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.

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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.


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