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I am a physics master's student hoping to pursue physics research by doing PhD, post-doc, etc., following the standard path. To put it straight, how far can sheer hard work take one in academia until it becomes impractical and affects one's personal life?(in terms of research quality and quantity)

To anyone who is interested to know why I ask this, please read further:

Since high school, I have been working super hard to succeed and have managed to reach my goals and actually do things which I didn't think was possible(personally) a few years back. I am in one of the best places in my country to study physics, have (what I consider) good grades and some great research experience through which I even got to travel to different country. However, this has been mainly due to my hard work and my professors/guides looking at my hard work doing favors by giving great recommendations, calling up other professors for me to work with etc. I have almost consistently put in at-least 10hours per day(including weekends) since my high school and there is literally no way I would achieve any of this without putting in this much time.

Until a few years back I thought this is the way but now I starting to reconsider. I am starting to believe this is impractical in the long run in research where I put in over 12hours of hard work with moderate intelligence. I have seen some of my classmates who are obscenely smart and the only way I can even come close to their level(in terms of grades) is by sitting in library the whole day. I do not know how far this hard work can take me and even if I it does is it practical. But if I stop putting this much work my grades will definitely go down and I would be letting down my professors. But to do well I feel like I have to put more effort the more I go forward.

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    You learn much more by getting good grades as a result of hard work than you do by being "obscenely smart" and not having to do any work. While I would consider 10 hrs a day excessive, having the discipline to work as you have done will set you up for success in the future, no matter your career. – astronat Oct 11 at 22:14
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    You ask about academic research yet you talk about grades. They are very different things. One can be hugely successful in research by being good at soft skills. but yes it will always require a ton of work. Open positions can get 100s of applicants. Funding requires weeks to months of effort for a single-digit chance of an award. How are you going to stand out if not by working harder than most? – A Simple Algorithm Oct 12 at 7:13
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    In many cases, those who seem "obscenely smart" might be working harder than you think. As an undergraduate I found out that I had a reputation as a person who never studied but did really well. Turns out my friend group just didn't see me study as I did it solo in a forgotten corner of the library or equivalent places for hours and never said "I'm going out to study" or the likes. Resist comparing yourself to others, you almost certainly cannot see all that they do. – GrotesqueSI Oct 12 at 8:22
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    @GrotesqueSI : or that they work differently. It's not just about how "hard" you work, but about how you work. What you do is at least as important as how much you do it, if not even more important. As a reductio, you can work "hard" all day, every day doing nothing but digging ditches, but it won't get you anywhere toward a Ph.D. in physics. – The_Sympathizer Oct 13 at 12:08
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    Is success due to hard work... — As opposed to what?! – JeffE Oct 13 at 13:01
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I can't say whether 10-12 hours per day is right for you, but caution you to consider your health. If it suffers, then everything will suffer.

But "intelligence" alone is overrated. The path to Intelligence, actually, runs through Hard Work.

I once got the results of an IQ test (I hope they don't do this any more). The printed results said that I was a bit above average, but not outstanding. They recommended that I set my goals at community college rather than university as I'd be more likely to succeed with more limited goals.

About fifteen years later I earned my PhD in mathematics. So much for prediction.

More about me. When I was young I was pretty smart but was disengaged from school. My life was elsewhere. I saw no point whatever in school. It was in the second or third year of secondary school that I had what I considered my first positive educational experience. But then, I started to work. And I worked hard.

But, you need to use the hard work to seek insight into what you are studying. The work, itself, isn't enough. But the insight is very unlikely to come to most people without the hard work.

Again, though, don't neglect the wider picture. Get enough sleep. Get enough exercise. Seek feedback on what you do from those who know more. Find a mentor (or three). Ask a lot of questions. Take a lot of notes.

And don't try to work past the point of frustration. The work will be very inefficient. Take a break for a bit. Then come back to it.

