I'm a rising sophomore at a top US university, and I've become really fascinated with the world of academia over the past year -- so much so that I'm considering doing a PhD after I graduate and entering it myself. But there's something about academia that bothers me.

I'm doing a summer internship at a research center at a university where I'm in the company of several PhD students and post docs as well. I've noticed that the work culture here is a bit lazy. I understand that academia isn't the most "organized" area (unlike the corporate world), and that one great thing about academia is the flexibility you get to do your work however you want. For instance, I've spoken to professors who say they do most of their work at night -- which, obviously, is impossible in a regular job. But I've observed this getting translated into laziness. People will only come in to the center for 3-4 hours a day, and sometimes not even every day in the week. I also see people often passively sitting on their computers and not really actively doing their work.

I completely understand that academics are less "robotic" than people working corporate jobs in that they don't follow the same routine every single day, but it just seems to me that a lot of people lack the drive, intensity, and seriousness that I see in my romanticized version of the world of academia. Thoughts?

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    Specifying the field would be helpful. For instance, experimental biology has a lot of long hours of work, which looks like work. Meanwhile theoretical physics (my field) has a lot of work which doesn’t look like work, such as long discussions at the blackboard. Moreover, for a theoretical field one can work from anywhere, and the people I know usually do their serious work outside the office.
    – knzhou
    Commented Jul 26, 2019 at 7:49
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    This seems opinion-based, too broad, and unclear what is being asked ("thoughts?"). OP even seems to have answered their own question ("do most of their work at night"). Have voted to close. Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 6:53
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    Just how do you get from "spending 3-4 hours at an institution and doing the rest at night" to "lazy"? The "butts in seats" metric is not the only one in the world, possibly not even the best one. Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 10:41
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    obligatory comic reference heeris.id.au/2013/… Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 10:47
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    Are you really convinced that people working corporate jobs don't sit around doing nothing (work-related)? I'm not saying all of them do, but doing nothing is not something particular to academia (nor is it necessarily a bad thing).
    – tomasz
    Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 9:38

13 Answers 13


Different areas of work look differently. A mechanic, a tailor or a miner perform visible physical operations and deliver an objective and measurable result by hour. Compared with them, office work may seem lazy: people sit at their desks, they are not sweating, can have toilet and drink breaks whenever they want, etc. Also, the result of their work seems less tangible: we do not see goods or materials produced, only papers, and looking from outside, we often can not understand how good the result is without taking their manager's word for it.

Academic teaching and administration work is very much like office work in a company. Teaching-focused colleges and universities often seem very similar to corporate organisations (with one important difference that they have less support structures and security for academics).

Academic research work seem even less organised and the results seem even less tangible. People either appear sitting at their computers idly (while they are in fact thinking on the problem), or stay at the whiteboard scribbling unreadable equations (still thinking on their problems), or stay at home (thinking about their problems). If you look around, you will see the result of their thinking process (e.g. a computer or smartphone in front of you, as well as many many others). But the results do not jump out of their heads in the same visible way how an ore appears from the mine.

Corporate culture portraits an idealised worker as an energetic, serious man in suit. There are many, many problems with this idealised picture, for example, the fact that it is relatively easy to make such an appearance without any real skill, knowledge and desire to produce a meaningful result. Academia, partly, shares this problem: there is an idealised image of academic (a person excellent in everything, highly introvertial but excellent in communicating complex ideas to different audiences, etc etc), which has little to do with the real academic culture. Many academics visibly change their behaviour when they have to present their results for promotion or appraisal. However, in their natural habitat, they still focus on solving their problems in the way which is most effective for them, do not act to impress you or match your expectations about how this process has to look.

