On work hours in academia

Since I’m looking for jobs, I need a little elevator speech for why I chose to leave academia. “The attitude in academia, is that you’re doing extremely important work, and it’s the passion of your life, and therefore you should be willing to accept terrible work conditions. I would rather have a less glamorous job about actually helping people in my immediate surroundings, instead of slaving towards a distant ideal.” How’s that sound? Eh, maybe.

Poor working conditions are hard to quantify, but one thing we can quantify are the work hours. How many hours do academics work? If the titles of news articles are to be believed, you do not need to work 80 hours a week. The title is hilarious because it suggests some people really do work 80 hours, but it’s just unnecessary. But yes, people tend to overestimate their work hours, and studies suggest that it’s really 50-60 hours a week on average for faculty. But how’s that for an absurd standard? Instead of arguing that we should be working only 40 hours like a normal job, people instead have to argue that the 80-hour week is a myth–or at the very least, unnecessary. This also tells me that even when people work 50-60 hours, they feel like they’re working 80, that everyone around them is working 80, and/or that their colleagues and students should be working 80.

Even when academics argue for a 40 hour work week, the main argument is that you can be just as productive in shorter hours. I appreciate that this is the argument people need to make. But now that I’m on the outside, I can finally say, fuck y’all. Forget productivity. How about being humane to your workers? I don’t know that much about the history of labor rights, but my understanding is that the 40-hour work week was a greater step forward for humanity than any of that stuff I did with superconductors.

One counter-argument to the 40-hour work week is that research really needs that flexible hours. I understand this. In my research, I occasionally had to stay up for 24 hours straight, or work 15 hours a day several days in a row, because of experimental constraints. That’s not a problem. But if people are consistently working 50-60 hours a week, that’s plainly an issue of raw number of hours, not about moving hours from one week to another.

Now, some readers may be considering grad school, and I don’t necessarily want to scare you. You can certainly work 40 hours, be productive, and if you have a good advisor they won’t get on your case about it. Most of the studies are based on faculty members, and the studies suggest that junior academics work fewer hours. Even if you’re interested in pursuing a professorship, some professors work reasonable hours too. Nonetheless, no matter how many hours you work, you’re still affected by the surrounding culture. There’s the attitude that the academics who work reasonable hours are “slackers” who are “getting away with it”. There’s the feeling that you’re never working hard enough.

I’ve heard a few stories of professors taking a grad students aside, and saying, “Back in my day, we worked X hours a week, and we liked it.” My reaction is, I don’t believe you. People overestimate their working hours, or they exaggerate them as a bragging point. Also, even if true, it might not be representative of grad students back then, not all of whom became professors, and not all of whom became assholes. Also, even if it were representative of grad students back then, then you and your entire generation were duped. It’s unacceptable now, and it was back then too. Of course, I wouldn’t advise saying that to a professor with power over you.

When academics argue for reasonable work hours, another problem is some academics who say “but I need to work 70 hours”.  The usual response to this is a live and let live attitude, saying if you want to work that long, knock yourself out.  But I disagree.  There’s a reason why, in the US, there are laws restricting work past 40 hours.  Unfortunately academic jobs are exempt from those laws, but the rationale still applies.  Working hours are a massive prisoner’s dilemma. People work longer hours are defectors; they benefit their own career, while harming everyone else–especially their students–by making longer working hours more of a requirement.  This is a problem that needs to be addressed on a policy level rather than the individual level.  But if you as an individual work far harder than you should, “live and let live” does not adequately describe my attitude towards you.

This is part of my series on why grad school sucks. Disclaimer: None of this series should be taken as a reflection of my personal experience with grad school, even when I use myself in rhetorical examples. Some of it is based on personal experience but some of it is based on other people’s experiences, news articles, and speculation.


  1. thoughtsofcrys says

    I’m a scientist. I’ve talked about this, I’ve even posted about this, and I’m still conflicted about it. Everything you say is true, and I appreciate that you at least point out the problem of experimental constraints, because that is the major problem that I have where I work.
    In my institute, they prefer to just close their eyes and pretend that we all work a 40 hour week, and that anyone who comes in on the weekends is someone who is breaking the rules, is technically not covered by insurance if they get injured (unless your boss takes the bullet and claims that he specifically asked you to come in that day), and that the Administration is just magnanimously turning a blind eye to those rascally rule breakers because they “understand” that “sometimes” it is necessary to your experiments. The problem is, that also means that they try to wedge us into the unfeasible 9-5 Mon-Fri work week.
    For example, if I HAVE to come in on a Sunday because one of my experiments forces me to, I could in theory reorganize my more flexible experiments so that I can do them all on Sunday, work my 8 hours, and not come in on Monday. Problem is I can’t do that, I have to use one of my holiday days if I want Monday off. My coming in on Sunday was breaking the rules, that’s my business, and I have to show up to work on Monday like everybody else. So, what happens? I end up working both days.
    This is my experience with others trying to force us into 40 hour weeks, and it’s not working because it rarely comes from a place of true understanding of the life of a scientist. I agree that something needs to change, but I disagree that it can be addressed through policy. I think it is really going to need a movement within science.
    The fact is, science is harshly competitive, and most of the money that scientists compete for is on an international scale. If the grant offices see your lab producing less than another in a different country with different laws, they’re not factoring in your 40 hour work week and treating your people with respect. When a postdoc is looking to become a group leader, their resume is competing against resumes of postdocs across the world, and the ones who ignored the rules and killed themselves in the lab often have the edge. Which leads to asshole group leaders who boast of their long work hours and expect their underlings to slave in the same way. And the cycle continues.
    I think that, unless there is a scientific grant money form of penalty for those who overdo it, or even a respite from the “publish frequently in high impact factor journals and maybe you wont perish” model of scientific career making, this problem will never be solved by policy drafted by people who just. don’t. get it.

  2. says

    I agree, the flexible working hours make policy solutions hard. I am not a policy person, I don’t know the solution. I do wonder what academics who study economic policies think about it.

    At my former lab, they started asking us to report hours a few years ago. I wonder if this was intended to deal with the working hours issue, but I found it upsetting because they were asking us to keep track of hours, without actually paying us by hour. As implemented, it was more farcical than I had imagined, as the maximum number of hours I could report was about 80 a month. I think the rest of our time was supposedly spent on our education. Some students reported more hours, I think because payroll needed to pay their out-of-state tuition. The whole thing was absurd, and at least one of my friends thought we were victims of wage theft. So how’s that for an ineffective policy solution?

  3. thoughtsofcrys says

    Self reporting is always a crappy way of doing things, and saying that you can only report so many hours just makes it more transparent that they don’t want to really know what is going on.
    In our institute, we need a transponder to get into the lab. If they really wanted to conduct a study on working hours, all they would have to do is keep the information on the ins and outs of the people’s transponders. That would give them some realistic data on what is going on, and the scientists themselves wouldn’t even know it’s happening, so they wouldn’t adjust their hours to fudge their results in either direction. Once the data is in hand, then comes the part where we have an honest discussion about what to do about it, and the discussion is definitely not “we’ll lock you out of the lab if you go over your 40 hours”, because no one would stand for it and they would lose their most ambitious scientists. Maybe this is the scientist in me talking, but I don’t see any meaningful solutions being proposed without hard data in hand.

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