You do not need to work 80 hours a week to succeed in academia

There is a persistent myth (some might even call it a zombie idea) that getting tenure in academia requires working 80 hours a week. There’s even a joke along the lines of “The great thing about academia is the flexibility. You can work whatever 80 hours a week you want!” The idea that you need to work 80 hours a week in order to publish or get grants or tenure is simply wrong. Moreover, I think it’s damaging: I hear routinely from younger folks (often women) who are seriously considering leaving academia primarily because they think that a tenure track position will require working so much that they wouldn’t be able to have any life outside work (including raising a family)*. So, this is my attempt at slaying the zombie idea that succeeding in academia requires working as much as an investment banker**.

This post was inspired by this comment from dinoverm on last Friday’s linkfest post, where I linked to the “7 Year Postdoc” article, even though I had already linked to it earlier, because I found that it kept coming up in conversations with grad students, postdocs, and new faculty. In linking to it on Friday, I said, “I really like the idea of deciding what you are okay with doing (maybe you aren’t willing to move anywhere in the country/world, or you really want to do a particular type of research but aren’t sure how “tenurable” that line of work will be), and then using that to set boundaries on what you do as a faculty member. I think this perspective is really valuable for people who are considering stepping off the tenure track primarily because they’re worried about work-life balance or quality of life. Obviously getting tenure will require working hard, but the lore that it requires 80 hour work weeks and ignoring one’s non-work priorities is simply wrong, and I think this perspective is a good one for thinking about how to balance things.” That led to discussion in the comments on how it is rare for someone to “admit” to not working 80 hours a week. This is something that we’ve discussed in the comments before. (Thanks to Jeremy for figuring out where!) You should go read this entire comment from Brian, because it’s great. (The rest of that comment thread is worth reading, too. There are lots of good thoughts there about parenting and academia, in particular.) But, just to quote part of it here:

I think it is time to start calling BS on such posturing. Nobody works 80 hours a week regularly (as she claimed in one post). It actually is physically impossible* over the long run. I used to be a consultant where you billed every hour. We were a bunch of type As in an environment where we were strongly encouraged to work long hours (indeed it’s how the company made money by paying us a fixed salary and billing hours worked). I think I exceeded 80 hours once in 9 years, and only rarely and only in times of crisis exceeded 60. The official company expectation was 45 (although of course if you wanted a good review you might aim to be a tad above rather than below). We don’t record hours in academia, but I know what 80 looks and I know what 60 and 50 and 40 look like because I measured it so carefully for 450 weeks and I haven’t seen anything truly different here. Most young profs are in the 40-60 hour range is my belief with most in the lower half of that. And yes 50 hours plus rest of life feels crazy and insane. But stop saying it’s 80 and making everybody else feel guilty they’re not measuring up. The game is incented to exaggerate how much you work, so believe those numbers other people throw out at your risk.

<cutting lots of great thoughts that you really should go read>

*Do the math on working 80 hours/week -112 waking hours – 14 hours/week eating/grooming/maintaining car house – 5 hours commuting = 83 hours and that is pretty sparse grooming and maintaining – e.g. no exercise – and nobody lives on 3 hours/week leisure time)

Why does this myth persist? Probably it’s in part because, if you think everyone else is working 80 hours a week, it can seem risky to admit that you aren’t, since that could make you seem like a slacker.

But I think another important reason for the persistence of this myth is that people are bad at recognizing how much they actually work. Unlike Brian, most of us haven’t spent years tracking our exact hours worked, and so don’t have a realistic sense of what an 80 hour work week would really feel like. As a grad student and postdoc, I thought I worked really hard. But then I made myself start logging hours (sort of like I was keeping track of billable hours, though I was simply doing it out of curiosity). I was astonished at how little I actually worked. It was something like 6 hours of actual work a day. I never would have guessed it was that low. I hadn’t realized how much time I was spending on those seemingly little breaks between projects. I used to count a sample, then go read an article on Slate, then go count another sample, then go read another article, etc. At the end of the day, if you’d asked what I’d done, I would have said I’d spent all day counting samples. But, in reality, I had probably only spent roughly half my day actually counting samples. I found this exercise really valuable and eye-opening. I think it probably did more to make me more efficient in how I work than anything else. And working efficiently frees up lots of time for other things (including spending time with my kids). I’ve recommended this to people who were struggling to keep up with tasks they needed to accomplish, and also have recommended keeping track of basic categories (maybe research, teaching, and service) when doing this accounting to see if the relative time devoted to those tasks seems reasonable.

So how much do I work? That has varied over the years, not surprisingly. When I started my first faculty position, there were times when I felt like I was working as hard as I possibly could, and I started to wonder if I was working 80 hours a week. So, I tallied the hours. It was about 60 hours/week. And that was during a really time-intensive experiment, and was a relatively short-term thing. (I’m not sure, but that might be similar to the amount I worked during the peak parts of field season in grad school.) I could not have maintained that schedule over several months without burning out, regardless of whether or not I had kids. Right now, I’d say I typically work 40-50 hours a week. I am in my office from 9-5, and I work as hard as I can during that time. I usually can get some work done after the kids go to bed, but there’s also prepping bottles to send to daycare the next day, doing dishes, etc., so I definitely have less evening work time than I used to. And I usually get a few hours total on the weekend to work, but that’s variable.

Again, I think the key is being efficient. This article has an interesting summary of history and research behind the 40 hour work week. It argues (with studies to back up the argument) that, after an 8 hour work day, people are pretty ineffective:

What these studies showed, over and over, was that industrial workers have eight good, reliable hours a day in them. On average, you get no more widgets out of a 10-hour day than you do out of an eight-hour day. Likewise, the overall output for the work week will be exactly the same at the end of six days as it would be after five days. So paying hourly workers to stick around once they’ve put in their weekly 40 is basically nothing more than a stupid and abusive way to burn up profits. Let ‘em go home, rest up and come back on Monday. It’s better for everybody.

That article points out that there is an exception – occasionally, you can increase productivity (though not by 50%) by going up to a 60 hour work week. But, this only works for a short term. This matches what I’ve found in my own work (see previous paragraph) and also seems to match with the quote from Brian above.

