You do not need to work 80 hours a week to succeed in academia

Meghan Duffy thinks you can get on in academia without being chained to your desk

October 28, 2015
Egg timer and clock showing deadlines

There is a persistent myth (some might even call it a zombie idea) that getting tenure in academia requires working 80 hours a week. There’s even a joke along the lines of “The great thing about academia is the flexibility. You can work whatever 80 hours a week you want!”

The idea that you need to work 80 hours a week in order to publish or get grants or tenure is simply wrong. Moreover, I think it’s damaging. I hear routinely from younger folk (often women) who are seriously considering leaving academia primarily because they think that a tenure track position would require working so much that they wouldn’t be able to have any life outside work (including raising a family)*. So, this is my attempt at slaying the zombie idea that succeeding in academia requires working as much as an investment banker**.

This post was inspired by this comment from dinoverm, where I linked to this 7 Year Postdoc article, because I found that it kept coming up in conversations with grad students, postdocs and new faculty.

In linking to it, I said: “I really like the idea of deciding what you are okay with doing (maybe you aren’t willing to move anywhere in the country/world, or you really want to do a particular type of research but aren’t sure how ‘tenurable’ that line of work will be), and then using that to set boundaries on what you do as a faculty member. I think this perspective is really valuable for people who are considering stepping off the tenure track primarily because they’re worried about work-life balance or quality of life. Obviously getting tenure will require working hard, but the lore that it requires 80-hour work weeks and ignoring one’s non-work priorities is simply wrong, and I think this perspective is a good one for thinking about how to balance things.”

That led to discussion in the comments on how it is rare for someone to “admit” to not working 80 hours a week. This is something that has been discussed in the comments section of my blogs before. Take this example:

“I think it is time to start calling BS on such posturing. Nobody works 80 hours a week regularly. It actually is physically impossible over the long run. (Do the math on working 80 hours/week -112 waking hours – 14 hours/week eating/grooming/maintaining car house – 5 hours commuting = 83 hours and that is pretty sparse grooming and maintaining – e.g. no exercise – and nobody lives on 3 hours/week leisure time.)

“Most young profs are in the 40-60 hour range is my belief with most in the lower half of that. And yes 50 hours plus rest of life feels crazy and insane. But stop saying it’s 80 and making everybody else feel guilty they’re not measuring up.” 

Why does this myth persist? Probably it’s in part because, if you think that everyone else is working 80 hours a week, it can seem risky to admit that you aren’t, since that could make you seem like a slacker.

But I think another important reason for the persistence of this myth is that people are bad at recognising how much they actually work. Most of us haven’t spent years tracking our exact hours worked, and so don’t have a realistic sense of what an 80-hour work week would really feel like. As a grad student and postdoc, I thought that I worked really hard. But then I made myself start logging hours (sort of like I was keeping track of billable hours, although I was simply doing it out of curiosity).

I was astonished at how little I actually worked. It was something like six hours of actual work a day. I never would have guessed it was that low. I hadn’t realised how much time I was spending on those seemingly little breaks between projects. I used to count a sample, then go read an article on Slate, then go count another sample, then go read another article, etc.

At the end of the day, if you’d asked what I’d done, I would have said I’d spent all day counting samples. But, in reality, I had probably only spent roughly half my day actually counting samples. I found this exercise really valuable and eye-opening. I think it probably did more to make me more efficient in how I work than anything else. And working efficiently frees up lots of time for other things (including spending time with my kids).

I’ve recommended this to people who were struggling to keep up with tasks they needed to accomplish, and also have recommended keeping track of basic categories (maybe research, teaching and service) when doing this accounting to see if the relative time devoted to those tasks seems reasonable.

So how much do I work? That has varied over the years, not surprisingly. When I started my first faculty position, there were times when I felt like I was working as hard as I possibly could, and I started to wonder if I was working 80 hours a week. So, I tallied the hours. It was about 60 hours/week. And that was during a really time-intensive experiment, and was a relatively short-term thing. I’m not sure, but that might be similar to the amount I worked during the peak parts of field season in grad school.

I could not have maintained that schedule over several months without burning out, regardless of whether or not I had kids. Right now, I’d say I typically work 40-50 hours a week. I am in my office from 9-5, and I work as hard as I can during that time. I usually can get some work done after the kids go to bed, but there’s also prepping bottles to send to daycare the next day, doing dishes, etc., so I definitely have less evening work time than I used to. And I usually get a few hours total on the weekend to work, but that’s variable.

Again, I think the key is being efficient. This article has an interesting summary of history and research behind the 40-hour work week. It argues (with studies to back up the argument) that, after an eight-hour work day, people are pretty ineffective:

What these studies showed, over and over, was that industrial workers have eight good, reliable hours a day in them. On average, you get no more widgets out of a 10-hour day than you do out of an eight-hour day. Likewise, the overall output for the work week will be exactly the same at the end of six days as it would be after five days. So paying hourly workers to stick around once they’ve put in their weekly 40 is basically nothing more than a stupid and abusive way to burn up profits. Let ‘em go home, rest up and come back on Monday. It’s better for everybody.

That article points out that there is an exception – occasionally, you can increase productivity (although not by 50 per cent) by going up to a 60-hour work week. But this only works short term. This matches what I’ve found in my own work (see previous paragraph) and also seems to match with the quote from the comment section I included above.

So, please, do not think that you need to work 80 hours a week in academia. If you are working that many hours, you are probably not being efficient. I’m sure there are exceptional individuals who can work that long and still be efficient, but they are surely not the norm. So, work hard for 40-50 hours a week (maybe 60 during exceptional times), and then use the rest of the time for whatever you like***.

