The Curmudgeon’s Corner: Winter 2017

In Academia, we like to talk a lot.

We talk about our research—constantly giving updates, going to meetings, writing emails, and attending conferences and seminars. Communication is a critical aspect of our jobs, and it’s not just loving to gush about how cool our latest experiment is. We have to communicate to survive. No one will fund a project that has unclear aims. No one will publish a shoddy paper. And, of course, no one will give you a PhD (or a job) if you can’t properly explain why all those experiments you’ve been toiling away at are worth anyone’s time (and money).

So it may seem like talking about our work is easy. And to an extent, it is—except when we’re talking about how much we work. This is a question that makes everyone uncomfortable, and it shouldn’t. It’s time we had an honest conversation about working hours.

Why does this simple question make us so uneasy? Well, it comes down to the fact that academia is an extremely competitive business, one based on productivity and reputation. We genuinely believe that adopting an extreme workaholic attitude will result in more productivity, so we resolve to spend more and more hours reading, writing, and doing experiments. We want to be the most productive. But we inevitably fall short of these impossible goals we’ve set for ourselves and, instead of reevaluating our strategy, we double down and decide that the cure is even more. I didn’t get everything I wanted to done this week, but spending seventy hours at the lab next week will surely fix that! This feeling has a name: grad school guilt.

In light of this, talking about working hours leaves us vulnerable. We glorify those people who put in the seventy-hour weeks as paragons of dedication, and we don’t want to be weak, or even to appear weak in comparison. Keeping up appearances becomes key—remember the bit about reputation in academia? We don’t want to be seen leaving the lab at a reasonable hour. In every conversation we have to casually drop the fact that we were up until 3 AM, or offhandedly remark that we had to come in on Sunday, or just mention how busy we are. Even if we are feeling guilt about not living up to the Platonic ideal of a graduate student or postdoc, we can certainly project that ideal to others.

I’d like to argue a way out of this negative feedback loop. At first glance, measuring productivity may seem like simple math. Sixty hours is more than forty, therefore more gets done in a sixty-hour workweek. If you look at corporate culture today, especially in the U.S., you’d think this was hard truth. However, the data that exists on the subject doesn’t support this. Henry Ford famously ran dozens of in-house tests at the Ford Motor Company in the 1900s and found forty hours a week was ideal, and became one of the first to adopt this standard. The main issue? The rate of work accomplished per unit of time does not stay constant1 . After forty hours, productivity starts to decline, and eventually turns negative. It’s possible to work so long that you are actually doing more harm than good.

Think about it. Do you do your best work when you’re exhausted at 2 AM, or when you’ve had a good night’s sleep? When are you more likely to mess up your code, break a piece of equipment, or commit other catastrophic errors in the lab? How many hours have you spent fixing, rewriting, or re-working a problem you stayed up too late working on? Henry Ford’s research suggests you should’ve just gone to bed and looked at it with fresh eyes. Taking care of ourselves is important!

Now, none of this is to say that we can’t love our jobs. Most of us do; we wouldn’t be here otherwise. Working lots of hours is probably something most of us like to do. And as an experimentalist myself, I’m familiar with the vagaries of lab research. Sometimes you have a deadline. Sometimes Sunday morning is the only time your shared piece of equipment is available. Sometimes you just have to take data while your setup is cooperating. The problem is not the work itself, but the culture of expectations, guilt, and shame that crops up around it. No one should have to literally sacrifice themselves for their job. No one should feel bad for leaving the lab at a reasonable hour. We need to have realistic expectations for ourselves and others, and learn that it’s okay to take it easy sometimes. Your setup will still be there tomorrow.

1Evan Robinson, “Why Crunch Mode Doesn’t Work,” International Game Developers

Jason Ball is a PhD student in the class of 2015. Before coming to OIST he worked as a high school teacher for two years, and has many strong opinions on science, education, academia, and geek culture. “The Curmudgeon’s Corner” is his place to complain about it.