If you love research, academia may not be for you

Dutch figures show just how little time professors get for their own research. It may be easier to pursue your intellectual interests outside the university system, says THE reporter David Matthews

November 8, 2018
Overworked man working late
Source: iStock

Over the past few years, I’ve had a couple of conversations with friends that left me wondering exactly what universities have become.

These friends are either in the middle of a PhD or contemplating doing one, and inevitably we turned to discuss whether a career in academia would be worthwhile. They wanted, simply put, a life that gave them time to think deeply about their chosen subject.

This is still, on the whole, what we think should be the essence of academia. Universities are supposed to provide space for serious thought. But I came away from our chats wondering whether my friends might have better luck pursing this goal outside the academy (more on this later).

These conversations came to mind last week when I discovered a rare treasure trove of data about how researchers in the Netherlands spend their time.

What emerges is a disheartening picture of professors who have little time for research (despite promises to the contrary from management) and work scarily long hours.

Those lucky enough to have become full professors – supposedly the light at the end of the tunnel for struggling junior scholars – spend just 17 per cent of their time on their own research. Teaching, research supervision and “management and organisational tasks” were all bigger commitments. Associate and assistant professors fare little better carving out research time for themselves.

Time commitment of researchers - what motivates researchers


This is not what many signed up for. Nearly half of university researchers complained that they had ended up doing less research than agreed (women got a particularly raw deal in this respect). But as the survey results also revealed, doing good research is by some distance still the main reason academics get out of bed in the morning.

These figures may come as no surprise to many readers. But it’s worth stepping back and sighing at what it all means: progression in academia is often progression away from why you got into it in the first place.

Overwork is also brutally common. On average, full professors work 45 per cent longer than their contracted hours – assuming a 38-hour contract, as the report does, that means a 55-hour working week, or an 11-hour working day. Those at the assistant and associate professor level put in an extra 29 per cent on top of their contracted hours.

Let’s run the numbers on these. If the average full professor is working a 55-hour week, and spends 17 per cent of their time on research, they get about 9 hours 20 minutes a week to pursue their own research interests.

Now, as I asked my friends, if you worked part-time to pay the bills, and fitted your research around that, how much time would that give you?

Working a 55-hour week like a full professor, and doing a four-day, 30-hour a week job to keep the wolf from the door, you’d be left with about 25 hours a week of research time. That’s starkly more.

There are obvious caveats. If your research requires, say, a million-pound microscope, you’ll unavoidably need an institutional position. If you like teaching, then the trade-off isn’t nearly as worth it. Keeping up your research commitment is bound to be harder when not physically surrounded by students and colleagues – scholarship is collective, after all. Library and journal access could be tricky. And credentialing is also a problem – will you be taken seriously by conferences, journals, potential collaborators or the media as an “independent scholar” without a university’s seal of approval?

But for humanities and social science scholars at least, the question is whether these hurdles are big enough to justify entering the university system and potentially ending up with no time left at the end of the day for their real passion. 

This is why, as I’ve said to my friends, if your goal is pure research, the time to think and write about your own interests – as opposed to a structured career, ready recognition, teaching or working with business – then perhaps academia is not for you.

David Matthews is a Times Higher Education reporter based in Berlin. 

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Reader's comments (6)

One caveat in this depiction: "research supervision" is definitely research. This is mainly working with junior researchers (PhDs but also postdocs) who are co-authoring with you and are usually working on your (externally financed) projects. Not that this takes away from the main message of the article!
I would also argue that teaching is part of research or at least it contributes to your skill building because you have to structure content and go back to the basics many times. I would however guess that administrational work and applying for grants etc. is underrepresented here. I think that at the moment academia is still the best option to work scientifically, however, the question is if you are willing to work 55 hours a week (on average!), constantly move your workplace, accept a far lower wage and normally far less workplace benefits, leave aside the horrible canteen food... For the sake of what? If you do work part-time you could still do a paper here or there and follow your interests... But of course this is not comparable to a professorship who is involved in about 10-15 publications a year.
Meh. One wonders what we even mean by "doing research" anymore, especially when there is so much pressure to publish, whether the "research" is good, or ready, or valuable or not. Don't get me wrong. I love the "life of the mind" thing. I love the idea of doing research. I love the idea of doing MY idea of research. But I am often skeptical about what ultimate good is coming of the exponentially growing and market-driven volume of research we've already got.
One consideration is the quality and originality of the research: being to busy with mundane tasks reduces both. Academia existed through the Middle Ages, but nearly all of the civilization-changing research accomplished then was not through the (then) most prestigious academic positions with teaching loads. This is true even much more recently: top biologists in the Nineteenth Century didn't have standard teaching professorships, for example.
I agree with many, if not all comments. Universities are often toxic environments with complex organisational dynamics and designated innovators. Typically, there are impossible demands made of academics in terms of teaching, administration and research. In the social sciences, what passes for research is often audit or endorsement of current social policy and does not contribute to a legitimate knowledge base. 19th century practice prevails with modernity bolted on. The sense of being an elite group holds everyone back. I would agree, not in all instances, that to pursue a passion for research,you may not be best placed in a university.
This is precisely why I have remained a free agent. In Neuroscience, the brilliant scientist who ran my lab spent most of her time writing grants, doing site visits, etc. In Chinese medicine I have published my own books and stayed away from teaching at a specific school. Will anyone pay attention if you don't have the accreditation of a university? My case might be rare but my experience is that if you do outstanding work, they will.

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