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I am not a genius but I am a good test taker and a very practical person. I went through undergraduate school without studying much (skipping classes, doing homework, reading the books and doing some exercises the day before the test) with a 3.6 GPA in Computer Engineering from a decent school (CWRU).

I know I might get angry answers from people saying that it simply cannot be done. I am interested to hear from the people in the other side of the spectrum. Can it be done? Have you done it?

I want to become a college professor so a PhD is a requirement I need to fulfil.

slack off = not put much effort and work in, like when you didn't bother to google that word!

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Sep 13 '18 at 20:04

13 Answers 13

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Can I slack and get a PhD?

Yes, definitely. I have known PhD students that graduated, which I can only describe as lazy.

Now the more important question is Why the heck do you want to? If your goal is to stay in research, slacking off during your PhD time is career suicide. If you do not want to stay in research, and you are not particularly interested in the research contents, then a PhD degree will not be much more than a piece of paper to put on your office wall. A piece of paper for which you have accepted 3+ years of lousy pay.

Edit:

I want to become a college professor so a PhD is a requirement I need to fulfill.

I correct my point from above: "If your goal is to stay in academia, slacking off during your PhD time is career suicide". Let me put it this way - faculty positions, including those at liberal arts colleges, are typically competitive to get into. Having a PhD that shows that you are less than enthusiastic about your field will likely not land you such a job. If this is your career goal, you need to ask yourself not "What is the minimum amount of work I need to put in to get a PhD?" but rather "What is the minimum amount of work I need to put in to have a real shot at scoring a position afterwards?" (where the second effort is substantially larger than the first effort).

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    "I want to become a college professor so a PhD is a requirement I need to fulfill." – Sparr Jan 22 '15 at 20:06
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    In today's job market, slacking your way through a PhD will leave you with 5+ years wasted and no faculty position. It's concerning that you (OP) are thinking of the PhD as a requirement to be fulfilled, rather than a critical opportunity for learning to do independent research. This suggests you may not have the greatest understanding of what being a college professor is actually like. – Corvus Jan 22 '15 at 20:22
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    @xLeitix: Are there no non-academic positions where the "prestige" of having a STEM PhD, or perhaps the "general intelligence" indicated by having one, would significantly help get a job? In other words, mightn't a PhD be more than a piece of paper, at least for some jobs? – Sal Jan 23 '15 at 3:45
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    @Sal At least in CS, if you're not going to go into research (which doesn't mean academia, there's tons of private R&D as well), a PhD is worth rather little (I've heard from friends in other fields where a PhD with no real world experience would even be considered detrimental) - from a money and career perspective spending the 3+ years working would be immensely more useful. – Voo Jan 23 '15 at 18:23
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    If OP is staying in academia, it'd be difficult, because letters of recommendation are the norm, and nobody would recommend you. Also it would be difficult to get your work done and graduate. At a certain point they just start asking why you are still there and when you will graduate, or maybe you don't belong there at all. Anyway it's not for the lazy. – Rob Jan 26 '15 at 20:21
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Can I slack and get a PhD?

You seem to have started early in your laconic/lazy formulation of the question. Nevertheless, I know what you are asking at least in spirit: can you get a PhD without really trying, i.e., by doing the minimum necessary and having that minimum be significantly less than your peak activity.

The answer is: while no one is guaranteed to succeed in a PhD program and some people get kicked out of PhD programs (including, more's the pity, some who are "really trying"), the answer is that yes, it is most certainly possible for some, and probably the average PhD student could introduce a non-negligible amount of "slack" and still complete their PhD.

Now please listen carefully:

The old saw But you would only be cheating yourself was made for this situation. By doing so, you will be cheating yourself out of some very valuable commodities: time, money, future employability, your own happiness and even contentment.

Look, don't do it. Maybe I can express it like this: how much would someone need to offer me to get me to go back to school and get a PhD in some field I didn't really care about? I would say that for half a million dollars now under the agreement that I would stay in school until I got it and another half million dollars upon successful completion, I would have to consider it. If you do not have financial incentives of this order of magnitude, forget it.

