. If you are considering going into academia, I would advise you to make the choice based on whether you feel that this is the right decision for you given the lifestyle that you plan to live, and to not consider the examples of your sister and your father to be representative of anything.

  • 5
    Could it also be pressure from the father? Perhaps she doesn't need to spend that time working be he feels she won't be successful if she doesn't.
    – thanby
    Dec 1, 2015 at 9:40

The extent to which academics lead deadline-driven lives varies tremendously. It differs between fields (even otherwise similar fields; for example, theoretical computer science tends to have far more paper submission deadlines than pure mathematics does), between types of institutions (such as research universities vs. liberal arts colleges), between career paths (such as running a research group that requires substantial ongoing funding vs. doing individual research on a theoretical topic), etc. There's also a large factor of personal taste: some people thrive on deadlines, while others try hard to avoid them.

It's also worth noting that deadlines often repeat in cycles. For example, yearly conferences typically have submission deadlines at the same time of year, as do certain funding opportunities. Which conferences or funding opportunities are most important/relevant vary between people, so two professors could have completely different schedules of deadlines throughout the year. It's possible that your visits with your sister happen to line up with a pattern of deadlines that matter to her. That would be unfortunate, but not necessarily representative of the rest of her time. In my experience deadlines are not particularly likely to coincide with holidays.

If you are curious you could always ask your sister (or, for that matter, your father). For example, "I noticed that you often have deadlines around Thanksgiving. That sounds pretty stressful - is this typical for how you spend your time? What's your job like on a day to day basis?"

  • 6
    I used to work as a union rep for an institution which employed a lot of academics. I had trouble getting many of them to actually take much of their holiday allowance for family time simply because they were too engrossed in their work. Success in academia requires a rare level of dedication - that may be what's at work here.
    – Bob Tway
    Dec 1, 2015 at 17:25

No, it's not normal. Is your sister a property of your father? Your sister telling you "sorry brother, I have this awful deadline, how about we spend some time two weeks later?" is perfectly normal. Your father deciding when you are allowed to talk to your own, grown-up sister is not normal. And it's not about having time, it's about controlling your family.

  • 24
    There doesn't seem to be nearly enough information in the question to assume that "it's about controlling [the] family." This answer doesn't really seem to help the OP in any way.
    – user38309
    Nov 30, 2015 at 10:33
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    +1 The question has ample information, like "my father... told me not to hang out with her ... and my father never wants me to talk to my sister" That is clearly sounds controlling, and it doesn't sound normal, unless the sister professor happens to be a teenager or is for some reason afraid to talk to her little brother, or the brother won't take no for an answer & re-schedule visiting his sister later.
    – Xen2050
    Nov 30, 2015 at 16:27
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    -1. Judging situation and dynamics of the OP's family is not the purpose of the question, and therefore any advice is likely to lack critical a lot of information.
    – Davidmh
    Nov 30, 2015 at 22:54
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    @Xen2050: it could be controlling, but it’s easy enough to imagine other explanations too — e.g. the OP is a bit tactless and doesn’t notice when their sister wants time to herself to work, but the sister is too polite/shy to tell OP “stop bothering me”, so the father is the one who passes on the request. We have a one-paragraph account of one person’s side of the story. It’s really not enough to judge what’s going on.
    – PLL
    Dec 1, 2015 at 3:32
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    You are right about us not knowing what's behind the scene. So if it's about controlling, it has little to do with academia as such and OP doesn't have to be afraid of it. If it is about academia and lack of time though, it may mean that this area's Academia od this family's field of research really limits one's personal time.
    – Karolina
    Dec 1, 2015 at 10:03

The answer depends on the referential for normality. This behavior is both about dedication and deadlines. @Anonymous Mathematician was precise about deadlines. Deadlines might be about outer pressure. I will add a word about dedication.

It is not uncommon among other professions (musicians, chess players, philosophers, some religious persons are common examples) where some practitioners (not all) have a strong inner drive to progress, up to very extreme forms. I tend to believe that those professions are biased toward very dedicated persons. So the "normal behavior" might be different. I have a mathematician friend who, on vacations by other friends, spent whole days at home working on a book. Sometimes, he does not eat, unless somebody cooks for him. Not he cannot cook, nor exploits others. He is concentrated on something "more important", and will not complain. One of my close colleague, who I respect a lot, recently complained that another colleague "never works nor answers" between friday evening and monday morning.

If you want to understand that, there are interesting books about the psychology of research and discovery. Scholars might be triggered by forces not quite understandable by others.

Yet, it seems that this situation hurts your feelings. I do understand the situation, I occasionally hurt feelings in my family with the same pattern. May I suggest you to ask your sister for a specific time where you could hang out with her when she is out of pressure?


This is very much culture dependent.

In European science system, it is common to require from a scientist to change a position (PhD, then post docs) every few years, with another position often available only in another city or another country. This may be problematic for the family: even if another side is willing just passively follow together, the researcher salary may not be high enough to get a residence permit (cannot support dependents).

Also, the chances of success strongly depend on achievements during the current limited time position, so the pressure is immense even without the head of laboratory doing anything special.

As a result, a scientist probably should be a kind of monk. My family, both scientists, lived de facto separated for many years before I ultimately decided to drop the researcher carrier and go into industry. It was possible to get the next position for me but again in another country.

From the other side, the European professor position is a very high position that is free from any limitations. However this position is so difficult to get that I advice not to count for that at all. Some countries have the highly limited number of permanent positions below professor, but the main strategy is always to keep the majority of researchers on a few year self-terminating contracts.

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