Friday, November 26, 2021

The Academic Parent's Dilemma: Should I spend less time doing research?

I recently became a parent for the second time. As a result, I now have two children under the age of 2 (well, technically, the first just turned 2 at the time of writing and will probably be 2 and a bit by the time you read this). As all parents know, being a parent is both rewarding and challenging.

One of the obvious challenges, and one that I have been struggling with a lot, is that of figuring out the appropriate work-life balance. Given my academic predilections, it is no surprise that I tend to think of this issue in moral and philosophical terms. The question arises: What are my duties, as a parent, with respect to the amount of time I spend caring for my children and the amount of time I spend doing research-related work? Should I spend more time doing the former and less doing the latter?

To sharpen the question: most of the time I spend on research is optional. There is no one cracking a whip and forcing me to read books and write articles. I do it largely because I enjoy doing it. It is true that research is, officially, part of my contract of employment; but it is also true to say that this part of my contract is weakly (if ever) enforced.

This creates something of a moral dilemma every time I sit down to write an article or do some other research-related task. I have to ask myself: should I be doing this or should I be spending the time with my children? The following article is my attempt to answer that question. Not to bury the lede: my conclusion is that, in most cases where I have a choice, I should probably opt to spend more time with my kids. That said, there are some countervailing considerations and they are worth taking into account.

1. The Case for Sacrificing Research for Time With Kids

Let me start by outlining an argument for thinking that one ought to spend more time with one’s children. This argument formalises the intuition motivating this article: that there is something ethically or morally questionable about dedicating time to research when you could be spending that time with your children.

Here goes:

  • (1) If you have choice (i.e. there are no conflicting, more worthy duties on you), then you ought to spend your time doing that (a) at which you can make a positive difference and (b) for which you are relatively irreplaceable.

  • (2) As an academic, you have a lot of choice over how you spend your time, particularly with respect to research.

  • (3) As a parent you are relatively irreplaceable in your child's life and you can make a positive difference to their life; as an academic researcher you are relatively replaceable and are less likely to make a positive difference through your research.

  • (4) Therefore, when you have choice, you ought to spend time with your children and not on your research.

I am sure one could quibble with how I have formalised this argument, but I think it captures the gist of the problem. I will now consider each premise in more detail, evaluating possible objections along the way.

2. Is the Moral Principle Correct?

Let's start by evaluating premise one, which is the moral principle guiding the argument. Is it true to say that we ought to do that for which we are relatively irreplaceable and at which we are likely to make a positive difference?

On the one hand, this seems like moral common sense. Our time is finite and our talents are varied. There is an opportunity cost in everything we do. Time spent playing the violin is time not spent volunteering with a local charity. All else being equal, we ought to spend our time doing things that make a positive difference to the world. Furthermore, there are some things we might do with our time that are oversupplied by many other competent people. If we drop out, they will make up the slack. In fact, our participation in an activity may, in some cases, block someone who may be better than us at that activity. So even if we can make a positive difference, we should ask ourselves, could someone else make an even more positive difference?

In including this 'replaceability’ principle, I am inspired by arguments put forth by members of effective altruist community. Famously, some members of that community, including its co-founder Will MacAskill, have used it to argue in favour of the 'earning to give' model of altruism. In other words, they have argued that instead of working directly in the charitable sector, some people should consider taking up lucrative careers in (for example) banking and finance instead. That way, they can earn lots of money and give it away to charitable organisations. I won't debate the merits of that argument here (and, to be fair, I think its early proponents have resiled from it to some extent). The important point is simply that the replaceability principle can be seen to underlie that style of moral reasoning. I am also inspired by Saul Smilansky's work on replacement and retirement. Very roughly, Smilansky has argued that many of us have good reason to retire from our careers early so that we can be replaced by someone that is more competent.

In a previous article, I considered the merits of the replaceability principle when it came to choosing a career in academia. I won't repeat everything I said there but I will note that rigorous application of the principle can get you into some tricky waters. Thinking about yourself and your talents and aspirations as fungible resources that can be traded off against different opportunities may be quite alienating and psychologically harmful. Anyone that follows it to the hilt may end pursuing a path that leads to burnout and breakdown. This means that the principle can have perverse consequences: it is motivated by the idea that we ought to spend our time doing that at which we are most likely to do the most good, but if we follow it in a simplistic way, we may end up compromising our ability to do good. I will return to this concern later in this article and see whether it applies to the decision to dedicate one's time to research over parenting.

