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.