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    You could also highlight the issue of waiting in both office and academic work. If your desk job is to check and rubberstamp a never ending stream of paperwork in a government office, then you might not have much downtime. But if you're waiting on experiment results or information/feedback from elsewhere, then it is easy to get stuck in a state with nothing really useful to do. For some jobs, there is only so much that can be done in a given period of time, and when it gets done can be fairly flexible. Commented Jul 26, 2019 at 20:15
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    I'm certainly sweating at my desk this week! (Germany)
    – gerrit
    Commented Jul 26, 2019 at 20:41
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    @TheLuckless Good point. Lifesavers spend their time idly looking in the sea. Policemen spend their days idly walking the streets. Photographers spend hours idly waiting for the perfect moment. Researchers spend years chasing something that no-one ever seen before. Commented Jul 27, 2019 at 0:41
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    I once saw a poster with a bunch of sharp pencils and one dull pencil. The caption read, “It’s easy to look sharp if you don’t work.” Ultimately, it depends a lot on the university. Top research universities have a “publish or perish” mentality. Many colleges require faculty to give up a lot of their time to serve on or oversee committees of all kinds, not to mention teaching, grading, performing research, overseeing student research, etc. Some universities care only about profit, and everything takes a back seat to sports programs and enrollment figures, so humanities faculty feel demoralized
    – Dan
    Commented Jul 27, 2019 at 13:44
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    @DmitrySavostyanov One tiny nitpick with your comment: Lifeguard. Also, they're not really "idly looking at the sea", much like cops and researchers aren't sitting around doing nothing -- they just look like they are. Which, I realize literally as I'm writing this, is probably your point; sitting in the lifeguard's chair does look easy when you aren't the one scanning every person in the ocean for signs of drowning.
    – anon
    Commented Jul 27, 2019 at 18:57

Do not fall into the trap of assuming that "Value of work done" is proportional to "Hours spent at a desk".

Some HR departments do think this way, but it's rarely true.

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    +1 I work far more efficiently in coffee shops than in my university office.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jul 26, 2019 at 17:56
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    +1 I work far more efficiently taking frequent breaks than working non-stop.
    – Evorlor
    Commented Jul 26, 2019 at 20:37
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    Well, being available even if idle can provide value. An hour you spend away from your desk is potentially an hour you're not available in for colleagues to bounce an idea off you. Of course you weren't talking about never being in the office, and colleagues can just take a note or send an email, but physical presence still helps collaboration.
    – Trusly
    Commented Jul 27, 2019 at 5:35
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    @Trusly As one professor once said to me, "networking is one letter away from not working". Commented Jul 27, 2019 at 6:52
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    @Marco13 - In industries like real estate where agents are paid by commission, the latter agent can either go slack off or go sell another house – it's their choice. But in industries where work output is much more diverse and isn't so easily measured (like an office or school), we often default to desk time simply because that's far easier to measure than units of true productivity.
    – J.R.
    Commented Jul 28, 2019 at 9:35

Here's an experiment you might try: Next time you see one of those "lazy" instructors staring at the computer screen, ask them how many graduate students they are advising. Then ask if you can read the latest drafts of all the theses and dissertations for each one of those students. Then ask if you can read all the latest drafts of the papers that this professor hopes to see submitted for publication in the next year. And then ask to read all of the papers that were submitted for publication in the past 18 months.

My guess is that you'll be going home with a pretty big sheaf of paper.

Next, you have to read each one of these, not just as a cursory read, and not even to the point of understanding each paper or dissertation. You need to get to a level of familiarity where you could even spot a mistake, a flaw, or an error, because once this research is ultimately presented at a conference, there's a good chance there will be fifty experts in the room trying to do just that.

Now, imagine doing all this while you are teaching one or two classes, grading 30 papers every time there is a homework assignment – hopefully fast enough so that everyone feels like they are getting the timely feedback they deserve.

Better yet, ask if you can be a grader for one of the assignments, so you can get a feel for what it's like to analyze 30 attempts at solving the same set of problems, not only giving credit for each correct answer, but also figuring out where each student took a wrong turn to arrive at an incorrect answer, and giving them the feedback each one will need to learn from their mistake.

Maybe you could offer to be a guest lecturer for one week, too, so that you can see what it's like to learn a subject well enough to stand in front of a classroom and deliver an informative, thorough, 50-minute lecture in an engaging way in front of a couple dozen students, many of whom would rather be doing something else.

I'm guessing that, by the time this experiment is over, you might start to realize there is a whole lot less "laziness" happening on campus than you may have initially speculated.


Your mistake is to assume that people who are only in the department for a few hours a day are only doing a few hours' work per day. They're probably working at home, too, or in cafes.

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    One reason so many academicians can get more done at home than on campus? Fewer interruptions. At any one time, you'll be advising a handful of graduate students while teaching a few dozen undergraduate students, and any these might pop in unannounced for that next "quick question".
    – J.R.
    Commented Jul 26, 2019 at 18:57
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    Honestly, most academics I know get work done at home or elsewhere. Writing up one's research isn't something one can do easily in the office. I don't know any lazy academics.
    – Parrever
    Commented Jul 26, 2019 at 19:16
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    Actually, I do some of my best thinking when I'm out hiking or cross-country skiing. IMHO, it's all about increased blood flow to the brain, which you don't get sitting on your butt in front of a computer :-) (Even when I worked at a corporate research lab, I'd take an hour or two in the afternoon for a walk or bike ride.)
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jul 27, 2019 at 0:15
  • Absolutely. I absolutely cannot do anything but the most basic of lesson planning for lower level courses when at the office because I'm interrupted every five minutes by something Commented Jul 28, 2019 at 12:21
  • On that note does Academia/any very free research environment have a notion of full time part time and overtime? surely a researcher may wish to work more or fewer hours and think more or less
    – Hao S
    Commented Jul 28, 2019 at 19:25