And, please, please, please, stop perpetuating the myth that academics need to work 80 hours a week.

* People who are regular readers of my blogs will know that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with non-academic careers. I simply want people to make their decisions based on accurate information, and don’t want someone choosing to step off the tenure track primarily because of the myth that it requires 80-hour work weeks.

** As it turns out, investment bankers are being encouraged to work less, although “less” is still a whole lot by most standards. (Here’s another story on the same topic.)

*** I encourage exercise as one way to use some of that time. Perhaps that’s not a surprise, given that I have a treadmill desk. In talking with other academics, it seems that exercise is often one of the first things to go when things get busy. 

Meghan Duffy is associate professor the Duffy Lab, University of Michigan. This is an edited version of a post that first appeared on the Dynamic Ecology blog.

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Reader's comments (8)

I used to work an 80 hour week but I was 22 and paid by the hour in a slaughterhouse so that made sense. I tend to work 9am-5pm Monday to Friday and nothing more - yes occasionally I breach this but its rare. When I first started people kept telling me that I had to do more hours to get a full-time job but more than that I had to be willing to do lots of stuff for free. That make no sense to me so I decided that if it was really impossible to get an academic job without doing lots of freebies or working every evening and weekend, I'd pack it in and do something else because no job is more interesting than my life. But bad things will happen they said! And 15 years later nothing bad happened. All that happens is that I say no to a lot of stuff and I have to be really focused in the day. I also spend a lot of time eliminating as much make-busy work as possible. For example, if I start a new module, I first look if there are any decent Open Education Resources I can use rather than spend many many hours generating material from scratch.
I work 9:30 - 4 regularly. Occasionally I work on weekends and in late hours if there is an imminent deadline. I do constantly think about the things I am planning to do.
I don't think that general advice along the lines of "You don't need to work 80 hour weeks to succeed" is particularly helpful. It depends so much on the circumstances of the academic/researcher in question. I've had to put in 70-80 hour weeks at times, particularly when I started as a lecturer. I think that it's somewhat unfair on early career researchers/academics to tell them they'll be able to get everything done in a 40 hour week and that they just need to "work smarter, rather than harder". This is certainly not my experience and stating that 40 hrs/week is sufficient just adds to the stress! ("Why can't I do everything in 40 hours? Apparently everyone else can. What's wrong with me?") I agree entirely that the norm/expectation should be a 40 hr week but particularly in the early days when one is establishing a group, trying to get the first grants funded, and combining this with teaching and other admin tasks, 40 hours disappears rather quickly. (Even if we're very focussed). I'd rather not leave a lengthy comment here, as the THE's comment formatting is not ideal. This blog post discusses why I think we need to be careful in sending out a message that 40 hrs/week is sufficient in academia: (It's a shame that hyperlinks no longer work in the THE comments sections)
I don't quite know why my username is still listed as "ppzpjm" for the comment above. It should be "Philip Moriarty".
80 hours a week = 40 hours work + 40 hours aholic
Having done graduate school at a top-10 university in the US, I have made observations that lead to my conclusion that the content of this article is untrue; in fact, 40-hr work week is a myth. Perhaps there are a few that can hack the academia world with 40 hr weeks, but let's not talk about exceptions. One has to remember that succeeding in academia requires one to spend a significant time "selling" your product/research ideas, traveling, and connecting with leading professors, because their tenure-ship requires them to be recognized in their research communities. The sad part is that most (young) professors have to spend a lot on time on this marketing aspect on top of the requirement for them to do significant teaching, writing proposals, etc. Furthermore, what makes matter worse is that tenured professors have less teaching requirements than younger professors. This is ironic, since tenured professors should be at their prime to impart knowledge and excitement about the research. "Winners take all" is the way the academia works. And I left academia after PhD for that reason. Academia environment today GENERALLY won't produce the types of revolutionary breakthroughs like in the old times (for example, Einstein and Higgs won't get tenure today). It's GENERALLY just a contest to see who generates the most hype, and money.
Graduate student here. Maybe this whole debate works around whatever our respective fields are, but not many people that I know in Anthropology or Museum Studies are genuinely pulling 80-hour weeks. I pulled far too many 80 hour weeks myself last year, but I was never able to do it consistently because it was truly awful. I nearly burnt out from my program entirely and began to think that I had a major anxiety problem. Truth was, I needed sleep. I needed a healthy meal. I needed fresh clothes from the laundry. I needed music. I needed exercise. Here's the sad truth that people don't want to admit: Being in academia is really just a job like any other. It is not "special" simply because one has a PhD at the end of their name. We really need to break away from that mentality because it is killing us from the inside out. And while some people gain rewards for apparently "working harder," I guarantee that that will come at a cost somewhere down the line. Eventually, they'd lose their health or something else would happen. I would also say that if a person has kids (and yes, we can be humans and have kids, too) they would never be able to pull more than 50 hour work weeks. That's just the reality. With all of this in mind, I think that working 40-50 hours a week consistently is a good ideal. For me personally, it's worked. I'm no longer a resentful asshole about this process and everything that I want to do seems to get done.
I completely agree with Philip Moriarty. Working no more than 40 hrs/week should be the norm (I would add for everyone not just academics). However, at least in my case, it is not what happened. I am about 20 years into my research/academic career. I have never worked less than 55 hrs/week and there have been extended periods where I have worked nearly 70 hrs/week ( ... and by the way, Meghan, sometimes people do use linguistic hyperbolae ...). For me, the simplistic statement "work smarter, not harder" put forward by Meghan is presumptuous and, most importantly, does a great disservice to Early Career Researchers.