I’ve spoken about work life balance before and how I have to work hard to maintain it. Recently the issue of overworking in research science (and by all researchers, STEM or otherwise) has been brought up due to a recently published article on the Science website called “Getting noticed is half the battle”, it was written by Eleftherios Diamandis a department head at the University of Toronto. In his piece Diamandis argues that to get noticed and to get to where he is (a department head with a lot of letters after his name) he worked 16-17 hours a day for years on end. This was while his wife Anastasia (also a research scientist) was also working as an early career research (ECR) AND shouldering nearly the entire burden of the household responsibilities and childcare. Despite Diamandis’s selfish approach Anastasia Diamandis has still managed to forge her own career, so perhaps Science should ask her to write an article instead. The sexist attitude present here deserves it’s own blog post entirely so I won’t touch on it any further, instead I want to talk about the 16-17hour days Diamandis claims he worked in order to get noticed and, ultimately, arrive at his current position.
Yes science takes hard work, yes sometimes experimental time courses can’t always be changed (I run 12 hour experiments so I know that, but I plan them to minimise the impact on my non-work life) but does succeeding in science require you to regularly work all the hours you aren’t sleeping? Of course not! And if it does I don’t want to be part of it. Does this mean I’m scared of hard work? Definitely not, my previous jobs have included weekend and rota work as commercial testing labs tend to run on a 7 day week, however at these jobs when I worked additional hours I was compensated (in additional pay or hours in lieu) and these hours were part of my contract, not something just expected of me to succeed. Ok but that was before I was in research, it was a different situation, now the competition is fierce, surely I need to work maximum hours to succeed in academia? Again the answer is no, and again some might say that I’m just shying away from the hard work of academia that separates those who make it from those who don’t? Well to those people I would say, I have several other jobs and responsibilities in addition to my PhD. I work as a tutor for the Brilliant Club, I demonstrate for undergraduates with the university and I support A-level students through the realising opportunities programme. I have two blogs and I’m an active part of my department serving on committees such as the Athena Swan working group. I do all of this in addition to my PhD and I still manage to have a home life. I manage to not neglect my boyfriend, my house, my family and my friends (90% of the time at least!).
Recently I got a comment on my personal blog #dailyphd for arriving at the lab early and “working long”. This person meant it as a positive but for me it made me realise that recently I’ve let my working hours creep up. While I’m quite strict about not working the weekends (only popping in if I’m already here for a Pilates class) I’ve consistently been in the lab until 7pm. This would be fine if I arrived at 10am but I don’t, I arrive at 8am most days. I was losing out on down time at home in the evenings, even on time to put away clean laundry. Not being on top of things at home leaves me feeling stressed, so I made a conscience decision to start leaving work earlier. Most of this week I’ve left at 5-5:30pm, either to go home, to the gym or to socialise, and unsurprisingly this week I feel much more in control of everything at home again. So has my PhD suffered? Not at all, have I still achieved all the lab work I wanted to? Yes. So what can I conclude from this? Well my personal opinion on Diamandis’s working hours it that, while he may have spent 16-17hours per day at work, he definitely didn’t spend 16-17 PRODUCTIVE hours at work. We all have a limit on how productive we can be and working longer can actually have a detrimental affect on productivity beyond a certain point. My current aim is the work shorter but more productive hours, making exceptions when lab work requires it.
There is an excellent response to the Diamandis article here, that also argues for sensible working hours. If we as PhD students (and ECR’s) constantly compete to outwork each other all we will succeed in is overworking ourselves. Our mental health, loved ones and social lives will suffer unnecessarily. Why don’t you set yourself some defined working hours and see if you still get the same amount done, the chances are you will. There will obviously be stressful points in the PhD (e.g. just before thesis submission) where you need to work longer hours, this is an understandable part of life. Provided these are short-lived chunks of time you’ll be fine, the key is to make these times the exception not the norm.
Not everyone see’s the benefits of a work/life balance and academia has a distinct culture of overwork. This culture is accidently led by senior academics, often driven by sheer passion for their field, who don’t realise or understand that they are setting an example for those who work for them. Their habits lead us to overwork, not out of passion but out of expectation, and this isn’t the way it should be.