Reflections on long hours in the laboratory, and working for results

A recent Twitter discussion on long work weeks by academics caused me to reflect on my previous life in academia – that decade where I completed my MSc and PhD in chemistry, postdoctoral studies, and four years as an assistant professor of chemistry in two different universities.

The Twitter discussion began in earnest when, In response to this tweet about the distribution of work hours for “average” professors:

came this response that ignited a bit of a firestorm:

Several tweeters took issue with his point that a graduate student or a postdoctoral fellow working “only” 60 hours a week is working “less than their peers” struck some people the wrong way. A number of responses discussed the need for work/life balance, and people describing their own experiences with unhealthy work schedules. This thread from a chemistry professor at Dalhousie University represented well some of the life hazards of the long days in the laboratory:

Prof. Christakis later explained that he merely pointed out the realities of the academic job market.

I admit that there are parts of the academic life that I miss – the fast pace, the intense effort to design the right experiment, the reading through articles to better understand the state of the field, the thrill of being on the cutting edge of knowledge, and the interactions with brilliant minds. And I did put in long days, long weeks to make it happen.

I sometimes even miss the evenings in the laboratory – when things were flowing and I was on the cusp of of a breakthrough. That would be followed by the satisfied late-night walk home, and reinforcement of my love for science and my thirst for new knowledge.

I’ve also told many tales about my spring and summer of 2004, pushing through to complete my PhD thesis on time. I did write a fair bit of it between midnight and 3:00am – but that may have been the best time for my brain to operate in writing mode. It also helped to to be living alone, and to have an understanding girlfriend (who is now my wife).

So yes, I worked long hours in graduate school, and I did the same as a postdoctoral fellow. But I didn’t put in the long hours just for the sake of putting in long hours. I was driven to produce. And in hindsight, I probably could have spent 10% less time in the laboratory and still produced the same results if I had clearer in my objectives, instead of just getting as much done as I could. There is nothing like a deadline to get the creative juices flowing – remember those university essays you wrote the night before they were due?

In graduate school, my supervisor insisted that each member of his research group “work” 50 hours a week, and had us fill out timesheets to track the time. Of course, 50 hours of work in a week means working evenings or weekends. But he was fair in his approach – anything related to the graduate school experience counted towards that 50 hours: research, class time, seminars, teaching, fetching donuts for the weekly seminar, and so on. He even told us that a coffee break where conversation was about lab work could count towards the 50 hour quota. He was also good to allow additional time off for banked hours beyond the threshold.

There is some machismo associated with bragging about the long hours and the all-nighters – it becomes a proxy to commitment and motivation. It is an easy metric to exaggerate; who’s going to argue whether you really worked 110 hours last week? Long hours are presented by some leaders as a life hack. I thought about it over Christmas when this tweet made the rounds, by the former CEO of TicketMaster:

Notwithstanding the apples-to-running shoes comparison, this attitude is common among entrepreneurs, particularly startups that run mainly, at first, on “sweat labour”. The underlying assumption is that there is some linear relationship between quantity of work and quantity of product. The deeper underlying message appears to be an appeal to the survival of the fittest: breaks are for weak and the losers, while winners get there by working longer.

Besides, making the number of hours a target, instead of the expected results, is just bad management. A good leader helps his team set ambitious but reasonable objectives, and monitors the results. If the researcher can’t meet the objectives, then perhaps they need to acquire a bit more knowledge on a key aspect of the work; maybe they are lacking some resources (I know research money is scarce, but missing resources need to be acknowledged as an impediment when it really is so); maybe they are not getting the necessary feedback from their leader; and maybe the objectives need to be reconsidered. And if a researcher meets their objectives and publishes strong papers while working “regular” hours, isn’t this a sign of an efficient worker? Unfortunately, some people would see a lost opportunity – a few more nights a week in the laboratory could lead to even more publications. That would help the researcher’s CV, and perhaps more crucially, the supervisor’s CV.

There are supervisors who model and encourage work/life balance in their students. They don’t cringe at the thought of the laboratory as a workplace. These leaders expect effort and commitment, but they also appreciate that students have other interests and responsibilities outside of school. Students with children must be encouraged to balance their multiple responsibilities, just like in any other workplace. Many students will engage in other activities, whether it’s an artistic endeavour, playing a sport, involvement in a volunteer organisation, or even just talking long hikes on weekends. These interests should also be encouraged, so long as they don’t interfere with work. Of course, some students genuinely love the research and they can’t think of anything else they’d rather do, and they happily put in the long hours. Other students burn themselves out working non-stop, because they think it’s what is expected from them – and unfortunately, their supervisors may not discourage this behaviour.

Some of the students who spend countless hours in the laboratory become the supervisors who can’t understand why any real scientist doesn’t immerse themselves in their work in the same way. Even worse, they may see the long days and weeks as just a part of the system – it’s just how things are done at universities. I think of the supervisor, when asked by a graduate student for a week off at Christmas, who responded that “last I checked, Christmas is only one day”. This comic captures the sentiment in a more humorous manner:

Here I am, eight years removed from my last academic job, and I don’t miss it any more. My consulting work, which was fascinating and rewarding but still precarious, made me long for regular working hours and regular interactions with office-mates. When I finally became entrenched in my current job with the federal government, working 37.5 minutes hours per week, the thought of long hours became much less appealing. I work the extra hours when I need to, but I make sure that it is absolutely necessary. I also take pride in my accomplishments, in the office and in other parts of my life. They are so much more interesting to share than a timesheet of all of the hours that I worked.

If you love something – science, medicine, art, sport – and you are able to fully immerse yourself in it, then enjoy it, if that is your choice. 40 or 50 hours of effective work in the office or laboratory per week is not a sign of laziness or a lack of commitment. Placing that expectation on others is simply unfair, and will drive away people who would contribute to their chosen field, simply for wanting to live a full life.

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