Mike the Mad Biologist

On Work and Time in Science

Dr. Mom raises an interesting point about the amount of time she spends working as a scientist:

I work about 40 hours a week every week. I rarely work at home.

It seems like most of my colleagues (women and men) work crazy 10, 12+ hour days. Often you hear people comparing the academic version of war stories almost as if it is a contest to see who has worked the longest day. But I have never been like that.

At my Midwestern R1U I am considered fairly successful [Mad Biologist: I'll stipulate that she seems very successful]….

Dr. Mrs. Supersuccesful asked to talk to me and we discussed success and women at R1U. I thought here is someone I can finally share my secret 8 hour days with. Unfortunately, I was wrong. I got the weirdest look when I admitted that I don’t work crazy hours. (Which is why I never tell anyone.) Then later when discussing this with Awesome As. Dean, she said that I should speak out and let people know that 8 hour days are okay.

Some thoughts:

  1. Some people actually like doing sixty to seventy hours of science per week. There’s nothing wrong with that*: this is how they like to spend their time.
  2. Some scientists are at institutions were they do not receive a lot of ‘managerial’ support. If you’re at a place where the administration doesn’t help you write grants (on the admin side), requires lots of service activities, doesn’t provide the necessary teaching and research infrastructure, or has, in some other way, put you in a position to fail (or to be prone to failure; e.g., massive teaching loads and research expectations), you need to work really long hours. The noun you’re searching for is exploitation.
  3. Insufficient personnel. Often researchers try to do things that they’re not trained to do and will consequently waste time (and do those things poorly). That’s why it’s so critical to make sure that any position has the appropriate support staff–and the administration recognizes the need to support scientists. Having said that…
  4. Some scientists suck at time management. We’ve all seen (or suffered under) the PI who can’t manage his or her students. What makes you think they’re any better at managing themselves? Which leads to…
  5. There is a perverse incentive to not be efficient. As Dr. Mom notes, given the scientific cultural imperative of appearing to work hard (even if one is playing Tetris), having to stay late because you screwed something up isn’t punished. In fact, it’s rewarded–you’re putting in long, albeit stupid, hours. This doesn’t help change the culture.
  6. Business often does it differently. In the life sciences bidness, often, although it depends on the company, if you’re chronically working late (i.e., there isn’t a looming deadline), your time management is called into question. People wonder if you’re using your time well. I’m not sure what to make of that, but it’s worth noting.

Just to be clear, there are times when you have to work long hours–looming grant deadlines, something unexpectedly comes up, and so on. But there’s also a lot of bad behavior at various levels too.

So what are your experiences? How long do you work as a scientist, and why is that?

*Or maybe there is, but that’s a separate discussion.

Comments

  1. #1 Orac
    July 27, 2009

    Don’t forget in academic medicine that there are sometimes patient emergencies and various other urgent (but non-emergent) patient-related issues that simply can’t be put off very long or put off at all.

  2. #2 Aaron Golas
    July 27, 2009

    I wind up coming in over the weekends fairly often, but that’s because so much of my project relies on overnight reactions, overnight platings, and overnight cultures. It’s a pain, but at least it keeps things moving so I have something to work with the following Monday.

  3. #3 Art
    July 27, 2009

    There is also the fact that many people who spend overly long days are perfectionists, compulsive multitaskers, or workaholics.

    The myth is that perfectionists, multitaskers and workaholics are more efficient and productive. The fact is they are almost always less efficient. Perfectionists often use their time up focused on unimportant details that they feel they need to get ‘just right’. Multitaskers always look busy but often create almost as much work as they do by approaching the work in such a scattered way that it guarantees that they will spend twice as long as usually needed. Workaholics often want to do everything themselves and usually take great pride in extremely long hours. Even if those long hours means they are perpetually worn down and on the edge of mental and physical exhaustion. Of course being exhausted means everything takes longer. Workaholics often have no outside life and it can show in their lack of insight and innovation.

    Yes, there are times and places when long days may be necessary. But chronic long hours usually means something is wrong and effort is being wasted. Such long hours also contributes to low job satisfaction, burn-out and lower retention rates. Which can be an expensive and time consuming issue on its own.

  4. #4 Jim Thomerson
    July 27, 2009

    When I was a PhD student, one of my colleagues never did any work (well, I caught him at it one time), but he published several papers, did his course work on time and got a better job than I did. Another colleague was extremely organized. He would come in at 9:00 AM and work in an organized fashion until 5:00. He would go play a round of golf before going home for supper. He published several things, one a major contribution, Graduated on time, became a Dean, and later a Creationist.

    I am basically both lazy and goal oriented. As my cowboy father often said, “If you don’t use your head, you just made it hard on your ass.” So I do a lot of thinking and planning so as to work as efficiently as I can. I have done work with live material which needed daily attention on my part. Part of being lazy is to do 60 hour weeks if that is the easiest way to get something done.

  5. #5 drdrA
    July 27, 2009

    It varies. Sometimes- before a grant deadline- my hours are insane- other times- I leave at 3 pm. Just depends. One of the best parts of academia is the flexibility to be able to do this kind of thing.

  6. #6 söve
    July 27, 2009

    I agree drdra.

  7. #7 Janne
    July 27, 2009

    Crunch time happens now and again – looming important deadline kind of stuff – and everything else is dropped while I work through it, be it late night or weekend.

    But I normally make a point of keeping business hours. I’m at work at 9, and leaving for home at 6.30. I don’t stay late and I never come in on the weekends. I avoid doing anything work related from home beyond the occasional email or reading for fun.

