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Academics and the 60-Hour Work Week

A tweet and a 2014 study.

February 9, 2018
 
 

A tweet went viral among academics on social media. Issued by Nicholas Christakis, Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale University, the tweet was a comment to an Inside Higher Ed article from 2014, about a study from Boise State University showing that professors work 60 hours a week.

When I shared this tweet in one of my academic Facebook groups, the reactions were immediate and numerous, so numerous as to make this the most commented post I have ever made on social media. It was obvious that the tweet touched a soft spot for many who work in higher ed, and it made me think that one of the reasons for its wide distribution is that it was relevant to so many discussions going on in the profession. Work-life balance, health and productivity is one such cluster of topics. Accepting and promoting the idea that the academic standard is to put in 10 hours of work daily, including one weekend day, is unhealthy. This is so much beyond the 9 to 5 of Dolly Parton fame, we are talking 8 to 6! It is ironic that a leading researcher on health and society should stand behind this practice, which research has shown to be unproductive. Fewer and more efficient hours are far more rewarding in terms of good results than working a lot, but under duress.

Another cluster of topics is connected to inequality. Sixty hours are not the same for a grad student and for a professor in terms of financial compensation. Moreover, professor’s success builds sometimes (often?) on the cheap labor contributed by doctoral and post-doctoral research fellows. In many areas of research, the long hours worked by graduate students benefit, disproportionately, the professors.

From a gender perspective, the tweet touched the role of the family support. A professor (or a grad student) that dedicates all their time to being at work cannot at the same time take care of household chores, of children, or of elder parents. The expectation to work 60 hours per week is discriminatory against women because the tasks of taking care of family and practicalities has historically and culturally been assigned to women.

For me, the tweet raised two additional issues. One has to admit that it described a de facto situation that all academics have experienced at least occasionally. I do work 60 hours a week. In fact, I am doing it right now. It is grant application season, and if I want to pursue any of my favorite research interests, I need to secure external funding. I don’t have the luxury of taking a break from my regular work and write away at the proposal. Fulfilling my contractual duties combined with grant writing means many extra work hours a day, weekends included. I only do this occasionally, and I see it as an investment (however risky) in a better academic future. The problem is if we normalize this behavior and make it standard practice.

In addition, I think academics think of themselves as some kind of exception, dedicated forever to a life of the mind, and willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of the advancement of science. Let’s face it, we are not the only profession that works very long hours. I am lucky enough to have friends outside the academy, and the story of the 60-hour work week is just as familiar to those working in the banking sector, in consulting, in hospitals, and to every single business entrepreneur that I have ever met. A 10-hour work day may even seem easy to those who juggle several jobs in order to make ends meet financially.

The tweet also raises two follow-up questions: how much do professors, grad students, post-docs etc, really work and why do they do it? The empirical question of quantifying academic work has already been taken up by this article in The Atlantic, written as a direct reaction to the social media conversation sparked by Prof Christakis. The second one, which asks for an explanation, is still on the table.

What would be your answers? Leave them in the comments or on Twitter, @UVenus!

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