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I'm not 100% sure how to phrase my question, but I've been grappling with this for sometime and thought maybe the responses would provide me some insight.

I'm currently at PhD student soon to be on the market for postdocs with the goal of staying in academia. My dilemma is this: I am reasonably content spending a large amount of time/mental energy on research. However, I worry that this contributes to a culture of overwork and reinforces academia as a "ivory tower" inaccessible to those without the privilege of being able place such an emphasis on research.

To expand: Much of my life is spent directly or indirectly on research. I don't really subscribe to the idea of having to work "X hours a week" and regularly take day or week long breaks from my research when I'm not feeling like I'm making progress. I also regularly see a therapist and try to take care of my mental health as well as possible. However, even with this in mind, my desire to manage my mental health seems to be rooted in the desire to be more productive. When inspiration does strike, I'm happy to stop whatever I'm doing and follow up on the idea for as long as I'm captivated. Thus, even though I'm not always "doing" research, in the back of my mind I'm usually thinking of something related to research.

So far this seems to have worked reasonably well for me and feels sustainable long term. However, one effect is that I spend more time on research than I'm paid for (honestly this is probably true of any PhD student). What I worry about is that my willingness to research in this way helps to reinforce a lot troublesome aspects of academia. In particular, I wonder about what the effect on the work-life balance of my fellow PhD students, both in the sense that it normalizes what may be an unhealthy work-life balance for many people and in also the sense that there are many people, for whatever reason, who cannot do this even if they wanted.

Unpaid internships/adjunct faculty positions are perhaps a similar and more self-contained example of a similar dilemma- they may be individually beneficial, but certainly reinforce societal barriers and limit who is able to succeed.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. We can only move comments to chat once. – Massimo Ortolano Apr 13 at 18:39
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    I'm not sure that this is currently an appropriate question for our site, which is meant for targeted, generally answerable questions (see help center). Do you have a specific, concrete question? There isn't one in the text, and the title question seems to me to be about a personal decision, which again is not something people on the internet can answer for you. – Kimball Apr 13 at 19:12
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I will avoid the discussion about "fair work practices", which I find problematic for the reasons explored in the comments. Instead, I will address two questions that I think are at the heart of your question.

Does the fact that you work long hours contribute to a "culture of overwork"?

Arguably, no. Investing a certain amount of time into your work is not an endorsement for others to follow your path. There are large individual difference in how much capacity a person is able and willing to commit to their research. You are responsible for keeping your own mental and physical health in check, but not for the health of others.

How can you avoid contributing to a "culture of overwork"?

This is mostly about how you interact with others. Fundamentally, adopt a mindset that acknowledges and embraces individual differences.

  1. Don't glorify worked hours as a performance metric. Don't walk around telling people how busy you are.

  2. If you're in a position where you supervise students, encourage them to work the number of hours that feels right for them. Encourage them to view their time as a valuable asset and use it in a productive way. Don't scold them for not putting in a certain number of hours (assuming that they don't clearly put in less hours than they are contractually obliged to - if so, first try to understand what's going on).

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – cag51 Apr 14 at 1:04
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Astronat made a great comment:

No one wants to be part of a system they dislike, but that's not a reason to opt out of the system. It's a reason to change the system.

Since people tend to have different working styles and personal lives, how could one expect a one-sized-fits-all approach to work-life balance? You can improve the system by working to encourage and normalize a personally-defined work-life balance wherever you can (e.g. in your own life). This is one of my advisor's greatest attributes -- she actively supports me approaching my work in a way that works best for me and my family. Advisors like her will make great strides in improving the system, one student at a time.

It seems like another one of your worries is as follows. You enjoy working longer hours than others may be able to sustain. If this puts your work ahead of theirs, then you have inadvertently disadvantaged them for not working as much as you.

My response is perhaps a bit idealistic, but life is not a race. Sure, competition is an inherent part of academia as the available resources and openings are finite. But your success does not preclude others from enjoying their work, just like the success of others should not prevent you from enjoying your work. There's a great discussion about this (for mathematics) on mathoverflow.

There is a constant flow of preprints and papers in my field. Rather than letting myself be jealous or feel like I am falling behind, I let myself enjoy learning about a beautiful and developing subject at my own pace.

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It seems that one of your main concern is that you keep thinking about your research outside typical "business hours".

