Last week a tweet about academics’ working hours went viral:
It clearly hit a nerve on academic Twitter. Many argued that they didn’t work these hours, and critically, they would never want to push this idea on junior colleagues. This hit home with me. During my PhD and postdoc, for a number of reasons, I almost exclusively “just” worked office hours. Now at the start of a lectureship, I feel a massive expectation from the wider academic system that my working hours will have to change. Reading all the responses on Twitter was genuinely eye-opening: I just had no idea that so many successful academics clock in at 40-45 hours a week. If I didn’t know this, maybe other early career researchers (ECRs) didn’t either. So I contacted lots of people who responded to the tweet to answer a simple question: How can you be a productive academic without working long hours? Here I’ve collated the responses to create more helpful – and more realistic – advice for ECRs.
Many people agreed that they worked in the evening or at weekends, some occasionally, some regularly. However, what was clear was that, typically, people work at these times because they are not at their desk during office hours, and so overall they spent a similar amount of time working.
I had to be a bit flexible when my kids were little … but I tried really hard not to change the number of hours I worked in a typical day.
Jenni Rodd, reader in experimental psychology, UCL
Others said they started later in the day because they preferred to work in the evening or at night. Critically, people often seem to be working long hours because they work (and send emails) outside of office hours, but this doesn’t mean they are working round the clock.
Most people said they occasionally worked longer hours. For some, this varied week to week, such as Philipp Berens (group leader in ophthalmic research, University of Tübingen):
If something really important has to be finished, I occasionally work a few hours on the weekend or evenings (less than once a week).
For others, it varied at different life or career stages, such as working longer hours before having children or in the build-up before getting a promotion. Everyone has periods where they work long hours, but this didn’t happen every day throughout their career. And it is perhaps this notion – the idea of relentlessly working long hours – that is such a toxic message to send out. Few students would be intimidated by a career that involves temporary periods of hard graft; implying that this happens all the time is what is so unhelpful and inaccurate.
Since I have never worked long hours, I’m always interested to learn how people work effectively within limited time frames. Many people I contacted mentioned strategies for dealing with email, often checking it less frequently: “If I really need to concentrate I just close my email tab on my internet browser for a few hours,” said Nichola Raihani, professor of evolution and behaviour at UCL, “I probably check and reply to emails about 4/5 times per day.” Others scheduled time for intensive tasks:
I use my online calendar to schedule out my time, I make sure I blank out time for thinking and writing (often the first things that can disappear from your planning) and I protect that time fiercely. I try to load all my meetings into a few days a week so that I have better windows for analysis and writing.
Victoria Simms, lecturer in psychology, Ulster University
I put a timer on Google that beeps after 40 minutes (or a timer on your phone). I then only allow myself to focus on that one single task for the entire 40 minutes….I do not let myself open other windows than the one I’m working on, even if it’s to check a reference- I make a note to do it at another time in the current document.
Charlotte Brand, postdoc in human behaviour and evolution, University of Exeter
Many people said that having a family at home made them more focused at work, such as Kathryn Asbury, senior lecturer in psychology in education, University of York:
If I have promised to be home for bedtime stories at seven, then that really focuses the mind when there are tasks that need to be finished (and there always are).
The specific strategy varied across individuals, but what seemed essential to working fewer hours was learning how to maximise productivity in the time you had.
Some academics choose and are able to work long hours, often because they enjoy it. But for many, external circumstances dictate the hours they can work, and sending the message that this precludes an academic career is damaging. One senior lecturer in humanities said this:
A long-hours culture excludes everyone with caring responsibilities, illnesses, and disabilities, which could be any one of us at any time during our lives.
Everyone agreed that, whatever your own circumstances, the expectation to work long hours should not pushed upon students or other colleagues. “I think I am very explicit to them that I never expect [students and postdocs] to put in time outside the normal hours, unless they want to themselves,” said Joost Dessing, lecturer in psychology, Queen’s University Belfast. “If they get the enjoyment out of work as I did, they may want to come in extra hours, but this is never my expectation.”
All academics work hard, but not all of them work long hours, and it’s a mistake to conflate the two. There’s a hundred reasons why someone can’t or doesn’t want to work 60 hours a week, and this shouldn’t rule out a productive academic career. So this is the message to people starting out: you are going to work hard, no doubt, and sometimes that will mean working long hours - but not always. I’ll end with one of my favourite comments:
Having a happy, relatively secure time in academia whilst working the kind of hours that allow for a healthy work-life balance is clearly possible, because there are lots of us that do just that.
Elli Leadbetter, reader in biological sciences, Royal Holloway