Working that pseudo-80 hour week

Feb 17 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

There is an excellent post over at Dynamic Ecology,  a site that I love. The post talks about the hours that scientists and academics need to put in to be successful, to get tenure. Here is a link to a Salon article justifying a 40hr week. The original post is filled with good links to other things, especially a comment from another post about women in ecology.

 As a grad student and postdoc, I thought I worked really hard. But then I made myself start logging hours (sort of like I was keeping track of billable hours, though I was simply doing it out of curiosity). I was astonished at how little I actually worked. It was something like 6 hours of actual work a day. I never would have guessed it was that low. I hadn’t realized how much time I was spending on those seemingly little breaks between projects. -

It's a worthwhile exercise to sit down and actually track the hours you really work. When I was in grad school a friend of a friend was a French woman (she impossibly old and chic and beautiful to me at the time), call her Martine, who had two little children, and was single by choice. Martine was doing a visiting postdoc in the US for 9 months to learn techniques. She absolutely worked only from 8 to 4. Everyone was aghast, and predicted doom and failure. But, I watched some, and talked to my friend some, and it was very clear that when Martine worked, she worked. She did had one cup of coffee at 10:30 or so in the morning. That was it. Lunch was at her desk reading. Martine did not avoid the social relationships that are part of what make a lab work, and the discussions about science. But she didn't go to the gym in the middle of the day, she didn't hang out on the lawn or play volleyball or talk about fashion or movies. She didn't surf the web, which was largely impossible as there was no web at the time.

What struck me at the time, and stayed with me these many years, was that this woman had made decisions about what was important to her, and what she was going to do, large and small scale. I think we're all pretty good at the large scale (get the thesis finished, get tenure, get funded) and the middle scale (finish this paper, write this grant, torture this trainee). But we (and I mean me, too) suck at the fine scale. Look at me, I'm writing this post!

It's tough to be efficient and directed for 8 hours in a row. One way I've found is to make sure that the tasks are heterogeneous. I don't write for 8 hours in a row, or even 4 hours in a row, especially during grant frenzy. I have data analysis. I do some figure design, improvement, tweaking. I work on a powerpoint. It is easier for me, with the attention span of a gnat, to stay focused, when the focus is to different things. YMMV.

A final thought, from my blogmom (hi Mom!), she of untold and sometimes told wisdom:

Work and children and families are funny little fuckers though. If you let them, they will expand and fill every crevasse of your day and leave you with nothing.  Nothing, I tell you.

We all deserve more than nothing.



18 responses so far

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    On average, the most productive post-docs in my lab over the years have been the ones who have to run around on a super regimented tight schedule that revolves around child care. In assessing productivity, I completely ignore "face time" in the lab (except in extreme cases where people literally disappear).

  • Sarah says:

    Similarly, I worked with a junior doctor with two small children (whose husband was also a doctor). She always left on time, while I was still languishing at my desk. She was highly efficient. Hopefully having kids will help me focus like that!

  • […] am reviewing a paper. Right now (and interrupting myself to write this post). The paper is good. Well written. Robust analysis. Interesting and appropriate conclusions. But […]

  • PaleoGould says:

    So, I clearly need to tap into my French side more.

  • Dave says:

    Almost every scientist I have ever met who claimed to work 80 hours a week was lying, or grossly inflating the numbers. Even if it were true, that kind of schedule comes at a heavy personal cost, and cannot be sustained for very long IMO. The scientists I truly admire are those that are successful and have a healthy family and social life.

  • Woman in Stem says:

    No, I doubt anyone needs to work 80 hrs/wk to make it. But does the time in the shower when I figure out a tough problem count as "work"? What about the nap I took or the gym break in the middle of the day that allowed me to make a breakthrough? I find that when my day is highly scheduled, I don't get these random flashes of insight that are so important to my work. I need a bit of downtime and peace for those things to bubble through -- not to mention a good night's sleep!

    The whole story is not about tracking hours. People who must do billable hours will be the first to tell you that.

    • potnia theron says:

      I think that's the point I was making, and that Isis was making even more strongly - you need to make that time for yourself. Gym time is good time.