Just to give you a different perspective: not all jobs outside academia are the type of 9am-5pm, where you finish the work at specific time and immediately cut off mentally from it. Consider a few examples:

  • entrepreneurs - most (small) business owners work way more than 8 hours a day, and even when they finish their work for the day they keep thinking about their businesses, the same way you do think about your research;
  • professional athletes - most sportsmen, or sportswomen, be it footballers, tennis players, pole jumpers, etc., organize their entire lives and daily schedules around their career. Besides training and keeping fit, they have to strictly control their diets, often give up some pleasures (e.g. limit the use of alcohol, do not attend late night parties, etc), constantly monitor their performance and adjust their training techniques. Moreover, they have to remain in focus - it may seem strange to you, but they also keep thinking about their work, about opportunities to improve etc, all the time, also after training sessions;
  • artists - similarly as the two groups above, artists usually think about their work all the time, they are constantly "at work" searching for inspiration and contemplating ideas.

Yet we seldom discuss overwork culture among, e.g., sci-fi writers, painters, or professional body builders. Thus, there has to be something more to academia than the raw amount of time devoted to work, that provokes these discussions.

There are many competitive career paths, which are followed by passionates willing to devote to them much of their time, if not entire lives. This cannot, and arguably should not, be changed. On the other hand, there are things about academia, such as dishonest PIs manipulating students into performing unpaid work unrelated to their thesis, which are truly unethical and which can be fixed.

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    An interesting example for work-life balance issues in the arts with possible implications for academia can be seen in the movie "Whiplash". – lighthouse keeper Apr 13 at 15:28
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    I certainly see friends and acquaintances in industry working far more hours than people around me in academia (especially software and support). I'm sometimes puzzled why they put in so much effort for jobs they don't really like, but it seems like that's what you have to do to keep up, and certainly not limited to the fields listed here. – Bryan Krause Apr 13 at 15:42
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    These comparators are often used, but I don't think they really apply. What you say about elite athletes is true, but an elite athlete are by definition elite. They make up a much smaller fraction of all athletes than postdocs do of the entire academic workforce. Artists might be thinking about their work at all times, but they are not doing their work at all times. Academia consists of hard slog as well as "thinking" about your work at all times. Outside perhaps math and philosophy research is 5% inspiration 95% perspiration. – Ian Sudbery Apr 13 at 17:17
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    Finally small business owners. The glaring difference here - entrepreneurs work for themselves, academics are employees. Either you are a student/postdoc, and you work for a professor, or your are a professor and 80% of your workload consists of teaching and admin, 15% of supervising the research of others and 5% of your own research. This distinction applies to all your comparators. The myth that we work for ourselves rather than our employers is what allows those employers to extract so much labour from their workforce. – Ian Sudbery Apr 13 at 17:23
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    @IanSudbery: all how you choose to look at it. Fortunately I myself live in a country where I can start my own company if I choose, or switch to an employer who treats me better, all at my own discretion. From experience lots of people say they want to work for themselves... until they find out what that entails. – A rural reader Apr 13 at 18:52
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I think that indeed one should not dismiss, as it has been in some answers, the fact that the overwork culture is perpetuated as much by the increasing pressures in academics as by the people actually overworking. It is important to keep this in mind not to misunderstand some fundamental equilibriums. For example, some user spoke about "scarce research funds" as a justification for overworking whereas it is arguably overworking that lets governments or private research agencies keep the research funds low.

Now back to your issue, it would be irrealistic for you not to work when you want to ; however you might want to reframe your conception of success as it most likely influences your willingness to work in a way that may be negative. As I see it and from my experience, it often switches the will to work out of curiosity, interest or pleasure toward the hypothetical pleasure or satisfaction that academic recognition would bring you.

Academic recognition is indeed the common (and in some ways natural) definition of success ; I would say it could be rather a consequence of success where "success" would be something closer to "a job well done". This latter definition has the inconvenient of being harder to (self-)evaluate which could explain in some way this shift. But the former definition has the issue of making people work, and sometime overwork, for a future and often illusory satisfaction while, indeed, degrading other people's working condition.

All this said, if you work now in a way commensurable to your will to work when your will is driven by this second definition of success, that is driven by the satisfaction of working itself, of solving something or having done a job well (as obviously not all academic pleasures are immediate, but they should be directly related to your work), I think that the bigger part of your moral dilemma disappears. As you enjoy your work, overworking (with respect to the normal standards, not to you) don't feel like your spoiling your field ; as much as throwing food would make you feel bad while eating and enjoying it wouldn't.

