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.