“Most academics devote 60+ hours a week; students should expect to devote similar hours. Consequently, students should expect to be engaged in their academic pursuits on occasions at night and during weekends.”
“If you are working on something stay until it is done, even if that means working until midnight”
“We don’t work 9 to 5, we work 5[am] to 9[pm]”
“If you work hard enough, you can replace depression with exhaustion”
That last one is a nihilist meme from the internet, but the other three are all real things I have heard people tell grad students. The first actually comes from a grad student handbook. I am not the first to write about this. Meghan Duffy has a nice post about this and there is a recent Nature paper revisiting this idea. Honesty, I probably don’t have much new to say, but I’ll add my two cents anyway.
There is this idea floating around that to be successful in academia you need to work a lot - between 60 and 80 hours a week is what I often hear people say. First of all, working 80 hours a week is physically impossible. What about working 60 hours a week? That is physically possible and you could do six 10-hour days a week and still have a day off. Is that what it takes to get a tenure track job and be successful? No.
Let me start by sharing my sample size of 1 – my experience. When I first got to grad school I felt overwhelmed and out of my league. I figured I could make up for it by working more, which meant working evenings and weekends. I just moved, I didn’t have any family in the area and I was still making friends, so I didn’t have much of a social life yet. So it was easy to jump into work head first. After my first quarter, I stopped. I was burning myself out and I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing. I adopted a 9-5 work day and rarely worked on weekends. I was much happier. I realized that I worked better when I worked less and the extra hours I put in, didn’t amount to much. I didn’t digest what I was reading because I was tired. What I wrote was garbage. I wasn’t accomplishing anything. After that, there were still times I worked late and worked on weekends, but they were the exceptions, not the rule.
There will always be times where we have deadlines or are behind on something and need to catch up. I think it is important though to balance those times with other times where you work less. There will always be time when we have busy weeks with big deadlines (i.e., finishing a grant on a deadline, doing time sensitive field/lab work) where we will have to put in long hours. That is ok and doing it sometimes can be a fun bonding experience - nothing brings people together like shared misery. Personally, after I have one of these busy weeks (or couple of weeks) I then give myself some “comp time” and only work 20 hours the next week, or take time off. There are always deadlines and things that require more time – I think it’s important to balance those hard weeks with easy weeks where you give yourself time to recover and recuperate.
Back when I was in the Army we had a saying that applies very well here: “work smarter, not harder”. I would argue that this is the key to being successful in academia. There are two things that help me be productive and get things done: 1) identify when you work best for a particular task (efficiency), and 2) stop if you are stuck and either get help or take a break and reassess (effectiveness). One of the fantastic things about academia is that you don’t have to fill out a time-sheet and you can work as much or a little as you need to be successful. When I started my first post-doc with Susan Harrison, one of the things she told me is to take advantage of the flexibility that academia offers. She said “If you want to take Wednesday off and go hiking, do it, you can do the work on Saturday if you want”. Her point was that we don’t have to be tied to the Monday-Friday 9 to 5 routine. We can work when we are most effective and take breaks when we need it. Following Susan’s philosophy, if I got stuck on something I took a break. Often, I would write for the morning and when I hit a wall, I’d go for a run or do something not work related, and then pick the writing back up after an hour or so. It really helped me. I found that these breaks gave me a chance to clear my head and re-examine what was holding me up and made me more efficient and effective in my writing. This idea is what sabbaticals are supposed to be about (at least that what I’m told) – that you need time to reinvigorate and clear your head. This is important for long term productivity, but I would argue it’s important for the short term as well. A mini-sabbatical (day off, afternoon off) can help you clear your head and you’ll make better progress and more efficient progress. I have also found that the time of day that I work is important. I am most efficient at writing in the mornings, so I schedule meetings and such to be in the afternoon (the best I can), and I am basically useless in the evening. My wife on the other hand writes best in the evening. Take some time and figure out when you are most efficient and effective at things like writing and try and schedule yours days around that.
You don’t have to work more to be successful in academia, but remember that all advice is terrible advice – even advice to work 40 hours a week. You don’t HAVE to work 60 or 80 hours a week, but if you genuinely WANT to, don’t feel bad about it. It is important to remember, and this is a very important point, that just because you want to work long hours that doesn’t mean that everyone wants to. This is especially important if you are (or when you become) a mentor. Your mentees will look to you as an example and if they see that you work 60+ hours a week, they may think that they need to do the same. I really think that it is important that you discuss this with your mentees and make sure they have a realistic and honest view of what it takes to be successful.
I don’t know how people blog regularly – they must work more than 40 hours a week ;-)
In the next post I’ll talk about why you should ignore advice that a particular idea in ecology is a zombie idea. Hopefully it will come out soon.