As someone who's done both academic and more routine white-collar work (programming) I can say that academics work a lot, but indeed at odd times, in fact basically always, you are always thinking or writing or reading. But because of the flexibility, it's a lot less tiring than working fewer but more restrictedly fixed hours in a particular office with particular people you have to interact with daily, like in industry. Academia isn't only the life of the mind, but to the extent that it is mind work it can be very flexible but also constantly hanging over your head. Some people take advantage of the lack of supervision and don't get much done, others work too much and hurt themselves, others thrive. Worse, it's hard to even tell if you are thriving because you may produce work no one pays attention to for years, and it may be poor work or it may be that years later all sudden your field takes it up.

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    +1 My experience is mixed. For most parts as you say. But being a programmer was much, much less work than being a lecturer. Academia has much worse crunch times In my experience. It is offset by a quite a lot of freedom though (however its a bit of a lie, your free to do things in many ways but they have to get done). Its typical that you are your own worst enemy in academia as there is a lot you can do to your work burden. So eventually you learn that its not a sprint but a really long marathon so you stop taking every burden on yourself.
    – joojaa
    Commented Jul 28, 2019 at 0:35
  • @joojaa Yeah, the first couple years of lecturing (asst prof) are the worst when you are writing the new lectures & getting on top of which emails you have to attend to and which you don't. I was talking about overall--don't worry, it does get better. Commented Aug 2, 2019 at 16:39

I've worked as a software developer in both private industry and academia. I could tell you all sorts of anecdotes of lazy folks in industry and hardworking academics. I briefly worked at one firm where several employees ran their own businesses on the side during our regular work hours. The PIs I've worked for worked just as hard as the entrepreneurs at the start-ups I've worked at, which is very hard indeed.

I worked in software development at Microsoft in the 90s. At the same time, my spouse was working on their Ph.D. Comparing notes, we were both working about equally hard in terms of hours put in, stress, and fatigue. My work had more time pressure, but my spouse had more responsibility for determining the direction of their research. In some ways the biggest difference was that I was served free soda and espresso every day, and ate catered dinners many nights, while my spouse was having to pay for and prepare her own sandwiches. And of course I was paid 4 times as much as they were.

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    When I worked at an office once although I learned how to look busy, in reality I was only doing maybe a few hours of work a day and in the meantime I was studying on the side and working through maths problems.
    – Tom
    Commented Jul 27, 2019 at 18:30
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    I really want to play the scene from Office space "Yeah, I just stare at my desk, but it looks like I'm working. I do that for probably another hour after lunch too, I'd say in a given week I probably only do about fifteen minutes of real, actual, work." Commented Jul 27, 2019 at 20:27
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    I think all this stems from the misguided idea that people actually can work thinking heavy jobs 8 hours straight and be reasonable productive this whole time. - Almost nobody I know is actually productive 40 hours a week. A typical day is mostly 2 hours really high productivity interspersed with 6 hours low productivity busy-work, because your mind doesn't work like a conveyor belt. - And then there is some research suggesting about 60% mental capacity in the workplace is usually dedicated to social-structure / office politics.
    – Falco
    Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 15:01

The question is difficult in several ways. Although you're not starting with the presupposition that people tend to be lazy in academia, you describe your observations in a way that seems to support this claim. That's okay (and that's probably why you're asking the question in the first place). But consider where you are asking this. I mean, let's be honest: You didn't expect responses along the lines of

"Sure, we're all just slackers! Grab one of these cocktails with the tiny umbrellas in them, and join us! Research is far better than real work!"

Therefore, the arguments in the answers so far followed the patterns that one could expect as answers (here) to such a question:

  • You don't "see" the work, and/or the results are not "tangible" - it's a different kind of "work"
  • The teaching and preparation of lectures takes a lot of time
  • The schedules are odd because you can do some of the "work" at any time and any place

In general: People will tend to justify what they are doing. And as a last resort, one can go down one or the other rabbit hole and start nitpicking about what constitutes "lazy", or what "work" actually means.

