Work-Life Balance in an IR Career

Ask eAIR invites questions from AIR members about the work of institutional research, careers in the field, and other broad topics that resonate with a large cross-section of readers. Questions may be submitted to

This month’s question is answered by Erin Aselas, Director of Institutional Effectiveness at Bastyr University and Vice President of the Pacific NW Association for Institutional Research and Planning (PNAIRP). The ideas, opinions, and perspectives expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily AIR. Members are invited to join the discussion by commenting below. 

Dear Erin: How do I maintain a work-life balance in my IR career? 

AselasAskeAIR.jpgMaintaining good work-life balance is dependent on a number of factors. As I have learned over the years, no two IR offices are the same, so it can be difficult to prescribe specific strategies. However, there are some universal truths that will go a long way to helping you achieve and maintain that healthy balance. 

I’d say that about 98% of the time (yep, I calculated) I am able to maintain good work-life balance even as a one-person IR shop. There are times when I’ve had to completely put my personal life on hold for weeks to complete major projects, but they were anticipated and time-bound, and I planned ways to minimize the negative impact on my personal life. Beyond that, I consider myself in balance. 

I define “good work-life balance” as having both meaningful work and a fulfilling personal life. If you work too much, you throw off the balance and put your personal life at risk. Obvious? You’d think so, but so many people think they can beat the scale. So the following is my advice to individuals struggling to achieve this coveted balance. 

Stop trying to be everything to everyone. If you can’t do it all, then don’t try. Martyring yourself year after year does not achieve the desired outcome you think it does. I am sorry to tell you that your institution does not appreciate your sacrifice as much as you think it does (or should). Constantly overworking likely means that you are burned out, your personal life is languishing, and/or you are feeling more and more unfulfilled in life. At the same time, it may also mean that you are not advocating properly for your department, you are spreading yourself too thin, and that your projects, organization, and colleagues are suffering.  

If you are overworked, ASK FOR HELP even if you think you won’t get it. Do not assume everyone on campus is dialed-in to how much you are sacrificing for the institution. You must tell your colleagues in clear terms how your excessive workload is negatively affecting the institution. 

Identify challenges and potential solutions. I have found the best way to effectively advocate for yourself and your department is to clearly articulate your workload challenges to your supervisor by outlining your projects, explaining the time each takes to complete, and identifying the specific resource limitations you experience (human, IT, etc.). When presenting a problem, outline various solutions. For example, when I am spread too thin, I calendar my projects by month, quarter, or year depending on the scope, and discuss them with my provost. I describe the projects, identify the “clients,” and let him know how delays will affect each client. If he opts not to prioritize the projects or remove any from the list, I present other solutions, such as temporary FTE support or new software, or ask to have a project reassigned to another department (where appropriate). Use of this practice will give you the opportunity to communicate your needs regularly, which could, in turn, lead to a remedy for your excessive workload. 

Be aware of the organization’s culture. If everyone at your institution is overworked, and it is the culture to sacrifice personal needs for the institution, spend time analyzing your priorities in life. Has your personal life atrophied? Have your hobbies or other activities been all but abandoned? Is your health suffering? Are you happy? If, after making a “life inventory,” you find that you are not fulfilled, I suggest finding a new institution that will respect your human needs. In some cases, this means taking a lateral or demoted position.  

Make decisions that are good for you, not just for your career. One of the best decisions I made in my life was to take a 25% cut in salary as I transitioned from the corporate world to a non-profit organization. Think money can’t buy happiness? I can tell you from experience—it sure can! That cut in pay bought me balance, meaningful work, and genuine happiness. I encourage you to keep your life in perspective, be honest with yourself, and make decisions based on what is best for you, not just your career. Good luck! 

Do you have suggestions for maintaining balance and taking care of yourself in your IR career? Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below. 




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Total Comments: 8
Bill posted on 5/15/2014 8:22 AM
This is an excellent topic that doesn't get enough discussion. I agree with Erin and add two additional ideas: 1) develop a network of colleagues (both within and outside your institution/organization) to help you navigate challenges and 2) have a couple of hobbies that help you "unplug" (mine has been horror movies for a long time and I am now adding model trains).

Bill Knight
Lynn posted on 5/15/2014 8:53 AM
This is an important topic, especially with the increased reporting demands. We need to work smart and consider our health. I think a healthy and balanced worker is more productive anyway.
Jeremy posted on 5/15/2014 9:34 AM
As a one person shop myself, I find that it's also crucial to build a network of strong relationships with dependable colleagues within your institution. It makes the "ask for help" solution a lot easier. Also, offering help when you can will make others more willing to help you.
Song posted on 5/15/2014 10:16 AM
have been working in Institutional Research for almost two years and always sit in a chair to work 8 hours a day staring at a computer. It is not very healthy. Universities should do something about it so that IR workers can go out sometimes for some outdoor activities. I have never thought IR work is so hard that it can break the balance for personal life. What kind of IR work will that be?
Eric posted on 5/15/2014 10:38 AM
These are excellent tips, Erin, thank you! Many of us work in one- and two-person offices, so the responsibilities can become very heavy and difficult to manage -- especially if your institution is approaching reaffirmation of accreditation. I would add that the internal support may (or may not) be different based on who you report to. For example, previously in my experience I reported directly to the college president, but more recently in my career I now report to one of the vice presidents. When I have direct access/responsibility to the president of the college, I noticed significantly greater support compared to when I report to a vice president.
Stefano posted on 5/15/2014 10:49 AM
Erin and others’ suggestions on how to maintain work-life balance are very effective. I would like to add to those Mindfulness practice, an emerging practice in the world of business. Starting last academic year our institution has been offering training in this technique to Faculties and Staff. The course is geared towards managing and reducing stress. However, I could see first-hand benefits in enhanced work relationships, work efficiency and creativity. Needless to say, the practice has had also positive impacts in other areas of my life.
Sally posted on 5/15/2014 11:00 AM
I think this is a good start but a bit too focused on the IR person rather than the organization. This implies that if there is a problem it is a matter of you not doing something--"you are not advocating properly for your department, you are spreading yourself too thin; You must tell your colleagues...." It the problem really were an individual's problem, it wouldn't be chronic throughout the profession. We can't all be bad at time management.

The IR profession is changing; data demand and usage is changing. The influence of external forces--funding reductions and more grant driven funding (with the additional reporting), corporate driven innovations ('look at that cool data tool! Can we do that too?), accountablility and performance demands, etc.--all create more work in a good way although sometimes with limited value added other than sounding good (do your decision makers understand the limitations of statistics and data any better?). And the better we do our work, the more work we will have.

All this is to say, yes, we need to take care of ourselves but we also need to recognize that it isn't always about us. This may be where we need to expect more visablility from professional organizations such as AIR to advocate at national and state policy levels. That way at least the context would be out there so when the IR person at an institution does raise the issue with the direct report, it isn't just one person complaining about being overworked.
Kristina posted on 5/15/2014 1:36 PM
Great topic! I agree with Bill that developing a network of colleagues is important. Learning about the things that are going on with colleagues at other institutions helps put things in perspective. It may not be just your institution that experiencing the challenges -- and talking with others might yield some new solutions.