How many hours do people really work? And what's the relationship between hours worked and success? A few polls for you.

i-9dc84d4d9156dccb30d5f62466b4219a-swblocks.jpgAmazing momma-scientist Janus Prof asked me to ask y'all how many hours you really work.

Janus Prof is just completing her first year on the tenure-track at a prestigious university, and in the course of that year, she also gave birth to her first child and was diagnosed with an uncurable, chronic illness that limits her work hours. Yet she's also managed to get her lab up and running, recruit students, teach, and write a CAREER proposal. (I get out of breath just thinking about it.) So Janus Prof was understandably inspired to read a recent post from Dr. Mom, in which she admits that she rarely works more than 40 hours per week, yet has still managed to teach, run her lab, mentor students, get funded and get published.

Despite her success, Dr. Mom wonders why she is ashamed of her success at working reasonable workweeks that still allow her time to enjoy her two children.

All of that has prompted me, who often fills the pinch of hours, to contemplate my work weeks, the relationship between work weeks and success, and how I feel about people who work less, yet are more successful. Below the fold, I've got three polls for those on the tenure-track. One is to answer Janus Prof's question about the number of hours you work, and the others are to satisfy my curiosity.

For the sake of consistency, please only take these polls if you are in a tenure-track or tenured academic position in a STEM field (science, technology, engineering, and math). There are surely grad students, postdocs, and people in other fields to be polled as well, but for the moment, let's leave it at faculty. For we faculty are the ones setting the example for those on rungs below us.

For the next poll, define success as you will. You might think about how success is judged at your institution. Is it papers published, grants funded, or teaching evaluations? Or some combination?

Finally, what do you think about stories like those of Janus Prof and Dr. Mom, successful scientists who refuse to buy into the work-all-hours philosophy.

(Eek. I spelled achieve wrong. Maybe I was distracted by the sexist choices of background graphics. There was a similar thinking male, with gears on the brain. What exactly does the woman above have spinning in her head?)

Please discuss in the comments.
I'm going home for the day. I probably won't work again until tomorrow. So there.

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About 10 hours a day. Oh, wait, reading this stuff isn't work? 15 minutes.

In all seriousness, I work about 10 - 12 a day, from start to finish, with regular breaks. This kicks ass, because my girlfriend is doing her Phd in my field at my university. Despite our long hours we still have a life together. We can also have conversations more substantial than "How was your day? Fine..."

On a side note, the tenured/tenure track employees at our university should be taking examples from me. Not that they're lazy, just incompetent. I fix grammar, style, experimental methods and analyses. Did I mention I'm the department programmer?

This post has come at a great time for me. I am a mid-way through-PhD student & just yesterday I was asking myself why an interest in science has to mean a life of stress and long hours. I try hard to balance life and school now, and it is great to hear from role models who continue to balance them as you move along in your careers.

I voted "other" on your last question because I'm also one who feels I'm being successful while working 35-40 weeks most weeks, including during "cruch times" (like this week with the CAREER due). I put in more time during 4-5 data collection trips per year, in which I work 18-20 hour days for 3-5 days at a time. That's the nature of my data collection, and not very negotiable.

I also read Dr. Mom's post. People tend to respond that they are more efficient than others, not spending time gabbing while at work or surfing internet. Upon reflection, I wonder how much of the extra (that is, over 40 hours/wk) is a result of too much time on teaching. For all of our STEM training, we learn that what we do has to be new and different. When it comes to teaching, there is no reason to make each and every course new and totally unique. I put in enough time into teaching to ensure that my classes run coherently and my teaching is effective. In a lot of ways, this goes more smoothly if I start from existing lectures, exercises and syllabi. I spend a fraction of my time on teaching as many of my peers appear to spend, and yet my (admittedly somewhat random fill-in-the-bubbles) teaching evaluations are good to great. I don't think I'm a great natural teacher, but that I started with other people's tried and true courses.

I've blogged about this before too--I drew a graph of how much of my time I thought I was actually using productively and how much was just blanktime in my head to illustrate for myself that I DO have the time for hobbies I love and spending time with my husband.

I think it's a matter of certain things coming easy for someone, like people management, reading and writing, and focus generation. If you have good resources in your people, and manage them well, you can offload a TON of the extra time it takes to do and interpret lab work/experiments/data analysis etc. If you read and write fast, you can spend less agonizing time on proposals and papers. And if you can generate focus quickly and shift between foci flexibly, you can still get a lot of stuff done even with a lot of interruptions. More efficiency on these fronts means less stressed-out grindwork trying to drag yourself through being a superhuman.