Fortunately, there have been some responses from people who worked in academia and in the industry. In contrast to people who went the straight "high school - college - PhD - post-doc - tenure" road, they could, at least principally, do the comparison that is at the core of the question.

I personally don't have the direct comparison, because I've mainly been working in "applied research". So the following may not really be an insightful answer, but rather a truism:

  • There are workaholics who are extremely conscientious and industrious and work for 80 hours per week straight, without taking a vacation, until they achieve their personal goal.
  • There are lazy slackers with the life goal of sitting in front of a PC with the monitor being arranged in a way that nobody else can see it, in an organization that is large enough so that nobody notices that they are essentially doing nothing.

And you find both sorts of people in academia and in the industry. In fact, this has been examined quite extensively: Price's law states that the square root of the number of people in an organization is doing half of the work. His work originally referred to academia and the publication count, but has also been applied to companies.

So you'd have a hard time arguing whether academia has a "lazy work culture", or more precisely: whether it has a work culture that is lazier than that in the industry. One reason for that is (not an argument for any side of the debate, but just) another observation: It's really hard to quantify academic work. When filling up shelves, standing at an assembly line, or chopping wood, for that matter, you can trivially measure and compare the amount of work that has been done. The more "abstract" the work becomes, the trickier it is to quantify it: Even in the industry, at a certain level of the organizational hierarchy, people are pushing numbers forth and back, trying to quantify the revenue that can be attributed to a manager, and at some point it's certainly impossible to break this down to the individual employee. In academia, there are very few conceivable "key performance indicators" at all. (A distressingly common one is "publication count", but we know where that one leads...). There are few people in the world who could dare to "quantify" what a certain researcher has achieved, let alone make a profound statement about how much time would have been "appropriate" for that achievement.

(So, subjectively, I wouldn't say that academia has a "lazy work culture" per se. But I'd tend to say: For someone who is lazy, academia makes it far easier to get away with it - particularly when the person has tenure. Strongly related: What happens to unproductive professors? )

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    But then, getting tenure is very hard if you're lazy, in most fields. (Though I think I agree with your final paragraph.)
    – sgf
    Commented Jul 27, 2019 at 19:05
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    @sgf That's probably true, although it certainly depends on the field and country etc. I'd even go so far to say that at least some people recognize the potential for being lazy, and do a shallow PhD while establishing the right contacts, with the explicit goal of receiving tenure and then essentially retire, but these are (hopefully) rare, and can in a similar form be found in the industry.
    – Marco13
    Commented Jul 27, 2019 at 19:33
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    Lazyness is not the only reason why the prices law applies. It has also a lot to do how the organisation works. Sometimes you are rendered ineficient because of external factors. This can havbe a devastating effect on your productivity and morale. Even without post rationalisation, being lazy can be beneficial even productive with the right environment. And working your ass of can still lead to no effect because your wofk is wasted.
    – joojaa
    Commented Jul 28, 2019 at 0:43
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    @joojaa Sure. And after all, laziness in considered one of the three virtues of a great programmer. Beyond that, as a former colleague of mine once said: There are four types of people: 1. Smart+Industrious, 2. Smart+Lazy, 3. Stupid+Industrious and 4. Stupid+Lazy. And the worst ones are not Stupid+Lazy, but Stupid+Industrious ones ...
    – Marco13
    Commented Jul 28, 2019 at 14:20
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    @Falco Agreed, although what I said about "quantifying" academic work shows that it's even hard to define "quantity" and "quality" here. Applying some of these questionable metrics one could ask what is better: One paper with 400 citations, or 4 papers where each has 100 citations? In both cases (industry and academics), one could argue that mediocre work takes disproportionally less time than good work, and noticing the difference can be difficult. In research, the difference can only be seen by people who deeply understand the subject, and there are generally few of these.
    – Marco13
    Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 17:07

In short, no. However, I would say that it is often an inefficient and poorly organized work environment where people often end up overworking slightly to compensate for the inefficiency. Academia is pretty high up there in terms of being a demanding sphere with a lot of work, but there are worse industries - surgery, finance companies, certain startups can be a lot worse.

