PhD productivity vs. having a life – both please!

Scientific research is pretty competitive, especially when it comes to securing funding. As such, our work is never truly done and to-do lists can feel endless. These two things frequently result in researchers working extremely long hours. A fascinating article on this subject was making the rounds on Twitter last week. In the post, a tenure track researcher at Harvard University mentions that some people believe that success in academia can only be achieved by working 80 hours/week. She points out that this “would mean ~11 hour work days all 7 days of the week. That’s crazy, and *completely* unreasonable”. I agree wholeheartedly.

This workaholic mentality is quite pervasive though, both in academia and beyond. PhD comics frequently illustrate the absurd idea that PhD students are expected by their supervisors to dedicate all their time to their research (see a recent comic here). Although the comics are fortunately an exaggeration, many PhD students do feel the pressure to work long hours to compete for the precious few post doc positions out there. I’m reminded of this excellent article by Scicurious from a couple years ago, commenting on the many problems with fostering this kind of attitude in early career researchers.


Surely working excessively long hours is counter-productive. After a certain amount of hard work and mental effort, one’s ability to concentrate and the quality of work decreases dramatically. Our brains need adequate sleep and nutrition in order to perform optimally. Similarly, relaxing, spending time with family and friends, exercising and doing hobbies are necessary to stay mentally healthy and combat stress. A quick route to an unhealthy and overly stressful lifestyle involves trying to get by on caffeine rather than getting enough sleep (see this fascinating article), repeatedly missing out on social events and skipping meals or eating take-away/microwave meals.

There is no question that we need a work-life balance. The question is, can you succeed in science by working “only” 40-45 hours a week? Where I work, most people go home by 6pm and do not lament or brag about working at weekends. I occasionally receive work emails that have been sent on weekends or late in the evening, suggesting that at least some of my colleagues work from home outside of core office hours. I certainly check and reply to emails/do other work from home on occasion too. However, I strongly doubt that anyone in my research group regularly works more than 50 hours/week. And yet, as a group we seem to be reasonably scientifically productive, healthy and happy.

Just to clarify, I completely understand the occasional need to work longer hours in order to get something important done or to meet a deadline. Friends approaching their PhD thesis submission deadlines definitely put in more hours of work a week than average. Similarly, professors writing grants clearly also work longer hours in the weeks before submission. These are understandable exceptions though and they happen for a finite time period.

Perhaps I am really lucky to have found myself in such a healthy work environment or maybe I am incredibly naïve and underestimate how long my colleagues work. Either way, I would much rather work efficiently for 40 hours a week and take the time to recharge my batteries. There are plenty of technological tricks that can increase productivity and cut the length of time tasks take. For example, most statistical packages (Stata, R, SPSS etc.) allow one to use do-files/scripts/syntax to easily run, annotate and repeat analyses. Referencing programs (Endnote, Papers for Windows, Zotero or Mendeley) can cut out days of work, particularly when you need to re-do references after having an article rejected and preparing it to re-submit somewhere else. Microsoft Word has many built-in options that make working with long word documents a breeze (e.g. formatting styles, automatic table of contents). Learning how to use software fully and efficiently (i.e. understanding all the quirks and options) is an investment of time that will pay out exponentially.

In my (as yet limited) experience, I fail to understand how working 50+ hours a week can lead to increased scientific productivity that is worth the cost to one’s physical and mental well-being.


Learning how to say ‘no’

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One of the things I absolutely love about academia is that I am never bored through a lack of having anything stimulating to do. Outside of academia, I have experienced a job in which sometimes I had no appointments and no outstanding work I could do. I really struggled with this and tried to make work for myself and look like I was busy. But this felt more stressful and tiring than actually doing real work and it probably looked a bit odd when I was trying to tidy the office every single week… Fortunately, nowadays my to-do list always has a lot of really interesting things to be getting on with. Even the slightly more tedious things on there are at least satisfying to complete and tick off the list. If I ever feel like I’m at a point where I have tackled all the ‘Really Important and Urgent Things’ on my list, there is always the other half of the list, with all the ‘Things That Would Be Interesting and Useful To Do At Some Point’, or indeed the enormous pile of reading material next to my computer, which never seems to shrink much.

I love being busy, but as with all things, there is a point at which the stress flips from being motivating and positive to a bit overwhelming. Finding a balance and trying to maintain it is crucial for your mental well-being. When things start getting to be too much, it becomes clear that some things need to fall by the wayside if others things are going to get done to a good enough standard. But how do you choose what these things are and how do you say ‘no’ to the things that you’ve judged as less important?

I try to always be available to help anyone who would like my help, partly because when I first started my PhD I was always seeking other people’s advice, partly because I still do this a bit and partly because I genuinely like to help others when I am able to. When my PI asks me to help with things that aren’t directly related to my PhD, such as doing a literature review on a specific topic, giving a talk, attending a meeting, or doing an analysis on something she’s just thought of, I wouldn’t even consider saying ‘no’. But there comes a time when you realise that taking part in an hour-long monthly teleconference you never say anything at would be better spent doing something else and just reading the minutes when they come through by email.

So how do you identify the things that really will lead you off track from your PhD for too long and how do you say no to them? I’m probably not the best person to ask as I will say yes to things 99% of the time and if I don’t end up doing them it’s most likely that they are still on my to-do list and I still intend on doing them, but I was assured that they weren’t really that urgent…

A blog post from last year by Arthropod Ecology contains what seems like good advice on this subject:

“You will always be asked to do more than you can do, and at some point this can break you.  Stay somewhat selfish, and say no to things that take you too far from your career goals.  The key step to getting an academic post, and keeping it, is often research productivity, and so at the later stages of your PhD and early on in your academic position, keep focused on research and try to manage your time to keep that part of your portfolio moving forward.  I think it’s too easy to let research productivity slip when you are balancing other pressures of Academia.”

The importance of learning to say ‘no’ will probably become clearer to me the closer my PhD thesis deadline approaches and my time feels more precious. At the moment, I’m generally happy to help others out, but especially if my help is likely to result in authorship on an eventual paper or a senior person thinking favourably of my apparent positive can-do-attitude when looking for a post doc…