Despite those misgivings, I do think the principle is somewhat plausible, provided it is not overextended. That is one reason why I included the opening precondition 'provided there are no other more worthy duties’. If you have a moral duty to perform a certain action (e.g. donate blood to save a relative) then I accept that you should probably do that, even if you could provide a replacement blood donor and you could have spent the time earning more money to give to blood donation charities and even if that money could have marginally improved outcomes for more patients.

Including that opening condition may, however, cause some people to question whether premise one applies to the present context at all. Isn't there a quicker way to reach the same conclusion? Don't we, as parents, have a moral duty to parent and doesn't that trump any duty we might have to research? I don't think so. I agree that we have a duty to parent, but two difficulties arise when we try to apply this simple principle to the dilemma. First, the duty to parent may not entail a duty to spend more time with your children. There may be many ways of discharging one’s duty to parent. Second, as parents and academics, we may be subject to many conflicting duties, including contractual duties, that are not easily resolved unless we consider the consequences of how we spend our time.

So I am inclined to think that premise one, for all its flaws, is relevant in this context.

3. Do We Have a Choice?

What about premise two and the claim that academics do have a choice about how much time they can spend at their research? I would suggest that this is obviously true and that anyone that has worked as an academic knows this to be true. But I can imagine several objections to this claim.

The obvious one is that academics are under a contractual obligation to do research and so they don't really have a choice. Some academics are on the tenure track or are under 'probation' at their jobs. They must hit certain research targets in order to keep their jobs. Others are subject to annual performance reviews and other ongoing research targets, e.g. funding targets. This has become a particular problem in UK academia in recent years, with some prominent cases of people being threatened with with the sack if they didn't hit certain targets.

I readily admit that if you are subject to precarious employment with stringently enforced research targets, then premise two may not apply. But even if you are subject to such contractual obligations, there may be some wiggle room with respect to how much time you dedicate to research and how much you sacrifice time with children. I'll speak to my own experience here, which I admit is relatively privileged. I am employed under a standard full-time academic contract in Ireland. Officially, my work time is split 40-40-20 between research, teaching and administration. In reality, the split can vary a bit from year to year. Like most of my colleagues, I was subject to a probationary period in my contract. This lasted four years in my case, slightly longer than usual because I switched jobs in the middle of a 3-year probationary period in the UK. In each institution at which I have worked, I have been subject to some annual performance reviews and research targets. However, my experience is that these annual reviews are quite soft in nature and the associated research targets are not stringently enforced. Indeed, some people I work with have never met those targets and have never had their jobs threatened. Furthermore, the actual targets are relatively minimal. For example, at my present institution, I am expected to publish one peer-reviewed article per year and produce one other research contribution per year (which could take the form of a conference presentation or non peer-reviewed article). Against this, in my first decade as an academic I have published approximately 70 peer-reviewed articles (including both journals and book chapters), one monograph, one co-authored monograph, one edited collection and over 1200 blog posts (which I never count or mention for the purposes of performance reviews). In mentioning these figures, I am not trying to blow my own trumpet. I am simply trying to highlight that my current work practices significantly exceed the official targets. And I am not exceptional in this. I am the norm. Most of the people I know do significantly more than what they are contractually obliged to do. Part of this is due to the competitive status hierarchy that is inherent in academia, part of it is to do with personal drive and ambition. Little of it is derived from some legal or moral obligation to do so much research. In fact, as I will argue in more detail later, it could well be that the culture of overwork is counterproductive and that less research would be more valuable.

To reiterate, there are different institutional norms and practices, but my own experiences, along with my observations of my colleagues, suggest that people do a lot more than they are obliged to do. They have some free choice when it comes to dedicating time to research vis-a-vis family. Note, as well, that I am only focusing on research in this discussion. There are other parts of an academic's workload that are less optional. Teaching, for instance, is not something you can easily opt out of. You have to teach certain classes and show up for certain lectures. The students depend on you. Administrative duties are a little fuzzier since there is a lot of administrative bloat in academia and there are many administrative tasks that could probably be done away with. Nevertheless, your colleagues and co-workers rely on you to do your administrative duties and if you didn't they, or someone else, would probably have to take up the slack. So administrative tasks are, sadly, often less optional than research. Research is the one area where there seems to be more freedom.

