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I'm finishing a PhD in Sweden this year and seeking a post-doc in the United States (atmospheric remote sensing). It is clear that a job in academia is not a nine to five job; nor do I want it to be. I often work late in the evening when I'm on a productive spur. When an important dead-line is coming up, one needs to work harder, and there is no overtime paid. I accept that. However, no matter how much I'm interested in my research, I do enjoy and need a reasonable amount of spare time, too; relaxing on the weekends, occasionally a long weekend away, and sometimes a longer trip, such as three weeks in the wilderness.

Regarding the normal work ethos for early-career academics in the United States, I have a hard time judging what is normal and what is excessive. Some examples:

  • Erick Carreira letter warning post-docs that he expects all of the members of the group to work evenings and weekends.
  • My apparent naïveté in believing that a sabbatical means not working, despite Wikipedia describing it as a rest from work, or a hiatus, often lasting from two months to a year. I was thinking of my friend, who spent a year between his PhD and his first post-doc travelling from France to Mongolia mostly on foot.
  • Someone commenting I am not a good role model, but when I don't work on a Sunday, I count that as a vacation day.
  • NASA postdocs having no employment-related benefits such as paid vacations, sick leave, or unemployment compensation.
  • Question How do we end the culture of “endless hours at work”?

We don't have such a work-ethos where I'm at. I belief that working too hard risks stress and burn-out, and does not increase productivity in the long run, nor human well-being. I want to do science. Doing science makes me happy, but having time to relax while not doing science is important for me.

Does the selection of examples I gave above represent a normal situation in U.S. early-career academia? Should I expect an attitude where asking for a 3-week holiday during the summer is considered as being not serious, or is the situation in practice usually not as bad as the examples above make it sound? How hard to early-career academics in the United States work, really?

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    +1. While it may be tempting to answer that question with anecdotal evidence, testimonials and remembrances, it can actually be answered based on statistical data (and analysis of said data). I humbly advise us all to try to avoid “easy” answers… – F'x Mar 11 '13 at 21:26
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    Another interesting perspective to this question is how hard should early career researchers work. I agree that a list of anecdotes is interesting but not very meaningful, but the notion that hours worked = productivity really ought to be squashed. – rfle500 Mar 12 '13 at 7:49
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    As a fellow grad student in Sweden considering to move abroad eventually, I feel your pain. I really think it's a fundamental difference in how people are managed. Numbers mean less on this side of the Atlantic, I think, and I am very happy about that. I really doubt that counting hours and keeping the "Democles' sword" over people will make them produce more in the long run. I realize that this is not the place for it but I would love to discuss this issue with people at some point, for instance on the AC.SE chat – posdef Mar 12 '13 at 9:16
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    To make the opposite point of @F'x comment: you should not make a decision about your postdoc based on statistics, because you may fall anywhere in the distribution. The expectations you have to meet will depend almost entirely on your postdoc advisor, so ask him/her. I recommend stating your own expectations clearly and firmly in the interview; if you sense resistance, then you already know what you're getting into. – David Ketcheson Mar 12 '13 at 9:34
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    Are you asking about all, or those who survive to be later-career academics? – keshlam Jul 4 '15 at 22:57
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TL; DR: 51 work hours a week with 12 vacation days a year

It is very difficult to assess how hard someone works. It is relatively easy to quantify the input (number of hours worked and the number of vacation days taken) and the output (papers and grants). In 2003 the Sigma Xi post doc society in the US began collecting data from 7600 post docs across 46 different US institutes about a number of issues including hours worked, vacation days taken, papers published and grants submitted. A summary report Doctors without Orders is available. Aggregate data is available via the Wayback Machine. I believe this is the best data set available to answer questions regarding the input and output.

The self reports suggest 12 days of vacation a year and 51 hours a week on average with 25% taking less than 7 days and working over 60 hours. The self report of the publication rate is around 3 with one grant application.

While self reports of hours work and publications are potentially biased, they might be a better measure of the perceived "hardness" of work than the actual hours worked. Obviously it would be nice if the publication and work rates were objectively verified. Obviously, publication rate and hours worked may not be the best metrics of how hard someone is working. This study found that alcohol consumption was negatively correlated with output. It is not clear if high alcohol consumption is positively or negatively correlated with how hard one works, but it might be relevant. Finally, Forbes has a report that University professors have the least stressful job, so maybe despite the hours, we don't actually work that "hard".

The comments to the questions suggest that understanding the input/output function would be desirable. This should be possible from the raw data of the Sigma Xi study, but not from the aggregate data, to determine if the inputs (hours worked) predict the outputs (papers and grants). I would be surprised if there was not a strong correlation, but also wouldn't be surprised if there were a number of outliers (i.e., lots of input and little output and little input and lots of output). Now, publication rate may not be the best measure of output as it doesn't consider quality. A psychology study found that impact factor is not correlated with publication rate suggesting that quantity and quality, as dubiously assessed by impact factor, are not correlated.

