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I am referring more to young scientists after the PhD than professors, although I am also wondering about people with a stable position.

I see many people overworking themselves, burning-out, being overworked and with pressure to work well, fast, and produce a lot (publications). I am discussing an average person who has completed a PhD that has all the skills for the job. Let's leave the top professors 5-10% of the field that are super-productive for whatever reason, those are exceptions. I also assume that there is passion for research, but that work balance is also important.

Is it possible to survive/remain in academia by working normal hours (8-9 hours per day) without working evenings, weekends, holidays, without feeling guilty about taking a 2-3 weeks vacation? I imagine to become professor would include many of the above sacrifices. Some professors (tenured) have told me they work 50-60-70 hours per week.

Is overworking basically the rule/working culture in academia? Is it unusual to reach/maintain a stable position in academia without regularly overworking?

Consider mentioning the cultural, country, institution type of your answer, as there are variations in different contexts.

10 Answers 10

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This is a bit opinion-based, but I'll offer my own personal take on an answer in the hopes that it might be useful; at least parts of what I wrote below seem pretty generally applicable to me.

Is it possible to survive/remain in academia by working normal hours (8-9 hours per day) without working evenings, weekends, holidays, without feeling guilty about taking a 2-3 weeks vacation?

Short answer: no (except for the part about feeling guilty for taking a vacation, which is something I never had a problem with).


Medium-length answer: this question is based on a false premise, and simply doesn't make sense to most professors. "No" is an approximate answer, but a full answer requires a longer discussion to explain why neither "no" nor "yes" really make sense as answers, and why even though "no" is an approximate answer, it doesn't really have the negative meaning that you think it has.


Long answer: people in academia do work hard, sometimes very hard, but in my experience, the thing that many people looking into academia from the outside often fail to see is that what you call "working", we call "living" (and what you call "overworking" we might call "living a bit more intensely than usual, but still generally having a good time"). What you call "making sacrifices" we call "finding our work so fulfilling that we pay less attention to some other aspects of life than most other people do".

In other words, for a professor the "work/life" dichotomy is a lot more blurry than it is for people in (some) other professions, to the extent that it is often a completely nonexistent or nonsensical distinction. If I'm at the beach on a weekend and I'm reading a math paper or thinking about a research problem, am I doing "work"? If I'm traveling to a conference in an exotic city and using some of the time to explore the local sights and culture, am I "working", or am I on "vacation"? I don't know, and honestly after doing this for a while you start to realize that these questions simply make no sense. Most professors simply don't make the distinction between "life" and "work" that much of our culture obsesses about. They don't ask themselves these questions about how to "survive in academia" while only "working normal hours", since most of the time they are just too busy doing something they enjoy. Yes, they probably do end up doing what other people would regard as "work" for more than the usual 8-9 hours a day, five days a week and during times (holidays and weekends) when other people might regard it as abhorrent to do "work". But by and large, they don't perceive this as a negative thing (or at least, not as negatively as your question makes it out to be; I'll admit it can be a mild annoyance at times).

Coming back to my short, approximate answer of "no": basically it seems to me that you're asking the wrong question. If you are the kind of person who really wants to punch in at 9 a.m., punch out at 5 p.m. every weekday and go home to do other things and not even think about work until the next day, I'm pretty confident that academia is not for you. But most people who are smart enough to make it in academia are not wired that way.* The real question you should be asking is "can I be in academia and have a fulfilled life in which I'm happy to get out of bed each morning, get to do really exciting stuff a large chunk of the time, and in which I work hard (sometimes very hard) but still have a reasonable amount of time left over for other things that matter to me?"

The answer to that question is, quite definitely, Yes.

* (Added on edit:) to clarify, with this comment I am not expressing an opinion that a decision to leave academia says anything about how smart (or how anything else) someone is. I most certainly do not hold such an opinion. See the discussion in the comments.

———

Second edit: The comments, along with a few negative votes on my answer, are making me strongly suspect that I’ve given offense to some people who are perceiving my “smart enough ... not wired that way” comment as an elitist sentiment to the effect that if you are a person who is “wired that way” — that is, cares about having free time, work-life balance, raising a family etc — then you are “not smart enough”. Let me emphasize again that that’s not what I believe and not what I meant to imply. I actually care about all of those things myself, and don’t think caring about them is inconsistent with working hard (even sometimes very hard) or with being very passionate about your work. Nor do I think academia is the only place where one can have a fulfilled career; there are in fact many workplaces and professions with quite similar characteristics, and obviously there are many extremely smart people pursuing careers in such places and professions.