So, please, do not think that you need to work 80 hours a week in academia. If you are working that many hours, you are probably not being efficient. (I’m sure there are exceptional individuals who can work that long and still be efficient, but they are surely not the norm.) So, work hard for 40-50 hours a week (maybe 60 during exceptional times), and then use the rest of the time for whatever you like***. And, please, please, please, stop perpetuating the myth that academics need to work 80 hours a week.

* People who are regular readers of this blog will know that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with non-academic careers. I simply want people to make their decisions based on accurate information, and don’t want someone choosing to step off the tenure track primarily because of the myth that it requires 80 hour work weeks.

** As it turns out, investment bankers are being encouraged to work less, though “less” is still a whole lot by most standards. (Here’s another story on the same topic.)

*** I encourage exercise as one way to use some of that time. (Perhaps that’s not a surprise, given that I have a treadmill desk.) In talking with other academics, it seems that exercise is often one of the first things to go when things get busy. I enjoyed this post by Dr. Isis, which explains why she decided to start prioritizing exercise again. (The comments on that post are good, too.) When I made myself mentally switch from saying “I don’t have time to exercise” to “I am choosing not to prioritize exercise”, I suddenly got much better at working exercise into my schedule.

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90 thoughts on “You do not need to work 80 hours a week to succeed in academia

  1. Thank you for this post! I usually work between 40-55 hrs/week but I try to make those hours as productive as possible. It helps to plan out all my experiments for the month on my calendar and stick to it – that also helps me set realistic goals.

  2. This is so great to read. Starting out as a PhD student I consciously made the decision to work like it was a job – work 9 to 5, and then have a life and pursue other interests outside science. I’m now three years in, and the concensus is that I’m pretty far ahead for my cohort. People who say they work longer hours ask me what my secret is, and how I’m so relaxed in my final year. I guess being careful to prioritize downtime (yep, including exercise) is my best answer – and it’s paying off!

    • I can relate to this. I went back to school after 9 years in the workforce (as the above quote reveals I guess). And I totally treated academia like a job (my hours were 10-6 with a 30 minute lunch and maybe a handful of 5 minute breaks). And I also seemed to get as much if not more done than my friends who seemed to always be staying until 10:00PM. In general I tended to notice that people who had been in the workforce (especially desk jobs -not field techs) tended to treat this like another job with regular hours and tended to be very productive.

      I think this dovetails with the research Meg cited about how we’re just not very productive when we try to work more than 40-45 hours a week.

      Of course now that I have kids my life is a little less predictable – I may miss a morning of work taking a kid to a doctors appointment or whatever, so I have to carve that time out in other ways (or some weeks say what the heck and work just 30 hours since I more than make up for it other weeks). But at least I have the flexibility to do that.

      • Spot on Brian. It is a job, (almost) enough said. And it is very important to be consistent over time. It happens to be to work 12 hrs in one day and to be fried the day after. I think it is valuable to work very long hrs sometimes due to working memory-related improvements in productivity, but in the long term it is a bad choice.

  3. Awesome post, Meg! My experience as well is that efficiency trumps long hours. I tried to calculate my hours at one point and I figured an average of 50 with occasional spikes up to 60 when submitting a grant or towards the end of the semester when everyone’s trying to cram in last minute defenses/committee meetings/paper submissions. The quality of my work definitely declines if I stay up at 60 too long.

  4. Nice post Meg.

    Just remembered that this relates to old posts here and over at EEB and Flow on “academic ambivalence”: http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2013/02/21/on-academic-ambivalence/ The unquestioned premise of both posts was that academia selects for workoholics. But if nobody actually works crazy hours, then that premise just isn’t true (even though it’s widely thought to be true).

    A related myth is that you have to sleep in the lab or the office. Nobody does that. And if they do, it’s because they’re really inefficient.

    So, what other myths are there about academia or academics that need busting?

    • You might sleep in the lab/office if you’re running an experiment and you need to sample every two hours all night or something. In that case, you’re not inefficient, you’re a masochist.

      Another “myth” that I mentioned to Meg was the idea that you have to work harder and harder as you advance through your academic career (at least until you get tenure). So that grad students who work less than post docs who work less than pre-tenure professors. I think that’s bologna.

      • Yes, there sometimes are good reasons why you might have to sleep in the lab, such as the one you cite. And similarly, one might have to stay up all night to sample nocturnal animals or something. But that’s not the kind of thing I was thinking of. Nobody ever sleeps in the office/lab just because they’re generally busy with work that could be done at any time of day or night.

        I agree that it’s a myth that you have to work harder and harder as you advance through your academic career, at least until you get tenure.

  5. Oh, and this gives me the chance to reveal how I find time to blog: use some of those bits of time during the day when I’m not working to write blog posts. I enjoy it and it doesn’t feel like work.

    • Jeremy – I agree 100% – I enjoy writing blog posts so much that it doesn’t feel like work, and I squeeze that into other times that would normally *not* be productive and it makes those times a lot more fun: train rides, down-time between meetings, early morning before the house wakes up, etc.

      • When people ask me how I find time to blog, I usually point out that, since I don’t really ever watch tv (or movies), you can view it as that I blog instead of that. But, I agree — it’s a nice break or reward!

    • I was thinking that it would be interesting to know what a graph of their hours worked v. productivity would look like. I read an article a couple of weeks ago that said that it’s not very efficient, but, since they’re often tracking billable hours, their isn’t an incentive to be efficient. I tried to find that one yesterday when I was writing this post, but couldn’t find it.

      Sadly, some of the reforms on Wall Street have been motivated by the death of a Merrill Lynch intern. Exhaustion was deemed to be a contributing factor to his death (since the exhaustion exacerbated an underlying medical issue). Very sad.

    • I think you are commenting on whether investing (gambling?) other people’s money is really hard work, which is a good point!

      But there are a few people (mostly investment bankers and people trying to make partner in big NY law firms) who do bill 75 hours a week. However, they’re paid enough that they eat takeout from restaurants twice a day and pay people to clean their house, do their laundry, walk their dog, nanny their kids etc. Good luck doing that on a grad student salary (or even a tenured faculty salary)! And not a life style I would want – money is not that important to me (I have several friends from college who went this route and none of them are particularly happy).