4. Are you irreplaceable as a researcher?

Premise three is the real heart of the argument. It consists of two claims. The first is that, as a parent, you can make a positive difference and you are relatively irreplaceable in your role. The second is that, as an academic researcher, your capacity to make a positive difference is more limited and you are relatively replaceable. Let's take both of those claims in turn.

The first claim could be viewed as common sense. In fact, I suspect many parents wouldn't question it and it would find it odd if I mounted a defence of it. They would see it as a classic instance of an academic trying to prove the blindingly obvious. But others may be less sure and, as it happens, I have written a longer article before outline what I think the positive role of a parent is. To repeat some of the key points from that longer article, I think the positive contribution of a parent is best thought of in relational terms. In other words, a parent makes a positive difference in their children's lives by fostering an ongoing nurturing relationship with them. I do not think that parents make a positive difference by crafting their children into ideal adults that will, in turn, make a positive difference to the world (e.g. by curing cancer or producing great art). It's possible that some parents do produce ideal adults, but I doubt that most of us have the power to do so and I think it can be counterproductive to have that as your goal.

Conceiving of the positive contribution of parenting in relational terms is ideally suited to the present argument. The conclusion of this argument is that (if you have a choice) you ought to spend more time with your kids. And spending more time with your kids would seem like an obvious way to build that ongoing nurturing relationship. At the very least, it would be much harder to build that relationship if you were absent all the time due to work commitments. This is not to impugn parents that work a lot: they might have countervailing obligations that require this (e.g.the need to provide for their families; other legal and moral duties). It is also plausible to think that the positive value of spending more time with your children is stronger earlier in their lives, when they are more dependent on you. It reduces as they mature. I'll return to this point later.

Some people might challenge this line of reasoning. They might say "What about childcare?” “What about adoptive parents?” “Doesn't their existence (and relative success) suggest that parents are somewhat replaceable?” There are two things to be said about this. First, I doubt that anyone would say that a childcare provider is as an equivalent to a parent or that their presence replaces the need for a parent, even if they do provide a valuable service and can complement the parenting role (I say this as someone whose firstborn child is in childcare for 6 hours per day). Second, although I have no doubt that adoptive parents can be every bit as a good as biological parents (and, indeed, throughout this argument I have made no assumptions about the need for biological parenthood), I don't think it is reasonable to argue that you ought to give up your child for adoption just because you want to spend more time writing peer review articles.

What about bad parents? Aren't some people terrible at it, so much so that it would be better if they were replaced? There may well be some terrible parents, but I suspect a lot a of bad parenting stems from both absenteeism and the lack of an ongoing nurturing relationship. Spending more time with your children might address this problem and might be better than trying to find some replacement. Furthermore, I am writing this argument largely from a personal perspective, attempting to figure out what I ought to do. Obviously I don't like to think of myself as a bad parent.

Let's move on then to the second claim: that we are less likely to make a positive difference as researchers and are relatively replaceable. As it happens, I have also written a longer article about this claim. To quickly summarise, I suppose it is possible that your research is ground-breaking, world-leading and earth-shattering. Maybe you are on the cusp of finding a cure for cancer or creating the next blockbuster vaccine. More power to you if you are and, if so, maybe you should invest more time in your research. For the vast majority of academics, however, this does not hold true. For instance, looking at my own research record, I doubt the world has benefitted all that much from my numerous articles about sex robots and algorithmic governance. I am pretty confident that I could publish half of what I currently publish without there being an appreciable difference in my research impact. In fact, it may well be the case that doing less would lead to greater impact. There is an awful lot of dross being published in academic journals these days. I'm responsible for some of it. Publishing too much often dilutes the quality and makes people less willing to engage with your work. I know this is true for me. I often ignore the work of highly-published scholars (I can name names if you like). Why? Two reasons. First, I find that they often repeat the same points over and over again so if you've read a few of their pieces you will have a pretty good sense of what they are likely to say. Second, and contrary to this, it can be intimidating to engage with highly-published scholars. To fully grasp the nuances of their views you feel like you have to triangulate from dozens of peer-reviewed articles. There is only so much time in the day.

