Thursday, May 17, 2012

Guest Post: Catherine Neish on Remaining competitive and sane: The 40 hour work week in science?

Catherine Neish is presently a postdoctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and will be starting a NASA Postdoctoral Fellowship at Goddard Space Flight Center later this summer. Her research focuses on radar remote sensing of planetary bodies, such as Titan and the Moon.

Remaining competitive and sane: The 40 hour work week in science?

The forty hour work week. It’s a standard length for many American workers, but it seems to represent more of a lower limit for many scientists. Discussing your plans for evening or weekend work is not unusual in our field; indeed, in this competitive, type A environment some may argue it's necessary for success.

I'd like to suggest it's not. Indeed, I think many of us could be better scientists if we worked forty hours a week. Or less.

Not that I don't feel the impulse to work. I do. I worked hard throughout my K-12 education and on through my undergraduate degree in astronomy. It seems quite distant now, but there was a time in my life when my almost all of my time was spent in class or doing homework assignments. I remember one occasion when I had to pull myself away from my quantum mechanics homework to see a wonderful display of the Leonids meteor shower (and boy I'm glad I did!).

But in graduate school something changed. I worked hard, but I took evenings off to spend time with friends, to exercise, or simply to relax at home. If friends were going on a hike in the mountains, I would take a few days off to join them. I was a productive scientist, publishing four papers before graduation, but I am not convinced I worked more than 35 hours a week.

Out of graduate school and working a "real job" at a large laboratory, I found myself putting in longer hours and juggling several projects at once. And while I'm still productive, I don't feel as creative or innovative as I did in graduate school. I began to wonder if long hours may be hindering our collective productivity as scientists. And it turns out there's some research to back this up.

In the book “Imagine: How creativity works”, Johan Lehrer explores where innovative thoughts come from. He concludes that people in a relaxed state and a good mood are far more likely to develop innovative or creative thoughts. Speaking on NPR’s ‘Fresh Air,” Lehrer states:

"When you look at where insights come from, they come from where we least expect them. They only arrive after we stop looking at them. If you're an engineer working on a problem and you're stumped by your technical problem, chugging caffeine at your desk and chaining yourself to your computer, you're going to be really frustrated. You're going to waste lots of time. You may look productive, but you're actually wasting time. Instead, at that moment, you should go for a walk. You should play some ping-pong. You should find a way to relax."

It's been called the "shower principle," the idea that inspiration comes when your mind is as ease (say, for example, when you’re taking a shower). My father once told me that the major breakthrough in his PhD research came when he was walking across a parking lot, and I’m sure many of you have had similar ‘ah ha!’ moments. Jorge Cham described this graphically in one PhD comic:

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham (used with permission)

In addition to heightened creativity, there are other benefits to a shorter work week - spending time with family and friends, developing skills outside of science, improving your health through exercise. I hope to be a parent one day, and still wonder how I can raise two babies - my scientific career and my child - at the same time.

I recognize that some weeks may require more than 40 hours. But with some planning, or simply the use of the word 'no', I think we can reduce much of the scramble to complete last minute deadlines. I think each of us can find a way to remain both competitive and sane, and I think science will be the better off for it.


anita said...

I would be really curious to know how many professionals in high-performing, interesting jobs that they like to do manage to have a 40-hour work week. Are there published stats on jobs/careers vs. hours worked?

anita said...

PS: Don't get me wrong. I am all about working to live rather than the other way around. But I think the 40-hour work week for salaried professionals in interesting jobs is a bit of a myth. Some of it is the reality of the modern workplace, but some of it is also the type of people who go into these types of jobs - we are driven people who care deeply about what we do.

Rosemary Mardling said...

Anita - if and when you are finally blessed with a little one, you will discover that you will probably be much less able to decide what you will do with each minute of the day. This will be because you are constantly tired (at least in the first year or two), and because your little one will have far more say in what happens to you than you can imagine now! Having said that, I think your philosophy regarding work and leisure is correct, and like you I think that if academic work places encouraged this they would be much more creative and successful, not to mention much more pleasant places to work. Your philosophy will also serve you well when you do start a family, and your little ones and your partner (not to mention your own good self!) will benefit enormously!

Catherine Neish said...

Anita, in answer to your question, I found this study conducted in 2003:

It appears the average work week of a PhD in the physical sciences is 48 hours, ranging from 51 h in the "Education" sector and 45 h in the "Government" sector.

It would be interesting to follow up on this survey to determine the cause of the longer work hours, although I agree that enthusiasm for our jobs is likely to be a contributing factor.

anita said...

Rosemary - I actually don't work in academia anymore. I work for a non-profit working on education policy. I love my job, and my work environment is fantastic with our (female) boss really emphasizing work-life balance. But we all have a LOT of work to get done, and I and my colleagues (most of whom are women and do have young children) constantly negotiate this balance and end up working outside of normal work hours to get things done. I say this to illustrate that even people in workplaces that do emphasize work-life balance struggle... But it does help to have everyone be aware of it as something to strive for.

Eilat said...

I need time to gather my thoughts on this post, and since it is the weekend and I'm going to spend time with my kids, I'll have to come back to this. But in the meanwhile, I just want to say thank you. This needed to be said.