Working 9 to 5 (ain’t no way in academia?)

Science magazine has been giving some distinctly dodgy careers advice of late, with two articles in quick succession seemingly being written by authors who were cryogenically frozen in the fifties and revived in 2015 so as to give us the benefit of their views. This week’s Times Higher Education has an article on a letter written in protest about Science’s repeated use of damaging stereotypes and signed by hundreds of researchers, which is being sent to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) on Tuesday. (There’s still time to sign it).

The following paragraph, from the most recent article criticised in the letter to the AAAS, has been forensically dissected in a couple of blog posts I recommend — Bryan Gaensler‘s “Workaholism isn’t a valid requirement for advancing in science” and Chad Orzel‘s “Scientists should work the hours when they work best“.

I worked 16 to 17 hours a day, not just to make progress on the technology but also to publish our results in high-impact journals. How did I manage it? My wife—also a Ph.D. scientist—worked far less than I did; she took on the bulk of the domestic responsibilities. Our children spent many Saturdays and some Sundays playing in the company lobby. We made lunch in the break room microwave.

There’s a lot to wince at here, including the fact that the author’s wife “took on the bulk of the domestic responsibilities” while he blazed a trail, the children spending “many Saturdays” playing in the company lobby while dad worked, and the idea that his wife “worked far less”. (On a day when the kids are bickering and being particularly fractious, I’d find 16 hours in the office/lab a piece of cake compared to the rigours of domesticity).

But here’s the rub. The “I worked 16 to 17 hours a day” bit resonates with me. And I am just a little bit uneasy about sending the message to early career researchers that a successful academic career — at least in the present system — doesn’t involve long hours. I think it’s misleading and naive to suggest otherwise. Before I get shot down in flames, I need to stress that this doesn’t mean that I am suggesting that students and postdocs should be encouraged to work themselves into the ground. Nor am I an advocate of the current system — things have to change. The following, which I contributed to an article entitled “Parenthood and academia: an impossible balance?” in the THE last year, might help to explain my perspective.

“Daddy, Niamh won’t give me the loom band maker. And she won’t stop singing Let It Go really loudly all the time. Tell her to stop.”

“OK, calm down. I’ll be with you in a second. Just let me finish this email.”

“Daddy! She still won’t give me the loom bands. And she still won’t stop singing.”

“OK. OK. With you in a second.”

“DADDY!”

Deep sigh. Close laptop lid.

“OK. Coming now.”

I’d foolishly broken my golden rule again: never attempt to work at weekends or before the kids go to bed. As a certain porcine mainstay of children’s television who is wise beyond her years (and species) would put it: “Silly Daddy!”

Niamh, our first child, was born in 2003, when I was a reader. Her sister, Saoirse, arrived in 2005, when I was promoted to a chair, and her brother, Fiachra, came along another three years later. So my career was rather firmly bedded in before, in our mid-thirties, my wife, Marie, and I decided to start a family.

It has still not been entirely straightforward for us to juggle Marie’s shifts as a nursing auxiliary at the Queen’s Medical Centre (next to the university) with the time and travel demands of my work in academic physics. But if the children had started arriving a few years earlier than they had, when I was a (relatively) fresh-faced new lecturer, I don’t quite know how I’d have coped.

I found the transition from postdoctoral researcher to lecturer something of a culture shock. As a postdoc, your focus is almost entirely on research. A lectureship requires that focus to shift rapidly between at least three separate roles: teaching, research supervision and the ever-present administrative demands of both. Add in the demand to produce “impact” and you end up with a role that amounts to at least two full-time jobs in one. As a lecturer, I regularly worked 70- or 80-hour weeks (including weekends, of course), and this is not at all unusual in physics. Clearly that is not compatible with parenthood.

