There’s a myth in academia that all successful academics work insanely hard for an ungodly number of hours. This is likely true at the upper echelons of the profession but certainly is not true everywhere for everyone.
This post was inspired by a posting on Dynamic Ecology, which was inspired by a couple of comments readers of their blog had left. The gist of the comments was skepticism that anyone was working these hours. One of the commenters had worked as a consultant where he was billing hourly and worked long hours. Only once had he done an 80+ hour workweek – and in his view, it would be physically impossible for almost anyone to do them regularly.
I have known faulty members make the joke at the start of their article – “The great thing about academia is the flexibility. You can work whatever 80 hours a week you want!” – and who claim they’re working these kinds of hours. One faculty member claimed that as you went up the hierarchy you kept working harder and longer – he claimed that graduate students didn’t appreciate how slack our lives were compared to faculty.
I worked for a faculty member at one of the best universities in the world who was doing Nobel-caliber work. He was in his early 70s and had recently committed to his wife that he would ease off on his workload – instead of working 7 days a week, he was cutting back to 6. After receiving e-mails from him from all times throughout the day and week, I do believe that he was working a very prodigious amount.
In Randy Pausch’s famous last lecture he says if you want to learn the secret to success in academia, call him in his office on Friday night at 10 pm and he’ll tell you. The joke is that he works insanely long hours to accomplish what he does.
I do believe academic superstars are both smart and very hardworking. If you are hoping to win a Nobel prize, these are the people you’re competing against. HOWEVER, they’re winning Nobel prizes and being lauded because they ARE extraordinary. The VAST majority of faculty members don’t work anywhere near as hard as they do – although they like to be perceived as if they are.
It often happens that successful people will talk about their life in a certain way that others start to emulate. Often successful people will say how much they love their work. This leads people who don’t like their jobs to claim that they love their work. Similarly, academics hear the paragons talk about the grueling work schedules they follow and claim to be doing the same thing.
One of the men I worked with during my graduate studies is about the most perfect academic I’ve ever met (hey J.D. if you’re still reading!). He worked hard, but also cycled, spent time with his wife, worked in industry, lifted weights, read fiction, watched TV, played video games, and lived his life. I view him as being on track to choose between positions at R1 universities, and I’m sure he works less than 80 hours a week.
Memory is a Funny Thing
How people tally up the amount of work they do can affect this number. The faculty member who bragged to me about working such long hours would often be out in the hall chatting with people or having coffee. I’m sure he counted this as work, but it wasn’t particularly demanding.
If you count a day with many breaks and social interactions as working a 9-hour day, then perform the occasional work-related activity during the evening and on the weekend (maybe responding to a student’s e-mail) and count it as having worked for a few more hours – you can easily get up to 80 hours a week without cutting into your leisure too much.
Don’t Buy It! Don’t Demand It Of Yourself!
If you can get up to working 80 hours a week and still be productive, power to you! Keep it up and you could be on track for a groundbreaking career. If you aren’t able to do this, you’re in line with the vast majority of faculty members and researchers. You can have an excellent career working FAR less than 80 hours a week.
How many hours do you work a week? How many do you think people in your department work?