Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The secret to academic success - work LESS

[This is a copy of my blogpost, previously on]

We have a mostly self-induced workaholic culture in academia, and I am convinced that it is severely damaging to research and researchers. Normal working hours and time off aren't just okay - they are important for productivity.
Throughout much of my graduate training, I was consistently troubled by the workaholic students, postdocs, and professors. They made me question my own commitment and fit into academia, considering that I liked to take off weekends, spend evenings with my wife, go out with non-scientist friends, and take vacations and travel. Now I know that the time off didn't hurt me -- it made me more productive and creative; it helped me to finish my PhD.
I am convinced working less helps you to achieve more. I had some of my best ideas on hikes or vacations., and there is plenty of research that shows declining productivity beyond a 40-hour work week. The Salon article "Bring back the 40-hour work week" should be required reading for academics. 
This is a topic that has bothered me for almost a decade now. It doesn’t just annoy me when people say that to be successful in academia, you need to work insane hours. It’s BAD advice.
I think academics, like startup founders, often work non-stop because they think that it’s required. Or because this is in their nature. But I am far from convinced that academia actually requires it. I see too many people who burn out because they don’t have good work/life balance. I know professors who are parents and don’t work evenings/weekends. I know postdocs who want to spend time with their significant other and go home at the end of the day. And these people tend to be no less productive and successful than those who never leave the lab.
We do this because we love science. It’s not a job really. It’s a passion and the way of life. But then who is to tell us that it must come at the expense of having time off, at the expense of having family and friends, at the expense of sanity?
On a related note, it’s not just about how many hours you work per day and whether you take off the weekend. You also need vacations and extended time away from the lab. I strongly encourage students and postdocs to travel, hike, and vacation. Do it during your graduate studies and between the PhD and postdoc!
P.S. As a fifth-year graduate student, I remember asking a senior postdoc about the fact that professors seem to work nonstop. It worried me. Her position was, “I think many of these people would work nonstop no matter what career path they chose. It’s self-induced. I care about doing non-science things. I choose to do science the way that works for me and my family. And I will ignore how much everyone works. I will do it my way, until someone tells me that it’s not enough and I can’t continue like this.”
She continued like this. She became a professor at Harvard. I followed up with her when I came to Boston. She was a junior professor and nothing changed for her work/life philosophy. She did not go to lab on weekends or evenings. She is doing well. She is not the only example of this.
[comments below]

The scaling of the productivity with the time spent working depends much on the nature of the work. Routine work, such as pipetting, scales almost linearly with time up to the zombie zone while the scaling of creative/conceptual work is less clear. I personally agree that after some point, conceptual work scales inversely with the time spent working. So the type of productivity that one is aiming for should be a factor in deciding how to work and how much to work. There are labs in which a grad student or a postdoc can become a first author of a "high-impact" publication by doing a lot of busy routine work. So how much we work is perhaps a reflection in part of our values and definition of success.
Reply 1
Lenny, I was just thinking about the same post myself! Having been provoked to think about how much people work, I think I realized that for myself, it's not the number of hours but our internal perception of how those hours are spent that may make the most difference in quality of life:
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