Finally, as I said at the beginning of my answer, it represents my own opinion and my own personal take on OP’s question. I make no claims that this represents anything near a universal truth.

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    Two minor quibbles: I don't think "smart enough" is the phrase you want - maybe ambitious instead? Also, my impression is that there are some very successful people who work regular 9 to 5-type schedules in academia. It's not the norm, but they do exist. – Zach H Mar 2 '18 at 20:05
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    @DanRomik I think you're assuming a lot of the people who've left academia weren't smart enough, rather than weren't "XXX" enough where XXX could be one of {ambitious, well-positioned, lucky, supported, selfish} or many other things. A lot of ex-academics on the outside do keep roughly 9-to-5 hours and seem very content with that. – Zach H Mar 2 '18 at 20:33
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    I used to think similarly. Now I have kids. I am glad I am not in academia - where I would apparently be forced to short change my kids. – emory Mar 2 '18 at 21:11
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    I would like to remark that the above answer applies equally well to any job "outside" Academia too, and that one should stop the temptation to always subdivide people in two classes: the ones who stay versus the ones who leave. I have done research in Academia and I have done research outside: I always hear people claiming Academia is X, real jobs are Y. Truth is, you may work hard or slack off equally well in either: eventually it all comes down to your work ethic and what goals you want to achieve (in either). – gented Mar 2 '18 at 21:45
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    There is a lot of truth to this comment, but I think it's also possible to tell oneself all of these things whilst circling toward burn-out. – user37208 Mar 3 '18 at 0:01
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While Dan Romik's answer applies to lots of people in academia, there are also the "others". I do know concrete examples of successful scientists that regularly work 9-5 (or similar). This is possible, with a few caveats:

  • works only for extremely disciplined people

  • may not apply to the Ph.D./postdoc stage, where there is time-sensitive pressure to build a cv and get a job

  • assumes that during the Ph.D./postdoc stage enough knowledge and contacts were built.

As I said, I know people who does this and is very successful on all fronts (at the same time!): as teachers, as researchers, and as administrators.

As with anything in academia, it is not easy to distinguish raw talent from concerted effort. Some of the people I'm thinking that pull the above off, are definitely not geniuses (although they are obviously competent).

  • +1 for an interesting take on the question that complements mine. Btw I’m curious to learn more about these successful scientists you’re referring to. Specifically, can you share which countries they’re working in, and what are their disciplines? – Dan Romik Mar 3 '18 at 2:32
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    Yes, the people I was talking about are physicists and mathematicians in Argentina and USA, and mathematicians in Canada. – Martin Argerami Mar 3 '18 at 2:39
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    I agree with this, and would like to add that if you really work (does not include coffee breaks, lunch breaks, gossiping, procrastinating, waiting for computer to boot etc) 8 hours a day that's certainly enough. What should be stressed though that normal people (myself included) need to spend 10 hours at the uni to really do 8 hours of hard work. – Kiro Mar 6 '18 at 5:42
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Maybe a bit on the anecdotal side, but last year, at a conference, I heard an nice talk from Dr. Bastian Epp from the DTU in Denmark. Amidst his talk about whether to consider a PhD a good idea, he told about his own experience. He was super enthusiastic, always the first at the institute, always the last to leave. But there was a colleague, some years older, who came in not exceedingly early, quietly worked his 8-hour shift, and left early in the afternoon. And even by not "living" at the university, he finished his PhD in time. After a bit of tinkering, Bastian came behind his colleagues secret: Efficiency. By not getting carried away, not procrastinating, not doing hour-long coffee breaks, and just doing what has to be done, you can get very far. But this needs some discipline and self-optimization.

The talk was very nice to follow, and, of course, was a bit on the moral story side, but it's a nice thing to have heard.

By no means I want to express that an overworked professor should just stop procrastinating and everything is fine. There is a lot of pressure on academic staff and personally I know two research groups which recently had a bad year with canceled or not-received fundings. Being a professor with four PhD candidates and no further money for them is not fun.

