Yes, You Can Work 40 Hours a Week as an Academic

Earlier this week, Trish Roberts-Miller published an essay in Inside Higher Ed on working 40 hours a week. She picks up on many of the same themes I’ve addressed here over the past few months including the problem with busyness and the necessity of a weekly schedule. While there will be weeks when a big project is due or an experiment needs more time, there is simply no reason for academics to work 50, 60, or 70 hours a week. I’m amazed at the number of people who feel the need to work this much or at least attempt to work this much. At various points in my career, I’ve certainly fallen into the trap of thinking I need to work this many hours. The reality? Yes, you can work 40 hours a week as an academic. And yes, you can be productive, successful, and get tenure while doing this.

Photo credit: Marcin Wichary

I typically make it a habit to not read the comments in online news stories. Yet, this time I did curious how people would respond to Roberts-Miller’s argument.  The following comment struck me.

“It’s an unpopular opinion, but I think an academic asking for a 9-5 life should strike one as oddly as the same request from a parent. Academia, particularly when students are involved, is a lifestyle, not a job”

This is wrong on so many levels and is the source of much of the problems of work-life balance that many in higher education suffer.

This is a job. It can be a calling too. But it is a job.

I worry that the rhetoric around this issue is damaging an entire generation of early career faculty and even administrators.

It seems to be there are three possible realities related to this issue.

1. We are working 50-70 hours a week and trying to do everything.

2. We are spending 50-70 hours a week at work, but not working. At least not productively.

3. We are overestimating the time spent at work and actually spend far less than 50-70 hours.

When I finish my 8 hour day, I’m spent. Mentally and physically. I have a hard time believing that people can maintain 9-10 hour days, six days a week indefinitely.

If you believe you’re one of these people, I challenge you to write down everything you do for three days. Every 15-30 minutes. Most people who do these time logs discover they are working far less than the believe.

Almost worse than working 50-70 hours is spending 50-70 hours at work, but unproductively. For the sake of yourself, your health, your family, and your friends. Stop this immediately. Life is too short.

You can work 40 hours a week as an academic and be productive.

One of the great advantages of faculty life is the freedom to schedule one’s day. There are classes to be held and meetings to attend, but much of our time can be dedicated as we desire.

I implore you to not fall into the busyness myth. Plan your schedule and improve your productivity.

I have found that I can work better and smarter in fewer hours.

I suspect you will find the same is true for you too.