Nowadays, although I do sometimes fail, I try my utmost to keep evenings and weekends free to spend with the family. I have got into the habit of getting up very early in the mornings – around 4am – to have a few hours to work before taking the children to school. They are easily the most productive hours of my day. I have also tried, as much as possible, to cut down on the amount of travel to conferences and workshops I do. Again, this is much easier to do at this stage of my career than it would have been 10 years ago. Nonetheless, I still spend too much time away; so much more could be done via videoconferencing.

The working culture of your school or department is, of course, an essential factor in how easy you find it to balance family and work commitments. In my experience – and I know that this holds true for many of my colleagues – the School of Physics and Astronomy at Nottingham, where I have been since I was a postdoc, has been exceptionally supportive. As a testament to this, it was this year awarded “champion” status in the Institute of Physics’ Project Juno for “taking action to address gender inequities across its student and staff body”. I am not the first to observe that the changes facilitated by that project have resulted in a working environment that is better for everyone.

Still, I’m going to have to end on a downbeat note. Because I know for a fact that the research outputs I had when I landed my lectureship in 1997 would be nowhere near enough to secure that position today. Indeed, I wouldn’t even be shortlisted. The bar for entry to the academy is being raised at an extraordinarily high rate. I’m sure I don’t need to spell out the implications of this for the work-life balance of young scientists.

Let’s not beat around the bush, the competition for academic positions is intense. I’ve referred before to this letter in Physics World a couple of months back which makes the point especially well when it comes to my discipline.

 

In response to that careers advice column in Science, I’ve seen tweets and comments stating that long hours aren’t really necessary because we should “work smarter, not harder”. I’ve heard this argument quite a bit over the years. It’s rather trite advice in my opinion. Science simply doesn’t work to order — so much research involves going down blind alleys, reversing, inadvertently (or deliberately) taking a diversion, doing a U-turn, getting things wrong, getting things right only to find out that it doesn’t help solve the original problem, and in the end finding that Edison’s “one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration” appraisal really isn’t too far off the mark.

Working “smarter” simply isn’t an option in many cases — sheer bloody-minded tenacity is what’s required. This requires long and frustrating stints in the lab. Yet sometimes, when it works, the culmination of that effort is the most enjoyable aspect of the entire scientific process — we endure the pain and the long hours just to hit that (very) occasional high.

I’ll stress again that there is certainly no expectation from me that students and postdocs in the group here at Nottingham do long hours. I give them advice very similar to that offered by Chad Orzel in his blog post — do what works for you (and I certainly don’t dictate a required number of hours per week). But, similarly, I don’t feel embarrassed at all to say that I’ve enjoyed working long hours at times — lots of researchers border on the obsessive when it comes to their work and bouts of intense single-mindedness can often be an exciting, infuriating, and central element of the scientific process for some.

Orzel describes his far-from-traditional working pattern as a postdoc –including the obligatory late night visits to vending machines — as “a dumb thing I did”. As someone who has similarly regularly enjoyed the late night, mid-experiment caffeine injections provided by a machine-generated beverage which tasted “almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea” (or, indeed, any other caffeinated drink), I beg to differ. It worked for him — and for me — at the time. Whether it was dumb or not is entirely down to the circumstances of the individual researcher (as, to be fair, Orzel himself goes on to say in his post).

There’s also much more to academia than hands-on research. When you start as a new member of academic staff, you have to keep the research side going (and build up a new independent programme of work), start designing and giving lecture courses (and marking coursework/exams), get used to a whole new world of admin pain, and try to be the best tutor you can be. “Work smarter, not harder” doesn’t cut it — there are only a finite number of hours in the week and, as I describe in that THE article above, I couldn’t have kept my head above water in that first couple of years without burning quite a lot of midnight oil.

I’m not moaning about this (promise). I love my job and some of the key reasons I’m drawn to it are the diversity of the things I can do, the independence, and the large degree of flexibility in working patterns. Let’s not sell PhD students and postdocs a pup, however. Academia places large demands on our time and a 37.5 hour working week is simply not the norm. (Even if the Higher Education Funding Council for England and Research Councils UK assume that academics indeed work a 37.5 hour week. Apparently that’s a “fair and reasonable” figure. But that’s a story for another post…)

Author: Philip Moriarty

Physicist. Rush fan. Father of three. (Not Rush fans. Yet.) Rants not restricted to the key of E minor...

