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Working Hours for Graduate Students

Horsehead NebulaOne thing any academic recognizes is the fact that there is always more work to be done. There’s always another article to read, another experiment to run, another set of data to code, or another archive to consult. And so this leads, reasonably enough, to some anxiety about just how much work one should be doing at any given moment.

Graduate students, especially newer ones, understandably need guidance in learning to recognize the norms and values of the academy. And so, a few weeks ago, an unnamed department in astronomy apparently sent this message (via AstroBetter, where there are great comments, too) to all the graduate students in their program:

First, while some students are clearly putting their hearts and souls into their research, and spending the hours at the office or lab that are required, others are not.  We have received some questions about how many hours a graduate student is expected to work.  There is no easy answer, as what matters is your productivity, particularly in the form of good scientific papers.  However, if you informally canvass the faculty (those people for whose jobs you came here to train), most will tell you that they worked 80-100 hours/week in graduate school.  No one told us to work those hours, but we enjoyed what we were doing enough to want to do so.  We were almost always at the office, including at night and on weekends.  Nowadays, with the internet, it is fine to work from home sometimes, but you still miss out on learning from and forming collaborations with other graduate students when everyone does not work in the same place at the same time.  

We realize that students with families will not have 80-100 hours/week to spend at work.  Again, what matters most is productivity.  Any faculty member or mentoring/thesis committee will be more than happy to work with any student to develop strategies to maximize productivity, even in those cases where the student is unable to devote more than 60 hours to their work per week.

You were all admitted to our program because you expressed the ambition of becoming a research astronomer.  We know that you are concerned about the market for post-docs and faculty positions.  Yet the market is no worse or better than it is has been for at least a decade or two.  The people who will get the best jobs are the type of people who always get the best jobs, those with a truly exceptional level of dedication to science, who seize ownership of their research and careers, and who fix problems instead of blaming others for them.  If you find yourself thinking about astronomy and wanting to work on your research most of your waking hours, then academic research may in fact be the best career choice for you.

Obviously, one should read the whole thing! One has to admire this e-mail’s vaunted “kids today–get off my lawn and into the lab!” methodology, wherein an informal poll of the faculty’s recollection of graduate school is supposed to be taken seriously as guidance about hours worked. Actual research into hours worked shows that most people overestimate their hours worked by at least 5-10%, and people who believe they work between 65-74 hours a week are overstating things by at least 20 hours. In other words, the effect increases with the number of hours one believes one is working. (On an unrelated note, I’m working 200 hours a week.)

The irony, then, is that an e-mail designed to set realistic expectations may not in fact be doing so. Laura Vanderkam recently suggested the real number is a bit lower (I reviewed Vanderkam’s 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think) a couple of years ago):

If you are thinking of taking a job in a field where people talk about 80-hour workweeks, know that it may not be quite like that in reality. I’ve had several people in such industries keep time logs for me, and I find they tend to be working right around 60-hour workweeks. Sixty hours is doable.

Work 60, sleep 7-8 per night (let’s say 50 per week) and that leaves 58 hours for other things – just about the same amount as you’re working. That sounds like work-life balance to me!

This 60-hour workweek model is, incidentally, borne out by a commenter in the AstroBetter thread linked above, who actually started logging hours.

That said, the email touches on issues of genuine importance to graduate students, and indeed to most academics! Lucianne Walkowickz does a remarkable job translating this e-mail into humane, applicable advice:

Work-life balance will be an ongoing challenge throughout your life. 

Being an astronomer shares a good deal in common with being an artist. It is demanding, and on dark days there seems to be no return for your blood and sweat. Exceptional dedication is required, it’s true, but dedication is also not sufficient to ensure some sort of easily quantifiable success. We do what we do, at least in many cases, because our desire to know the natural world is a deep hunger, immensely rewarding when slaked, but never gone for long. If your work matters to you, it is easy to let it take over your life, because it will reach without bounds anywhere you let it. And you will let it, at least part of the time.

Your challenge is to figure out what your priorities are, and allot your time accordingly. Keep in mind that you only get to decide your priorities, and you have to acknowledge that these priorities may not be shared by everyone else. In practice, that means that some places you work will value your decisions, and others not.

I’d like to say that it gets better, but Walkowicz is correct: Balancing the demands of work against those of family, friends, and yourself is a never-ending struggle. It is, in effect, one of the costs of the flexibility or autonomy that often comes with academic life. (The other cost, of course, being actual dollars!)

Photo “B33–HorseHead Nebula” by Flickr user Skiwalker79 / Creative Commons licensed BY-NC-SA

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