Let me touch on some misconceptions in your question:

  • Just because you see people there for 3-4 hours a day, doesn't mean they are only working that much. There were times when I would come in to lab at 4 in the afternoon, and it probably looked to other people like I worked only 2 hours as I left at 6 to eat dinner (breakfast for me). However I would end up coming back later and working into the early hours of the morning. (I absolutely do not recommend doing this!) Sometimes you just want to work in peace with few distractions, and so end up working weird times like very early morning, very late evening or weekends. Sometimes you elect to do your big chunk of work on the Saturday instead of Friday, because it doesn't matter when you do it but traffic and parking are a lot better on Saturday.
  • Academics sometimes "work" from home, but they often actually work from home. Reading papers, emails, writing papers or applications, grading are all things that can be done anywhere. I don't recommend this - eroding the psychological division between living space and work space has negative consequences for most people, but many do it anyway. Just because they're not at work doesn't mean they're not working.
  • Research, like much creative work, is not a linear process where you can make consistent, incremental gains. It's not like clocking in every day and assembling x widgets, and you get x/y of your quota done. Sometimes you can make great progress by goofing off. Even though breaks seem like a complete distraction from work, your brain still processes things "in the background", and when your break ends you magically "get" much better ideas (in reality, you don't get the ideas, the same idea you've always had just moves from your subconscious to your conscious mind). Rest generally improves the quality of creative/intellectual work as well.
  • There is a HUGE variation in how a PI will run their lab. There are PIs who genuinely don't know or care when you show up. There are those that mark the minute you came in and time your lunch breaks like a foreman. There are PIs that will chastise you for working on weekends or after hours, while others demand it (that's an infamous letter and a pretty extreme example, but read that and tell me about "lazy academia"). There are PIs that have strict work-life separation, and then others who get mad if you took more than a couple of hours to answer their email at 3 am on Sunday. While there's a general trend, it is fairly irrelevant because what matters is the particular situation in the group you end up in. Yet another excellent reason to carefully consider who to choose as your graduate advisor.

The work culture of academia pervades all levels, but the PhD is a pretty strong early peak. What happens is that you get talented young people, who are very passionate about their work, lack perspective and maturity, have little or no actual work experience, and feel omnipotent because they have just been accepted into the PhD program - the biggest accomplishment of their life (and in their minds, of the world). These people are given enormous freedom in deciding how to structure their time (as a result, many don't). Add the inherent randomness due to working in completely unknown territory, and it creates all sorts of bizarre work styles. Many fail to see the point of doing anything besides their research, so they work till they drop, and then they do drop, then they become horrendously inefficient and just go through the motions as they recover from the burnout, then there's a break in the research or some other serendipity happens which excites them and the cycle repeats.

The "up" part of this cycle feels incredibly productive, but overall it's usually much less efficient than slow and steady work. Almost every person I've known who treated their research like a 9-5 job seemed to do better as a result. There's a saying that a PhD is a marathon, not a sprint. But young folks are always eager to sprint. Of course, in some sense trying to force a regimen on creative work is a futile effort: You either have ideas or don't. You can do some things to make the best use of the ideas you do get (keeping an idea journal, thinking things through, reading relevant papers, talking to colleagues, rotating ideas when some are stuck). But inspiration isn't really obligated to provide you with a good idea no matter how hard you squint at a problem. Sometimes, you just don't see it no matter what you do. And while there are some common ways to boost creativity, ultimately everyone has their own personal "triggers" that work only for them. That said, many academics are very far from that point of diminishing returns from being more organized. Especially for students, it's more a matter of the student having very little notion of real organization or the need for this. Due to the non-profit nature of academia, feedback on efficiency is very subtle and it takes a long time for many to learn it. In the closely allied field of industrial R&D, the feedback is much more direct - the company has a bottom line which imposes some requirement on the researchers to exercise and demonstrate efficiency. Industrial researchers often seem like some of the laziest, least organized workers in the company, but compared to academic counterparts they are much more organized.

In my opinion (based on my own experience) academia is very inefficient. People work a lot, but because the work is not structured well, a lot of their effort is wasted. They accomplish far less (which is still a lot!) than they could have. Part of the reason is lack of fiscal incentives, part is lack of experience and formal training in being organized, part of it is just cultural inertia. What this means for you is that as a prospective PhD student and academic, you should make an effort to be disciplined and organized as much as possible. You will learn the value of these traits whether you like it or not - but you have the option of learning it the easy way rather than the hard way.