The thing I want to point out is that there indeed is such a thing as a "non-overworked academic", and with some self-discipline you may improve your academic experience.

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    Interesting. When I lived in Denmark I certainly noticed that everyone there had their head screwed on right, when it came to work-life balance. So if anyone were to be the poster child for an 8 to 5, get 'er done style PhD, it would be a Dane! – aparente001 Mar 6 '18 at 1:28
  • @aparente001 Hm, that fits. Dr. Epp is german, but I believe the guy he was talking about is danish :-) – NightLightFighter Mar 6 '18 at 10:52
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Yes, it is quite possible but this is highly dependent on a number of factors. Mainly local culture, nature of pursued line of study, and quality of personal efficiency.

First of all let me make a main point clear: there is a big gap between what is officially declared about numbers of hours worked and reality. Particularly in (i) modern times of 24h-long-internet-connected-smartphones and when overworking is considered "hype"; (ii) in the academia where there are so many facades and overworking attracts respect. Probably the amount of hours worked you mention come from polls like the one below:

http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/04/09/research-shows-professors-work-long-hours-and-spend-much-day-meetings

From my experience since decades dealing with the academia (I am no professor, but have met many) a lot of what is declared is questionable, and almost everyone is evasive over duties exposure. So a 60h official journey is too often way less intermingled with a lot of posing, minions, undeclared absences, ghost meetings.

Now, for the final points.

  • There are so many small campuses where work life is incredibly dull & slow;

  • There are fields of study which are more automated, less competitive or pressed for speed, and with a high "impact factor" ration over hours invested, typically returning more funding in less time;

  • There are many places which do not count working hours by the clock on physical presence, and cultures where one does not feel pressured to pose all day as busy and important in front of some empty paper or screen;

  • If you happen to be highly efficient and connected with smart-minded collaborators and student, you are able produce higher quality output in less hours than the majority;

  • Living close to work is a major asset here.

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    I agree hours are difficult to report accurately when one does not have to for billing or wages, and that there are status incentives to reporting overwork. In addition to time in the office, though, many academics take work home, and pervasive stress where home time does not feel like it is off-the-clock. (For many people, this then means in-the-office time may be interspersed with personal errands. It seems like that path is best avoided to increase efficiency.) – cactus_pardner Mar 3 '18 at 16:52
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    Totally agreed on this, and this is a big challenge in the academia, in internet times. – Scientist Mar 4 '18 at 15:14
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No

I did my PhD in a Max Planck Institute (summa cum laude) and was in the perfect track to become a professor. After spending an amount of time thinking about my future, I now work in a consultancy firm. Here are my findings:

  • F1: If I overwork in science, I get the opportunity to have a position in science
  • F2: If I overwork in industry, I get the opportunity to choose the position I want for my future

In my field (Physics), there are two causes for F1:

  1. C1: The supply of researchers strongly outnumbers the number of available positions.
  2. C2: The quality of scientific work is extremely difficult to quantify (**)

C2 leads to performance be often quantified by another metric, quantity (even if not the fairest or most useful). This metric promotes, by definition, overworking. Another important metric of performance is the scientific impact (think the number of citations, impact of scientific journals, etc.). This metric depends strongly on your PI, institution, hotness of the field, luck (on your results, peer reviewers, etc) and therefore should not be relevant to your decision to overwork or not.

The above conclusion combined with C1 makes any person that overwork have an advantage, and therefore the best strategy for each individual is to overwork the most they can. In other words, regardless of the individual motives, the downsides of not overworking are far greater than the advantages of not overworking.

The above is applicable to the subject I was in and may not apply to your subject. Do your own research and plan your career!

(**) See e.g. this paper and respective rebutal, and note that this was only done for citations, which is a measure of impact, not quality. Quality is even more difficult to quantify.