      • Woman in Stem says:

        My point is that while being hyper-scheduled may work for some, it certainly doesn't work for everyone. Tracking your time to figure out how much you "waste" is not a good way to judge "productivity" or efficiency when it comes to creative work. There are studies that show that.

        This is why I'm a fan of ROWE (result oriented work environment) and run my lab that way. It's especially easy to do with a smallish (<10) group.

  • drowningkittens says:

    re: 'We all deserve more than nothing.'

    Prince Feisal: No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing.

  • AnonAcademic says:

    My defense is scheduled and I have a post doc lined up so it seems reasonably safe to say I have been successful in grad school (in terms of getting what I came for). I have managed to get through comprehensive exams, my dissertation proposal,4 independent research projects, several paper submissions and 1 first authorship at a high impact journal (so far), and soon my dissertation.

    I work 30-35 hours per week, on average.

    In fact, that's my goal: keep it under 40. I work 10-5 most days. I maximize bursts of productivity. I also maximize time to ruminate and think of creative solutions to problems so I don't waste time on inefficient diversions. Get plenty of sleep, a reasonable amount of exercise, plenty of socialization. I spend a lot of my ample free time cooking healthy delicious meals, hanging out with my husband and cat, and watching Netflix.

    My ability to pull this off is probably 70% being a VERY fast worker (when I need to be) and 30% luck (my studies have mostly had fruitful results). I read much faster than average and have some other particular talents that help me process data quickly (visuospatial attention). I also try not to waste time perseverating on details or questions that lead nowhere, something I see a lot of other grad students do. Working in groups with other students (highly productive, but 50 hour a week types) , and sharing an office with someone who works closer to 60 but often has little tangible to show for it, has convinced me that the 35 hour week is doable if you totally rethink how you work.

    Only time will tell if this strategy survives my post-doc and hopefully tenure track years. But I've pulled it off for nearly 5 years of grad school, for whatever that's worth.

  • Robert L Bell says:

    I had the same experience working in Scandinavia: people are relaxed (by American standards) and they have the right under the law to arrive at ten and leave at five - but they accomplish every bit as much, and more, because they are focused and productive within that block of time.

    The American style, by great contrast, is to be seen as working heroic hours. The important part is to be seen, and if you happen to accomplish something that's a bonus. And if you spend too much time politicking at the expense of doing your alleged job, then at least you have cultivated an extensive circle of friends who can protect you in times of trial.

  • […] Working that pseudo-80 hour week Why do Macroeconomists Think We Know Macroeconomics? (the thing that strikes me is that, if I know the macroeconomist’s political leanings, I can pretty much peg where he stands on macro, wherease for many sciences and most topics, I can’t readily do that) The Miracle of Minneapolis Why Is The Dollar Sign A Letter S? How To End Unemployment Yes, Bush lied about Iraq: Why are we still arguing about this? 24 Pictures That Perfectly Capture How Insane The Snow In New England Is Drug Testing Welfare Users Is A Sham, But Not For The Reasons You Think Since 9/11, We’ve Had Four Wars in the Middle East. They’ve All Been Disasters. (similar thoughts here) American millennials are behind most of their counterparts in some pretty basic skills (then again, we’ve always been behind) Oklahoma Lawmakers Vote Overwhelmingly To Ban Advanced Placement U.S. History (bonkers) How rich conservatives bilk the rank and file into making them richer (wrote about this here) Charter schools struggling to meet academic growth (I’m not sure this is accurate, but it is based on how the state measures academic growth et alia) The Mismeasure of Teaching Time (pdf; interesting, not sure I agree entirely with the conclusions) […]

  • Namnezia says:

    I think focus is key. As a grad student and postdoc I rarely was in lab longer than 8 - 9 hours but got a ton done. And this was great because it is so much easier to focus when basically pretty much all you have to do is worry about doing science. Since I've been faculty my focus has dwindled considerably and my schedule become super fragmented, so that I feel like I'm basically working all the time but not necessarily accomplishing much more than as a grad student or postdoc. And that's due to having to run to bullshit meetings, random urgent demands for my attention, the tedium of writing grants and of course having kids. I absolutely think that having a solid 8 hours to work is far, far more productive than being in lab all day. It is certainly true for me that 8 hours is about as much as I can handle in a day, before my brain starts to fry.

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