9 thoughts on “Working 9 to 5 (ain’t no way in academia?)”

  1. When you next decide to hire someone, will you take the person with 100 refereed-journal papers and a g-index of 35 but who has worked 80 hours a week for years and has no life outside of science, or the one with 50 refereed-journal papers, a g-index of 15, and three children? And, whatever decision is made, do you think it is fair that you deny a job to someone who is, by any estimate, more qualified than you were when you got your job (or perhaps more qualified than you are now)?

    In the future, with the childless workaholics being the majority of people with permanent jobs, will they hire more of the same, making the situation even worse?

    Yes, there are exceptions, but they are…exceptions. I know a few people who have permanent jobs in science, which they deserve, and also have children and many interests outside of science. But they are exceptions.

    I’ve always admired John Barrow. Back when the QJRAS was still around, I used to read the reports from the observatories. One year, he had about half a dozen single-author refereed-journal papers, many papers on which he was a co-author, and also wrote a popular book. [Checks ADS: must have been 1993.] When I was working at Jodrell Bank, I asked a student from Sussex how he did it, expecting to hear that he does nothing but work. “No, he’s pretty much a 9-to-5 guy”. 🙂 But, of course, an exception.

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    1. Hi, Phillip.

      I pay very little attention to g-, h- (or, for that matter, i- or j-) indices with regard to assessing a researcher. (See https://muircheartblog.wordpress.com/2013/04/19/not-everything-that-counts-can-be-counted/ for my reasons).

      The issue here is not about counting hours, nor about flawed metrics, as I hoped I made clear. It’s about the output rather than the input (and that means assessing the quality of the work by actually reading it, rather than relying on flawed metrics).

      Unfortunately, however, sometimes it just simply takes long hours to get the results. This does not mean that family and outside interests have to be neglected but it does mean that time management is exceptionally tricky at times. My reason for writing the post above is that we need to be honest with early career researchers — as you quite correctly say, there are workaholics (with and without family commitments) who, along with the hiring committee expectations, set the bar for achievement.

      And, whatever decision is made, do you think it is fair that you deny a job to someone who is, by any estimate, more qualified than you were when you got your job (or perhaps more qualified than you are now)?

      I am very much aware of this and, indeed, I point it out in the post above — what I had in 1997 when I got my lectureship would not get me within sniffing distance of a shortlist now. While I continually feel guilty about this, we can only make decisions on the basis of the quality of the applicants that have applied for a given job.

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  2. Hi Philip,

    Science is (was) about being allowed to fail, time and time again, until we come to a finding (paraphrasing from my favourite ancient GE video). This takes time in the lab, but also requires time for thought and thought processes.

    What has worked for me for the last years, is to spend limited time at work, and let the questions linger (gestate) in the background in my head. That way, at the oddest hours, I will arrive at a hypothesis (or instrument design idea) that can be tested the next day or days. This method requires that you bring the subject matter up in your head a few times during the day.

    I also benefit greatly from automation. Most of my measurements, 3D-printing and analyses can be automated to a great extent, leaving more time for the other tasks. This does mean I sometimes need to pop in over the week-end to start another print or change the sample, but never longer than half an hour or so.

    At home, I hardly can get any work done, mostly because of my share in the domestic duties, but also because I want to take time to play or educate the kid a little. Occasionally, however, help needs to be called in from my spouse so that I can finish something or practice a talk one more time. It is rare, but there are some employers who appreciate if you have a family you care for.

    I was very inspired by the story of a beamline manager in Berlin, however, who has a permanent contract for four days a week. The fifth, he says, he spends with his kid. That does mean a reduction in salary, but has the advantage of seeing your kid grow up.