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    @gerrit the survey was conducted at a wide range of universities and open to all biomedical post docs. They looked for bias. See the second link I provided for an overview. – StrongBad Mar 11 '13 at 22:13
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    Of course the serious source of bias is in the self-reporting. – luispedro Mar 12 '13 at 0:28
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    I don't see how you can call this 'the answers', when it only covers a single area of research. – Tara B Mar 12 '13 at 11:49
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    @DanielE.Shub: That's a fairly strong null hypothesis you've got there. I prefer to admit, in the absence of data, that I just don't know. – JeffE Mar 12 '13 at 13:42
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    I just looked at the report. "All fields" apparently means "All fields of experimental science". Computer science and mathematics are not represented at all. (Yes, math and CS postdocs are too true Scotsmen!) – JeffE Mar 20 '13 at 15:20
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I would like to put StrongBad's instructive answer somewhat into perspective.

In a survey*, 55 percent of newly hired faculty (tenure-track) at a large regional university in the U.S. called the present year the busiest of their life. These faculty members were also asked to self-assess their weekly working time. They estimated a mean of almost 60 hours per week, not very much above the finding reported in StrongBad's answer.

However, when the same persons were asked to keep record every fifteen minutes of whether or not they were doing productive work, they recorded a mean of some 30 hours per week. (This probably excluded things like writing emails or taking phone-calls, but it expressly included teaching with preparation and grading, office hours, committee meetings, scholarly reading and writing.)

This is not to suggest that these scientist were hypocritical; they probably felt overworked most of the time. The divergence between reported and actual working-time could be due to the social expectation, possibly more entrenched in the US than in Sweden, that scientists must be "hardworking", or due to biased self-perception grounded in a high stress-level, or both.

From this, one may take the practical lesson that it is extremely important both for sanity and productivity to separate work from recreation and "having a life". As to the OP's primary question, early career academics in the U.S. do work hard, but there is a difference between working hard, working long hours, and working productively; moreover, at some point, the former and the latter may be inversely correlated.


*Boyce, R (1989). Procrastination, busyness and bingeing, in: Behaviour Research Therapy 27(6), 605-611. (PubMed link)

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    I don't think these two figures are inconsistent at all: postdocs are generally required to mostly just do scientific work. New faculty suddenly have added to that: undergraduate advising, teaching, faculty meetings, departmental service committee, graduate student advising, etc. None of that is "productive work" by postdoctoral standards, and it takes a lot of time per week. – jakebeal Jul 4 '15 at 20:04
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    I think that any measure of "productive work" that categorically excludes writing emails is too stringent. If I didn't write emails, I couldn't do any of the required parts of my academic job: teaching, research, administration, service. – Pete L. Clark Jul 4 '15 at 20:13
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    @henning I just looked at the study you linked, and I simply do not believe the data. This claims that the faculty spent only 1.5 hours/week on research-related tasks and zero supervision of graduate students. This is so out of whack with my observations of faculty in research-oriented universities that I simply do not believe it. The study says nothing about where the faculty were or what fields they were in, so it's also problematic to evaluate from that perspective. – jakebeal Jul 4 '15 at 21:11
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    @jakebeal if I read it correctly, the data are from first year TT faculty teaching a 3-3 load. Most faculty do not have graduate students their first year and with a 3-3 load they are not getting any research done either. – StrongBad Jul 4 '15 at 21:44
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    So, not in research-oriented posts at all then: a 3-3 load and no opportunity for students supported on startup funds is not consistent with any R1 engineering or life-sciences department I know. – jakebeal Jul 5 '15 at 0:12
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Why is this question being singled out for a higher standard of "statistical" reasoning than any other post on this site? I offer my experiences as an early career engineering professor in the US as "anecdotal" evidence, and do so with at least as much credibility as respondents on an anonymous survey.

In my experience, it's not at all about how "hard" you work (i.e., the number of hours per week) - it is about what you accomplish. In my first year as an academic I attended 7 conferences, authored or coauthored 4 journal articles, wrote three NSF grants (one of them successful), began projects with 2 grad students (both of whom eventually graduated with PhDs), taught three classes (two of them new to me) and served on the curriculum committee. That's the kind of involvement you should be expecting. With that said, nobody is going to look at how many days of vacation you take, how many hikes you take in the mountains, or how many times you spend an extra day or two at a conference location exploring the area. It is about managing your time effectively and accomplishing things (that will appear on your CV). Finally, the day of truth arrives at the tenure decision, and no one will care about weekends or vacations: but about your contributions to the field (papers, conferences, grants) and academic reputation (as evidenced in your letters of recommendation).

