Empty chairs at empty tables: What professors do during Winter Break

AkiraAccording to Forbes Magazine, who recently selected ‘university professor’ as their Least Stressful Job of 2013, we academics are currently enjoying a month off between semesters, which themselves are only marred by the occasional hour in the classroom.

This assessment of academia caused a bit of a twitstorm amongst lecturers for whom the winter break is anything but a break (see the #realforbesprofessors twitter hashtag). Here’s why.

While it’s true to say that most of us aren’t currently lecturing, our teaching responsibilities are far from over. Exams don’t mark themselves, nor are module grades conjured out of thin air, so any academic who was lecturing last semester has likely been enjoying the fruits of their labour –  exam scripts – since mid-December.  And that’s before we get anywhere near writing lectures, practicals, seminars and exams for next semester.

In addition, though most of our taught students have left St Andrews by January, many of our research postgraduates remain. For most of our PhD students, it’s business as usual, only with shorter queues for coffee. In the Psychology department January is a time when the absence of participants for experiments provides researchers with the perfect opportunity to take stock.  Those of us who have finished our marking attempt to analyse our data and write and publish scientific reports whilst simultaneously planning projects we will run next semester. All this takes meetings with collaborators (thank goodness for Skype), PhD students and postdoctoral researchers, and plenty of collaborative writing.

Why is this time for writing so precious?  Some documents end up in the hands of charities and funding bodies who support our research. We attempt to convince funders that the experiments we believe will advance our fields should also be priorities for them. The funds we seek to carry out our research provide the time (as research assistance in the form of a project-specific hire or as teaching cover so we can involve ourselves more in the project during term) and the resources (for equipment and access to facilities) specific to each project – the lifeblood of modern scientific research. The funders who do support us help to make the discoveries that advance science now, and train the next generation of scientists to continue this work into the future.

Like you, for academics, January is far from a holiday. The streets and shops of St Andrews may be quiet, but there is plenty happening behind the scenes. If I weren’t so busy, I’d be looking forward to the break Forbes tells me I’ll get when the next semester starts.


Dr Akira O’Connor is a Lecturer in the School of Psychology and Neuroscience.  Dr O’Connor is interested in the cognitive and neural processes that support the judgements we make about our memories. As part of our 600th Anniversary Campaign, we aim to help develop both the IBANS vacation scholarships and the Brain and Behaviour Seminars that are run by the Institute of Behavioural and Neural Sciences.  If you would like to contribute to this project, please make your gift here.


One thought on “Empty chairs at empty tables: What professors do during Winter Break

  1. Graham Duncan says:

    Was once told by a head of department at another university that research was a weekend activity! I think research is the foundation for everything that we do and should contribute to everything that we teach – and how students should learn. In this manner students also understand how important their own research can be.

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