Note that a corollary of this view is that if working at this pace is not enough to keep working in academics, you should be OK with it as it would otherwise mean overworking (now with respect to your health and life balance) in order to stay in academics. This potential resignation or forbearance helps you further feel like you are doing an ethic choice.

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Those that dedicate themselves to their career will do better than those that don't. This is beyond your control: You cannot meaningfully influence the masses dedicating themselves to their careers,* nor the masses that don't. You're just one person, I don't think:

[your] willingness to research in this way helps to reinforce a lot troublesome aspects of academia.

You can control your own career path and you can influence the careers of those you hire. You seem to have a good perspective. Use it to make the best decisions when influencing others.

*Unless, perhaps, you dedicate your life to changing the system (likely at the cost of not contributing to research).

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  • "Those that have the freedom to, and then decide to, dedicate themselves to their career will have an edge over those that either cannot, or choose not, to do so", is how I would put it. – David Roberts Apr 16 at 7:44
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Professional boxers, even though they are in a physically very demanding and rough line of work, take great pains to care for their fists. Folklore says that traditional kettlebell athletes (who are generally the stereotypical 'tough' guys) have elaborate palm moisturizing routines. Its because they realize that hands are necessary for their sustenance. For academics, the equivalent is our minds. Its just that simple, we need to care for them on the highest priority. This doesn't have to come at the cost of advancing a career, we have to figure out how. The 'how' is very person dependent, because some of us can happily work longer and some of us can't. The individual must find their balance and not wait for legislation (most likely that will follow once enough individuals work on themselves). Most of all, it may help to de-emphasize the mind and treat it like any other biological system.

Let's stop thinking that it can take care of itself and keep pushing it beyond recovery. Ethics, fair work practice and work-life balance are abstractions we create because we don't like to individually take a call and firmly accept our limits, mental and physical.

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    This makes sense in general, and I think is sort of part of my premise (see the 2nd paragraph). However, part of my point is that people from different backgrounds will have different limits due to societal factors. For instance, how can someone who is poor and needs to work another job to be able to support their family compete with someone who is willing to put that extra time into unpaid labor at work? I'm not sure they can, so the question is whether the second person putting in the extra time is ethical. – overfull hbox Apr 13 at 15:05
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    Well, the natural way would be to figure out something that can substitute for hours spent. In terms of research productivity this could mean better networking, better delegation, wiser selection of problems, seeing dead ends before you reach them, and so on. – AppliedAcademic Apr 13 at 15:33
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    I do like the notion that we need to take care of our minds just like athletes take care of the key parts of their bodies. I think one of the key aspects/problems (not the only) of the overwork culture in academia, though, is that there is no culture of taking care of one's mind/brain. It is more like a culture of sacrificing everything, mind, health, relationships, etc., for that next paper/grant if you want to eat tomorrow (i.e. get or keep any sort of pre-tenure position). – 2ndQuantized Apr 13 at 16:55
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    @overfullhbox Why do you think society would be better off if wasted its scarce research funds on people who could only work, say, 1 hour a day? – user76284 Apr 13 at 17:19
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I don't see a "culture of overwork" unique to academia. Ask a small business owner, a salesperson, professionals in industry, and so forth. What you'll find is that, like academia, there's a natural selection process always in the works, selecting those who are successful. And in that competition there are always those who are willing to work harder, those whose concept of life-work balance is quite different from others'. What works for you might not work for me.

It might be illuminating to see what happens at businesses offering Unlimited Vacation as a benefit. Anecdotally people end up skipping vacations and time away. Humans are interestingly diverse critters.

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    The effects of unlimited vacation as currently implemented are not terribly meaningful I would argue, because of the cultural element of people believing there are unstated expectations (whether there are or not). If I could take 6 months of vacation every year and get paid for 12, I would, but I don't believe any workplace offering "unlimited vacation" wouldn't fire me if I tried it – llama Apr 13 at 19:19
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    Agreed @llama. And it goes deeper. Folks start seeing taking time off as a potential weakness in another person. On the other hand folks who like to work a lot are perfectly happy with taking no time off at all. – A rural reader Apr 13 at 19:26
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    To add to your point, @llama, "unlimited vacation" even removes the classic excuse of 'I have to take vacation, I have two weeks expiring at the end of the year.' And reduces the financial incentive to encourage employees to take breaks--since there's no risk of a cash payout for unused vacation time when they leave. – Tiercelet Apr 14 at 18:42
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I believe that many of the problems you listed result from the demand exceeding the supply for faculty jobs. In a game-theoretical sense, this results in individuals choosing hardships that, when repeated over a large system, might seem unethical. Ultimately, I think you would have to change the incentives of the entire academic system to avoid these choices. Not even an university president likely has the influence to change the entire system.