    In the end, we all do what we can, but we should not do more. When management adds yet another layer of administration, we should not say “I’ll do this in the evening/weekend”, we should say “I don’t have time for this, unless you want me to research less” (which can be escalated to a heartfelt “fuck you” if they insist, and the paperwork is suitably pointless). Not good for the career, perhaps, but our free time is not theirs to take. We get hired to do research, so that is what we will do.

    Big words from someone so early on in their career, but I have successfully refused several administrative tasks this way. Some of this can be automated by simply not responding to admin’s many “questionnaires” until they address you personally. This attitude only works if you indicate repeatedly (at presentations and so on) that you have, and care for your life outside work as much as you care about work.

    If we do not take back our lives, Parkinson’s law hints that it will be entirely consumed by work. We need to take an active role in dividing time between work-life and personal-life. We should do what we are passionate about at work, but we should appreciate that it is our family and friends who will stand by us in case of accidents and other misfortune.

    Sorry for the ramblings, but I do think it is important we start hiring people willing to work normal hours, and not explicitly or implicitly asking them to give up their spare time as well (“going the extra mile”, and “being involved in committees” can be big warning signs), and we should stop admiring and celebrating people who work in the week-ends as if it is a standard to live up to. Life in Japan shows what this leads to: a complete disconnect between the life of the (invariably male) “worker” and the rest of the family through “soft” encouragement or enforcement of an insane work style.

    If this is what the modern-day caricature of “science” demands, it may be time to start working at a company instead (as my spouse correctly keeps pointing out).

    To end on a not-so-bitter note, I am quietly confident and excited about my new position in Berlin, which looks like it will consist of exciting and fullfilling work, while leaving time for family as well. Time will tell whether that assessment is correct!

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    1. Hi, Brian.

      Thanks for your very important comment. I agree entirely with what you say – particularly in terms of placing boundaries/limits with regard to pointless/clueless #CorporateUniBollox – but the issue I was trying clumsily to make in the blog post remains…

      Some researchers without family commitments — or, indeed, some researchers with family commitments — will put in exceptionally long hours. Sometimes clever/smarter working practices, such as the automation you suggest, can help cut those hours. (And we are devoting quite a lot of time here in Nottingham to trying to automate scanning probe microscopy. It’s not easy. Intelligent and robust algorithms which can automatically determine when a high quality atomic resolution image is being acquired are difficult to develop.)

      But there will often be those who are willing to put in long hours and produce much more science. Whether this results in better science is something we can debate but those particular researchers can tend to set the bar in terms of expectations of output. We can of course encourage those researchers — and, in particular, hiring committees — to lower their expectations but if a researcher with no outside commitments wants to work a 60 – 80 hour week (putting in the hours in the lab/office and/or at home) we can’t preclude them from doing this.

      Before my wife and I had children we both used to work relatively long hours. (My wife is a nursing auxilliary at the hospital beside the University). My wife typically did (and still does) 12 hour shifts. In the days before the kids arrived, I’d work many 12 and 14 hour days. I very much enjoyed the time I spent at work (well, most of it!) — I didn’t see it as arduous at all. And that’s because for many academics, our job is both our vocation and our hobby. We love doing what we do.

      Universities of course exploit this dedication (hence my dig about the mythical 37.5 hour working week in the final paragraph of the post). But, nonetheless, my point is that if someone (without family commitments) is truly immersed in their work, enjoys it, is driven to try to answer a particular scientific question, and they want to spend >> 37.5 hrs/week on it, is this necessarily a bad thing?

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      1. “But, nonetheless, my point is that if someone (without family commitments) is truly immersed in their work, enjoys it, is driven to try to answer a particular scientific question, and they want to spend >> 37.5 hrs/week on it, is this necessarily a bad thing?”

        It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Even with family commitments, it’s not necessarily a bad thing: if someone would rather put in some (extra) hours doing science, as opposed to watching football or whatever, no problem.

        The problem is when it is possible to get a job in science, essentially all of which are funded at least partly indirectly by public money, only by working much more than a 40-hour week, which really does disadvantage those who “have a life”.

