I’m not expecting unreasonable time commitments from other academics

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Is it possible that you’re spending too much time on research? If you wish, that’s a question that you can ask yourself. It’s not really my business*.

I think when you work outside a 9-5ish workday should be a personal decision**. That means nobody should prescribe a regular habit of working overtime. That also means it’s nobody’s place to tell you that working overtime is wrong or bad. It’s a free country, after all (at least, for some of us, for the time being).

Of course, the nature of our science might call on us to work odd hours on occasion. (For example, I go to the field for a few weeks at a time, and I recently worked over the weekend during crunch time for a big grant. And, I’m writing this blog post late on a Sunday night. So yeah, I get that evening/weekend work happens on occasion. When my kid is doing homework in the evening, there’s a good chance I am, too.)

This weekend, a conversation on science twitter expanded from a remark about whether graduate students can only succeed if they work evenings and weekends all the time. I wasn’t tuned into all of the conversation – there was a lot of it — but there was no shortage of contentiousness and a lot of folks were talking past one another. I thought it was self-evidently a silly notion of mine, because who works “all the time” on evenings and weekends after all?

So this post is for those not on twitter, and to provide some contextualization for those who are. (I should point out that Mike Kaspari wrote a post first, and his thoughts are particularly great and useful, as you might expect if you’re familiar with his work. So do please check this out. Also, a post from The new PI hits similar and useful notes. They both discuss the need for finding the right lab for you and your needs, which is a constructive take-home message. I’d guess more are forthcoming. My initial and continuing thoughts have been shaped in part by this post by Meg Duffy from two years ago.)

I wasn’t too surprised to find that some people really do want to spend all their waking hours on their academic work. More power to you. I was more surprised, though, to find some of these folks were saying that others should also passionately dedicate most of their free time towards science, if they were intending to pursue an academic career. And I was like, whoah. Hold on there.

Don’t get me wrong. In the first year of this site, I was emphatic that it’s perfectly fine for us to spend a lot of time on research, and that nobody should be prescriptive about assigning time away from academic work. I haven’t changed my mind since then. I love my research, and sometimes I work more than 40 hours per week. But this doesn’t mean that I should have similar expectations of others!

I think there’s a big reason this conversation on twitter became a relative mess — there was one word that served as a Rorschach blot: “success.” What does it mean to succeed? To make discoveries? To publish many papers? To publish high quality work? To get a permanent position? To keep up with the rate of productivity of one’s peers? To earn the esteem of your colleagues? To be able to pay your bills in comfort and have personal satisfaction?

So yeah, this conversation will go downhill really quickly if we can’t agree on what it means to succeed in science. This gets at why we work hard at doing science.

When we are working long hours, I imagine we all experience two pressures. First, there is the Muse, in which the excitement of the work propels you to keep working on and on because you want to get to the answer of the question that is intellectually stimulating to you. Second, there is the Demon in pursuit, making sure that you get those papers and grants, land the postdoc, or the job, or tenure, or that position along a blue coast near family, or that promotion, or the endowed professorship, or that slot in the National Academy.

As for me, I’ve received my PhD almost 18 years ago, and I have discovered some passions that have nothing to do with peer-reviewed publications. I’ve made good friends with the Muse and the Demon. We lunch on a regular basis, just the three of us, and chat like the old friends we are. When I’m alone with Demon, I can’t be chased anywhere I haven’t already been. The Muse and I sometimes sit down and read a novel together before she nudges me towards the laptop.

I am absolutely thrilled about the science that I’m doing. But it’s not going to keep me from my family, or from pleasure reading, or from backpacking once in a while, or from cooking a real meal at dinnertime. Or a vacation. Though I’m an ant biologist, I once took a vacation to Iceland for three weeks, where there are no ants at all. I hung out with my family, went to museums, saw amazing sights, watched some whales, and learned about the land and the people without really focusing on my research. According to E.O. Wilson, that means I’m not a “real scientist.” Let’s hope he doesn’t read my blog, because if he does, then maybe he’ll think less of my papers? Which is a shame because he wrote my favorite paper ever.

I did learn a bit from twitter about how some folks are prescriptive about how much other people should be working. Some people — and some programs — are explicit about expecting students and faculty to work very long hours. In other places, the expectations are tacit but just as real.

I find it really weird that any academic would find himself (it’s always been guys, in my limited experience) to prescribe the amount of time that another academic should be working. If you’re supervising someone, then I imagine you’re not paying them more than 40 hours per week. And if you’re mentoring someone, aren’t you really focused on the product and the efficiency of the process? How about you set targets and make sure those targets are met, instead of just saying, “Be sure to work your ass off.”

For example, as a PI, I don’t tell my students how many hours to work. I set expectations, and when we meet about progress, I see how their work meets the expectations that I set. If get done what we agreed should be done, great! I’m not going to police them to make sure they worked a long period of time.

I’ve got a lot of thoughts about the expected time demands of academic research, that relate to the p-word, and I’m just going to collect them here, and you can fashion together an argument out of them (or a counterargument, if that’s how you roll).

