This week, Krista Mila (@microbialkryta) provides an excellent discussion of why academics need not and should not work 80 hours per week. This is important reading for all academics, especially our early career colleagues and our students.

There are reasons why the 80 hour worker has become iconic in academia. I will discuss some of these. I will then bravely try to give a realistic sense, despite the stigma attached to these admissions, of my own workload and how it has evolved over the course of my career.

It is a truism among academic administrators that no one in academia, in their right mind, will ever admit to having enough research funding, enough lab space, or enough time. No matter what we accomplish, we could be accomplishing more. The reason we don’t is that we simply don’t have adequate resources, especially time.

Overwork is not a problem in academia, it is a celebration. The hallway liturgy of overwork is a ritual observance. No sane academic will admit to relaxing on a transatlantic flight. They will invariably have written the talk they are about to give, 8 hours after landing, in the cramped and noisy confines of their window seat. For some reason, this is not seen as indicating a lack of planning and time management. It is a badge of honour.

In hushed tones, we do sometimes admit to reading a novel at the beach on a summer afternoon, when we were simply too exhausted to do anything else. Not on a vacation of course, just an afternoon, because really, who takes vacation? But even then, we will quickly veer into a discussion of all the ways in which the insights we gained from the text will inform our research and teaching going forward.

It goes without saying that we had to walk out on family brunch and drop by the lab on New Year’s Day, because experiments don’t run themselves, you know, and how unacceptable is it that the Facilities people were less than helpful when the ventilation in our office wasn’t working over Easter weekend. They simply have no idea what an academic workload is like.

Then there are those unending student emails that will allow us no sleep. The only time we can address them, obviously, is outside of our 80 hour work week, the one in which we do our real academic work.

There are dynamics, both internal and external to academia, that favour the discourse of overwork, whatever its relationship to the reality of our labours. Competition is fierce and getting fiercer. There is real pressure for students and academics to work insane hours. Academics don’t clock in and out. No defined output is expected of us. Only more.

We have multiple ways of measuring our productivity, so that no matter who you are, no matter how senior or prominent, there is someone in your field who is more productive than you are, in at least some measurable way. Any comparison in academia is a losing comparison, and we are eternally being compared. We are constantly found wanting, often by others, but always by ourselves.

Then there is the public’s infuriating lack of understanding of academic work. Or perhaps it is the infuriating public’s lack of understanding. I lose track of the fury sometimes. The least fortunate of us work 15 hours per week. We all have summers off. Sure, we grade a few papers here and there, but sitting in arbitrary judgement of others is hardly exhausting work. Our collective defense against the public discourse of academic underwork is, understandably, an internal discourse of overwork.

The discourse encourages the perpetuation of a culture of overwork, which, for reasons that Mila outlines, is damaging both to academics and to academia. Innovative ideas don’t come from our work. They invade our work from outside, from new and unexpected experiences. Teaching and research, which are more closely related than many of us like to admit, require reflection. They require time. Recharging is important.

But what is, in fact, the reality of the academic workload? I can only describe my own experience. Like any academic, I am not the most productive. Neither am I the least productive. I did work insane hours in my grad school years. It wasn’t unusual for me to be in the lab twelve hours per day, six days a week, to have a quick dinner, and then to spend my evenings debugging the day’s code for the next day’s simulation experiments, our infant son often sleeping on my lap while my wife got some needed rest.

Mercifully, my wife forced me to take Sundays off and spent time with her and our son. For over a year, at the peak of my dissertation work, I was easily beating the 80 hour work week. Twelve in the lab, four at home, six days a week. That simply isn’t sustainable, physically, intellectually, or socially.

I was extremely lucky to find a Visiting Assistant Professor gig the year I graduated. This presented its own challenge in terms of workload. I had a four-four teaching load, accompanied, per department policy, by a minimum of five office hours per week, and a load of forty advisees. Over the two years that I held that position, I had a minimum of two new course preps per semester. And I was still on the market, trying to secure a tenure track job. Which means I had to keep my scholarly production up.

