Ask Science Woman: What are your work hours? Can I be a professor part time?

A reader recently sent me this email:

I have a question that perhaps you and your readers can help with. I'm currently at a cross-road in my academic career. A year ago I started a Master's program in one of the "ologies" with potential to switch over to the Ph.D if things progressed well over the first year. Well, I've had a very successful and enjoyable first year, so I was thrilled to learn that I could join the 'fast-track' for the Ph.D. Needless to say, this was my goal, since my dream job is to work at a small college/university where I can focus most of my time on teaching. But I've recently been thinking about everything that goes along with the degree/career choice - more specifically, the time commitment. This has become an issue considering that my other goal in life (and perhaps the more desirable goal) is to raise a family. Now, I now both of these two things can be done simultaneously (your blog attests to this! good work!), even though it may not be easy. So, that brings me to my question. I guess I'm mainly wondering how many hours I should expect to spend working in a week as a young professor (and, i suppose, how this time figure may or may not change x-number of years down the road). Also, in my perfect world (which may not exist), I would love to be able to work part-time (3-4 days a week) and spend the remainder of the week raising my future family and spending some time working from home -- is this even a possibility?

At A Crossroad

Dear Crossroad,

Great question. I'm probably spending about 45-50 hours per week working, but it never feels like enough. Right now I'm sacrificing research time to keep my number of hours worked feeling somewhat reasonable. I'm hoping that as the next couple of years progress, I can find ways to (1) get more efficient at teaching preps and (2) squeeze in a few extra hours here and there, particularly on weekends, so that I can devote more time to research. I would guess that my working hours are "too few" compared to what many of my (male or childless) peers are working, and some weeks I know I spend a lot more than 50 hours working.

Our perfect worlds sound similar in that I too would love to find a part-time academic gig. I'm not sure that such a thing does, or even can, exist at institutions that expect their faculty to be active researchers. There are just too many demands on your time. That said, if you like the teaching aspect of academia, there are lecturer positions that probably can be quite reasonable workloads, especially once you've gotten efficient at your preps. If research is more your thing, what about a research associate position at a university or in government or industry. The government in particular seems to be more accommodating of part-time work, or at least 40-hours-and-you're-gone type work weeks. So identifying what aspects of Ph.D. level career paths appeal to you sounds like a good next step to take.

If you do opt to go the whole tenure-track faculty at a research institution route (like I voted to go), make sure that your partner is supportive and understands what your work load will be like. If your partner can help with some of the family raising responsibilities it will greatly reduce the stress on your life and make everything seem a bit more manageable. In fact, a supportive partner is probably a good thing no matter which route you take. :)

Good luck with the decision, the degree, and the future family.

Readers, what do you have to add?

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Thanks, it was quite a useful post. I think for people in academia it is really important to have very supportive (even if few!) friends, as you'll see them once a semester if you are lucky, and a partner that really understands the implications of your work (i.e., I sacrifice my life in my office/lab in the hope to gather useful knowledge and just maybe help people a little bit?).

Is it just me, or does it really feel like women always get the wrong end of the knife no matter what they are doing?

You might also want to consider working for a community college if teaching is your main interest (also, many CC's only require a master's to teach there, though they LOVE hiring PhDs if they can). For some reason, this career route is really looked down upon by academia in general and often dismissed, but judging by my husband's experiences at a CC so far, he has students who are bright and colleagues and administration that are top-notch.

There is the adjuncting route, which doesn't pay a whole lot, but offers the flexibility of part-time work. It also might help you get your foot in the door to a full-time position eventually. My husband just landed a full-time assistant professor position at a CC, and it pays just as well as a 4-year college. He has a heavy teaching load (3 sections of an intro class), but is not expected to do research at all during his 9-month teaching contract. With summers free, he has the option to keep his foot in research if he wants to (of course, he is in an -ology that doesn't require a lot of lab work, and still has contacts with colleagues who may be able to provide a field area for him to do work in the summer). If you like teaching, it's something you should consider.

Thanks for this post! The question you received is relevant for a lot of graduate students. Your answers are in line with my own impressions of academics in my field. The professors I speak to say that although their working hours vary weekly, they work an average of 60 hours per week.

Personally, I am very concerned about pursuing academia. I don't want to spend a good chunk of my life feeling torn between family and work. Not to mention that job prospects (even with a 2-3 year post doc) are not great. So, some of the other options mention (CC, government, lecturing position, research associates, etc.) sound like good options.

Yeah... folks, the answer is no. There is no such thing as a part-time job in academia, and ESPECIALLY if you are female. I say this as someone who, due to medical issues, was forced to reduce my work hours to the 2/3 - 3/4 range. This resulted in a series of positions in which only one was ok and the other were disasters. I was treated as 'not serious', I was discriminated against, I was given lower priority to resources, I had ridiculous comments made to me about needed to compensate for the unpaid overtime I would be working if I were full-time, and I was generally put in the situation of being treated like sh*t despite the fact that my productivity was above the full-timers.

The fact remains that academia is all about useless posturing about 'how hard you're working' and pretending to burn the midnight oil when you're really googling your friends or playing on facebook. It's not enough to get the work done, you have to keep up appearances, and for that reason you are de facto screwed if you are not able to work full time. And keep in mind that this was not my 'choice'... as opposed to how raising a family is perceived. You will be viewed as a useless unserious mom who shouldn't be hired because she will just quit soon to either pop some more out, or so she can spend more time at Twinkie's play group.

The only way to not get screwed is to either find a niche in industry, contracting, and freelancing, or a non-research position. Don't fool yourself and don't put yourself through what I did. Academia chews up and spits out enough full-time people, there is zero point entering that race with a major handicap of any kind unless you are independently wealthy.