There is also, I would add, a potential paradox or tension in the replaceability of academic researchers. I'll call it the 'Darwin-Shakespeare' paradox. In some academic fields, researchers do have the potential to make ground-breaking discoveries and produce theories and ideas that will be valuable for along time. This is particularly true in the hard sciences where there are relatively uncontroversial and widely-agreed upon criteria for assessing the merits of research outputs. But, somewhat ironically, researchers in these fields of often the most replaceable. This is because the possible insights and discoveries are relatively few and there are often many people chasing the same insights and discoveries. The insights attributed to Charles Darwin are a good example of this. Although Darwin did tremendous work in formulating the theory evolution by natural selection and in providing evidence in support of it, he was not unique. Famously, Alfred Russell developed the same theory at the same time, and several others gestured in its direction before Darwin. So, notwithstanding Darwin's tremendous accomplishments, it is likely that evolutionary biology would be largely the same without him.

The situation is a bit different in the softer sciences and humanities. In those disciplines, there are fewer widely-agreed upon criteria for assessing the merits of research, and people often rely on fuzzier concepts like creativity, interpretive insights and 'rigor' when doing so. My guess is that researchers in these fields are relatively less replaceable because the content of their research hinges a lot on their personal traits and idiosyncrasies (though I wouldn't want to overstate this point -- there are lots of easy insights and low-hanging fruit; my own field of technology ethics is a good example of this). It is possible that some researchers are incredibly creative and capture a particular zeitgeist, they may have the power to do good with their research and contribute to public debates and conversations. They may also have the power to do lots of bad (Marx? Freud?), but whether they get the chance to do so depends a lot on luck, status and historical circumstance. Shakespeare is a good example of this. I readily concede that Shakespeare was irreplaceable. I’m sure that no one else could have written the plays he wrote. They may have written something with similar stories and themes but they wouldn't be the same. Shakespeare was a creative genius. But Shakespeare's influence over modern drama is, I believe, largely down to luck and historical context. He wrote in English at a time when there was a nascent and growing theatre scene; English became a world language due to the growth of the British Empire, and the eventual dominance of the USA over modern culture. If you are an academic holding out hopes that you will be the next Shakespeare (or Foucault or Rawls) of your field, then your hopes will probably be forlorn.

I am using this line of reasoning to support the view that academics should, if they have the option, spend less time doing research and more time with their children. But you might wonder whether it supports a much stronger conclusion, Namely: that most academics should do less research and perhaps even quit their jobs to be replaced by someone more likely to make a positive impact (this was, in essence, the argument first made by Saul Smilansky, which I mentioned earlier). This conclusion might be thought to apply, a fortiori, to someone me: if I am suggesting that I should do less research to be with my children, then shouldn't I really given up my cushy permanent position a let someone with more ambition and drive take my place? There are, after all, hordes of precariously employed academics that would love to have the opportunity to do so.

There are a few things I would say in response to this, most of them self-serving. First, as noted above, research is not the only thing I do and I am not suggesting that I have the choice to do less of those other things. Second, I am not claiming that someone like me should completely give up research; I am just claiming that I should, probably, do less of it and that this may even improve the quality and impact of my research. Third, I have a family and I need to provide for them. I don't think it would do my children any good if I spent more time with them but forewent a stable and comfortable income in the process. I could probably earn less and do okay, but there is a limit to this and I fully appreciate the fortunate position I am in.

5. Miscellaneous Objections and Replies

Let me close by considering some other potential objections to the argument. Here are four that occurred to me. If there are others that you think should be addressed, feel free to contact me and let me know.

First, there is the 'personal toxicity' objection. It goes something like this: if you have a strong personal drive or ambition to do something (like research and writing), then suppressing that drive in order to do something else might make you 'toxic' to others. So, for example, if you give up the ambition for research in order to spend more time with your children, you might end up resenting them because they take you away from the thing you want to do. This resentment is likely to seep out into your relationships with them in a way that makes you toxic to them.

