Nose to the Grindstone

Scientists and engineers in academe work harder than their counterparts in industry and government, study finds.
December 13, 2005

Those who say that academics have it easy probably haven't been consulting scientists and engineers.

A new National Science Foundation report indicates that scientists and engineers in education work harder than those in industry and much harder than their counterparts in the government. 

The report, “All in a Week’s Work: Average Work Weeks of Doctoral Scientists and Engineers,” used data from the NSF’s 2003 Survey of Doctorate Recipients, which collected self-reported responses from more than 500,000 scientists and engineers. Scientists and engineers employed in the education sector, which included those with doctorates who work in elementary and secondary schools as well as professors and researchers in higher education, reported a 50.59-hour average work week. Scientists and engineers in industry jobs worked 47.61 hours in an average week, and government workers clocked out at 45.17 hours a week. 

Karen Grigorian, a senior survey director at the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center and one of the report’s authors, said that government and industry work hours are more regulated than in education, and especially higher education. “Business has some degree of regulation, the government work environment is much more regulated,” she said. “It’s just the nature of the animal.”

Whereas government and industry scientists might have to go home at five, there’s generally no one to keep academics from sleeping in the office.

And maybe some engineers are. Engineers working in the education sector reported working 52.13 hours each week, as compared to 47.56 in industry and 44.83 in government. Biological and agricultural scientists had the next longest work week in the education world at 52.07 hours a week, compared with 49.25 hours for industry, and 46.77 hours for government. Of all disciplines surveyed, mathematicians --  47.33-hours per week across sectors -- and psychologists -- 46.62-hours per week across sectors -- worked the least.

Michael Prudich, chair of the chemical engineering department at Ohio University, said that teachers, in college and below, need to spend a lot of time working outside the classroom or office. “You tend to be in the office for the normal 40 hours a week,” he said, adding that he uses that time for teaching and meeting with students. Prudich said writing and grading have to come on his own time. During the day, “you don’t get a lot of quality uninterrupted time,” he said. Prudich suspected that the long hours for biologists probably result from having to manage several people in a lab. 

Also, while industry scientists and engineers who got their degrees four decades ago work less than more recent graduates, there was no clear trend of lessening work hours for older scientists and engineers in education and government. In fact, tenured professors worked an average of 51.13 hours per week, while postdoctoral fellows worked 50.33 hours each week. Full-time faculty members not on the tenure track worked an average of 48.72 hours a week, while those on the tenure track, but without tenure, topped everybody at 52.51 hours a week. 

Gene Trapp, professor emeritus of conservation biology at California State University at Sacramento, said that he stayed busy all the way until retirement, preparing classes and mentoring some of the 33 graduate students he saw through to degrees. “I know the public probably thinks a university professor has an easy life,” Trapp said. “That’s not the case. The only place where guilt comes in is the three months off during summer,” he added. “But you can do research.” 

Trapp said he thinks the work week has gotten longer since Sacramento State started pushing faculty members to do more research. He said he stayed busy in the years leading up to retirement, but that, even with long hours, he had more flexibility that many current faculty members. “The younger faculty members are put through hell,” he said. “They not only have to teach a full load, but have pressure to produce research, too. It helps if you’re single.” 

For men, anyway. The report showed that the work week varied little for men who had children as compared to those who didn’t. For women, the week shortened by about two-and-a-half hours, to 46.88, with the first child, and then stayed steady as more kids came along. 

John Tsopogas, a senior analyst in NSF’s Division of Science Resources Statistics,
said that one reason older faculty members might continue working a lot is because they can tailor-make a lot of their own work, and they enjoy it. He said that scientists with doctorates have responded in other surveys saying that intellectual challenge motivated them the most. “You’ve got a lot of people so dedicated to the field, they aren’t even retiring,” Tsopogas said. “Of course, that can cause problems for new faculty members.”

Prudich said that academics keep on keeping on because the enjoy their work, and the flexible working environment. “The hours don’t weigh on you as heavily,” he said. 


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