Why Academics Feel Overworked

Philip Guo says that the nature of academic work is different from other models, and requires new professors to learn to say no.

December 1, 2014
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Last month I documented how I've been spending my time as a new assistant professor. I've been happy with this pace so far. However, maintaining it requires me to spend a lot of energy:

  • Saying no to people's requests.
  • Planning my time so that I get done what I want without feeling overworked.

Every time I say no to someone, I feel like a jerk. But I have to trust my gut that it's the best for everyone, since if I kept saying yes, then I'd spread myself too thin and do a lousy job on all of my tasks. Of course, I can't say no to everyone, or else I'd eventually get super-fired. Finding a balance is hard, and I don't always get it right.

Even though I'm only a few months into this job, I totally see how academics feel overworked if they don't push back enough. But why is this the case? Here's my folk theory.

Shift-Based Jobs

One of my relatives once asked me when I started my shift at work. All of the jobs he's ever held have been shift jobs with fixed hours. As a waiter at a restaurant, he might do the 4 p.m. to midnight shift; as a retail store worker, he might do the opening shift of 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. When he finishes his shift, he no longer needs to think about work. And there's no way for his boss to give him more work without explicitly documenting it and paying overtime.

Unlike academics, he never needs to worry about saying no to work-related obligations or optimally planning his time. Within reason, he does what his boss needs him to do during his shift, and when his shift is done, he's a free man.

(Giant caveat: This is all assuming non-exploitative labor conditions. However, shift work is often done by the most marginalized members of society and ripe for employer abuses such as undocumented overtime and inhumane working conditions. And many shift workers do in fact overwork, since they are working multiple jobs to make ends meet.)

Full-Time Office Jobs

The kind of jobs that most people I know hold are full-time office jobs within a company, nonprofit, or government organization. That was the sort of job I held when I was a full-time software engineer at Google and an intern at several companies throughout college and graduate school.

In these jobs, even though your exact work hours vary depending on your role, your work comes from one single source. Usually that source is your boss. If you have a hands-off boss, work might be allocated collaboratively by your teammates or senior peers. As a consequence:

It's clear when you're overworked. If your teammates are all working 35 hours per week but you're working 55, then you can call out your boss. It's easy to say no to new tasks if you're already working as much as your teammates. You can appeal to fairness. Your bosses have a strong incentive to protect you from other people's work requests, since they want you to focus on their project (so that they, in turn, can make their own boss happy). For instance, if another sleazy slick-talking manager at your company tries to get you to moonlight for them against your will, then your boss should step in and (figuratively) slap them.

When I was in industry, this single-sourced nature of work provided tremendous clarity about what and how much I was expected to do.

Academic Jobs

O.K., finally on to academic jobs -- why do academics, especially principal investigators, so often feel overworked?

One common but unsatisfying answer is that academic work is somehow harder or more all-consuming than industry work, so it takes more time. I don't buy that, since many of my friends have challenging full-time office jobs of the sort that I described in the previous section. They also work hard but don't have as much trouble managing their workloads.

I think the answer lies in the fact that, as an academic, your work comes from multiple independent sources. One claimed benefit of being a PI-level academic (e.g., a research scientist or tenure-track professor) is that you don't have a boss. However, without a boss to serve as a single centralized source of work, academics end up taking work requests from multiple independent sources that have no knowledge of one another.

Academics receive work from at least seven independent sources:

  • Teaching – administering and teaching courses, grading, responding to student requests.
  • Research advising – meeting with students to advise their research projects, critiquing writing and presentations.
  • Independent research – working on one's own research.
  • Funding agencies – writing grants and delivering on promises.
  • Department service – department-level committee work, hosting and meeting visitors, interviewing job candidates.
  • University service – university-level committee work.
  • Academic community service – reviewing papers and grant proposals, organizing professional events, writing recommendation letters, professional outreach.

None of these sources of work know of or care about one another. They are completely independent. Thus, it's totally up to you to plan your time to balance all of these obligations. Instead of a single boss giving you work to do, academics have seven independent “bosses” pulling them in different directions.

A related consequence of not having a real boss is that there's nobody to help you push back on work that you don't want to do.

It's also much harder to say no to any given task because the requester isn't trying to be an jerk. In their mind, they're just giving you a tiny sliver of work that might take an hour or two to complete. Most requests are reasonable, which is why I feel lousy turning people down. But with enough requesters who don't know about one another, it's easy to get overloaded. For instance, if you spend even a measly 10 hours per week on each of the seven categories of academic work listed above, that's already a 70-hour work week, which is unsustainable for most people.

Being your own boss is one of the greatest benefits of an academic lifestyle, but it also means that the burdens of time management and saying no fall squarely on you.



Philip Guo is assistant professor of computer science at the University of Rochester. This essay is adopted from one he posted on his website.



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