      • Ah, I see, I missed that. Thanks for catching that, Brian! :)

        And, Mauro, I’m glad you liked this post (and my others!)

  6. Great post! I did an audit a while back, of my own hours. (and surveyed some literature on the topic). It’s *critical* to find that balance – I very seldom work more than 50 hours per week, and can remain productive and other than a few emails, never work on weekends (except when away for conferences or field work). Weekends are for time with family, and “playing”. Anyway, here is that post:
    http://arthropodecology.com/2012/10/25/the-work-life-balance-how-many-hours-do-professors-work/

    • Oh, I had forgotten about that post! Now that I’m rereading it, I remember that I read it when it came out, but I’d forgotten about it. Thanks for linking to it!

  7. Re: prioritizing exercise or other non-work activities: it’s often hard to change your existing habits, especially if you feel guilty for “not working”. But if you can manage to start exercising (or whatever) on a regular schedule, it will quickly stop feeling like an interruption to work, and start feeling like the default. It’s this way with a lot of things. If you attend your departmental research seminar every week, that doesn’t feel like it’s taking away time when you could be working (though of course it is, in principle). Because attending the seminar is what you ordinarily do at that time.

    • An issue with seminars here is there are SO MANY! Our department has two weekly seminars (one tends to be a speaker from within the department, and the other tends to be a speaker from another university). Then there are seminars in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment (the Conservation Biology seminars are often very interesting), talks given as part of an informal theory group, seminars in public health, defense seminars, etc. I’m still trying to figure out what is the right number of seminars per week (on average) for me.

  8. So how does one log reading the literature necessary to complete a project? What about more distantly related literature? What about this blog, or Andrew Gelman’s blog, or a Slate article on GMO and food production? Are these logged as “work hours”? They all certainly influences how I do my work, both research AND teaching (I am at a primarily undergraduate teaching university). If these are logged as work, I work long hours! But I don’t have a lot of papers to show for it!

    • Good questions! Luca Borger wondered on twitter whether reading this post counts as “work”. :) I was wondering something similar to you this weekend. I listened to a RadioLab podcast while I was working out, and realized that one of the segments of it would work perfectly for my class. I don’t think of that time as “work”, but it ended up benefiting my teaching.

      I definitely count reading primary literature as “work”. I usually don’t count reading blog posts as work, except when I’m reading them looking for a particular reading for a class. But I totally see your point that it can be hard to figure out where the work/not work line is sometimes!

  9. I think this post is very useful, especially: “But stop saying it’s 80 and making everybody else feel guilty they’re not measuring up”. I’ve seen a lot of smart people leave academia because this myth scares them away. I’ve also seen a lot of people get completely burnt out (including myself) trying to live up to the hours they though everyone else was working.

    I love the idea of academics tracking their hours just for curiosity. I have a similar experience to Brian and kjmacleod; I treat my graduate work as a desk job and work regular (but generally productive) hours. Of course, there are times when you have to just work long hours to get the job done, but not all the time. I find that I get at least as much done as other students who suggest that they work many more hours than I do.

    My new philosophy is to set personal goals, work to achieve those, and don’t compare myself to others.

    That being said…I better get back to work :-).

    • ” I’ve seen a lot of smart people leave academia because this myth scares them away.”

      I never saw one. Is it really a popular theme? And I would not define them smart if they do not do a little research beforehand.

      • I’m sure there are always multiple contributing factors, but, when I meet with grad students and postdocs when I’m at another university to give a seminar, it is pretty common for someone to say they are not sure that they want to continue in academia because of the hours required for it. But I don’t know of data on how many people choose non-academic paths primarily because of the perceived time requirement of a tenure track position.

      • I’m a graduate student who has considered leaving because of it. I’ve committed myself to a sane work schedule for me, and I just kinda feel like it will at some point stop working, and then I will have to be ready to transition out. I just attended a weekly seminar for a month at the career center at my university, where my whole reason to be there was that I liked academia but, judging from conversations w/ professors and mentors, worried that it would not match up with other things important in my life.

        At conferences I’ve had frank discussions with young tenure track professors w/ kids and had the 80 hour number quoted. I’ve seen blog posts by young tenure track professors w/ kids that discuss insane hours. I’ve only heard of one person who openly stuck to a normal work schedule.

        If people aren’t working that much, they should talk about it more openly. It’s easy to get the idea that there is a work/life balance problem in academia.

  10. intriguing title to bring me here after a long hiatus.. except I’m still procrastinating from what I really need to do today :) great article. we could all benefit from having you as a mentor!

  11. Great post. Thanks! As a grad student and through to my research-faculty position I’ve had a boyfriend/husband who works out of academia at a ‘regular 9-5 job’. This has meant that throughout my career I have mostly worked 9-5 (including now with 2 kids). I am pre-tenure, but completely honest about my work-hours (okay, I read papers at night, and work one afternoon a weekend). I think people appreciate my honesty and I usually get comments about how efficient I am. We all do each other a huge dis-service by inflating our work hours, plus, it just makes you seem terribly inefficient unless you are really double as productive!

  12. Great post! Now that I’m a parent, my weekly hours bounce around, but I admit that they only very, very rarely go above 45, and are often below 40. (I am post-tenure, but I don’t think I worked significantly more pre-tenure except in the first year or two when I was spinning up new classes and writing a lot of proposals.) I also want to point out that the ability to work those 40 hours more or less when I want makes this job far more compatible with having a family than other jobs I might have pursued. Right now, for example, I leave at 3pm 4 days per week so I can spend the afternoon with my kids, and put in any remaining work hours after they go to sleep. I am quite vocal about the fact that I do this because I want students to know that they, too, can do the same as long as they get their work done.

    • This is awesome. I wish more people would be open about their schedules – I am a 4th year graduate student and I have a 5 month old son. My whole graduate school career I have been openly vocal about loving my job but not wanting it to be my whole life. I often feel so lonely in that. Right now I work about 30-35 hours a week right, before the baby it was about 40 – 45, and I’m fine with that. I am ok with my schedule, but I feel like eventually I will fall behind my colleagues at this level, because when I ask young tenure track professors in my field what they work, they always say 80 hours. Even people a bit ahead of me in the program, I used to say on Monday “so what’d you do this weekend”, and it was always “I worked”. And I’m like, man, I played a ton of SkyRim and went rock climbing, it was fun.
      I think people play a game of productivity, where the goal is to appear to always be working. But I have also prepared significantly for a transition to a career outside of academia after the PhD, for the fear of not cutting it w/o the crazy hours. Thank you for being open about your hours w/ students, it makes a difference.
      This whole article was great, just what I needed!