  • It seems like almost everybody complains about the importance of using publication metrics to measure academic success.
  • The way departments and universities structure the academic reward system, quality is secondary to quantity, and this can be changed by Deans and members of search committees.
  • The amount of science that you do isn’t a measure of your value as a scientist to the academic community, it’s the quality and significance of the work you do.
  • Working all the time probably won’t increase the importance or impact of the work that you do.
  • Most graduate students are not going to end up in tenure-track positions and faculty that use their own practices as a required model for their students may be doing themselves and the community a disservice.
  • Scientists are engaged in an evolutionary arms race when it comes to the volume of academic production, in a manner that doesn’t really help anybody except maybe some high-level administrators fueled by the overhead generated by grants.
  • Almost no scientists are trained in business management and may not know how to work with their labs to get effective work accomplished in normal working hours.
  • The people who put rovers on Mars work 40 hours per week. You can be a talented and important STEM professional and work the same number of hours as people with normal desk jobs — like scientists tend to do in other nations.
  • I don’t know about you, but I’ve visited and worked in labs in Europe, Australia, and Japan. These folk take real weekends on a regular basis and don’t often take their work home, but they are as productive as USian scientists, if not more productive.
  • It’s not really clear that working more than 40-50 hours per week increases your productivity. There may be diminishing, or even negative, returns.
  • Some very successful people in academia work 40-50 hours per week.
  • Parents tend to spend personal time doing parental things.
  • Disabled people may require more time to get certain tasks done.
  • A lot of women are married to crappy husbands who fail to do their fair share of the parenting.
  • Academia has a chronic problem with gender equity.
  • If we are going to be building an equitable community, then it’s not likely this community will involve everybody working all of the time, because then there are going to be a lot of stinky unchanged diapers polluting our nation’s college towns.
  • If a person is getting done what they need to get done to advance their career while still having a reasonable amount of personal time, what’s wrong with that? Nothing at all.
  • If a person is getting done what they want to get done by using all of their personal time for science, is that wrong? Of course not. (I admit I’d be uncomfortable if this person got job over a single parent just because they had one or two more pubs on their CV, but that’s on us on search committees to evaluate the quality of a person’s science, not the sheer volume of it.)
  • If working more does result in getting more stuff done, then rewarding a high quantity of academic production will continue to favor people who have the luxury of dedicating every waking hour to science.
  • In my experience, most academics think it is very important to prioritize the development of a diverse and equitable academic community, that provides access to people of all backgrounds.
  • If graduate programs expect students to devote more than 60 hours per week to research, then this places a barrier to recruiting students from first-generation university backgrounds from families that do not have direct experience with universities and academic cultures.
  • On average, women end up doing more housework than their male partners – even when the dude is unemployed.
  • Not everybody has the same amount of available free time outside regular working hours — and these differences are distributed unevenly across gender, ethnic and socioeconomic groups.
  • A lot of personal decisions that don’t have negative intent, that are done for positive reasons, end up perpetuating systemic inequities.
  • Resolving systemic inequities is a tough nut to crack.
  • If we value scientists on the merits of their work, rather than the volume of their work, we will end up with not only with a more equitable community, but also perhaps one that does more transformative science.

Here’s my last thought:

Passion for science is wonderful. Passion for science is important. Passion for science is what drives people to do great science. That doesn’t mean that scientists need to abandon other priorities and passions. It’s okay for science to be a regular job. If you’re uncomfortable with that, is that really a problem for someone else, or just a problem for you?

 

 


*Well, I would bring it up perhaps if something happened that made me concerned about your health and you’re my close friend or mentee.

** I share my experiences and opinions here, but I don’t give advice here. I my ideas inform your thinking, great! If not, fine! I might make some generalized claims and say how we act may have repercussions around us, but that’s not prescriptive. The last thing I want to do is be in the advice business. If you interpret what I’ve said on this site as as advice, then it’s because I’ve screwed up as a writer, because that’s rarely my intent.

5 thoughts on “I’m not expecting unreasonable time commitments from other academics

  1. Dear Terry!
    Thank You very much for this post, as issue of “I expect others to work as much as I do, or they are fake scientists” is really need to be disentangled. When I started grad school I contracted the notion of “80h per week or get out” from other phds. My supervisors, however never encouraged me to not have a life, on the contrary, they expected me to relax for the sake of my sanity and productivity. Eventually I cut workload to 40-45h/week, submitted my thesis in 36 months after commencement of the position, authored and co-authored 12 papers (6 first author) and get a postdoc ahead of the end of my current contract. I do not posses any incredible mental or cognitive skills, just started using my time more efficient. Also the are still times when I am practically living in the lab, or rushing to deadline with 18h/day workload, but those are outliers not a routine. The only downside of it, 2 years of overwork has strained my health to a point i need a professional help.Thus I think that nobody has any right to expect anyone else to work more than required to meet project goals/ than they paid for. Thanks again for your awesome post!

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