    My time with my wife – eating dinner together every night, spending weekends with each other – is frankly more important than the office. And I have other obligations, such as studying the language of the country where I live, that also need their time.

    But most important, I know from past experience that if I spend 12 hours a day at the office rather than 9, I will not actually get another 3 hours’ worth of work done. I’m tired and lethargic and I might get twenty minutes effective work if I’m lucky. Sacrificing weekends works once or twice; then I end up constantly tired and grumpy and productivity drops like a rock.

    And frankly, to me nothing in life is so fun, so absorbing or so important that it is worth sacrificing everything else. If I were pushed to work 12 hour days and every weekend I would probably quit within a year. I’d be so sick and tired of research I’d leave the field altogether (I was close to doing so at one time for this reason).

    One question is of course if science is well served by preferring the monomaniacal my-work-is-my-life workers and pushing out those who have a wider array of interests and those who value family life over work. Are we getting the best science out of this state of things?

  8. #8 Kaleberg
    July 27, 2009

    Business only has an incentive to use hourly (non-exempt) employees wisely. Salaried (exempt) employees have zero marginal hourly cost, so it makes sense to scare them into working longer hours.

    Time studies demonstrate this. More highly educated workers have been working longer hours, while less educated workers have been working shorter hours. Education is well correlated with the likelihood of being salaried as opposed to hourly.

    For more see:
    http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2007/9/6/381387/-The-New-Leisure-Class

  9. #9 Jason Dick
    July 28, 2009

    I find that I have a very, very difficult time working at long stretches at a time, unless it’s something that I find continuously interesting (which isn’t often….most stuff that I find interesting quickly degrades into some annoying hunt for bugs or something of the sort).

    So I tend to work in relatively short spurts, but get lots of work done during those spurts. I honestly don’t think I could work nearly as well if I kept to a strict working schedule.

  10. #10 Paul N
    July 28, 2009

    When I was doing my PhD and my Post docs, I worked the same crazy hours as most other accademics – but when I got a job working for a Pharmaceutical company – salaried – I changed to 7.00am to 4.00pm regular days. And my boss watches what I do MUCH more closely now than was ever the case in accademia. It’s all just about time management. The boss always looks at what I plan to do any given week, and says “OK – don’t waste your time on that, it costs the company far too much to have you spending time there – do these other things instead”. Makes me very productive.

  11. #11 Jim Sims
    July 28, 2009

    When I was a Ph.D. student in the late 1970s, my major professor set the work example by being in his office (adjoining the lab) before his students dragged in on most days, and he was still at it after 5PM. Not all of us tried to emulate his example, but I did.

    The harder I worked, the “luckier” I got. Among the first crop of his students (his first Ph.D. student to graduate), I had a Nature paper, and the other graduate students did not. There was a cost to this work schedule (including taking short naps in the lab at night between times to attend to the experiment), and it did take a tole on personal relationships when so many hours were spent in the lab and not at home or socializing.

    I can’t say I lived a balanced life during my graduate student days (or 1st postdoc for that matter), but that life was intellectually stimulating and I learned a considerable amount about myself as a person.

    Long hours in the lab or at other work are not always rewarded. It is always about results. Focus on the results. For some of us, long hours are required, for others, less time may suffice. As I have gotten older, and perhaps wiser, I work mostly 40-hour weeks to produce results that keep me gainfully employed.

  12. #12 Mark P
    July 29, 2009

    Working long hours usually seems like a good idea when you’re doing it, and when you’re at a fairly early stage in your career. But the older you get, the more it looks like not such a good idea, especially if you are sacrificing other things, like time with your family. I have also found that a lot of people work long, long hours (or at least stay at work long, long hours) for reasons other than work. For example, I knew someone when I was in school who didn’t much like his wife, so he stayed at work.

    And Art, I think you’re right. I am not a perfectionist. I consider myself more of an optimizer than a maximizer. I finished my PhD, while a terrifically intelligent but more perfectionist student I know did not. And, nearly 25 years later, still has not.

  13. #13 Jim Thomerson
    July 29, 2009

    During my tenure as chair, I had an active and productive research program, taught a modrate load, and spent some time on outside hobbies. I understood that the administration wanted more work from me as chair than I was willing to give them. So I spent my chair time doing chair things I thought interesting and important, must do things like scheduling classes, and personnel management things in the departmetnt. Other demands I ignored, and they usually went away. Several times some panic concern would come down from on high which fell into my interesting and important box. I would print out the memo I had written on it six months before and send it upstairs.

  14. #14 nusret
    August 12, 2009

    very thanks for article

  15. #15 unutulmaz
    February 14, 2010

    When I was doing my PhD and my Post docs, I worked the same crazy hours as most other accademics – but when I got a job working for a Pharmaceutical company – salaried – I changed to 7.00am to 4.00pm regular days. And my boss watches what I do MUCH more closely now than was ever the case in accademia. It’s all just about time management. The boss always looks at what I plan to do any given week, and says “OK – don’t waste your time on that, it costs the company far too much to have you spending time there – do these other things instead”. Makes me very productive.

  16. #16 muhtar
    February 15, 2010

    I find that I have a very, very difficult time working at long stretches at a time, unless it’s something that I find continuously interesting (which isn’t often….most stuff that I find interesting quickly degrades into some annoying hunt for bugs or something of the sort).

    So I tend to work in relatively short spurts, but get lots of work done during those spurts. I honestly don’t think I could work nearly as well if I kept to a strict working schedule.