Something interesting happened though. I found that I was working fewer hours. Which is a good thing, because my marriage, my body, and my mental health would not have survived a continued barrage of 80+ hour weeks. There were peak times, of course, such as the week before grant submission deadlines, or midterms week. But those were understood to be a normal part of our life.

Generally, I found that I was in the office about eleven hours per day, from about 7 AM to 6 PM five days per week, and outside peak times, could actually spend my evenings and weekends with my family. Seven to nine in the morning was an especially productive period for me. We even went for the occasional hike on weekends. I was productive enough. I just couldn’t decently claim to be. I learned and invented ways of artfully dodging questions about my weekend and evening pursuits.

When I became a tenure track Assistant Professor, we made a conscious decision that I would fit my work into less time. I had a bit of a commute. I did everything I could to work 8-5, Monday to Friday, except, of course, for the peak times. It mostly worked.

Overall, I was again working fewer hours, quietly side-stepping more hallway workload venting sessions, and it would seem, producing enough, at least to earn tenure. I was even able to start doing new and healthy things outside of work. I had hobbies. Plural.

As Associate Dean, starting about ten years ago, I found that control of my schedule had escaped my grasp. It has remained well outside of it ever since. Very competent, dedicated, and well-organized people were suddenly in charge of managing my time and my workload. It was initially a jarring experience for an academic, but I got used to it quickly. I also found that with my time properly organized, I could accomplish more.

Executive Assistants are experts at protecting time for specific tasks, at allocating it in order of priority, so that problems that need solving are solved. They are fearsome guardians of productivity. They know that people aren’t productive if they are constantly exhausted. I learned a great deal from my successive EAs over the years, and I owe them all a debt of gratitude. By the time I was Dean, I could pack my workload, including my academic duties, into a comfortable 50 hour week.

As Vice-Provost, I mostly maintain that schedule. Because I am in Student Affairs, there are emergencies, and they happen day or night. But I have learned, with some encouragement from great EAs, to take time where I find it. If I have spent the night in the Emergency Operations Centre, I take a couple of afternoons for my hobbies in the following few weeks. I wouldn’t have done that even a few years ago. I would have powered through it.

The trend that emerges clearly for me is that over the years, I have maintained or even increased my output while steadily cutting the number of hours spent working. I have become more efficient. That isn’t entirely surprising. I have learned how to work better.

This is the point where, by the literary conventions of this genre of work-life balance writing, I would be expected to say, from my position of safety, seniority, and privilege, that if I had to do it all over again, I would do it differently. I would exercise more self-care, I would take more time off for my family and for myself, and so should you. I am not going to say that. The truth is that if I hadn’t put in a few more hours per week than I do now in the early stages of my career, I wouldn’t be where I am right now. However, I will tell you to think about the concept of enough.

The 80+ hour-a-week part of my career lasted about eighteen months. It was an investment that I made consciously and willingly for my dissertation, for my career, and for my family, and I would do it again. I had specific questions to answer, tools to develop, experiments to run, and I had deadlines, some administrative, some self-imposed. It was a start-up cost. The real problems begin when people, especially students, don’t commit to this for their own reasons, but are bullied into it by supervisors bent on exploiting their vulnerable status.

Over time, my work-week rapidly became human. After the initial madness of grad school, it dropped to about 60 hours for a couple of years while I was looking for a tenure track job, and within a few more years, converged on about 50, where it has remained ever since. The average small-business owner would laugh that off.

What people need to hear is not that it is possible to work less and be a successful academic. What they really need to hear is that it is possible to work enough and be a responsible academic. Enough is a difficult concept to grasp for academics, but it is key to developing a reasonable balance from which our work, our students, and the people close to us all benefit.

The reality is that for most of my academic career, I have worked reasonable hours by any standard. But for a long time, I just couldn’t admit it. If in Synod I had to propose an amendment to the academic credo, I would replace more with enough.

3 thoughts on “The cult of overwork in academia: A confessional post

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