I wonder about what the effect on the work-life balance of my fellow PhD students, both in the sense that it normalizes what may be an unhealthy work-life balance for many people and in also the sense that there are many people, for whatever reason, who cannot do this even if they wanted.

Many PhD students want a faculty job, and are willing to work extra hours to make themselves more competitive for one. For someone whose primary goal in life is to get a faculty job, working more hours to the point of having an "unhealthy work-life balance" is their optimal strategy.

In other words, you could choose to work less hours. That might make you less competitive for a faculty job, meaning the job would go to someone who had more research output (possibly due to their choice to work more hours).

You would have to change the hiring criteria to avoid this. However, school rankings are partially based on the research output of the school, so schools have an incentive to hire more productive faculty.

Unpaid internships/adjunct faculty positions are perhaps a similar and more self-contained example of a similar dilemma- they may be individually beneficial, but certainly reinforce societal barriers and limit who is able to succeed.

Such positions will exist as long as people are willing to take them. While an university president might be able to abolish such positions at their school, there are many other universities that would benefit (in terms of research output leading to higher rankings) from offering such positions.

Also, that's a very relevant username.

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    Its largely a byproduct of a vast oversupply of labor. If you greatly reduced immigration you would a significant drop in this type of competition.(In the US at least). – FourierFlux Apr 14 at 16:29
  • @FourierFlux You could also say you would have a drop in competition if you kicked out all the old people, too. – user3067860 Apr 15 at 16:13
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So, while this might not apply as much to your position as a PhD student/postdoc, I want to chip in with a slightly different perspective for a bit of completeness.

Many answers compare doing research outside of the regular 9-5 to doing art, or practising a sport outside of regular working hours, and saying nobody is surprised when professional writers or boxers work/practice for more than 8 hours a day. So for research, which is something most of us got into because of an intrinsic motivation as well, it feels like it should be the same.

I will be the first one to admit, if I really get into trying out a new concept / constructing a new theory, I often won't want to stop. And I don't mind. However, I have noticed the "culture of overwork", in the negative sense that you describe present at permanent academic positions. Specifically, in positions which require some amount of teaching.

(Now, I understand that there are research-only positions in the US; I also know about very prestigious research-only positions in France. But in the UK system, you are typically expected to split your time 40-40-20, that is 40% of your time on research, 40% on teaching, 20% on admin. This balance might differ from country to country, but most EU entry level academic positions have some teaching requirements, anywhere between 20 and 50% on paper.)

And, while I definitely do understand the value of sharing our knowledge and teaching the next generation (which not all of my academic colleagues always seem to), my primary motivation to get such a position was to enable me to do research as a professional calling. I entered into a contract with the University, in which I promise a part of my time in services, and in return they promise I will be allowed to do research for a part of my time. And then reality sets in: on paper, the Uni "believes" that preparing a 2-hour lecture is just 2 hours of additional work. Marking student work is, again, not factored in realistically. If one spends 4 and a half working days dealing with teaching activities, it only leaves evenings and weekends for research. But really, is the problem in the research you did on Friday evening?

In this case, I think the question you ask has very much merit. In fact, the UK academia has been somewhat vocal about it. The core of the issue is exactly what you point out: does working after hours perpetuate these unhealthy expectations? There was a strike related to this issue in 2019, and a colleague of mine perfectly summarised the issue when I asked him what are they going to do while on strike. His answer was: while on strike about culture of overwork in academia, he would work on his own research and grant proposals.

And I agree with his sentiment. I am not doing research because somebody pays me to. In that sense, it is the same as producing art or training to master a physical activity: I do it for intrinsic value. An academic position, fortunately, allows me to support myself while I do something I am passionate about. I joke with my friends that I refuse to work for money -- if I did that I could sell y skills much better.

So in my opinion, there is nothing problematic with spending (a lot) of your time working on something you are passionate about. It is your time, your choice: if you prefer spending it doing research as opposed to e.g. playing a musical instrument, there is nothing wrong with that. The problematic component "perpetuating the culture of overwork" in academia is, I think, that many people do more "work" than they get paid for.

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