      • People may have been in the building over the weekend but if it was hours 60-65 I bet there was a lot of vacant staring at the screen and not a lot of words of writing. Creative professions like academia (or computer programming or writing novels or …) have a fairly weak correlation between hours at a desk and meaningful productivity. Its not like working on an assembly line where the whole system is set up to make sure the correlation is high.

  13. Still wondering a little about how myths like “you have to work 80 hours per week to succeed in academia” manage to persist. Yes, some of it is people exaggerating so they aren’t seen as slackers. And some of it (probably a lot of it) is people overestimating how much time they actually spend working (as opposed to “reading blogs while in the lab” or whatever). But the “80 hours” myth isn’t the only widespread myth about academia. For instance, there’s “You have to have a Science or Nature paper to get hired at a research university”, or the various myths about NSF grants that the NSF DEBrief blog went out of its way to debunk a while back. Does every myth persist for its own unique reasons, or is there some more general explanation? I wonder about this because it just seems weird to me that lots of people buy into myths about their own profession–about themselves and their friends and colleagues. But there’s probably a massive literature on this in social psychology that I’m just ignorant of.

    • “you have to work 80 hours per week to succeed in academia” manage to persist.

      - I do not hear it that often, but it might be just me. A possible explanation is the culture of suffering, which is very pervasive and you listen to people outside academia you find generalities pretty easily. If you do not suffer, you do not work, you are not respectable. One day years ago I was having surgery and while I was waiting I listened to nurses, they were complaining of doctors the same way young researchers complain about senior scientists/advisors. Funny.

      - “You have to have a Science or Nature paper to get hired at a research university”.

      You have to –> myth. It definitely helps –> reality. Little changes, big difference.

      • “You have to –> myth. It definitely helps –> reality. Little changes, big difference.”

        Yup. Which suggests that myths arise as exaggerations. “You have to work hard to succeed in academia” becomes “You have to work 80 hours per week” or “You have to work every waking moment”. “It helps to publish in highly-selective journals like Science or Nature” becomes “You have to have a Science or Nature paper or else your application will just be binned.”

        Probably another source of myths is overgeneralization from one’s own anecdotal experiences. For instance, “Me and one of my friends both just had grants rejected” becomes “the funding agency no longer wants to fund the sort of work I do”.

        I wonder if one thing that encourages overgeneralization is that, because of social media, people feel like they have more independent, randomly sampled ‘data points’ than they actually do. Insofar as people just share and retweet anecdotes that resonate with their own personal feelings, I can imagine it might be quite easy to end up living in an echo chamber but thinking that you don’t (“Look at all these people who agree with me or say they’ve had the same experience as me! Clearly that’s the way things really are, all the time, everywhere, for everyone!”) Although on the other hand, the wide sharing and retweeting of this post illustrates that social media can be a force for puncturing myths as well as perpetuating them. But either way, I do think it’s always worth keeping in mind that “the people I follow or interact with on social media” are a small and highly-biased sample of any larger population you might care about. Same is true for one’s offline interactions, of course. I wouldn’t want to overgeneralize ;-) on the extent to which social media contributes to people unwittingly overgeneralizing when it’s not warranted.

  14. Thank you for writing this! I’ve thought of writing something similar. I logged my working hours (to satisfy my own curiosity and for personal accountability) for my last 3 years of grad school, and I absolutely know what it is like to work 80 hours (or more!) in a week, and it is INSANE and completely unsustainable over the long term. I wrote a blog post estimating how many hours I spent on my PhD (http://aspiringecologist.blogspot.com/2013/11/13507-hours.html), though I haven’t done the followup posts I promised!

    • “You have to have a Science or Nature paper or else your application will just be binned.”

      Well, for example for ERC starting grants, it is reality (and they actually write that in the call). Read here: http://simonevincenzi.com/2013/08/06/what-it-takes-to-win-an-erc-starting-research-grant/

      So, in some cases it is not a myth, but a lot of (open access guys) are (figuratively) deaf and maybe blind.

      “I wonder if one thing that encourages overgeneralization is that, because of social media, people feel like they have more independent, randomly sampled ‘data points’ than they actually do.”

      I think it is older than that. Let’s take academia. People in academia generally hang out with other people from academia (grad students living with other grad students, hanging out with other grads, then marry someone in academia or with PhD. Hold on, clearly I am generalizing, but as far as I know, inbreeding is higher in academia than in other working environments). So you go home or you talk with your friends and you say: I am done, this week I worked 120 hrs, research, committees, grad students etc. And the answer is not: Really? It is instead, I worked 120 hrs too, academia is so unforgiving. Reinforcement every day.
      I was reading the Isis post and I had the impression that there was a detachment from reality.

  15. Totally agree. I just submitted my PhD thesis last week and will start a post-doc at the beginning of March. I didn’t work 80+ hours a week for my PhD – but everything still got done on time and well. I also have a reputation for a hard worker and a person that meets deadlines….all without working myself to the bone.However, all through this I felt as if I wasn’t working enough due to people in my institute being at work from 7am and not leaving until 10pm or 11pm at night. I often felt bad that I appeared to work “less” than them (even though I didn’t) – time management & efficiency is a skill that you need to have a life that isn’t work.

  16. On how the myth scares early career scientists away from academia … Well, when you’re told during the ‘off-time’ of a tenure-track interview that members of the interview panel only worked close to 40 h during their post-docs, that it has been significantly more and continues to increase, and that they only really see their kids on weekend. Yeah, it can scare you away, especially when you are interviewing with a sick toddler at home.

  17. I don’t think anyone ever actually meant that literally (80 hr work week). It means that basically you work all the time. It means your job is not just a job but it is a part of who you are. You have to love what you do to be successful. No, not all jobs require this level of devotion and focus. Many people do a job simply to make a paycheck. In science it is a part of your beingness.