I find something compelling in this argument. For better or worse, I am someone that is strongly motivated by the desire to do research and writing. If I don't spend at least part of my day reading, thinking and/or writing, I am frustrated and unhappy at the end of it. I also admit that I sometimes allow that frustration to spill over into my interactions with my family. This usually makes me feel guilty and even more frustrated, and thus I enter a negative spiral of thought and behaviour. I'm sure I am not the only one to act this way. But, even though I do find something compelling in this argument, I also recognise its limitations. Just as I am strongly motivated to do research, I am also strongly motivated to spend time with my children, to play with them, to engage with them and watch them grow. It's a question of balancing these drives. My suspicion is that many people over-balance in favour of research because of external factors (competitiveness, perceived institutional pressure, job insecurity). Some of that factors are compelling, but others much less so.

Second, there is the 'good role model' objection. The gist of this is that, as a parent, you ought to provide a good role model to your children. It could be argued that a good role model is someone that is disciplined, ambitious and hard-working. Translated to the case of the academic parent, this could mean that you ought to spend lots of time doing research in an effort to model good behaviour to your children.

Again, there is something to this argument, but I find it much less compelling than the previous objection. The idea of a good role model is open to debate. You could easily argue that someone that spends more time with their children, particularly in their early and more dependent years, is a good role model. Furthermore, as I have argued ad nauseam in other venues, we live in a culture that tends to over-value work and the work ethic. Far from providing a good role model, a workaholic parent, arguably, models destructive behaviour.

Third, there is the 'autonomy and independence' objection. The idea here is that modern parenting tends to over-value time spent with (or hovering around) children. Parents have become too close and too protective and children have become too dependent and fragile as a result. Against this, children need their autonomy and independence. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for your child is to let them do their own thing. This can be hard but it is in their long-term best interests.

There are a few things to be said in response to this. First, in suggesting that one ought to spend more time with one's children, I am not claiming that this should take the form of over-protective and over-anxious parenting. Indeed, I have argued against that style of parenting in the past. Second, I think a child's need for independence and autonomy varies over time and must be balanced against their need for involvement and nurturance. The latter, I suspect, is more crucial in the early years and the former more valuable as they age. So the argument presented in this article can be seen as one that is more compelling when children are younger and less compelling as they age (though I could be biased about this since my children are both very young - I may come to a different view later on).

Finally, there is the 'false dilemma' objection. The idea behind this is that the entire argument rests on a false dilemma: you don't have to choose between time spent with children and time spent on research. You can do it all. For example, children have to sleep and they typically sleep for much longer than adults. You could, if you wanted, spend more time with them while they are awake and then toil away on your research when they are asleep. This is, in fact, a pattern I follow myself, often working a couple of hours late at night in lieu of the afternoons (which I spend with my children).

Although there are ways to find time in your schedule for research, I would say that there are limits to this and any decision to work late at night (or early in the morning) will come with its own opportunity costs (e.g. time spent with partners/spouses, time spent on hobbies or non-work related pursuits, time spent on household administration). Although I sometimes do work a split shift, I don't do this all the time and would find it exhausting if I did.

6. Conclusion

In writing this article, I realise that I have taken a stronger position than originally intended. I had intended just to explore the issues and potential arguments; I have ended up defending a particular point of view. Perhaps this is an indication that I have learned something through the process of writing: that if I have a choice about how to spend my time, the likelihood is that I will favour time with children over time spent doing research.


  1. Do you really mean to suggest that, no matter how much time you currently spend with your kids (and how little on research), you should still cut more research to spend more time with the kids? I would've thought each activity had diminishing marginal value, so it's just a question of whether you've found the optimal balance. Some people should spend more time with their kids, some should perhaps spend less. It's not generally true that the marginal minute of parental time has "irreplaceable" value for the parent-child relationship, after all.

  2. Very intriguing post, which connects very well with the philosopher's tradition of tending to not be married. I think that this is a struggle that many parents tend to face in academia, and I agree with Richard Y Chappell in that perhaps there is no goal value, but just a balance, which can certainly change depending on the nature of bonds between the academic parent and child.