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    This is a really fantastic answer. Why on earth would you cheat yourself out of 3-5 years of work experience and decent pay in order to 'just get by' in a research-oriented degree program? The very nature of the question reveals the original poster's ignorance about what a PhD is and why one should pursue such a degree. – Yasha Jan 22 '15 at 16:31
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    i don't quite agree. saying "why would you cheat yourself out of the learning experience?" implies the asker CARES about the learning experience, which they clearly don't. Also, the asker is not ignorant about the purpose of a PhD-- they know it's a requirement to become professor. Rather than asking them why they want a PhD (which they already stated to become a professor), a better response might be "Why do you want to become a professor?", and "What do you want to teach?"To answer the base question, can you get a PhD without really trying, i believe the answer is "yes, others have done so." – johny why Jan 22 '15 at 22:23
  • @johny why: May I ask whom you are quoting in the first line of your comment? – Pete L. Clark Jan 22 '15 at 23:38
  • @PeteL.Clark: You, and i should not have said "learning experience", i should have said "time, money, future employability, your own happiness and even contentment", and the opposing experience was described here by angarg12. – johny why Jan 23 '15 at 3:00
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    @johny why: You are not quoting me unless you reproduce what I actually said! I'm confused about what you meant to write. Are you suggesting that the OP might not care about any of time, money, future employability, happiness or contentment? That doesn't seem very reasonable to me. – Pete L. Clark Jan 23 '15 at 4:50
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I think it's possible depending on your definition of "slack". You have to work on your research, but if you find that part fun and therefore not real "work", you can potentially just scrape by on the other required components. The only exception to that might be writing up your results in a timely fashion. I think lots of folks find this latter part at least somewhat tedious, and there's really no way to put it off or not do it if you want to graduate.

That being said, you can get minimum acceptable grades in all your required courses (if your department has any) and do mediocre on your qualifying exams and dissertation proposal (if your department requires either) and still get a PhD. As long as you're engaged with your research, getting a PhD might not be all that much like work.

Now, if you research is mediocre, too, you might still get the PhD but then find yourself with mediocre grades, mediocre research, and a supervisor and other faculty with mediocre opinions of you. That might lead to mediocre, at best, and, at worst, no letters of recommendation for future jobs. It might also mean that any papers you try to write from your dissertation work are also mediocre and unpublishable, and it's not like you will have published anything along the way if you were trying to maximize your slack. That won't likely be good for your career, but at least you'll have gotten the PhD, right?

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    I'm expecting a lot of people to answer "No" to the OP, but I agree with this entirely. I think the answer is actually a resounding yes, but with the caveat that you will be screwing yourself in the long run. In grad school, grades are near meaningless, the (major) tests you have to take can usually be retaken several times, the time schedule is very flexible to the point that you can abuse it, and most advisors won't actually fire you for doing little/bad work. But, there is a good chance that you'll be unhappy and you'll certainly have no prospects when you're finished. – YungHummmma Jan 22 '15 at 15:41
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I don't know what you mean by "slack", but if you want a living proof of somebody "lazy" getting a PhD, here I am.

I remember tales from my colleagues speaking about entire summers spent working on their PhD, even working on it every Saturday at home.

I never did such a thing.

I never worked in my PhD outside my working hours: I can even think a couple of really dry periods where I got really distracted and worked on personal projects instead of in my research.

The whole process got 4 years (6 years including Master Thesis), although I completed all my work 1 year before obtaining the title, and I spent all that time in bureaucracy.

Just by looking at the highest voted answers to this question, you can feel the general vibe of this community. My vision however is somewhat different: you don´t need to slave yourself over getting a PhD, and certainly, it is not worth sacrificing holidays and weekends for it.

Also keep in mind that research is a very intellectual activity, so logically you will go through less productive periods influenced by your own mental state.

As a caveat, I have to point out that I got away with it because my research group was quite lousy. I did almost all the work by myself with little supervising, and indeed this may very well be the cause that my motivation to work was so low.

My takeaway message is: if you want to get a PhD and are afraid that it will be too hard on you, don't be. On the other hand, if you want to know if getting a PhD is a good way to slack for a few years, you can probably find better jobs that suit your needs.

