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.

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

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  4. E.O. Wilson might have created the 80 hr week standard. I think I remember reading this 80 hr week recommendation in his book The Naturalist.

    • Given how widespread this myth is in academia, and in many non-academic fields, I suspect Wilson is only one among many who’ve perpetuated it (if he did; I don’t recall that bit of his biography, but I read it yonks ago). I’d be surprised if it originated with him.

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  9. I agree with this article, and I would like to just add that by working crazy hours (because 80 is crazy) scientists often just aim to “produce” more papers to get a tenuer position, which is not making necessarily much progress for science itself. To use an analogy from business, we are often just doing the marketing of old products instead of thinking about developing new products. If everbody calmed (and slowed) down in terms of mass publishing and actually published when had something important to say, life would be nicer for all scientists. I find it a shame that talented woman (and man too) are put off persuing a career in science because of the ongoing pressure and competition. Further, I am not sure that this competitve environment is really selecting the best scientists.

  10. At the risk of following E. O. Wilson’s unfortunate example of setting up Darwin as a model for others to emulate, I thought I’d note that according to his son Francis, Darwin worked 3 hours per day. 8-9:30 am, and 10:30 am to noon. He’d then often say “*I’ve* done a good day’s work.”

    Now, “work” here means writing or other concentrated mental activity, in his study. It doesn’t count walking and thinking on the famous Sandwalk, reading and writing letters (which is how he got a lot of his information), strolling over to the greenhouse to look in on any plant experiments he had running (a pleasurable activity he considered a break from “real” work), etc. So don’t make too much of the “3 hours/day” number. But it’s a fun bit of trivia anyway.

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  15. I have worked 60+ hours a week every week for many academic years, some in tenure track positions and others not. The reality is that we are ALL being forced to do more, particularly when those people who aren’t doing even 40 shirk responsibilities and leave much of the work to the rest of us. I advise more students, sit in more committees, do more non-teaching work than ever before and certainly more than some tenured faculty in my unit. I used to do the 80-hour thing, But after some health-damaging results, I drew the line. I continue to whittle down my work hours, even as I know there will be long-term and probably short-term negative effects for my career.

  16. In the medical field there are regulations that *restrict* resident work hours to 80 hours/week (averaged over 4 weeks). This doesn’t include work done at home (finishing notes, reading about patients, etc). This lasts anywhere from 3-10+ years after graduating from medical school, depending on the specialty, and then there are no restrictions on work hours once residency and subspecialty fellowship are complete. Perhaps in academia it isn’t common, but I assure you this is routine for all US-trained physicians. It can be done, and it is done, every day, in every academic medical center in the country.

    • You sound like you glorify this. But there are plenty of studies showing more medical mistakes happen in the 79th hour than the 30th hour. Its not a good thing as far as I’m concerned.

  17. Indeed I tracked my hours the past 3 months as some sort of sick exercise, and indeed the lowest was 70 hours and the highest was 94. Whether it’s necessary you can certainly debate, but arguing it’s impossible (all while assuming everyone gets 8 hrs sleep every night?!) is silly. No day off, no night off, most certainly not that much sleep, and no actually, barely any leisure time most days nor any other time for anything other than work, shower, sleep. Is it sustainable long term, no of course not. Is it impossible, no of course not.

    • “Whether it’s necessary you can certainly debate…is it sustainable long term, no of course not. Is it impossible, no of course not.”

      Um, you do realize you’re agreeing with the post, right? In the passage quoted in the post, Brian didn’t say it was impossible, he said it was very rare, extremely difficult, almost certainly not productive, and not sustainable long term. Which is exactly what you just said. And if you read the comment thread, you’ll find further comments from Brian such as this one, responding to a commenter who described working very long hours for weeks at a time:

      “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”

  18. I never said this story anywhere. But I saw this post and felt I need to say.

    I was(am?) the example of person working hard (about 70) and producing a lot. My Phd advisor (co author) was telling me that to get a job in academia you only need publications. So produce as much as you can. I listened. So i finished phd having a number of top journal and and conference papers.

    CV was great. Even editors were telling me what is the secret that you have produced like this in a short time. I was confident. I started looking for tenure track positions. Only 2 interviews in 2 years! I applied for jobs where another phd candidate with well known advisor was getting 3-5 offers, and he had really only one conference paper. My advisor and others were telling me we are impressed (how come you don’t even get interview). The sum of everyone contribution was impressive.

    Now, I agree & believe things in academia are not about many hours of work and output.

    End of story: Eventually a miracle happened and i got the offer i wanted. Though this offer came from a school that is my favourite but it has nothing with the community I was part of. So in short, I got no effective support from my community despite working hard and producing a lot. In my first tenure track job, I dont have that level of passion. I am trying to think more, being careful about anything, writing for journals than going to conferences, and also I can’t not work had – it is self motivation and love to writing.

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  21. I realized in returning to my PhD after having a baby how subconsciously true this is. I was truely worried that having a family wouldn’t leave me enough time (in my head at least 60 hours a week), to be successful. As is turns out I am much more efficient than I was pre-child, because I know that I can’t stay in the lab until 8 or 9 pm. Surprisingly, I typically get as much accomplished during an 8 hour work day before I pick our son up from daycare as I used to in a 10-11 hour day. This is largely due to the fact that I’ve cut out the non-productive bits.

    I’ve also recently just come to the same conclusion about exercise. I was resentful of my partner who still had ‘time’ to exercise when I felt like I no longer did. I have now decided to make exercise a priority, and I feel so much better (and less resentful), for it. Verdict is still out on the ‘successful’ part of the story. Ask me in 10 years!

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