What makes academics happy (and what managements do to stop it)

Despite “neoliberal policies and employment practices,” there are academics who find joy in their work.

In a new paper, Craig Whitsed (Curtin U) and colleagues asked 36 full time continuing academics what brings them joy in work. Given subjects expressed unhappiness with managements and workloads and the study started during COVID, the obvious answer would be “not much.” Obvious but wrong, demonstrated by their interviews focused on how people felt about four “key dynamics” in their work; students, teaching, research and interacting with colleagues.

  • Students: “great joy was derived from seeing their students succeed, and from watching them grow intellectually and professionally as this related to employment outcomes.” But (and it is quite a big but), this is diminished by, “changes to academic work such as increased administrative responsibility, research productivity measures, and allocated work demands perceived to be unreasonable.”
  • Teaching:  “it is a connection. It is the feeling of knowing you are making a difference. It is nourishing, rewarding, and sustaining.” However they resented management imposed expectations that took time away from teaching.
  • Research: “the joy of exploration, discovery, and dissemination. It’s the ‘agency’ and satisfaction associated with developing new research and seeing this making a difference … the relationships built with doctoral students and seeing them succeed.” As with, teaching they resented demands on their time that reduced research work
  • Colleagues: “collegiality, solidarity, and unity,” which they lament is diminished by restructures and mergers

The joy eaters: are management demands on their time. “Choice and agency are related to time. Similarly, camaraderie and teamwork, in other words, connection, and meaningful interactions with students and colleagues are afforded less opportunities (time) to be realised because of the competing pressures and escalating demands”

What is needed: “a reconceptualisation of academic work allocation and design has the potential to increase academic staff experience of agency, self-efficacy, self-determination, and connectedness, which are all antecedents of joy in work. This, however, will require all stakeholders to think differently.”



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