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    "My vision however is somewhat different: you don´t need to slave yourself over getting a PhD, and certainly, it is not worth sacrificing holidays and weekends for it." Could you point to a specific answer that advocates slaving over anything, sacrificing weekends or holidays? I find it quite disturbing that certain answerers here are construing "slacking" as "not working more than full-time". Especially, if we are only counting time spent on one's research -- rather than teaching or grading -- then 40 hours per week would be unsustainably high for most students I know. – Pete L. Clark Jan 22 '15 at 20:18
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    @PeteL.Clark: For me slacking is a state of mind. Do you put your heart and soul into the PhD (while hopefully maintaining good work-life balance) or do you punch a clock and disinterestedly do the bare minimum to leave with a degree? The former is not slacking, even at 30 hours a week; the latter is slacking, even at 50. – Corvus Jan 22 '15 at 20:28
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    @Corvus: I become increasingly annoyed at the OP for not clarifying his meaning, but for me slacking means toeing the line on the minimum you can do to get by. I can't speak for all parts of academia, but in mathematics the idea of a slacker working more than 40 hours a week is basically contradictory because it's significantly more than is necessary to get the degree. – Pete L. Clark Jan 22 '15 at 20:32
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    @PeteL.Clark: Agreed about the 40 hours. Though I never cease to be amazed at the number of low-productivity hours that students (and some faculty) manage to put in. It's all too common for people to think that spending 10 hours a day switching between facebook half the time and an academic paper the other half constitutes a good work ethic. /he says while answering SE questions on lunch break/. – Corvus Jan 22 '15 at 20:35
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    And were you able to continue your career and become professor somewhere? Because other answers imply that you can be lazy and get a PhD, but then your PhD won't be good enough to get a tenure track position with. – RemcoGerlich Jan 23 '15 at 9:19
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There is a basic misunderstanding in your question. You are thinking of a PhD as similar to a Bachelor's or MS degree. (i.e. a simple badge that you have acquire to "level up" in your career.)

It's not. People will actually at least read the abstract of your PhD dissertation and your future career prospects ( in academia at least ) will depend greatly on the perceived quality of the research you do while getting a PhD. The people deciding whether you get any academic position will actually read it and a slacker's PhD is very obvious.

Your PhD research is the equivalent of the "masterpiece" required of craftsman in medieval guilds. It shows how well you've learned the guild arts and will be judged to decide if you are really a master or not. If it's not good enough, you may have the sheepskin, but you will never be admitted into the guild (i.e. tenure track).

Even at "teaching colleges" the competition for professorship positions is pretty fierce. Computers won't be quite as cut throat as say English Lit, but your chances of getting a tenure track position with a "slacker's PhD" are minimal.

I'm quite sure it's possible to get a slacker's PhD, but expecting to get a tenure track position with one is wishful thinking. One the other hand, you could likely get a lecturer's position, but those generally only require a MS degree and are a dead end jobs. Pay is terrible and there are no prospects for career advancement. They do allow lot's of time for slacking between marathon grading sessions though...

Even if you got lucky enough to get a tenure track position, that is only the start of race. You are expected to keep publishing to rise through the ranks to achieve tenure. If you don't publish enough, you'll be asked to leave and make space for somebody that does. It's a lot like grad school, except the teaching load is higher, you have no advisor and all the weak competitors are long gone. But you are getting paid almost as much as an assistant plumber.

  • Love this! Pretty funny about the assistant plumber. It really makes me glad I didn't pursue a PhD. When I finally realized I would never want to teach, that was the clincher. Teaching would be a living nightmare for me. – Inquisitive Jan 25 '15 at 3:20
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You mentioned that you got a decent GPA with not much work. This possibly indicates that you are quite capable, and not motivated unless pressured with a deadline.

There are many reasons the lack of motivation can show up during in college; from things being too easy, to not having an ownership over the work you are doing. As others pointed out, research is a different animal all together, and you might find yourself thriving doing research.

If your goal is to get the degree with the least amount of work, that attitude won't get you far. However, if you are considering PhD, but you are concerned about your lack of motivation as an undergrad, then you stand a chance. Think of the reasons you lacked motivation, and how you can overcome them. And, please, don't think of yourself as a slacker, because you lacked intrinsic motivation to go above and beyond in classes that had little to do with what you are passionate about.

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There is no "amount of work" or "trying hard" requirement for a PhD.

Instead, typical programs require you to do a few things:

  1. Pass qualifying exams
  2. Pass a certain number of required and elective course (usually this happens in the first year or two)
  3. Maintain a minimum GPA (usually 3.0 or so)
  4. The big one - complete original research that advances your field.

Notice that none of these requirements has anything to do with the amount of effort you spend. If you are exceptionally smart or talented at taking tests, you could probably "slack" and make it through the first three requirements. In my program there were definitely people who put in more effort than others, sometimes they needed to, and sometimes they didn't. In the end though, all that matters is that you meet the requirements, not that you spent X amount of time or effort on them.

The first three requirements are easy to measure, and the bar is about the same for everyone. However, the last requirement is tricky. This is why some of the other answers are saying it's not a good idea to go in with the idea that you could slack off and get by.

The reason is that judging your success at #4 comes down to the personal opinions of your adviser and your dissertation committee.

Partly it is based on the number and quality of papers you publish, partly it depends on the perceived quality of your thesis, and partly it depends on your adviser's perception of your ability to conduct original research.

