Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Work-life Balance: Hours

I recently came across the following article in the AAAS journal Science.

Title: A Cosmologist Resists Academia's Work-Life Norms

The article begins with, "Sarah Bridle is concerned about the low number of women in academia in physics and astronomy beyond the Ph.D. level."

The article then describes Bridle's career trajectory and a UK workshop she organized on work-life balance in astronomy.

And then, the following: "Bridle also knew that the culture of academic science dictated working long hours, but she decided she didn't want this lifestyle. She promised herself she wouldn't be in the office late in the evenings or bring her work home on weekends. Contrary to what some people assume, she says, this helps her to get more work done. "I'm much more clear-headed after a break from work and a good night's sleep," she says. "It really makes a difference to how efficiently I work. When I've occasionally worked too late the previous evening, I've found myself mentally slacking off at work, surfing the Web, and making extra cups of tea." Today, she encourages her postdocs and students to ignore the academic tradition of working long hours and to have the confidence to work the hours they feel are appropriate."

This may be the first time I've heard a mid+ career astronomer state that they deliberately protect their evenings and weekends from work.

Since my second year of graduate school, I've struggled to do the same-- carefully marking out work-time from out-of-work-time. Every time I loosen these boundaries & work long hours, my efficiency (and healthy attitude) take a nosedive. Yet this deliberate choice to limit work hours is a source of anxiety, since the standard image of a successul scientist is someone who works nights and weekends (willingly sacrifices this personal time) and, as a result, is highly productive.

An NSF report from 2005, "All in a Week's Work: Average Work Weeks of Doctoral Scientists and Engineers," conflicts somewhat with this standard image. The report lists average work-hours per week for science doctorate holders in full-time employment and compares between Education, Industry, and Government. The average across all employment sectors in the physical sciences is 48.3 (with 2 hours more than this in Education and 3 hours less than this in Goverment). Table 2 breaks things down in terms of positions within academia, with increasing hours from non-tenure track (48.7 hours/wk), postdoc (50.3), tenure track (51.1), and tenure-track but not tenured (52.5).

An 8 am - 6 pm M-F 10 hour work day is consistent with this average-- with nights and weekends protected. This, however, goes against the impression that many of us grad students and post-docs are under -- that scientists in permanent positions work 60+ hour work-weeks, an impression gained as a result of seeing our advisors and collaborators working nights and weekends.

It seems to me that there are a number of factors causing this difference between reported hours and our standard image:

One is that there are too few Sara Bridle's making statements about protecting out-of-work time.

Another could be that the scientists surveyed for the NSF study reported 'productive' hours, rather than simply the total number of hours in the work place. Efficiency, efficiency, efficiency is the advice I've heard again and again for achieving work-life balance.

Also, there's an ebb-and-flow nature to our work (as a result of deadlines and when a project is 'on a roll' or not). We should be careful to take note of those fewer-hour weeks as well when anecdotally trying to get a sense of work-hours our later-career colleagues are putting in.

Finally, with 'only' a 50 hour work week, a scientist who picks up kids from day-care or cares for elder parents or is responsible for some other of life's many commitments is most likely not working a 10-hour straight work-day. Instead, h/she is starting late and/or leaving early and then working on nights and/or weekends to keep up with the average.

I, and many other of my fellow grad students and postdocs, would very much appreciate hearing more voices of astronomers striving to protect their out-of-work hours.

Also, in order to make informed decisions about this career path, we want to know -- What is the reality of the hours you put in for your work-week?

If there's interest, I'd happily set up a poll and gather updated work-hour statistics for astronomers in academia, industry, and government.

Additional food-for-thought:

Check out the AAUP 2009 report, "Why Graduate Students Reject the Fast Track". The report provides the results of a survey of 8000+ UC graduate students gauging their concerns vis-a-vis the academic career route. The 'Reinvisioning Academia' section is worth a close look.

A thought-provoking review of these and other issues.

An interesting review of results and recommendations from a European collaboration researching work-life balance.

Some useful advice for keeping control of your work-hours.

Summative report from the UK 2009 workshop on Work-Life Balance.