  • Sorry to spoil your statistics (if it does), but some of the really bad PhD students I've met were of the very organized, orderly, 8 - 4 or 9 - 5 type (the best lab book doesn't really help if you cannot get simple stoichiometric calculations correct) - to be fair, I've also known a very good and 9 - 5, organized, orderly student. The bad students probably wouldn't have gotten so far without being so organized. I think this is a bit like what I once heard about school maths: calculations and rewriting calculations will be correct without understanding if only the formal rules of manipulating..
    – cbeleites
    Commented Jul 27, 2019 at 19:46
  • ... the symbols are obeyed. But there's a limit how much "senseless" rules a human can keep in mind at the same time. This was proposed to explain the observation that quite often 11/12th graders are found to "suddenly" get bad marks in maths - and looking into the matter it turns out that more basic problems are underlying such as: did not understand fractions. Also here one may say that being orderly and industrious, they did get further than if they had not been (11th grade instead of 6th grade). Same with bad PhD students who'd never have been ending up as PhD students otherwise.
    – cbeleites
    Commented Jul 27, 2019 at 20:57
  • Then again, unorganized but otherwise good researchers may be more efficient if they'd in addition be organized.
    – cbeleites
    Commented Jul 27, 2019 at 20:59
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    2/2: I partially disagree with your last paragraph about inefficiency, based on my own experience. While there can be room for the sort of wasted effort you describe at the PhD and postdoctoral levels, I find that those who manage to make it onto and through the tenure track (and especially those who have families) are forced to become hyper-organized and brutally efficient in order to survive. This supports a small ecosystem of academic productivity coaching/training firms including The Professor Is In, Cathy Mazak, Katy Peplin, to mention just a few I've personally encountered. Commented Jul 28, 2019 at 10:14
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    Also for any young academics reading this - The Professor Is In is also a very good book about structuring your academic career, as is Getting What You Came For by Robert Peters.
    – Trusly
    Commented Jul 28, 2019 at 19:08

I'd like to add a few points that I've not seen in the other answers so far

I'm doing a summer internship at a research center at a university

This may have a lot to do with the observed laziness.

  • Summer is when people go on vacations, which may mean that others who need the vacationers cannot (or do not want to: they may even have promised to wait) go on with certain projects until the other is back.
    BTW, this is also true in industry (e.g. closing of some production lines).

  • For those who have family, summer is also the time when kindergarden and school are closed for vacations: parents may have to come late/leave early/take days off - basically looking after their kids in shifts with the partner.
    The same if not more in industry.

  • Summer is right after exam season. When I was working as university researcher, end of the year exams meant that many of us had to do overtime in order to get the corrections of the written exams done, and to take care of the oral exams. Also the labwork practicum protocol corrections had to be finished and marks given.
    After that, people may take off the overtime they worked before.

  • Research internships are part of the teaching. They usually have a net cost of time for the supervisor of the intern. Therefore, internships are usually offered at "lazy" times: when few people are around, so noone needs the instruments and there's an office space for the intern. Also, when there is sufficient free time to take care of the intern.
    You wouldn't (shouldn't) want to be intern as a 2nd year student during times when the group is working really hard.

  • (Contrary to this, summer can also be the time to get busy with crazy side projects because the others involved with the main project or are anyways away. Or the others with whom the instruments are shared.)

I understand that academia isn't the most "organized" area

@Trusty has brought up some interesting points how being more organized yourself can help tremendously in research.

That may be the case, but IMHO the case isn't that clear:

  • I'd say that much of the work I've been doing as researcher that lends itself well to strict organization and structure could actually have been done by a technician or administrative staff. Which would be cheaper macroeconomically but for specialties of academia.

  • I'm not sure how such organizational structure correlates/interacts with the creativity needed in research. To formulate it pointedly: is scheduling out-of-the-box thinking from 8 till 9 in the morning a good idea?

do most of their work at night -- which, obviously, is impossible in a regular job.

Academic research allows for this flexibility, in contrast to research at governmental institutions or in industry. Thus, people who like that flexibility will tend to accumulate in academia, and people who are not comfortable with others following such flexible schedules will probably tend to leave the academic environment.

Yes, deciding lazyness vs. efficient work is not easy for an (almost) outsider:

  • Some of the most perfectly industrious (actual and visibly) lab work I've been doing, namely, aligning and calibrating instruments when starting measurement series at the same time was necessary and in a higher sense highly inefficient: Without the "academic abuse" these instruments were subject to (read: other researchers working hard), instead of a full realignment and calibration of half a day's work 15 min of measurements to show that it is still aligned and well calibrated would have been sufficient.

 I also see people often passively sitting on their computers and not really actively doing their work.