  • I like this answer. It matches with many of my experiences. I was a solid B- student in middle class -- neither good nor bad. Now I'm a full prof in mathematics. I work hard, but not 10-12 hours a day, and Saturday is not a work day ever since I realized that I also need to have time for myself. – Wolfgang Bangerth Oct 12 at 14:02
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    Looks like you ran out of steam yourself with your very last letter ;) – Araucaria Oct 12 at 16:32
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    They give IQ tests to children in order to identify those that should put in a gifted program because they are far ahead of their peers and would be bored and their energy wasted otherwise. If those programs fail or don't exist, then you might well expect everyone to end up with roughly equal potential in a system that caters to the common denominator. Smart kids turn out lazy since they've never had to study, and their energy has turned into obsessions with video games or other hobbies instead of school. – A Simple Algorithm Oct 12 at 19:08
  • Hmmm, @Araucaria, I was just checking that you read to the end. ;-) – Buffy Oct 13 at 0:33
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    @ASimpleAlgorithm Of course, that entirely depends on how well IQ tests do to select people for "gifted" programs. I've got a suspicion the answer is "not very well". The idea of matching people to the best possible education they can handle is interesting, but that doesn't mean it actually works :) In the end, most of the time, if someone is really good at something, you can bet it's because they work hard at the skill. There's no free lunch. It might be fun, they might not even notice, very often nobody else notices, but the hard work is there. – Luaan Oct 14 at 12:13
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Is success due to hard work sustainable in academic research?

Yes. In fact, it's the only kind of success that is sustainable for any difficult activity.

It's not necessary to work 10 hours per day. Most people who think they are working very long hours are not working efficiently. Figure out the hours that are most efficient and stick to that.

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    +1 for mentioning the efficiency. I measure my working time using the (now ubiquitous) pomodoro technique. My interval is set to 30 minutes (for easy accounting). Over 2.5 years I average approx. 6 "pomodoros" (3 hours 2 minutes) of uninterrupted work a day including weekends and holidays. These lean 3 hours can add up to 7 hours of sitting around (depending on my mood and health). I also found out that anything more than 10 such "pomodoros" a day is unsustainable for me (2+ months without getting exhausted). And I'm very fit physically. – ayorgo Oct 13 at 10:32
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    @ayorgo completely agree - although I’m in a fortunate position of being able to switch between many tasks (university, paid work, hobbies) which helps boost. If you can, have multiple options for what you can do. – Tim Oct 13 at 15:33
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    @Tim The amount of motivation you can get for doing X from avoiding to do Y is surprisingly large too. I've done some of my best work while avoiding doing something else :D – Luaan Oct 14 at 12:15
  • Moreover, many people thinking they work long hours actually don't work as much as they think. A study relevant to the question on working (studying) hours for students, the ZEITLast project found much lower hours for a daily filled in online diary compared to estimates that ask students to recall workload (rolf.schulmeister.com/pdfs/Determinanten%20R_Schulmeister.pdf; mostly in German). They say & cite that recalling often overestimates workload by up to 40 %. – cbeleites supports Monica Oct 14 at 13:28
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    Part of this may be that e.g. in my 1st semester I was (physically) in university 8 - 18 4 days/week + 8 - 14 1 day ("feels like" 46 hrs). But due to breaks, the actual hours add up to "only" 35 or so (plus, the long afternoons were labwork where one may not have been working continuously the whole time). Still, that plus self-study time worked out only because of the mix of lectures/theory and practicum time during each day. 10 hrs day in day out is something very few people (if any) can do sustainably without becoming horribly unefficient. – cbeleites supports Monica Oct 14 at 13:34
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I am of the opinion that there are two “personality traits” which are more useful for researchers than “intelligence” (whatever that means to you) or “hard work”. The first is perseverance; the second is decisiveness. One must be willing to endure the ups and downs of research and the PhD life – seeing boring projects to the end, doing the nitty-gritty coursework you may find tedious – but one must also be willing to act quickly when a project is worth abandoning or removing oneself from; and must fully commit to any task will which take a substantial amount of time.

Thus, hard work is mostly useful if applied in a thoughtful, committed way. Simply spending large amounts of time “working” could have no value – I could spend an endless amount of time perfecting things which only incrementally improve my work. I'm a junior faculty at an R1 and feel my most productive colleagues work much more thoughtfully, and probably less time overall (or seem to, at least), than those (including myself) who are less productive despite working longer hours.

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Postdoc in math here (I used to be a grad student). I just try to put in 4 hours per day while leaving some time off. That is already a lot when balancing other obligations like self-care. At some point you just have to adopt a sort of fatalistic attitude. Connections matter a lot and working on topics that appeal to potential employers matters a lot. I think when it comes to employment it is a deal-breaker if you do fantastic groundbreaking work that doesn't appeal to the faculty. In that case it doesn't matter how hard you work.

protected by Alexandros Oct 13 at 8:46

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