Close up of kids hands playing with colorful blocks near father working on the laptop. Work from home during quarantine concept. Top view, flat lay.

Success as an academic doesn’t have to come at the expense of family.Credit: Getty

How do you become successful in academia? At numerous international conferences, I’ve heard eminent scholars emphasize the necessity of prioritizing work above everything else, including family and children. One memorable instance occurred in 2018, at a large international conference in my field. At a session for postdocs and junior faculty members about obtaining tenure and building successful careers, someone on the panel advocated for meticulously scheduling personal life, including sex with romantic partners, to boost work productivity. Other advice included minimizing time with your children to allow you to revise and resubmit manuscripts. These tips were alarmingly well-received by many of the 300 young academics, both male and female, in attendance. I left the session questioning whether I was the only one who found the advice unsettling.

At various conferences and events, I have attended numerous workshops on achieving better work–life balance. I have noticed a stark gender disparity among the panellists — more than three-quarters are female. This is presumably because most of these panels address the greater challenges that women in academia face in balancing work and family life — and justifiably so. But what advice is there for emerging male academics? The typical advice that I received from senior scientists was straightforward: avoid taking parental leave, minimize your childcare responsibilities and stay steadily focused on research.

I understand the value of hard work in academia and beyond. But I am deeply concerned by the intensity with which this message — namely to disregard everything else — is delivered to younger scientists, along with how this advice seems especially geared towards men. Is having a singular focus on career, to the exclusion of family life, the only path to success? And even if it were, is it right?

I began my journey as an academic in 2017, when I earned a PhD in management and psychology. By 2020, I had achieved tenure at Maynooth University in Kildare, Ireland, a milestone that felt surprisingly anticlimactic, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic. What had a much greater impact on me, my career and my perspective was becoming a father in 2021.

Fatherhood fundamentally altered my definition of success, challenging the advice I’d received to sacrifice family life for work. My wife, a manager at an international pharmaceutical company, and I committed early on to sharing parenting responsibilities as equitably as possible. In the year after my daughter’s arrival, I took night shifts for feedings and managing her colic. I fully embraced parental leave and rearranged my work schedule to avoid attending any meetings before 10 a.m.. Today, I start my workday after dropping off my daughter at day care and finish it in time to pick her up — a routine that has redefined my professional life. No more working on the couch while watching a movie with my wife. No more working on holidays or at the weekend. I work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the latest. The laptop stays closed after I come home.

Surprising consequences

So, did my career tank? Did I become less successful? Quite the opposite. I was offered a position as an invited associate professor at Católica Porto Business School in Portugal, where I conduct research on anxiety, leadership and personality. The number of papers I’ve had accepted at conferences, a metric I use to judge progress on ongoing research projects, has tripled over the last year. My journal-submission rate has doubled. Overall, the pace has picked up, not slowed down. This is down to, I think, my better work–life balance: I’m more productive in the limited time I devote to work.

Most importantly, however, my definition of success has evolved from focusing on publications and citations to prioritizing meaningful work that doesn’t compromise my family life. I’ve adopted a policy of transparent communication with my colleagues by openly discussing the need to adjust work commitments to accommodate family time. In doing so, I’ve noticed that others also feel more comfortable opening up and being more honest about their own family–work dynamics.

I now choose projects judiciously, declining those that require extensive travel or time away from my family. In the past, I might have joined projects that would have required me to sacrifice more of my personal life. Now, I won’t.

Jon and daughter sitting at their favorite beach place with the rest of the family.

Dritjon Gruda and his daughter relax at the beach.Credit: Dritjon Gruda

This honest communication seems to have made me more relatable, particularly to senior colleagues who share these values and often express regret over not making similar choices. Some have said to me: “I wish I did the same when I first became a father.” And many female colleagues were surprised to hear about the changes I made after becoming a father. Some even expressed a degree of disappointment that their partners did not make similar changes when they first became parents.

I am in a privileged position to choose to step away from work: the ability to take a more balanced approach without jeopardizing my career is a luxury that is not available to everyone. Many academics with children face structural barriers or a lack of support from the other parent, or are at career stages with limited institutional support and flexibility. Nonetheless, I feel there is immense value in openly discussing the adjustments we make when parenthood reshapes our priorities — and this is particularly relevant for new fathers who are even less likely to voice their experiences. Only by sharing our perspectives can we encourage others to reconsider their own priorities and, over time, potentially influence institutional policies to foster more-supportive and equitable work environments.

An overemphasis on work to the detriment of personal life — an approach that is often called a ‘masculine work ethic’ — isn’t a hallmark of masculinity, but rather a path to personal and familial conflict. Male researchers who prioritize their roles as fathers and husbands while excelling in their academic careers are evidence that there is nothing masculine about working yourself to burnout or worse.

I love being an academic. I love the pursuit of knowledge and being paid to work on exciting research. But every day, my family shows what I tell doctoral students: prioritizing family life does not detract from professional success, it enhances it.