  • Yes they may just be lazy. An academic researcher browsing news or totally unrelated youtube videos can be lazy just like an industrial worker taking lots of smoking breaks. Just that it's typically a bit more difficult to decide at the first glance whether the academic is lazy or, say, looking up examples for a lecture (other answers have more examples). Like it is with industrial worker who is lazy by going for each tool extra instead of bringing a cart with all or most tools at once. Or adminstrative staff that sends back a form as soon as they find one mistake, and once that is corrected, send it back with the next mistake and so on instead of highlighting all mistakes or possibly even explaining why the form needs to be filled in differently and how.

  • I certainly admit to having lazy days.

  • However, I've also found that many of the "nothing really productive done at the end of the day" days were quite filled with tons of "tiny" tasks that each took quite a bit longer than I'd like them to take. (Administrative bla, phone calls, answered emails, sort some papers, ...) - that may not be the laziness you refer to, though.

  • One more point that makes seeing whether a fellow academic is lazy when "not really actively doing their work": part of the academic work is learning. In contrast to the undergrad version of learning which uses a textbook that you can study front to back, lots of the learning as a professional takes place by coming across interesting things that are more or less closely related to your field and then, instead of ignoring them thinking about them. And by coming across questions where answering challenges and then clarifies your mental model. (That's what I'm doing right now, in a meta-way of my actual work)

  • There may be an inherent tradeoff: part of the personality that is required to be a good researcher is intense curiosity. However, this curiosity will usually not stop short of what is considered outside your field, and it may make researchers prone to "waste" time reading through the internet (or books/papers/encyclopedias). I personally think that this is all in all good for science. The apparent waste of accumulating "useless" knowledge is just a price we have to pay in order to increase the chance to have knowledge that turns out be useful when it is needed. This includes accumulating lots of loosely or unrelated (actually: not yet related) knowledge. At some point there may be something that will trigger "there may be a connection" - and this is what I need that previously "useless" knowledge for.

    I may say that after accumulating such knowledge for 10 years, I started to feel efficient in my profession in the sense that for many new problems I come across in my field I can produce an idea where to look for suitable approaches quite fast. Now, after 15 years of professional experience, I'm learning as fast as ever.

  • Also, it's often not easy to see what level on concentration different tasks require/how tiring they are and in consequence, what recovery is adequate afterwards.
    Also applies to industry.

the drive, intensity, and seriousness that I see in my romanticized version of the world of academia.

  • Working at the utmost limit of your (intellectual or whatever) capabilities means that you'll need time to recover from that exertion. So we're again back to lazy scientists...

    The intensity of work you can keep up for 8 almost consecutive hours every day will be just middling compared to what is possible for shorter times with appropriate breaks in between.


You asked this about academia, but since it compares academia & industry, let me start by answering your question from an industry perspective as an analyst & data engineer as the basic issue seems to be not understanding the differences between what different fields consider "work":


In industry, government, or academic work this all comes down to the old saying "perception is reality". If someone has an idea of what "hard work" looks like and you don't fit it that person is going to assume you're not working hard and are lazy. No matter how hard your actually working or if you find academic work to be the most challenging work you've ever done (after five years in industry and six in government).

Work that doesn't look like work

Dmitry's answer covers most of this, so I'll just add the industry example:

At my first industry job I might be staring at the screen waiting on it to finish compiling or building. This was common, and I couldn't leave, because I needed to see if there was an error, but I also couldn't really do much until it finished. As an analyst, I now find that is more waiting on my data analytic programs to finish or actually reading the results to see what I can figure out but essentially - all of it is work that doesn't look like work.

Not working a normal 8-5

Further, to address these statements:

For instance, I've spoken to professors who say they do most of their work at night -- which, obviously, is impossible in a regular job. But I've observed this getting translated into laziness. People will only come in to the center for 3-4 hours a day, and sometimes not even every day in the week. I also see people often passively sitting on their computers and not really actively doing their work.

That was pretty much my regular schedule as a data engineer (or even when I was a developer just not as often). I'd have weeks where 70% of my job was either done from home or really, really early in the morning (think starting work at 2 to 4 am). This was because to work on the systems we needed without slowing everyone else down and ensuring it just worked when people came into work at 8 am - that was the only choice. Then from about 8-10 am, I would just be sitting there watching network traffic, real-time analytics, bug reports, and other trackers we had and if everything was working I'd go home and go to sleep. If it didn't, time to fix stuff.

FYI, while waiting on those reports (to stay awake) we (IS department) were often accused of just standing around the coffee pot and gossiping for two hours and then leaving. As people didn't understand the gossip was all work related and us trying to stay awake at the end of a long day.

