Why it annoys me if people say academics should work hard

I am annoyed and I think it is not because I can’t figure out how to hang our curtains that I just picked up from the store. It’s also not because our internet is very slow because the cable that goes into our apartment hasn’t been put in place correctly. (Sorry to my husband who I just called being annoyed with the things mentioned above, I found out I’m not annoyed because of that). I’m actually annoyed because of this blog post I read this morning. It’s about how you need to be the best post-doc in order to become an academic PI.  (it does actually have a bunch of good points about how to write efficiently and don’t waste too much time trying to get things to be perfect).

Sure, it should be possible for someone to work 37.5 hours per week and still get senior positions in academic science;  it should be the case.  However, I fear it is not.  And what incentive does the academic science have to change?  What universities have are a workforce who happily work their 37.5 hours per week and then stick an extra 10-20 hours per week on top voluntarily.  A workforce who don’t take their entire annual leave allowance.  A workforce who work when they are sick and rarely take time off.

So yeah, you need to work hard. I don’t think this is unique to academia. As I tweeted in response to this, I think academics aren’t special snowflakes who work for love instead of money. They are people too. And I think in every profession, the best people are at the top. The best soccer players probably are the ones who practice while others sit in front of the TV. The best garbage men are those who walk those extra two steps to get the garbage that people put a bit further away from the street. And the best academics are perhaps the ones that work 80 hours a week and never take vacation. But does it help anyone to keep repeating that? To keep saying that if you don’t work hard you won’t succeed? As someone who just took a month off in order to make sure our new place gets organized and our kids are supported while moving to another continent, I can so: No, this is not helpful at all. It just makes me feel like everyone is passing me left and right while I am busy being a mom and a wife and a very proficient IKEA-furniture-builder. I think we need to hear more of that: of how to be more than just a scientist and be very successful at it too.

So I’d much rather read things like this: You don’t need to work 80 hours a week to succeed in academia!

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4 Comments

Filed under absurd, academia, disgruntled postdoc, efficiency, leaving academia, life in the lab, parenting, postdoc, role models, science, women in science, work-life balance

4 responses to “Why it annoys me if people say academics should work hard

  1. Pingback: How to stand out in academic scientific research | opiniomics

  2. I’ll confess that as a grad student and postdoc I pretty much never worked on weekends and rarely stayed late in lab. I think the key is to be as efficient as possible. As a PI with kids, I pretty much work the same total amount of hours, but now they seem to be scattered at weird times.

  3. This is a topic that has bothered me for almost a decade now. It doesn’t just annoy me when people say that to be successful in academia, you need to work insane hours. It’s BAD advice.

    I think academics, like startup founders, often work non-stop because they think that it’s required. Or because this is in their nature. But I am far from convinced that academia actually requires it. I see too many people who burn out because they don’t have good work/life balance. I know professors who are parents and don’t work evenings/weekends. I know postdocs who want to spend time with their significant other and go home at the end of the day. And these people tend to be no less productive and successful than those who never leave the lab.

    We do this because we love science. It’s not a job really. It’s a passion and the way of life. But then who is to tell us that it must come at the expense of having time off, at the expense of having family and friends, at the expense of sanity?

    On a related note, it’s not just about how many hours you work per day and whether you take off the weekend. You also need vacations and extended time away from the lab. I strongly encourage students and postdocs to take travel, hike, and vacation. Do it during your graduate studies and between the PhD and postdoc! https://www.pubchase.com/career/question/how-long-can-i-take-off-and-do-something-awesome-129

    Best,

    Lenny

    P.S. As a fifth-year graduate student, I remember asking a senior postdoc about the fact that professors seem to work nonstop. It worried me. Her position was, “I think many of these people would work nonstop no matter what career path they chose. It’s self-induced. I care about doing non-science things. I choose to do science the way that works for me and my family. And I will ignore how much everyone works. I will do it my way, until someone tells me that it’s not enough and I can’t continue like this.”

    She continued like this. She became a professor at Harvard. I followed up with her when I came to Boston. She was a junior professor and nothing changed for her work/life philosophy. She did not go to lab on weekends or evenings. She is doing well. She is not the only example of this.

  4. This is really interesting. One thing that I think the ‘work 80 hours’ thing misses is that working 80 hours is not enough. People confuse process with product. I know a lot of people, esp grad students, who confuse being at work with working. A friend of mine regularly worked 12+ hours in his PhD, but never submitted his thesis until new rules meant he would automatically fail if he didn’t *that day*.

    It’s what you do that counts. Not how much time you spend doing it.

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