    The fact is that I wake up thinking about my science. I think about it almost non-stop. I think about the students and their needs and future. I think about how I can help them achieve their goals. I spend all day thinking about the projects, reading, writing, communicating, setting up collaborations, how to make my projects stronger, what I need to do to be better. I work through lunch. I might have lunch with students, listening to them discuss what is important to them, so I can help them even better and be more aware of what they need to be successful. Or I eat alone and read twitter so I can catch up with my online community and see what papers everyone is passing around. This is all work, mind you. Every second I am thinking about my science I am working.

    Then on the ride home, I may think about what I have in the freezer for dinner and then I think about the meetings I had that day or those I have tomorrow and how it will drive the research forward. I plan for what I need to do and get excited about the next steps. I always bring home papers but honestly I don’t often get to them.

    I take 30 minutes off to prepare dinner but only because I have to. The sandwich (or frozen chicken nuggets, as the case may be) doesn’t make itself. And then I am back to science again. I would guess if I had to add it up, I spend roughly a good 15 hrs a day focused on science. I run an hour a day because it is non-negotiable time for myself. Weekends, even if I am not at the lab, my mind is never far from my passion. It is all encompassing.

    That is what is meant by the 80 hr work week. Yes, you have incubations and you have down time in between steps. Yes you do not spend a full 8 hrs a day on your feet, pipettor in hand, standing at a bench. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t working. You are. Your brain is engaged. Your mind is focused. You are ready to answer any question that comes to you from a student or tech or postdoc, because that’s what you are there for.

    I wouldn’t describe that time as not working. We don’t do 8-5. We are always on. At least I am. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.

    • What you describe is in fact probably working at least 70 hours a week,week after week. It is possible to do but extracts a physical toll and leaves room for literally nothing else in life, especially including children (which is what you seem to describe).

      Not sure who the “we” in your last sentence is. because its certainly not what I, nor a lot of other people who have read this blog and commented, chose to do. If it genuinely makes you happy and it is your choice, go for it.

      But it is a choice, not the “right” way to do things. Nor even, as Meg’s citations show, necessarily the most productive way to do things. There are a lot of people with internationally strong reputations in their fields who commented on this web page who have got there while making a very different choice. That’s the only point of the post.

  18. What?

    Thank you very much for this revealing post and discussion.

    I admit that I am a bit confused. I just was reading through the comments and apparently the consesus is: “Yeah right, Nobody works 80 hours a week. That’s insane. Telling people that it’s 80 hours is just stupid. Don’t do that. Actually, it’s only 50.”

    What’s wrong with you people?

    I agree, working 80 hours would be a clear sign of being inefficient as hell, probably corellated with hang around on comic blogs and newspages 60% of the time. I thought the 80 hours myth is rather like saying: “yeah, but it will cost a billion dollars!” when something is just ridiculously expensive. 80 hours is ridiculously exaggerated.

    But 50 hours is still a lot. Its more than eight hours with one free day per week. Normal jobs demand 35 to 40 hours a week, you know? Most contracts, even in science, contain a number like that. 50 hours is almost two work days extra.

    In my opinion, science is a creative job. It requires time to rest the mind and take a breath. And I believe, half a sunday a week off is not sufficient. In my imagination, the perfect workload would be rather something like 25 hours, let it be 4 days. But 50 hours? Come on!!! Are you even aware that people might consider this as insane?

    You should face the fact that young researchers get depressed about this perspective and just leave academia. Science is selecting for people who are prepared to work more! This blogpost is just another proof.

    Please don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that science is “just a job” and we need our spare time for personal things. I think, identification with the science you do and a hughe amound of idealism is obligatory, particularly in fields that are defined to improve society and save the environment. But we can do a better job if we take time to breathe. In my case: I am a theoretical ecologist. So, I work 98% of the time in front of the computer. It’s hardly healthy to work like that 50 hours a week. It might not reflect the reality of the majority of scientists. But what’s your computer work / other work ratio? I also accept that the 50 hour week might be a concept for some. If you consider something you do in your worktime as no actual work, like writing or reading blogs or general science news, thats fine. If your field trips always feel like vacation, thats fine. As long as you are balanced and happy with what you do.

    But, honestly, are you?

    • I am approving this comment, because I think there are points worth considering in here. But I hope the tone of the discussion can be a bit more constructive, and especially that the discussion with avoid statements along the lines of “What’s wrong with you people?”.

      That said, just a quick reply for now: I certainly found when I was doing entirely computational/theoretical work that I could not work even 40 hours a week, so I understand where that part of your comment is coming from. But now, there are so many other things I need to do (preparing for class, meeting with lab members, etc) that require a different kind of thought and focus. So, I can switch between tasks that I still would consider “work”, but that don’t require the same intensity of focus as writing code or a manuscript does (for me, at least).

      • I apologize if the tone was too harsh.
        But please understand that I wanted to be nothing but constructive. Let me put it in other words: “What is wrong with science?”

        I admittedly was annoyed that your post and the discussion was elaborating on those “80 hours” and not on the actual problem: Overworking and competition in science filter out those young researchers who have a different concept of work in science. To those, the “50 hours (plusminus 5)” raised to a kind of GOLD standard by the discussion here are like a slap in the face. We need to appreciate creativity and diversity to make a science better.

        I think we all agree that the perception of workload is entirely subjective. We don’t count hours in science and I like that very much.
        But we are in serious danger of working too much because there is an environmental pressure demanding it. We are not competitive if we do work to rule. Of course I work more. Okay, there is some reward like high flexibility and freedom about when and on what you work. But this seems luxury when I talk to many of my peers. For now, this flexibility is what holds me in science. But I’m not entirely happy with working that much. I feel that sooner or later, it will make me quit science.

    • Flo you don’t say where you are from. But I do think relevant to the larger conversation (not just your comment) it is worth noting that there are strong cultural variations in expectations around work (both nationally but also generational).