A lot of other answers are saying that if you don't excel, then you won't get good recommendations, won't publish much, and won't get a job after graduating. It is true that there are more PhD recipients than there are PhD jobs, and so you definitely need to be on the "really good" end of the spectrum if you want to do well after school.

On the other hand, even though the original research requirement is highly subjective, and can depend a lot on what your adviser's perception of your work ethic is, I think it is only fair to point out that there is no built-in requirement that you work all the time.

As an example, if you took two students, one who worked 40 hours per week and produced 4 or 5 highly respected papers in a field that brought in a lot of research funding, and one who worked 60 hours per week but only produced 1 or 2 papers that weren't considered ground-breaking, I think it would be unrealistic to think that the first student (who some might say was slacking) would have a hard time getting a job.

I think what the other answers are trying to get you to see is that as a general statement, "hard work" is correlated with success in research. Note that I said correlated - in the end, the research is what matters, and hard work doesn't guarantee anything, nor is it necessarily required. Luck and talent play big parts as well. In my experience, breakthroughs in research actually happen when you take time off to think. You need to put the work in to design the experiments, generate the data, and process it. But the real insights come from stepping back and thinking about things differently. You can't force that, and I have a hard time thinking of that part as "work."

I think what really matters is your ability to overcome challenges. Sometimes people equate that with work, in the sense that you have to keep going even when the going gets tough.

If you are considering going into a PhD program, you should accept the fact that for most people, it takes a lot of effort to succeed, and even more to excel. As a general statement, your adviser will expect you to put in as much time as you can and will not like it if you "slack off." However, in the end, all that matters is the quality of your research and the opinions of your adviser, colleagues, and committee. If you can work less and still do groundbreaking, original research, while maintaining the respect of your colleagues, then it can be done.

Don't tell the admissions committee that you want to slack off, though. They won't like that.

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    Maybe someone somewhere would describe working 40 hours a week and producing at least one highly respected paper per year as "slacking"...but I don't think it is very useful to do so. – Pete L. Clark Jan 22 '15 at 20:07
  • @Pete L. Clark - that's my point - it's about the results, not the time put in. There were definitely PI's at my school who expected more than 40 hours per week, but in the end, the results are what matters. – thomij Jan 22 '15 at 20:53
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Another side of it is that you will need the respect of the academics you work with, also postdocs etc if you're to get a job at the end. They're the people best placed to spot real slacking, and one bad word from them can ruin your chances of getting the next step in your career. Depending on the group/field you may well need to be a team player which mean volunteering to take stuff on if it fits your expertise. To progress in academia you'll also need a publication record, and writing papers that are accepted isn't much like turning in undergrad work done to the best of your night-before ability.

I'm not saying that every day has to be a grind, but some will. Also there will always be non-productive days or months. You need good bits in between when something you enjoy working on is going well. But it won't work out well going at it the way you think.

Finally - how do you expect to write up on that basis - it's probably the most serious piece of self-motivated work you'll have seen to date.

I'm not saying don't go for it, quite the opposite, do go for it. but only when you've found something you really want to be working on. After all, if all goes well you'll be working on it for a few years afterwards as well.

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Perhaps being a college professor is different in computer science than in the humanities, but I think that the OP is not very clear on what being a professor involves. Fundamentally it is about doing research and discovering new things. The emphasis on teaching varies by institution but even in places that are heavy on teaching will still expect you to do research. While you don't have to kill yourself to produce acceptable work, you can't slack off completely.

Academia has changed a lot in the past 20 years or so. It's extremely competitive, not very well paid, and tenure track positions are not as numerous as they were. Even badly paid adjunct jobs are hard to get. Try searching the Chronicle of Higher Education for articles about the job market, for example. Having a PhD is absolutely not a guarantee that you will get a job.

Can you slack off and get a PhD? It's certainly possible -- I was a bit of a slacker and I still managed to finish mine. But because I didn't put in enough extra work beyond my actual research project (publishing papers, teaching undergraduates, organizing other professional events, starting a second research project, etc. etc.) there is pretty much no chance that I will ever get an academic job.

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The question you are technically asking may be unanswerable. I do not know if you (personally or the more general you) can slack and get a PhD. The only way to know is to try. I'll game it out a bit based on the assumption that slacking is a higher priority for you than accomplishment and that you will do what it takes to be accepted into a PhD program. I mean no judgement here. I am interpreting this from your question.

If you slack and you do not get a PhD (kicked out or you exit for whatever reason), what do you have to show for your time and whatever effort you put in? Would this be the best way to spend your time and effort?

