Balancing Personal and Professional Life

by Kristina Kauffman

"The good life is a process, not a state of being.  It is a direction, not a destination." - Carl Rogers

Our exploration of balancing one's personal and profession life explores four interrelated topics:

  1. Boundaries: the lines which define who we are and who we are not, and what we are responsible for and what we are not
  2. Balance: living a life inspired by our vision, yet balanced so that we can achieve our goals, maintain important relationships, and care for our own human needs
  3. Burnout: detachment, exhaustion, and loss of satisfaction or sense of accomplishment
  4. Stress Management: Basic tools to ensure that stressors don't cause stress-out.


I believe this is one of the most important issues addressed in this course.  It is also a topic that is frequently neglected in professional development conversations.  In fact, it was added near the end of the development of this course when its tired editors realized that we really had not provided the type of personal insight necessary to save you from years of struggle and misery learning by trial and error.  I hope that the lessons learned the hard way, and the observations of professionals who deal with these topics, will help to ensure that you won't feel alone or alienated from your colleagues and administrators, that you won't think you are the only faculty member suffering from early May burnout, and that you won't become enmeshed in painful situations that threaten your emotional well being and your career.  

drawing of picket fence with flowers and shining sunMany of us have boundary issues in our private lives.  While my comments here may have implications for the totality of our relationships, they are directed primarily at our professional lives as college instructors.  

What is a boundary and what does a boundary look like?  Obviously you can't draw the type of boundary we are referring to on a map, but thinking of our sphere of personal responsibility and influence in terms of property lines can be helpful.  If you own a home you know the locations of your property lines. You know that neighbors are unlikely to open your gate and mow your back lawn for you without request or payment.  You know your backyard is your space and your responsibility.  You are probably also aware that if you fail to maintain your property, and it presents a significant fire danger, your neighbors can request that city or county officials require you to clean the property or fine you for non-compliance.  In short, your property rights end when they put others at risk.  Some of us love to invite people into our homes.  We have a constant stream of friends and relatives eating in our kitchen and swimming in the backyard pool.  Others prefer more private lives and feel invaded if company stays for more than two or three hours.  Some of us keep inviting people over, or letting them show up uninvited, and can't figure out why we are so tired or never seem to complete what we had intended to do on a given day.  Our boundaries are unclear, and others regularly invade them.

What does all this have to do with faculty?  Many faculty see their work as a calling, and that gives their time at work special meaning.  Others think they got into teaching for a "June, July and August" vacation, but quickly discover that they work more hours each year than the average 40 hour per week, 50 week per year employee.   Our schedules are not regular.  Our workload is not balanced throughout the year.  Many of us prepare our lectures and grade papers at home, blurring the lines between work and home further.  The boundaries between our private lives and professional obligations can seem like shifting sands.  That is why I believe it is very important to consider issues of balance and boundaries as you start your career and revisit them as professional and personal obligations and opportunities change. Surviving the journey often means setting clear boundaries. 

dig deeper Setting Boundaries


Those who know themselves well and have healthy boundaries tend to make good choices.  Those of us who continue to struggle with our vision, values and boundaries must make choices too.  This brings us to our next topic:  Balance.

Balance for a college professor is a bit more than taking a vacation.  Most of us are obsessive learners.  We've spent a lot of time in school.  Even those of us who have worked in the world of 9 - 5 often went to school at night.  Some of us have thrived where others are exhausted.  But, that was before the children, or before mom's illness, or before this semester's teaching experience which seems to be sapping every ounce of emotional energy.  

Let's imagine that you have mastered the personal balance issue by now.  You know how to ensure that you get enough rest and exercise.  You actually sleep 7 or 8 hours a night.  (More about that in the section on stress and burnout.)   You take time for a personal pursuit that brings you joy or good humor.  You've landed your first teaching job (full time or adjunct), and with great glee you announce this to your family.  "Great," your husband says, "now that you'll only be working from 8 AM to noon every day, you'll have plenty of time for the kids and the house.  We can fire the cleaning lady and save some money."  You call your mom and tell her all about your adjunct teaching work.  You report it will take about 15 hours a week since this is your first class, and that you'll make a bit over $40 per hour.  "Wonderful," she comments, "now you can buy that new car."   Of course you didn't happen to mention that the $40 per hour was only for the three hours a week you'll be in the classroom.  But then she might not have been so impressed if she thought you would earn about $8.00 per hour.   Of course you avoid doing the math and remind yourself that the second time you teach the class you'll be able to do it in 7.5 hours per week, increasing that wage to a huge $16.00 per hour.  drawing of an ox and man

How do you explain to the rest of the world what you do?  They believe from their experience with college that they know what professors do .  Professors read a few books, get up and talk about them, and grade a few papers.  Easy.  NOT!