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    I think this might apply for people who either need long hours or cannot be efficient, assuming that hours of work correlate with output (number of papers). But yes, it's somewhat a race to the bottom. F2 I am not sure what you mean with that statement, that you can stay in industry without overworking? – Herman Toothrot Mar 9 '18 at 9:34
  • @HermanToothrot, I think that this applies not only to those people because, on this race, you will be competing even with the efficient people that overwork. F2, yes, good point: I edited the answer to clarify the statement :) – Jorge Leitao Mar 9 '18 at 10:42
  • I'm still not sure what F2 means. What is the position you want for your future? – henning Mar 9 '18 at 11:07
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    @henning I think the point of F2 is that while in academia you would completely lose your job, in industry you would still have a pretty good job, just not your first choice. – Jessica B Mar 9 '18 at 12:02
  • it's more clear to have "overwork vs overwork" or not overwork vs not overwork. – Herman Toothrot Mar 9 '18 at 13:38
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In my experience, the need to work more than 40-50 hours a week often comes from a poor balance of day-to-day duties (e.g. teaching, service, taking classes) and long-term commitments (e.g. research, writing a book/thesis, applying for funding).

The day-to-day duties obviously take priority. If you have too many of them, you may not have enough time for the long-term commitments, or your calendar may be too fragmented to use the remaining time efficiently. If you then decide to increase your working hours, you enter the realm of diminishing (and ultimately negative) returns. You work more, but your productivity per hour decreases.

I am not particularly disciplined myself. In order to get research done, I need to feel relaxed and have enough time without interruptions. If I have a meeting, it destroys my productivity for the entire morning/afternoon. The only way to avoid this is having the meeting as the first thing in the morning or the last thing in the afternoon, or combining it with the lunch break. Yet because I have a research position (first as a postdoc and now as a research scientist) with little other duties, I have not felt overworked since finishing my PhD. On a typical week, I spend maybe 30 hours on campus and work another 10-20 hours from home.

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    You make it sound like the 'day-to-day duties' are ones you might have control over, rather than (as in practice) imposed on you by the institution. – Jessica B Mar 9 '18 at 11:59
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    @JessicaB There is always some degree of control. Don't volunteer too much. Consider who is really entitled to a response within 48 hours. Don't let yourself be interrupted when you are working on something. Prioritize. If your employer consistently demands too much, let them tell you what to prioritize. Be open to changing jobs if necessary. – Jouni Sirén Mar 9 '18 at 18:19
  • Hahahahahahahaha – Jessica B Mar 10 '18 at 8:17
7

Yes it's possible, with some caveats

I have known people, from graduate students to tenured faculty, who manage an 8 to 5 schedule, don't work on weekends, etc.

There are a couple things about them I've noticed:

  • No job is always this. There are times when you will have to work more. This is true for retail positions, IT positions, academic positions, etc. So if you consider "Going to a conference" to be working on the weekends for example, this becomes a much bigger problem.
  • They are fanatically disciplined. When they are at work, they are working. There is no checking Facebook, or Academia StackExchange. They plan grant deadlines well in advance to avoid long overnight marathons near deadlines, etc.
  • They have to defend it. The desire and need to work more will encroach if they let it.
  • It has consequences. Sometimes, you will have to say no to things, and those things might impact your career, though not always in a bad way.

I am referring more to young scientists after the PhD than professors, although I am also wondering about people with a stable position.

Some professors (tenured) have told me they work 50-60-70 hours per week.

One should also note that self-reported working hours are notoriously unreliable.

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    The second point is very important. When I was a PhD student, around twenty years ago, the group culture was that of submitting across the deadlines (and sometimes post-deadline), with scant planning. I had to frequently work overnight. Now, my group and I tend to carefully plan submissions, and we usually submit even 2-3 months in advance, and everything is much more relaxed (and with less risk of rejections). – Massimo Ortolano Mar 5 '18 at 21:05
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    However, I'm not so disciplined for what concerns distractions. Instead, when I visited some labs in other European countries they had a very tight schedule from 8 am to 5-6 pm, with no distractions apart a short break in the morning and one in the afternoon. – Massimo Ortolano Mar 5 '18 at 21:05
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    @MassimoOrtolano Yeah - personally, I know in myself that I'm not disciplined enough. – Fomite Mar 5 '18 at 21:29
7

This answer explores cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional factors, and so it is a community wiki. Please add links or details as you can. It would be especially helpful to flesh out discussion of other academic roles or of "field" considerations beyond theory vs. lab. The original answer is based on U.S. experience; for cross-national differences, you might consider adding another numbered section.