I work 45-50 hours as a faculty 4 years into my appointment at a research institute within a large private medical school. I feel like I am drowning. I voted "other" on the last question because in real life, I know no one who works fewer hours and is succeeding. I was successful in grad school and postdoc at 40 hours or less per week by being focused, directed, and smart, but have found that running the lab demands more. I agree with Arlenna about the value of delegation, but a key phrase in her comment is "IF you have good resources in your people"... I have found it challenging (as have others at my institution) to attract staff/trainees capable of working independently. If you find yourself to be the only person in your research program capable of writing, of seeing the context for your research in the literature, of planning complicated experiments, thinking of controls, performing analyses, and troubleshooting experimental difficulties, the hours can really add up, and the things that get postponed (like writing up the manuscripts) are among the most critical for your eventual success.

This is so interesting! Hearing about the hours others are working are definitely enlightening for me. I've posted about your poll over at my place... I'm really interested to see the results after more votes!

In my anecdotal experience, people who are highly successful while working relatively few hours are skilled at exploiting others to carry part of their load. (This applies at all levels from student to senior Prof.)

By Neuro-conservative (not verified) on 22 Jul 2009 #permalink

Great post! I'm curious about the results.

I've blogged about this before as well, and one of the main themes of my blog is (or was, before I got into the final push to final my phd) that many people spend more time at work than they spend actually working, or perhaps need to spend working.

One relevant post is here with some interesting posts that linked to it, and a great rebuttal is also at Mad Hatter's, here.

Regarding the last poll: I am either jealous of their time management, suspect that they are cheating/gaming the system by cutting corners, or both, especially if I, too, am gaming the system.

And the three things in the woman's brain are, left to right:

*An open grill with several hamburgers on it
*A womany lifting, one-handed, a barbell with a baby on one end and a sack of money on the other
*A GUB-24 Paveway III (seen on the oblique)

keep in mind that it's hard to make out the graphic, really, because there's text or bars in front of it, so I might be wrong.

I didn't take your poll since I'm not in your demographic (I'm a mid-career industry scientist). I'll answer, though: I work 40 hours/week. And I have never worked significantly more than that for extended periods of time. I'll pull long hours for short periods (up to about a month) if I have a deadline I need to meet, but I don't make it a habit. I haven't noticed that my career has suffered at all for my choice to work 40 hours.

I worked the same number of hours before I had a child as I do now. I think this has contributed greatly to my happiness as a working mom- I don't feel like my work or career is suffering. My work pattern started in grad school, when I realized that my productivity dropped off precipitously when I worked longer hours. I was in the lab more, but not getting more done.

In fact, my biggest advice to early career scientists considering having a family is to start learning how to create boundaries between work and non-work hours. A corollary to this is to start learning how to be efficient at work so that you can get lots done without working lots of hours.

I'm not a mom and not working right now...but...years ago I was fortunate to spend a month in the lab of a very successful woman scientist well known, in addition to her science, for producing lots of extremely talented and successful women PhD students and postdocs. And some of them had children while they worked in her lab. Hers/theirs/the lab's philosophy was that you worked hard and efficiently while you were at the lab so that you could leave the lab when you needed to, to go take care of life outside the lab. The way she looked at it, having a kid or kids did not interfere with your ability to do good work; instead, it forced you to focus and be extremely efficient and really use your time at work instead of lazing around, shooting the bull, etc. She thought her postdocs who were mothers were among her very best.

Of course this is not the same as being head of the lab. But she herself had children and as I said she was highly successful - yet, she did not live in the lab.

I think this perception of everyone always being at work does not always match up with reality. You have to carve out the life that is right for you, and as Cloud said, you have to be willing to set boundaries between work and non-work life. Otherwise work will eat up everything you are willing to give to it.

I think it's about resources(socio-economic support) available to you rather than number of hours worked. In my opinion, the average person works hard yet the average person achieves average success.

I voted other when it came to how I feel about people who work less than me. No-one works less than me, I am a total slacker. This makes me feel guilty. It makes me feel even guiltier because not only am I a slacker but I am also a postdoc.

By Carpenter (not verified) on 27 Jul 2009 #permalink

Oh yeah, but I should qualify, I don't shift the burden onto other people, half of my work has been entirely self motivated and single authored. However I know I could be doing much better and know much more if I worked harder, and I guess it makes me feel like an impostor in the field to not be working more.

That said I think it is completely useless to work 80-90 hours a week as I see a lot of people in my field do. Everyone I know like that is very a very typical nerdy sociopath, and not very interesting to talk to, even about science.

Probably there is a way to work very efficiently, eliminating the time wasting crap like drinking coffee, surfing the web and shooting the shit, that would allow most people to be productive in a 40 hour week. I mean how many hours out of a day is one actually doing calculations or reading books/papers or preparing lectures rather than procrastinating?

By Carpenter (not verified) on 27 Jul 2009 #permalink

I wonder if people who collaborate by brainstorming and then nut things out in a focused way succeed more often.

well, since you only wanted FACULTY to take the poll, I didn't read your article. This is narrow minded of you and elistist. I perhaps could have learned something, you perhaps could have learned something. But your attitude is left wanting and I'll move on to other articles.

To even put the word JEALOUS shows your narrowmindedness. Jealousy is a bad quality, wouldn't you think people by that time in their life, have risen above jealousy?