In some ways we have a lot in common with farmers.  We work long days during some seasons and shorter days during others.  While there are always the handful of faculty members who give the appearance of working 25 hours a week for a full time check, for most full time faculty members who do not teach during the summer, or teach overloads during the school year, reality is more like the following: 

Many faculty teach 34 weeks per year.  During those weeks, most report they spend at least 50 and often up to 60 hours planning, presenting and grading course materials, in addition to committee and club responsibilities.  While time reports are informal, let's assume the average faculty member spends 50 hours per week on average or 1,700 hours during 34 weeks.  Of course, we should point out that during the semester, there is no such thing as average.  Most faculty work occurs in peaks and valleys.  A faculty member might put in 70 hours one week and 30 the next.  The beginning of the semester, times when major papers or projects are due, and finals are the heaviest times.  Committee work always seems to peak in the spring, driving actively involved faculty to near exhaustion.  A wise faculty member will brief family members about this reality in advance and remind spouses and children that neglect in late May can be followed with full time attention in June.  They will also be very kind to themselves in May and June when they and administrators, who must file reports and spend end of year budgets, are nearing burnout.   

Some faculty manage to claim a spring break and two weeks at Christmas, but most work at least 8 out of those 15 days.  Let's add an additional 8 days at 8 hours, bringing our total to 1764.  

It is a rare faculty member who has completed their responsibilities on graduation day.  Add another 20 hours to finish off grading and clear the pile of mail.  Our total is now 1,784.  

With the advent of technology, most faculty are struggling to keep pace and learn how to employ technology in their classrooms.  Summer and winter breaks are often spent in these pursuits.  Add another 60 hours for formal and informal technology work = 1,844.  

Many faculty take advantage of the summer break to catch up on reading in the discipline, plan lessons and prepare new syllabi.  Let's be conservative and only add 120 hours for these activities, bringing the grand total to 1,964 hours.  If we divide that by the 50 weeks our average office worker might complete, we find that our total per week is 39.28 hours.  

Many faculty also teach overload assignments online, in the evenings, during the summer or winter sessions.  These additional assignments mean that many faculty members are working at least as many hours as other professionals.  Full time teaching is not a part-time job.  Adjunct faculty who cobble together a full time load by teaching at three or more colleges put in even more hours when you consider their commute.  

weightlifter in business suitThe bottom line to those whose family members think they have lots of time: no you don't.  You may have a few more choices about scheduling, when you are in your classroom, or when to burn the midnight oil or rest for the night. Over time you work at least as many hours, handle students with life crises that include threats to their safety and future, create fat tax deductions because your benefits don't include sufficient professional development opportunities, and put up with bureaucracy.  You face many, if not all, of the challenges of those in "the real world."  In fact, depending on the jobs held by family members and friends, you may have a broader view of the "real world" than do most other workers.  

Maintaining Balance


Ours is, in part, a caring profession.  Many of us are attracted to teaching because we want to help and to empower others.  Often those of us who care the most for our students are the prime candidates for burnout.  We must be careful to care for ourselves first (something that is very hard for many of us), so that we continue to have the energy, enthusiasm and creativity to guide our students.  

I think nearly every faculty member experiences a bit of burnout late each spring.  Grading, committee work, and for adjuncts, concerns about future employment, all collide and stress nearly all faculty.  If you have been careful to maintain healthy boundaries and balance and manage your stress all semester long, spring burnout (or spring fever, if you prefer) will be short lived and leave no permanent reminders.  If, however, your sense of burnout lasts beyond graduation day or starts before May, you may have a condition that requires more than a weekend off. 

How to Avoid Burnout

Stress Management

Now that you understand how boundaries, balance, and healthy recognition of the risk of burnout play a role in you career, you may think you understand all you need to know to manage the stressors in your career. Remember stressors can cause either positive or negative stress, and often it is how we respond to the stressors that causes the categorization. But, many of us still complain that we feel stress or want to manage our stressors more effective. For advice from a health care professional this dig deeper section may prove very helpful.

 dig deeperStress Management

We hope you find these remarks helpful. We are always looking for insights and advice for other faculty. If you have found a particularly effective way to maintain boundaries, balance, avoid burnout and cope with stress, please use the feedback section to write to us. Be sure to mention if we may include use your recommendations in the site.