      Although there are variations even within these regions, in most of North America and Northern Europe the standard work week is 40 hours and anybody who wants a high paying job with high intellectual challenge and a chance to have an impact probably works a bit more. Of course in France the standard work week is currently by law 35 hours (although this is heavily debated within France). And other parts of the world expect more or less than 40. I also think the expectations of somebody in their 40s who has risen to a fair level of responsibility is naturally different than the expectations of somebody who is comparing grad school to undergraduate (which is definitely less than 40 hours/week).

      In this context the many people saying they work 40-45 are sayingthey work no harder than any other comparable non-academic job, and people saying they work 50 are saying they work a little harder. That is a very different message than what a lot of us have heard about having to work 60-80 hours/week. But of course if your expectation is to work 35 hours/week that will still seem like a lot. I don’t have any basis for comparison in how many hours people work in academic jobs in other parts of the world where regular jobs are 45-50 or 35 hours.

      Things are relative and it is probably not good to come with an attitude that your way is the right way without taking context into account. But contrariwise if 35 hour a week is truly important to you and you want to get a faculty job in North America it is probably good to have reality about what the norms are (not to say that there is not variability).

      And as somebody who used to work 90% in front of a computer, I agree that 50 hours/week doing that is not sustainable. But most academic jobs after graduate school start to contain increasing amounts of meetings, teaching, supervising students etc.

      • Oh – and worth noting several people on this post who are very successful noted that they work less than 40 hours/week. So even if you do want a faculty job in North America working less than 40 hours/week, it is certainly possible.

        To me one of the main points is that hours is a poor predictor of success/productivity so people should stop wearing it like a badge of honor.

      • Thanks for that context. I am just a devoted sceptic.
        I agree that cultural norms are very important here and there is no way of telling if they are good or bad; and that there are different types of work which can be exhaustive or joy. And I totally second that working hours is not at all an indicator for measuring productivity.

        Yes, true, I am currently working in France and worked in Germany before. I estimate that I work 45 hours per week and I would love to reduce it. Still, I like to work in science. I like it very much. But personally, I would prefer to earn less money and work less hours.
        I am curious if you know somebody working half-time in science and with that manages to “succeed”?
        I feel, that the criteria applied for funding or employment depend on productivity , however you measure it, and create a pressure that hardly allows to go for an alternative strategy (like: be paid less, work less, produce less) even if it might benefit diversity in research. It is good to hear that people with kids can afford to work less and stay successful. But can you become successful while raising kids? And there are other reasons to be “only” part time scientist.

      • @Flo:

        I can’t speak to the European situation. But yes, in North America there are such things as part-time positions in academia, with proportionally reduced salary and duties. These positions vary a lot on all sorts of dimensions. For instance, in my dept., we occasionally hire what are known as “sessional instructors” (they’re called adjuncts at some other places). Sessionals teach a single course for a single term, and are paid per course. The salary and benefits for such positions are infamously low compared to the amount of work required. And there’s little possibility of doing any scientific research–you don’t get office or lab space, you have no right to supervise graduate students, and no right to apply for grants from any external funding agency. Another possibility is a part-time regular faculty position. For instance, a colleague of mine at Calgary spent 3 years on a half-time position, meaning that both the salary and duties (e.g., in terms of teaching load) were halved. Such part-time regular faculty positions can come about for various reasons. But they are fairly unusual, in my experience, and often are negotiated in individual circumstances. And there are other jobs besides faculty positions that allow one to be involved in research in some capacity (e.g., http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2013/06/12/advice-finding-a-career-in-non-academic-research-guest-post/), but again mostly full-time. Rightly or wrongly, for the most part professional research positions, inside or outside academia, are full-time positions. Given that the demand for such positions is much higher than the supply, it’s hard to imagine that changing soon, in favor of a system using much larger numbers of part-time workers.

        As to whether you can become successful in scientific research while raising children, as opposed to remaining at some previously-established level of success while raising children: yes you can. People do it. Meg for instance, who wrote this post, had children well before getting tenure. Whether a given individual can do it, and how they’d feel about the experience, obviously will depend a lot on the detailed circumstances. If you search around a bit you’ll find numerous blogs from researchers and aspiring researchers, in ecology and other fields, talking about their experiences pursuing a research career while raising children. Tenure, She Wrote has some posts on this (http://tenureshewrote.wordpress.com/). Ruminations of an Aspiring Ecologist is another (http://aspiringecologist.blogspot.ca/). There are many other sources.

        Based on what you’ve said, I think you might find this old post of some interest: http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2013/05/22/guest-post-on-having-the-courage-to-build-your-own-non-academic-career-path/

    • Flo – I think your question about part time is a really good one!

      In general, like Jeremy said the options for part time in academia/research aren’t as good as they should be. Business I think does a better job of valuing people who are good who only want to be part time.

      Our overall efficiency would probably be much higher if everybody only worked 30 hours/week.

      But there are examples. I had a colleague at McGill who got tenure and decided that he wanted to be a half-time faculty member and was able to negotiate it. And its a different vein, but I always think of Frank Preston who did ecology in his spare time (admittedly he had a full time job doing engineering).

      I think one problem is the idea of a salaried employee – you are paid x amount for “getting the job done”, not on an hour at the desk basis. This situation is of course ripe for abuse by the employers. But it is also an opportunity for the highly efficient!

      And I agree with your basic point that the level of pressure to work more and longer in academia is unhealthy.

      • “And its a different vein, but I always think of Frank Preston who did ecology in his spare time (admittedly he had a full time job doing engineering).”

        Going off on a tangent now: There is scope for people with the right skills and interests to follow Preston’s example and do a bit of ecology purely as a hobby. In particular, if you have some mathematical and/or statistical skills, have a computer, and (optionally, depending on precisely what you want to do) access to a university library, you could do mathematical theory and/or statistical projects as a hobby. That’s what George Price did, basically (see his bio, The Price of Altruism). It’s what I was contemplating doing in the months before I got my current job, when I had more or less decided to quit science–find another job, and do a bit of modeling in my spare time. An amateur paleontologist just made a big splash with a Plos One paper arguing that there are a lot of errors (including some quite strange and embarrassing ones) in some prominent papers estimating dinosaur growth rates. (Ok, the guy in question is a wealthy businessman and that case is controversial for various reasons, but still, the point is that what he did is something that anyone with a computer, some statistical skills, and copies of just a few published papers could’ve done). I’m sure there are other examples from recent times.