        Hiring such people is not necessarily good for science in the long run, but who cares about that if one is trying to maximize the impact factor for the next evaluation? I know a few high-flyers who worked a lot and then got the permanent job early in their career and I haven’t heard from them since. They either burned out, or, perhaps, really wanted a teaching job (most people hired for teaching jobs are hired on the basis of their research output) and are now concentrating on that. It is often people like Feynman, spending his free time in topless bars and playing the bongos, who, although they might publish less than other people, come up with truly interesting and important stuff.

        When some older academic dies, I often hear someone remark that, sadly, there would be no place for him in academia today.

        I think that public money is an important aspect here. If someone wants to hire someone with his own money who works 80 hours a week, then that is fine with me. (Many countries, of course, limit working hours to avoid exploitation of workers, which is a good thing, but is not really relevant for people getting paid for what they like to do.) But money which comes from taxes, that is, from society at large, should not be used to hire people who have a chance only if they more or less divorce themselves from this society by concentrating exclusively on one thing.

        I think the main problem is that people get permanent academic jobs much too late in their careers. In most cases, it is clear even during work on the first degree who has the right stuff and who doesn’t, so it would be better to hire people into permanent jobs early on, like in many non-academic areas. (One might hire some people who burn out, but probably misses many other very good people who leave the field due to lack of job security.) There is still a danger that people would have to work 80 hours during this time, but it is for a much smaller period of time.

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      2. Hi Philip,

        I think the majority of us have worked our asses off for one or another reason at some point in time, and yes, it can be exciting and fulfilling. But the question is: is that necessary for an academic position?

        Like you, I would like to hire a person, who:
        – I can get along well with,
        – Is excited about the topic,
        – Can communicate well, but thinks before saying something.
        – Is sufficiently skeptical about findings and reports (very important),
        – helps where they can,
        – Doesn’t mind getting their hands dirty,
        – or starting from zero learning new things,
        – doesn’t mind, but learns from mistakes,
        – cares about accuracy, and strives to do things correctly, not fast.
        – publishes solid, well thought through and verified work.

        The display of long hours in labs only tenuously relates to some of these qualities, so I don’t care about hours, and we certainly should not “expect” extra hours. Such expectation is caustic to our environment.

        Apropos, assessing a candidate for the qualities mentioned above is time-consuming and involves more than a bit of effort and time on either side. With so few positions available, and so many candidates, how does one go about selecting for these qualities?

        Perhaps (biased as it may seem), the selection should contain candidates you have spent considerable time with. People whose careers you have followed for a while, and whom you have experienced in the lab and work environment. People whose work you have read and who you have seen under duress.

        Though HR would probably count such knowledge as inadmissible, sticking instead with “impartial”, pseudo-scientific metrics.

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  3. Hi, Brian.

    All good points/characteristics but I’d add one more — “is tenacious and doesn’t give up easily”. You know as well as I do just how much of scientific research doesn’t go to plan! And the link to “putting the hours in” in that case is not quite so tenuous.

    As I say in the post, I am not for one second suggesting that long hours should be the expectation. However, we cannot mandate that researchers work a certain number of hours — their time in the lab could in principle be limited but they can also work at home or elsewhere if they so choose. It’s also not just a matter of research time. An academic post is at least two jobs in one — research and teaching are generally combined (alongside all the admin stuff). There are moves to have separate teaching and research career pathways at a number of universities — which I for one welcome — but it’s unlikely to be the norm for quite some time.

    Generating high quality science requires a lot of time and effort. As you say in your list of characteristics, “cares about accuracy, and strives to do things correctly, not fast.” That type of approach needs careful experimentation/analysis (coupled with appropriate control studies) and can be immensely time-consuming.

    The characteristics you list are all-important but ultimately the scientific output has to be a major consideration in the selection process. This is not to say, of course, that we should simply count up papers. Nonetheless, science that will change our understanding of a (sub-)discipline or research field does not come cheap in terms of researcher time…

    Philip

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