Deadlines, deadlines, deadlines. Always plan, always submit to deadlines, always look professional as a mortuary archaeologist whether it is marking essays, appraising draft chapters of PhDs, writing field- or desk-based work you are doing. Never take on more than you can commit to, never agree to deadlines that you cannot possibly meet. Plan and structure your work. I tell it to my students. I tell my colleagues. I chase others for deadlines to submit/resubmit papers to the journal I edit, and books I edit, chase others for submitted peer-reviews and so on. In many ways I practice what I preach and meet deadlines.

Still, like everyone, I end up missing deadlines. Does this make me a hypocrite? Does it make me an academic failure? I would like to think ‘no, not entirely’. I’m not sure you will agree, but here are  a few reasons why academic deadlines get missed.

  1. Priorities. Despite the best planning in the world, out of nowhere academics suddenly get short-notice deadlines that they hadn’t anticipated that have to take priority (like proofs of book chapters and journal articles). Deadline priorities rapidly shift in academia.
  2. Time Allocation is Bollocks. Most academic work is intellectual and cannot be readily quantified in terms of hours duration. This may ring hollow to you, but it is true. For example, for one piece I worked on through the spring, I felt compelled to submit it late to the edited book it is due to appear in because it simply wasn’t ready yet for publication to my mind; it simply needed more work! So some things take longer than others and (here’s a crucial point) some work needs to be delayed beyond deadlines to ensure the integrity of the work.
  3. Deadline ‘Status‘. Many deadlines academics work to are integral to what we do, but not necessarily core to the job: they are ‘extras’ in different senses. So when I ask someone to write an anonymous report on a manuscript submitted for publication, or a book review, it is not paid work in itself, it is part of the reciprocity that keeps the academic world together and is done on some basis of goodwill rather than contractual obligation. If I stopped doing them entirely, and many academics  are doing this increasingly, the system starts to break down. Perhaps that would be a good thing and we stop pestering each other to do things for free… However, as it stands, I rely on the goodwill of others, and they rely on me.
  4. Life. Deadlines need to be balanced against life. Dealing with sick relatives, personal physical and mental illness, and sometimes getting some sleep, are also important for academics as well as ‘normal people’. Theoretically at least, we are entitled to some holiday time too. Not everyone will know the circumstances of a deadline missed, especially when it is confidential and the deadline is one between individuals working at different organisations and institutions. So we often don’t know the ‘backstory’ behind any missed deadline.
  5. Overwork. Despite offers of many courses about how to rationalise and improve productivity, the same point remains: academic archaeologists are overworked.
  6. Memory. Sometimes deadlines get forgotten… academic archaeologists are (just about) human…
  7. Talking of memory, I almost forgot. Deluded Work Ethics. Sometimes deadline never really existed at all: you made it up yourself in some moment of self-destructive madness.
  8. Boxed Sets. Re-watching Seasons 1-3 of ‘The Walking Dead’ is far more rewarding than working to deadlines.

So when people say that academics ‘have it easy’ with deadlines. Sure, sometimes academics fail to meet deadlines and there are not strict penalties as in other sectors. However, I would retort that this is, in part, due to the many different types of work, quality and complexity of the tasks involved, and the unpredictability of the projects and tasks involved Thus I would contend that that meeting, bending and breaking deadlines are all inescapable dimensions of academic archaeology.

What conclusions can we reach from this? Well, I recommend three specific pieces of advice that are as much for me as anyone else:

  1. Whether you are setting or trying to meet deadlines, ongoing communication is key, don’t ignore the problem and hope it will go away (easily said, not so easily done).
  2. Whether you are setting or meeting deadlines, being too soft and too harsh can equally give the wrong impression, upset people, cause confusion and exacerbate the problem. My responses to this are: in cases of too soft deadline setters: ‘why set a deadline if it didn’t matter anyway and now you are giving me another x months to do it?’ In response to too harsh deadline setters: ‘if you want to make such a big deal about it, I won’t do it or I will publish elsewhere’.
  3. If you are an editor and I owe you a paper or a book review: please forgive me, I’m working on it! SHOW ME MERCY!!!!