Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Student Questions pt 2 - How many hours do you work?

In this series, I respond to questions that I was asked as part of "I'm a Researcher, get me out of here". See my earlier post on the event for more detail on the event as a whole. Students in secondary schools asked questions about my research, experiences, and researcher life. There was much less time and space to talk about these questions / issues than needed to give a full picture. So, this series has more of my thoughts and reflections on those questions. I'll keep the editing to a minimum, so that this is a more organic process, maybe I'll even get a podcast or two recorded on this topic. Comment or contact me directly to pose new questions, and I'll aim to answer them!

Today's question;

How much time do you spend working on research in a typical week?

This came up pretty commonly during I'm a Researcher. I didn't feel too strongly to talk about it in more detail until this morning. The short answer is that I try to work roughly on a 9-5 Monday-Friday kind of schedule, to fit with family life. When there are deadlines or revisions that need to be completed, or when there are applications to get ready I'll of course put in weekend and evening hours to get things done. But, I try to draw the distinction between home and work life where I can.

That's the short answer specific to me. But, what I want to write (rant) about is the expectations in academia to work excessive hours. I came across the below tweet yesterday, which riled me up for the reasons that I'll explain next (and hopefully give some information about working life in academia as well). The tweet was a higher response to a Times Higher Education survey which asked academics how many hours they work each weekend. If its not immediately apparent why lots of people (myself included) chimed in with less than positive reactions, maybe the problem needs elaboration.

this annoys me less now, but still, c'mon dude

 First, I should say that I am completely fine with the idea that if you love your work and want to spend time on it that's great; whether weekend, evening, or whatever. Its also fair to say that sometimes in academia we just have to put in some weekend time, perhaps there's a grant application deadline upcoming, or you really want to get a paper finished, or the problem is playing on your mind anyway. On a positive note, if this post was only a passionate statement about how this person loves their research that that's literally all they want to do with their time, great. That passion is great and in many ways something to be appreciated.

There are loads of good reasons for putting extra time in outside of the standard 9-5 Monday to Friday. There are also a hoard of bad ones, which is why this particular tweeter hacked me off, because they managed to hit most of them. This kind of statement rings true with the joke that 'one of the best things about academia is that you get to pick the 60/80/100 hours you work each week'.

Most of my objection comes from the "real academics" phrase. This adds a judgement that I despise and my honest opinion is that throw away comments like this contribute towards junior researchers hardships, impostor syndrome, and perpetrates a harmful work/life balance.

Lets talk impostor syndrome. I'm pretty sure most of us have felt like this at some point, and it seems particularly common in academia. That feeling that, despite your own achievements, that everybody else is better qualified and able to do the job. That you will get found out for being a fraud and not being good enough to be where you are now. You can google impostor syndrome for a huge collection that suggests how pervasive this problem is. Part of the problem is that we intrinsically compare ourselves and our achievements to others, and this is magnified when we are in a competitive job market like academia. This part is not entirely unavoidable, but makes sense, and we can do things to combat it.

One thing that the opinion that more hours = better work or a better academic lead to is burnout. Trust me, burnout sucks. The feeling that you cant function and actually get things completed, the constant mental fatigue, and if we are frank high-functioning depression and anxiety, suck so hard. Nobody should expect that to be the norm in any field. What makes it worse is people like the tweeter above putting out there that we should expect people to do nothing, or have nothing else important, but work. Add this to impostor syndrome and job insecurities and you have a recipe for disaster.

But, statements like this, which basically amount to "to be a real academic, you need to work weekends" to early career researchers (like myself) is a bigger part of the problem. It places a stigma on those who have other aspects of their lives (i.e. most of us). Family are important, in case that was not immediately obvious. I'm not going to miss spending time with my wife on the weekend so that some jumped up "real" academic on his/her ivory tower can look at me more positively. Even worse, to say to people wanting to work in research that their work is their life now is a reprehensible contribution to the public discourse around academic work/life balance (super trying not to swear lots and screaming into pillows).

be excited - not knowing something is an opportunity to learn something new

The take home message

Before I get into full ranting mode, I want to swing this back to the students that asked this question. If you want to work in academia, you will probably need to put in hours outside of the 9-5 schedule that many people work in. In the same way as having homework and exams means that you have stuff to do in your own time; you might have access to the lab equipment only on a Saturday for awhile, or there might be a few big deadlines close together so you don't have too much free time for a few weeks.

In all honesty, it isn't predictable, and will affect some people more than others. But, if somebody tells you (for any job) that you aren't allowed a life outside of that job you need to do one of two things. First, tell that person where to get off. Second, consider whether that advice is accurate (probably not) and whether it is worth it to you. If you truly love the work great, but don't sacrifice the other things that are important to you.

This is the important bit. You do not need to work weekends to be a "real" academic. You do not need to work yourself until you burnout to be good at your job. You should not be made to feel like you are not working enough (obviously unless you're super lazy). If you need help to get work done in fewer hours and not work every weekend, then you should be able to ask for help. Academia is awesome and I want to work in research for a long time. So, ignore statements like this particular tweet, you do not deserve to feel like you do not deserve your place as a "real academic".

What are your thoughts? happy to answer comments :)

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