Recently, I told a group of graduate students that it’s possible to finish a dissertation and have a happy scholarly career while working 9 to 5. I think they were cheered and shocked, and I only later realized there might have been a lot of confusion. It’s hard to talk about working hours and academics partially because we have what others have called a culture (perhaps even cult) of “busyness,” partially because of the collapse of the 40-hour work week, and partially because academic work is a gas that will expand to fill all the time available.
So here is an attempt to clarify.
When I was in graduate school, a very productive friend explained that he got so much done because he worked 9 to 5. And when he was working, he was really working, not just hanging out in the teaching assistant office whining about how much work he had to do (something I spent so much time doing that I should have gotten a degree in it). I was convinced that working 9 to 5 would be a reduction in the amount of time I worked — work seemed to loom over my life the way Godzilla looms over a city. After all, I was working evening and weekends.
Once I tried to make a schedule, however, I discovered that my sense of how much I worked was charitable — in fact, I’d really start work at about 10 a.m. (after I’d gotten coffee, read various things, sharpened pencils, and engaged in other forms of dithering), and work till about 4 p.m., with a couple of breaks for coffee and one for lunch. I’d work an hour or so most evenings and several hours on Saturday and Sunday. But, since I was working about 25 hours during weekdays, even picking up the evenings and weekend work got me to under 40 hours a week, or what I was actually expected to work (and what the taxpayers who paid my salary generally worked).
I was spending a lot of time in a fairly draining world of neither work nor play — not fun, and so not a world that rejuvenated me in any way, but also not really work, and so not a world in which I was getting anything useful done. I wasn’t exactly the long-suffering martyr I was imagining — in fact, I needed to work more.
Of course, one can’t really work 9 to 5; to get in eight hours of work in a day, there has to be time for breaks, breathing, and lunch, and so it’s really at least 8 to 5. But, still and all, what would it mean for me to put in eight hours of work a day? It would mean that I had to work a lot more than I was, and engage in workiness a lot less than I was.
Later, when I became an assistant professor, and had a heavy administrative responsibility (which should never happen to an assistant professor), I really was working a lot every day — far too much. I once threatened my first book would be “About the Photocopier,” since I wrote so much about it. The solution, it turns out, was to set limits on my work — no working on Sunday, and none after 10 at night. After a while, it turned into no working on Sunday, and none after dinner. I didn’t always keep to that rule, but, and this is the important point, I no longer felt guilty for taking time off; I felt guilty for working during those times.
And it’s no surprise to anyone who knows anything about the research on worker productivity, but I became more productive. Working however many hours I was working was making me get less done and do it worse.
Academic work is in bits and spurts, and so this isn’t to say that you never work more than a 40-hour week, but that, in my experience, setting a goal of working (and I do mean really working) 35-40 hours a week, on average, will enable a person with a reasonable workload to get everything done that needs to get done. There are, however, a lot of parts to this — knowing how much you’re really working, being honest with yourself about whether it is really working, having a reasonable workload, and keeping an eye on the concept of “average.”
A few years ago, I began obsessively keeping track of my time. I had been invited to mentor associate professors, and, knowing that I could fool myself about my own working schedule, I decided to find a way to be accurate in any advice I gave them about time management. And so I started using an app designed for people who bill by the hour that enabled me to track my time minute-by-minute. And I turned up pretty much what all the other research on the topic shows: on average, I worked 40 to 45 hours to get 35 to 40 hours of real work of decent quality. While I often had weeks in which I worked well over that amount of time, the next week I would work much less, or, and this is the important point, I would take longer to do things, and do worse work.
In general, I spend 20 to 30 minutes on each paper I grade, unless I’ve been working more than 40 hours for several weeks, in which case I take 45 minutes to an hour. I can usually read scholarship at the rate of about two minutes a page, or four minutes for something complicated and challenging. If I’ve been working too much, then it takes me about twice as long, and even reading more slowly, my reading comprehension obviously drops.
The worst of all decisions is to carve time out of sleep for more than one night in a row. Depriving myself of sleep to get a task done will get me through about 24 hours, but if I don’t quickly make up the sleep, I either start walking into walls or I get sick. Or, as Sara Robinson says in her summary of the research, “every hour you work over 40 hours a week is making you less effective and productive over both the short and the long haul.”
Keeping track of my time makes clear to me that I am still a bad judge of how much I am working. There have been many times that, before looking at my weekly work total, I think to myself that it’s going to have been a 45-hour work week, and it’s a 37. Why? Because one of those days was a 12- or 14-hour day, and so, for several of the other days, while I was probably on-site and at my desk (or in a classroom or meetings) for 45 hours, I didn’t work that amount. I wasted a lot of time. I was burned out, and burning time.
And that brings up the macho performance of busyness. Often, when I mention trying to work less, people will tell me that they work 50 or 60 hours a week, and that they couldn’t possibly cut back to 40. There is a oneupsmanship with working in our culture, and the sheer number of hours is some kind of winning hand. But that raises the question of whether they are really working for all those hours. Or, to put it another way: would they have produced more if they had worked less, or worked better for the hours they worked?
So, to go back to the original question posed to me by the graduate students: Can you succeed in academia working 9 to 5? And the answer is yes if that means really working for 40 hours a week, on average. There are other “ifs” — such as whether you’re working on the things on which you should be working — so working 40 hours is not a guarantee of success.
But, and this is the important point, neither is working 60 hours a week.
One of the problems with how we think of our lives is that we have a fantasy of the world that is a year from now. There is a tendency to think of the academic career as a series of hurdles, for which we have to work ourselves up. Life will be miserable in the spurt that gets us through the comprehensives (or QEs) and horrible through the spurt that gets us over the dissertation and past the hurdle that is tenure.
What I have learned, sometimes at a fairly high cost, is that that vision of the academic career is a way of working toward a life one will never have. We are in this life now. Graduate school is no different from the life of an assistant professor (if anything, graduate students have far more time than assistant professors); there is always the difficulty of balancing teaching, scholarship, service to one’s work, service to the community, personal time, helping one’s family, getting the oil changed, waiting for the fridge repair person. That never changes. So, instead, of hoping for some time that everything will be O.K., graduate school should be a time of acquiring the habits that will make all that balancing more joyful. Graduate school isn’t preparation for a career; it is the career.
Trish Roberts-Miller is a professor of rhetoric and writing at the University of Texas at Austin.
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