If you slack and you do get a PhD, will you be able to put that to good use? (See answer from Bill Barth) Will you be happy with the time you spent? Will it really help you do better work/earn more money/have a more meaningful career. If the answer to any of these questions is yes, a PhD may be worthwhile for you.

More specifically, you have described yourself as a practical person. Even in computer engineering, a PhD is rarely pursued because of how practical it is. Even if it's practical to have, it's extrordinarly impractical to attain.

If there are masters programs you are interested in, that may suit you better. I gather that you are a good test taker (your description), can absorb material quickly, and are willing to do what needs to be done(homework, reading, exercises).

If there are any PhD programs that let you leave with a Masters if you have completed a certain amount of coursework, that may let you 'have it all.' With that said, I would be surprised if this is considered an acceptable motivation/approach for applying to and matriculating in a PhD program.

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Most of the answers so far seem to assume that the OP wants to continue as a researcher after graduating. I think that if the OP is comfortable with getting a teaching post at a low-ranked institution, then a lot of the criticisms do not apply. A professor in such a place might well "slack" their way to a comfortable, tenured career by continuing to do a decent but not exceptional set of research and solid teaching.

Those places, however, do tend to pay more attention to one's teaching, both before hiring and on the way to tenure, so that aspect would still need to be quite solid, which might or might not fit with the OP's definition of slack.

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    No, I assume only that the OP is willing to be rational about the way he is spending 4-6 (or more) years of his life. Teaching jobs are quite competitive these days, and slackers make poor teachers as much as or more than they make poor researchers. If someone is willing to work quite hard in their future teaching but is not invested in a PhD program, they should get a master's degree and teach at a two-year or regional college rather than plan in advance on being a "slacker PhD". – Pete L. Clark Jan 22 '15 at 20:28
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There are some interesting responses to this question, but I think the most important ones highlight the lack of understanding of what a PhD is about. A PhD isn't going to get you a better job in the long-run, a PhD is about becoming immersed in your research topic and gaining the necessary tools to conduct good research.

You also don't 'study' for a PhD, you research and you write. Unlike undergraduate school where you might get away with hashing out a half-decent paper the night before it's due and get a good grade, that's not going to fly when you try to get your work published, which is one of the major things you'll need to be doing if you want to be a professor. Publications are blind reviewed, usually by other subject experts in the field. They will pick apart everything that your lecturer will skip in your 2nd year essay.

Your success will be dependent on a heap of factors, including your supervisors mentorship and your examination outcome. Common PhD results tend to be Revise and Resubmits or Passes with Major Revisions.

Professors don't just teach, in fact, teaching is a very small component of what they do. You need to advance your research, and while you can potentially get a PhD by slacking (depending on what you perceive as slacking) the work only gets harder when you attempt to advance your career. You won't be offered a cushy professorship upon completion, there are hundreds of PhDs out there who have heaps of publications, grants, conferences etc under their belt and can barely get their foot in the tenure-track door.

You need to critically think about why you want to be a professor, and if you are ready to put the hard work into research, conferences, teaching, seminars, publications and so on, go for it. But if you want a PhD for this rather vague idea of being a professor without a clear understanding of what that actually means, you need to seriously reconsider.

However, a PhD can also give you the training to enter into research in the industry/not-for-profit/government as opposed to academia (but again, this is about research, not teaching). If you want to be a professor to teach and have no interest in research, I would suggest you look into something like a trades/vocation teacher training.

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My interpretation of the original poster's question is: If I were to do a PhD without putting in much effort into my PhD, would it be possible for me to get a PhD and become a college professor?

Short answer

Yes, it is possible; but if you work hard, it is much more likely that attain a PhD and your career goal of becoming a college professor.

Long answer

As others have noted, it is getting more and more difficult to obtain a job in academia because there are fewer positions available, and more smart people trying to attain those positions. Unless you have been gifted with an exceptionally brilliant mind (e.g. Terrence Tao), there is no guarantee that you will be able to attain a college professor job even if you were to put in your best effort.

In view of this situation, my advice to you if you are serious about attaining this job is: Be a conscientous researcher and put in your best effort, so that if you still don't attain this job, you aren't going to regret that you didn't try hard enough.

What does "best effort" mean? I don't mean that you need to work 90+ hours a week and sacrifice your social life as well as physical and emotional well-being on the altar of academic achievement. I would argue that being focused and diligent and working regular office hours (roughly 9 am to 5 pm) should allow you to achieve >80% of your theoretical maximum output. This may not hold true in certain experimental fields like chemistry where my friends tell me they work 12 hours a day and half day on Sunday.

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