  1. What type of institution would you be employed at or eventually aiming for?

    • In the U.S., the Carnegie Classification system describes colleges and universities by highest degree offered and level of research activity. This taxonomy is where terms like "R1" come from.
    • Top-ranked research institutions will place more emphasis on the publication process than liberal arts colleges and community colleges (some of which offer tenure).
      • That said, I have heard that even some lower-ranked research universities that largely focus on teaching (e.g. California State Universities) still require a very high research standard for receiving tenure, because of the competition in the academic job market.
    • I have experienced that professors I trained with at a highly ranked research university (in an empirical field) seemed to make extreme time sacrifices for their work, and one confided his extreme stress about whether it would be enough to get tenure.
      • In contrast, as a postdoc at a good state research university (not at the top of the ranks in many fields), I see that professors are still working a lot of time but seem to be less stressed.
    • In a comment below: "I work at an R2, where tenure and teaching obligations are both relatively reasonable. There is an institutional sweet spot where are enough resources to support your work and the amount of work required is reasonable."
    • Especially at liberal arts colleges, you may be able to focus on teaching (which has its commitments required to excel) and spend less time trying to push through immediate results. Some colleges and universities may have teaching-centered positions: Can I be a lecturer without doing research?
  2. What field are you in?

    • Theoretical fields may require people to limit their productive time. If the key output is coherent thought, that cannot sustainably be done at all hours of the day and night. (This seems to be reflected in Dan Romick's answer.)
    • Research involving lab work is notorious for often requiring extreme hours. Executing and supervising the work requires (at least somewhat) skilled time put in, and results presumably correlate with the amount of time.
  3. What role within academia are you considering?

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    +1 for the "Type of institution" comment. I work at an R2, where tenure and teaching obligations are both relatively reasonable. There is an institutional sweet spot where are enough resources to support your work and the amount of work required is reasonable. – Dawn Mar 2 '18 at 23:17
  • I'm curious to know why you posted this as a community wiki. – Massimo Ortolano Mar 3 '18 at 15:21
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    @MassimoOrtolano bcs this is cross disciplinary and crooss culture answer. – SSimon Mar 3 '18 at 15:37
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    @MassimoOrtolano yes, I encourage anyone to add additional links or details. For instance, I lumped together the very different areas of "student support roles" and "administrative roles," and anyone with direct knowledge of these, or of other roles not listed, should feel free to add details. Similarly, the "field" division between theory and lab leaves out a lot and would be great for others to flesh out or add to. – cactus_pardner Mar 3 '18 at 16:36
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    @cactus_pardner Nice, I think it would be useful to add your last remark to the beginning of your answer, to make it clear your encouragement to anyone. – Massimo Ortolano Mar 3 '18 at 16:40
3

In my experience, in Irish and French Academia, it’s definitely possible to be successful without “overworking” (depends what we call overworking but let’s say it’s working out of general office hours) and not working much at home (except reading stuffs and writing down some notes and todo lists but, if you are passionate about your research—and I would advice you to choose a topic that you are genuinely fond of—we cannot really call that “work”).

It’s possible if you are not the over-procrastinating kind of person, if you are well organized and self disciplined, if you can control your various Internet wandering, if you fix yourself some reasonable goals and are not too much perfectionist.

You don’t even have to be a genius (but must have good culture in your domain, sure).

Many people in various domain I’ve met (both sciences and humanities), who are not specifically geniuses have a pretty good work-life balance compare to some engineers, managers or even workers I know, plus sometimes enjoy the pluses of academia lifestyle (travels, in some countries extended holidays and benefits, decent working environment and smart people all around etc).

I don’t say it’s not stressing or it’s easy, I say it’s totally possible.

Personally I didn’t succeed at that because I lack a few of those characteristics.

Of course it depends on many other factors like your department leader expectations, competition in your field, and so forth.

2

I think it's possible but needs extreme self discipline. An example that I know of is Professor Calvin Newport, a TCS professor at Georgetown university. He wrote about his working schedule as a phd student at MIT some years ago. http://calnewport.com/blog/2008/02/15/fixed-schedule-productivity-how-i-accomplish-a-large-amount-of-work-in-a-small-number-of-work-hours/

  • I'm going to print his stuff and post it at home, on the fridge. – user21264 Mar 5 '18 at 10:14

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