In academia, some will always assume that you only have to do two lectures a week means you're only working 10 hours a week even if it takes you 4-6 hours to prepare for the lectures and you then spend another 40 hours on research for your latest paper, grant proposal, theory, data analysis, etc. or work a second job because you're just starting out in the field. Partially if you perform all of these tasks at home. Such as when you're only remotely collaborating with peers and have only set a single "stand-up", in person, meeting a week.


Some years ago, my mathematician friend and I were talking about a world-famous mathematician we both knew, X, who had moved away from our institution a few years before to take up a prestigious position elsewhere. This happened around the time that X had published a series of groundbreaking papers developing a new and incredibly deep mathematical theory. Later the man would go on to receive many important awards.

My friend told me that his office door used to be a few doors down from X’s office during the time when X was developing his theory. Whenever he walked past X’s office, he said, he would see him there sitting at his computer playing online chess.

When the man got any real work done remains a mystery.

  • 3
    Maybe he was doing his "real work" while he was playing online chess. Commented Jul 26, 2019 at 21:50
  • @PatriciaShanahan is that a thing? like there seems to be this movie Trope that once a researcher is good enough their subconcious works while they do something else or they even take up a new hobby as part of their research (also relevant to strategy games and art)
    – Hao S
    Commented Jul 26, 2019 at 23:34
  • 4
    @HaoSun I got at least one patentable idea while playing solitaire. After loading in a lot of information, backing off and relaxing can let things mix and something new appear. Commented Jul 27, 2019 at 0:01
  • 1
    I often get ideas while playing games or doing some other non-work task. I think it's a bit like a fidget activity such as spinning a pen, it helps maintain a baseline of mental activity so I can tolerate inevitable lulls in my own thinking.
    – Trusly
    Commented Jul 27, 2019 at 5:45

I believe there is some merit to your observations, and I can lend some validation as to their sobriety from personal experience in academia. A bottom-line lesson is that you bring the drive, intensity, and seriousness with you, that are helpful towards your own process of discovery.

Notably, it requires greater self-discipline to work effectively in a less-structured environment than it does to work in a more highly structured one. Consequently, it is natural to find that some slip under the radar of the less-rigorous environment and probably prefer it because they can get by with ease for a time. On the other hand, freedom from the constant pressure of production demands is essential to making ground-breaking progress and toward promoting creativity and mental elasticity. If true principles are discovered and documented during this season of relaxed constraints, the next round of production may be all the more fruitful due to the increased knowledge. I personally believe that all useful work consists of cycles wherein we spend some time in rigorous or intense activity, followed by time that is more relaxed, and that both phases contribute towards our ultimate productivity.

Consider the example of tree rings in nature. During Summer, abundant light and moisture are used to promote fast growth and increase the size and porosity of the tree trunk, facilitating nutrient flow between the roots and branches. During winter, growth is much slower and the accretion is narrower, harder, and usually darker. Trees would not be as strong without the Winter season and the harder, denser wood they build during those times, but they would not be as large or as vigorous or as healthy without the growth that Summer brings.

So research and production are symbiotic. There is a significant precedent in the Biblical commandment to labor six days, and rest every seventh. There is a great deal more we can accomplish by recognizing the cyclical nature of life and by leveraging rest and relaxed times in addition to productivity-driven times, than we can by giving exclusive focus to "getting things done" or to the appearance thereof. A key is to develop and exercise the discipline to use each block of time for its ideal purpose. Much of academic work involves taking in new material, working with it and exercising its functions to gain experience, which experience is then searched mentally or visually for connections, patterns and themes, inviting the inspiration that leads to new discoveries.

So in short, expect some bursts of intense activity as you labor through a mathematical problem on the board or hack out a prototype or have an engaging discussion, and also expect times of apparent lull as you immerse yourself deep in thought, searching for the connections you would never find if you were moving too quickly to allow them to come into focus. Move decisively and with energy once you know what to do (but don't wait until you know everything--there are great and important lessons to be learned by moving in a direction you feel is "good" but without sure proof in advance), and also take time often to be still and ponder your next move. Don't forget to eat and sleep, but don't let rest and recreation take over--you must be very alive, active, engaged and serious to bring the best fruit to bear from your research. Enjoy much seriousness, enjoy much laughter. The best discoveries come from the marriage of imagination with hard work.


Not to dismiss your concerns but I think this is a local phenomenon more than something due to acedemia specifically. I've been in industry for several years and I've seen people who are even lazier than you describe above and others who are some of the most hardworking people I've met.

You should maybe look around at other teams and see if they have a different work ethic that suits you.

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