        I emphasize that this is a tangent and doesn’t much bear on issues such as part time vs. full time work, the potential for employer abuse of salaried employees, etc.

  19. Great post!
    I think this culture of “must work all the time to succeed” is really damaging, and unnecessary. I know of people who have given up careers in science because they were called lazy by their PhD supervisor for not being able to do do 12 hour days on a regular basis, or being told off by not having the habit of being at work on weekends. Some people thrive in environments like this. I don’t.
    I certainly do not work very long hours (whatever that means), among other things because it would make it impossible to be the sort of mother I want to be. Believing everyone else is working super long hours has certainly contributed towards bouts of impostor syndrome on my part. Also, it has taken me ages to realise that I am actually counterproductive if I work too long, because I start doing negative work (introducing bugs in code, deleting more text than I write etc.). And it makes me miserable.

    • For any of the commentors who doubt that this culture of long hours exists, your comments remind me of a PhD adviser in my grad program who was know to show up in the office on Saturday’s and leave little notes along the lines of “sorry to have missed you” subtle but message clearly communicated. Yech. I would not have stuck around with such an adviser. (On which note I am grateful that my advisor also valued his family on a regular basis and expected us to do the same). Not to mention the game was totally rigged for this type A advisor – he could drop in for 30 minutes anytime from 10-3 on Saturday where as you had to be there the whole time.

      I figured it out back in my consulting days when I was so directly measuring hours. But yes it is somewhat counterintuitive but very much my experience that I very often get more done in 35-40 hours than I do in 60. I think this is true of most creative fields This is where game theoretic ideas and absolute vs relative fitness come in. Somehow we social humans perceive that being in the office as longer or longer than anybody else is what is most important. And in the business world where accomplishment is more intangible, it often is. But in academia we are lucky to function in a world where there are, at least relatively speaking, objective measures of # of papers, # of students, # of courses where we mostly get judged on output not hours. Which is part of what makes it so silly that people play the hours game.

  20. This post gives me a bit of relief. I am usually one of those grad students staying late. I am averaging around 12 hours per day and I still kinda feel guilty if I am not at work at 8 the next morning. I can definitely feel that there is an important trade-off between productivity and hours spent at work, but there is so much to do. I mean, we all have our ‘normal’ things we are supposed to get done, but if these involves a lot of learning (which they usually do as a grad student), where the learning curve is rather steep (as with python, r, modeling etc.) it takes even more time to perform these ‘normal tasks’, hence at least I feel I have to put in the extra hours. And at least for me it works pretty well, partitioning the day according to the clock, reading/writing early on and doing more mechanistic stuff, as some coding in the evening.

  21. I find it kind of interesting (& depressing?) that there are a lot more women than men who have been willing to say they don’t work long hours in this public forum and mentioning that parenting is an important part of the trade-off.

    So I would just like to add myself to that list. It is very hard for me to say exactly how many hours I work because I tend to be highly variable. I have weeks that are 30 and weeks that are 55. And I actually value that flexibility – I figured out a long time ago that I am most efficient as a sprint and recover worker (also known as a procrastinator) rather than slow and steady and I like having a job where I can actually follow that pattern without worrying about being judged. But it makes it hard for me to get a true estimate of total work on average. But I would guess I am very close to 40 these days. Like Elena mentioned it was higher in early years of tenure track due mostly to teaching new classes but lower before and after that few year period. But yeah – put me down for about 40.

    And probably one of the main reasons my hours are what they are is kids. I actually have so much fun I would probably being doing more hours if I didn’t have kids in the house and I am very happy to have that flexibility and make that trade-off. In fact I argued in the comment Meg originally linked to that I actually think academia is one of the better jobs to have while being a parent (of course being independently wealthy and not working is even easier, but for the rest of us …). The amount of flexibility day by day, week by week, and even year by year to work different amounts is super important. And I don’t think this is a new thing. I’m not going to give names since these things were said in private, but I know plenty of senior, world-famous ecologists (male as well as female) who have said the same thing to me in private (and even more important lived out that idea).

    Everybody is different and should follow their bliss, but one of the handful of core reasons I love being an academic is its compatibility with being a parent.

    • Just to publicly confirm: like Brian, I haven’t tightly tracked my hours, but I don’t work extremely long hours and never have except in short stretches (e.g., last term when I had a lot of new teaching prep to do). I’m not as efficient as I’d like (I too am a procrastinator), so my working hours aren’t as concentrated between 9 and 5 as I’d like. I’m working on that.

      And like Brian, I’ve found the flexibility of academic work hours to a blessing when it comes to parenting, and family life more generally.

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  23. I enjoyed reading all the comments. I totally agree with Brian that flexibility is the greatest part of our job perhaps because I am a procrastinator as well ! Elena, it is great that you can manage this type of schedule for your kids. I was taking my friday mornings off when my daughter was very young and would make up at other time. I am always there for school outings unlike many parents with non-academic jobs.
    One thing that strikes me that nobody comments on is the teaching load. This is very variable among institutions and this can be a major part of working hours. I don’t know what the teaching load of those saying they work 40 hours or less is but I know that it is more than that for faculty with a heavy teaching load and an active research program (but still much less than 80 hours !). Ironically in my department, it almost looks as if those with research chairs and very minimal teaching work less hours than the regular faculty who want to keep an active research program… The reason for this is that it is much more difficult to obtain funding these days and everybody competes for the same fund regardless on how much time you invest in teaching. It is difficult to secure funding if you don’t have a decent publication record. If you have two full week days devoted to preparing and teaching, you are left with three days for the rest i.e. meetings, taking care of grad students, writing papers so you can imagine that one needs to find time in the evenings and sometimes weekends to keep things going…
    Still a great job !!!

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  26. Confession time! Or maybe just more encouragement to the beset-upon masses.

    I’m an assistant professor at a well-respected research university. I think I do reasonably well by most standards. I’m getting out 3 or 4 papers per year in Ecology, Oikos, Ecography and the like, and I take my shots at Nature and Science, though I haven’t been successful there yet. I’ve been funded by NSF a couple of times, and when tenure time rolls around, I don’t expect to have many problems with that goal.

    The punchline is….I actually only work about 30 hours/week during most weeks.

