Shifting expectations about the long-hours culture

Working to the exclusion of all else is unhealthy, but a one-size-fits-all limit is hard to set when careers and reputations are on the line

February 20, 2020
View from clock at Musee d'Orsay
Source: Getty

There cannot be many professions where the popular caricature is so different from reality.

Academia is still often characterised in the public mind as a sleepy backwater, draped in corduroy.

Lazy, yes, but it’s a perception born of ignorance rather than ill will.


Far too many people simply do not know what universities do, beyond educating undergraduates, and the lack of understanding about research is particularly striking.

I was talking recently to a pollster who had tracked public perceptions of universities during the recent UK general election. As an issue, higher education and research barely registered, and when it did cause a faint wobble on the seismograph, it was solely in the context of undergraduate tuition fees.

The only thing that Joe Public knows about universities, apparently, is that they are expensive.

Universities must take some of the blame for this lack of understanding, though coming up with effective ways to fix it is harder than pointing out the problem.

The cliché of dusty corridors will be anathema to anyone who has actually been in a university in the past couple of decades – but perhaps that is the lesson: that far too many people have not.

The result is a perception gap that fuels a value gap – the idea that universities are expensive, with little appreciation of the return on investment to almost every aspect of our lives.

It also means that there is little understanding of the reality of scholars’ working lives.

Yes, most will teach undergraduates. Most will also be engaged in research, administration of various sorts, and fit in assorted other roles, responsibilities and time-sapping bureaucracy.

But what does it all add up to, and what toll does this take on those who are sucked in by the worst excesses of the publish-or-perish culture, or the battle to escape precarity?

In our cover story this week, we ask a range of contributors to tell us about their own working habits, and in particular how they have or have not embraced the culture of long hours.

The piece was sparked by a furore on Twitter (is there anything else on there these days?) when the classicist Mary Beard said that she estimated her own working week to be 100 hours or more.

To those outside academia, this may sound impossible.

For many in it, it surely is. So is working a more reasonable shift feasible for those who wish to succeed in academia?

Chris Chambers, professor of cognitive neuroscience at Cardiff University, freely admits to having worked every hour in the day earlier in his career – but he now believes that the answer must be “yes”.

“Now I strictly work 40-45 hours a week, only occasionally in the evenings and almost never at weekends,” he says. “Do I feel the urge to work more hours? Sure. The work is important, and I enjoy most of it. But one of the ‘burdens of command’, as a senior academic, is to look up every so often at the broader landscape and understand the example you are setting.”

He is the first to acknowledge that it is impossible to police how much others work (and others raise the question of what one does and does not categorise as work in academia – which may be part of the problem), but his overarching point is that alternatives need to be visible and discussed.

“Yes, I got to this position by overworking, but the cycle must be broken,” Chambers writes. “Working too much is bad for physical and mental health, not to mention research quality.”

An uncaring, unknowing wider world isn’t going to change such unhealthy habits for academia – and one suspects that the system, and the incentives and structures on which it runs, aren’t about to be dramatically redrawn either. So there is no easy solution for the frazzled postdoc fearful for their professional future, or the would-be professor who is missing out on their child growing up.

But working oneself into the ground is not any sort of strategy, and everyone’s capacity and circumstances are different – only you know your limits, and how to weigh them against ambition.


Print headline: Shifting expectations

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