As for the sabbatical question, it is not a vacation. Most academics who take sabbatical go to another institution (industry or University or lab) and work with new people in an effort to learn about new things. Sure, there are fewer responsibilities (no teaching, no committees) and fewer distractions, but this is why it works! The last sabbatical I had, I finished writing a book and entered a new research field (helped by my new colleague-friends). At my school we have a laughable method of oversight: at the start of a sabbatical one writes a two or three page description of what the planned activities are and why they are beneficial to the researcher and the school. At the end of the sabbatical, one writes a two or three page summary of what has been accomplished. As a whole, professors are self-motivated, love their work, and care about the intellectual legacy (the works, students, and influence) that they leave behind. Sabbatical is an effective way of getting out of ruts, of opening new doors, and of expanding knowledge.

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    It's not “singled out”: I saw a potentially high profile question, in which I had a lot of interest, and wanted to avoid it turning into a discussion… but you're free to disagree! And yes, your anecdotal evidence has as much credibility as any one respondent of the anonymous survey… now go gather 6805 friends and we can talk :) – F'x Mar 12 '13 at 8:07
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    It seems to me that if we want to read the results of surveys, we all know how to use google. The point of most questions on SE is to encourage people to answer. In this case, your comment asked people to not speak up (unless their answer was "based on statistical data." So yes, it was "singled out" -- this is the only SE question I have ever seen where answers were requested to pass a threshold of statistical rigor. – bill s Mar 12 '13 at 10:28
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    @bill: Only by a single user, not the OP, who you are perfectly free to ignore as you did. =] – Tara B Mar 12 '13 at 11:47
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    @bills but the question is about "how hard you work" and not "what you accomplish". By stating your outputs and job responsibilities, I don't believe you have answered the question and am down voting. – StrongBad Mar 12 '13 at 12:17
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    I cannot know how efficiently or how quickly the OP can work -- but the OP does. By answering as I did (about what is expected) the OP can try to gauge whether the job is worth attempting. How hard must the OP work? "Hard enough to accomplish the things that need doing" is my answer. But I cannot answer this in terms of hours/days, nor will anyone else care how many hours/days it takes. – bill s Mar 12 '13 at 22:08
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I wanted to follow the @F'x's advice on avoiding easy answer, but I had to add some points:

  1. There is no constant working style across the United States. In academia, the working fashion significantly varies from university to university, from department to department.

  2. IMO, there is much more emphasis on effectiveness in Sweden. Instead, in the United States, there is more focus on timeframes.

  3. To my knowledge, it is rare to force post-doc and other researchers to work during weekends, though many of them normally work during off-hours to be successful in the forthcoming competition (in continuing their career).

  4. Duties during sabbatical (simple teaching and lecturing) is much less than official duties at home. In other words, an academician needs a long refreshment leave far from heavy duties, but not completely off. It is similar to working holidays (in immigration terminology).

In conclusion, if it is a post-doc position, the working rules are mainly defined by the group leader, and for assistant professors, this is the university atmosphere, Dean, and department chair controlling the working fashion.

Note: Once again, this answer is based on personal experiences rather than statistical data.

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    there is much more emphasis on effectiveness in Sweden. Instead, in the United States, there is more focus on timeframes — can you elaborate on that? – gerrit Mar 12 '13 at 13:13
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    @gerrit Labor system in Scandinavian countries is more result-oriented. Even the education system does not care about routines but the result. In Finland schools, students have freedom what time they want to go to school. Finland universities needs less courses for graduation, as compared with the US universities. – Googlebot Mar 12 '13 at 13:19
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    I've downvoted this comment because, again, the question is about "How hard do you work?" and not "What do you accomplish?" I believe the value of the question is in the "how hard" because presumably, everyone wants to accomplish a lot, but varying people have varying thresholds for what their work tolerance is. Everyone believes, for example, that there's an expectation that early-career professors work 60-80 hours a week for tenure (i.e. to be successful). Is that an actual number of straight working hours, or do we have a lot of "down time" in between? – Irwin Mar 12 '13 at 18:24
  • @Irwin the OP asked how much time an early-career academician must spend in the United States by referring to a rule that post-doc researchers must work during weekends too. I commented that a US professor normally pay more attention to the working hours comparing an Scandinavian one. This is not about accomplishment. In any case, I do not understand your negative attitude for downvote. I clearly stated that I want to add some points (rather than a definite answer) on different issues raised by the OP, but it was too long to be quoted in comment. Though this is common all over the SE sites. – Googlebot Mar 13 '13 at 3:26

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