And to those who wonder why academia doesn't have more women, or people with disabilities, well DUH. You could be Einstein these days and if you can't work full time or you have caretaking responsibilies or kids, the message is: GO HOME LOSER. If only I had known that from the beginning.

Academia needs to get its priorities straight.

I also agree that it's a good idea to keep your options open viz. industry, government, community college jobs, etc., but my experience has been that people who wish to (i) work at the college/university level and (ii) focus their efforts on teaching can find a good professional "home," but that this takes a little bit more digging. Depending on your -ology, you may also be able to get a position as an "outreach co-ordinator," or a public education specialist, to serve as a liason between a school/department and the community at large.

My previous position is one that was suggested--as a senior instructor/lecturer at a state university. I taught 3 classes per semester, had no research responsibilities, and while I wasn't paid as much as the tenure-track folk I also didn't work nearly as many hours. The benefit of these positions is the extra time you get for a personal life, the drawback is that tenure is unavailable so one must be careful to discern if a department/school is willing to make a long-term commitment to quality teachers.

My current position is in an -ology department at a small liberal arts college, and I devote 90%-plus of my time to teaching. I also am a new mother--my sweet Pea will be 8 months old on Sunday. I have come back to work full time, but my department has helped me to arrange my load so that I can spend more time at home--2 days per week last fall, and 1 1/2 days per week this spring; my institution also offers the option of dropping back to a partial load (between part-time and full-time) for those who want more time with their young families. Great situation...rare, but great.

Now, as to how much I work...I probably worked upwards of 80 hours per week during my first year, just trying to get everything rolling and get the new class preps done. However, I'm not in year 4, and with a few exceptions (e.g., the first and last week of classes) I'm probably down to a 40-hour work week during the academic year, and much less than that during the summers. And I have a few research students working on small projects. And, while I still feel somewhat torn between mothering and teaching, Pea makes me a better professor, and being a professor makes me a better mom (at least most days).

I actually know one couple (in the same social science field) that negotiated a 1.5 appointment shared between the two of them. They were fairly disciplined about their work hours and very productive and found that this worked well for both them and the dept (who didn't have 2 full positions available).

As a woman in a woman dominated field I think that it's typical to work 45-60 hours/week. (Personally I work a full 8-6 work week and 1 half day on the weekends). I could probably be more efficient, but.... I think it would be hard to work less. I would suggest/encourage seeking out research associate jobs if you want something that is more clearly constrained in hours but more research focused. I know several people doing that who really like it and with a generous PI can keep their own hand in the research on their own projects, without the pressures of grant writing etc.

By hypatia cade (not verified) on 30 Jan 2008 #permalink

A few years back I had the brilliant idea of writing part time and teaching writing part time. I realize this isn't the same thing as -ology but I think my experiences are typical. A "part time" college writing instructor teaches 4 classes per semester -- that's 1-2 more than a professor (who obviously has research/committee/other duties, but still...). Pay was $16,000 per year.

Since I refuse to do a bad job teaching that effectively made this a full-time job. I was so worn out after teaching I couldn't write. But perhaps combining child-rearing and teaching would work a little better: the two things are so completely different. Still, if you go this route, there are going to be times when you're absolutely exhausted and you've got a stack of papers to grade and a lecture to prepare, and your baby is screaming and it's 3 a.m.

Certainly not an easy life, that's for sure. But probably worth it if it's what you're passionate about. For me, I wasn't passionate enough about the teaching, so I decided to write full time.

I was in academia and have since left for industry (I also have a PhD in an -ography). There are cost-benefits for both situations. At the Univ I worked more hours, BUT my time was much, much more flexible and I could, within reason, make my own weekly and/or daily schedule. Now my hours-per-week is pretty firm (other than a few crunch times a year and travel), but my daily schedule is pretty inflexible. I prefer the latter, but I am envious of some of the academic schedules....

There are a few part-timers where I work, but I think they most do technician work. They probably contribute to papers, but are not responsible for them. Also, I doubt they have benefits or other advantages of permanant staff.

It is very difficult to be taken seriously as a scientist if you work part-time. It is probably impossible to succeed as a faculty member in academic science if you work part-time. At most universities/Medical schools/better liberal arts colleges, you will be expected to maintain an active research program. This requires 40-60 hours a week. Most med schools and many university depts require you to bring in extramural funding to both support your research as well as contribute to your salary. Your promotion and tenure will depend on it. Remember, your grants are part of the institution's revenue stream.

It is the constant pressure to maintain grant funding that is really at the root of why many women do not make the transition from post-doc to tenure-track faculty. The competition for funding is fierce and you are competing with men and women (who chose not to have children) who are not primary care givers. They do not work part-time. They do not have to figure out how to get to meetings while they nurse. They do not have to make choices between going to dinner with a visiting scientist and going to the middle-school basketball game. Usually, the years spent as an assistant prof. setting up your lab, getting grants, putting your lectures together are also prime childbearing years for those of women who postponed having children until they finished their training. This is not a problem that is easily solved by the University granting leaves, or having a part-time track to tenure. While these sound good and might work for faculty who are more interested in teaching, they will not work for those who want to be active researchers. That problem needs to be solved at the level of the funding agencies...and we are a long way from that.

By Jean Longo (not verified) on 30 Jan 2008 #permalink

We recently asked this same question at Science Careers, and were very surprised to find success stories of women (and a man!) working part time, yes, in academia. Here's the story. As I wrote in a companion piece, everyone the author talked to who knew someone who had done it eagerly said it could be done, whereas people who didn't know of anyone who worked part-time said it can't be done.

-Kate T.