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…)