    It’s not about how much time you spend, it’s about how effective you are. Focus when you need to focus, but don’t be afraid to give yourself permission to NOT work. Learn to prioritize and to say ‘no’. Realize that email usually isn’t work, and neither are most meetings. When you work, make sure to accomplish something. That last one probably sounds trivial, but it’s not.

    Jeremy, Brian, Meg: thank you for doing what you can to destroy this 80 hour per week myth. It’s just simply untrue and, as so many have documented, actually damaging to perpetuate.

    ‘fessing up to my slackness, but for a good cause!

    • I agree 100% with your assessment that it is how you work, not how long you work. However, if you’re going to define email and meetings as “not work,” then sure, I only “work” 30 hours a week as well! To clarify, are you saying you do 30 hours a week of “real work” and n hours a week of BS, or that you simply don’t do the email and meetings? Totally agree that we all love to humble brag about how much we work, and I freely confess I let my work intrude into too much of my life, I’m just unsure if you’re slacking on a technicality. :)

      • Two things.

        First, you misquoted my comment about email and meetings. I said that email USUALLY isn’t work, not that it isn’t work. Email is particularly dangerous as a time suck for a few reasons. 1) We frequently intersperse emails that are necessary and part of work, with emails that aren’t necessary or with web-browsing or checking Facebook. 2) Leaving email on throughout the day and checking every time a new message shows up is a horrible time waster because it distracts when you’re in the middle of other things that require concentration. 3) We spend a lot of time crafting messages that can often be less well crafted or could be handled with a 2 minute phone conversation or walk up the hall.

        Second thing, my post wasn’t a humble brag. Like someone else mentioned (I think Meg), out of curiosity, I have used time tracking software to log my activities and found that (like Meg said) I only actually work (including work email!) about 5 or 6 hours out of a usual 7-9 hour workday. That adds up to about 30 hours per week. I’m not implying that I’m not spending a whole day on campus or that I’m some super-human work machine. Far from it! I’m a notorious time waster and procrastinator. I think if I have any particular talent in the time management arena, it’s that I’ve learned to stop beating myself up about going to get a cup of coffee or going to the gym in the middle of the day. In many ways, that honesty is liberating and helps me focus when I need to focus.

        So I’m not claiming to be superhuman or special. What I’m saying is that an honest assessment of how you’re spending your time can greatly improve efficiency. In academics, how much you work is meaningless. It’s what you accomplish that matters.

  27. I think there is a lot of truth to the negative relationship between hours worked and efficiency of work. One possible way around that though is something that I saw many a pre-med do during my college days: take Adderall or some other drug to enhance one’s focus. Yet this is something I’ve not really heard of academics doing. Does this happen, and if not why not? (By the way, I am not advocating that people should do this. I’m just kind of surprised I haven’t seen more of it.)

    • I think in a field that truly requires tip-top thinking and creativity the Adderall/NoDoze route just wouldn’t work aside from being unhealthy.

      One thing to cram in bone and muscle names or to do rotations with same nine diseases covering 80% of your cases as med-school students do. Another whole thing to do cutting edge research.

    • This is an interesting question. I’ve never heard of anyone trying this approach — maybe we realize science is a marathon, not a sprint, and short term fixes like Adderall wouldn’t work?

  28. Thanks! This blog post is SO SO important. If many people in academia keep a log, we may have information on the average number of hours spent working at every milestone of the academic career in various fields. I have been in a lab where the advisor insisted that students and postdocs work on weekends in addition to atleast 8 hours on weekdays. Although working on weekends is sort of an unwritten rule in academia and most people don’t complain about it, the boss made it sound inevitable for success in academia, which meant publishing papers for him. People in the lab did publish more (>5 per person per year) than the average number of papers produced by other labs in the field. The number of publications shall never justify advisor’s insistence on 60-80 hours, should it?

  29. Nice post! At least in the sciences, there’s some data on how many hours per week academic faculty work. From an NSF survey cited in Paula Stephan’s excellent How Economics Shapes Science it’s 52.6 +/- 9.1 hours per week. Sorry if this has already been noted — I haven’t read all the comments.

    • I haven’t read the report, but I bet this is based on self-reported work hours (not, e.g. on careful logs – the word survey sort of implies this)? If so it may be a bit overstated.

    • Thanks for the reference. I think it must be citing this study: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/infbrief/nsf06302/nsf06302.pdf

      This study is indeed based on self-reported answers to the question: ““During a typical week on this [your principal] job, how many hours did you usually work?”

      As such it suffers from respondents inability to estimate their hours and the propensity to over- rather than under-estimate (both discussed above). So personally, my best guess is that 52 hours/week is high. Indeed, it kind of makes me think that 45 is probably a good guess for the true mean (with fairly high variance it would appear). Of course, the only way to really know would be to have a random sample fill out detailed logs.

      But it is an interesting link. And at least represents a form of actual data. Thanks again for the reference! There are some other interesting points. Both industry and government (by self-report) work fewer hours than academics. Biology is also worse than almost all other fields but only by 1-2 hours/week in most cases. And men work a statistically significantly longer week but only by a very small (not practically significant) 0.7 hours/week (this survey is also getting rather old so I wouldn’t want to extrapolate that to the present day). And tenured faculty do work less than pre-tenure faculty but only by 0.6 hours/week. Again all according to self-report.

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  39. Good topic for discussion. I love that other people have monitored their hours worked as well. I thought I was just strange for monitoring my work like this! I’m a postdoc and I started keeping track of my hours worked 2 years ago after becoming involved in three different research projects at once. It is quite an eye opener for your productivity and I agree that out of about 8 hrs you really only work ~6hrs (30-35 hr week), or even fewer if you end up having to go talk to people a lot. Never, ever reached 80 hrs, close to 50 on an unusually busy week, for example, just before submitting a paper.

    Nobody has ever told me I should be working harder but the example I see from senior academics I have worked with is that you need to work much more than 9-5 to be successful. This is worrying for me as an early career researcher and mother. I’d love to meet people in my field who have a good work-life balance and are professors and heads of department (and, more importantly for me, are women) but, unfortunately, I haven’t come across any yet. I will be on the look out for them, though!

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