Sunday, October 16, 2011

Postcademic Rant 2 - On the Workload

I'm out of town until Wednesday, so here is another postacademic rant to tide you over until later this week. This one's a bit more colorful, since it's about the part of academia that I found the most obnoxious and inexcusable ... the overwhelming, never-ending workload.

Normal posting will resume later this week. I hope everyone had a great weekend!
"F*ck the 'you must be constantly working' nonsense"

In academia, as in nowhere else, there is an assumption – the expectation – that you will literally be working 24/7.

Everyone talks about academia in terms of its flexibility. “Oh, it’s so great – you don’t have assigned work hours, so you can just work WHENEVER you want to! It’s awesome! You can work a normal 9-5 schedule if you want. Or, if you want to sleep in and work between noon and 8pm, you can! Or if you want to work between 11pm and 2am, you can! You don’t HAVE to work at any specific time!”

Of course, what that ignores is that with no defined work hours, there are no defined non-work hours either. And that shit will drive you fucking NUTS.

You will sleep in, and then be somewhat unmotivated to work, and you will feel bad about your non-motivation even though you have no work hours, so there’s no reason you need to be working RIGHT THEN. But you could be. That’s the important part. You have work to do, and you COULD BE doing it … and I’m sure that two apartments over, your grad student colleague is working on their work right that minute. So therefore, you will decide you are a slacker who will never get a job, and find yourself fretting and worrying that you should just drop out already, before everyone else figures out your dirty slacker secret.

You will go run an errand, and feel bad because you have work at home you could be doing, and you shouldn’t go anywhere until that work is done. That trip to buy groceries can wait. Meeting your friend for coffee can wait. Doing your laundry can wait, because you have tasks to complete.

But here's the thing - those tasks will never be complete. Your work as a grad student is never done, because there is always more work you could theoretically be doing. And as long as you have this massive to-do list in front of you, no matter how much work you've done you will keep telling yourself that you don’t deserve or shouldn't take time off because you haven’t gotten “enough done.” 

Except the thing is, how do you know how much work “enough” even is?? There is no definition of what constitutes “enough work” in an academic job. With no obvious completion point for most projects and no defined work hours, "enough work" often becomes “all of the work that I can humanly fit into a 24 hour period, working constantly without breaks.” Anything less than that, and you are a slacker.

And you will know you are a slacker, because other people will passively (or passive aggressively) send you the message. You will swing by the library and see other academic types busily working away. You'll mention to a colleague that you have three projects going and she'll say "only three? Really?" You will log into Facebook at 11pm on a Friday night and see all of your grad student colleagues bragging about how they just got back from the lab after a 16 hour work day. These will all make you feel bad that your evening plans involve watching a movie on your couch, since clearly other people will be working. So while you pop in your DVD, you’ll start to feel like you should really power up your laptop and get another article read while the movie plays, since you have enough free time to watch a movie, after all! Clearly, you aren’t working hard enough.

It’s insane.

You will feel terrible, most of the time, about how little you are working in comparison to others, because everyone you know will tell you about how they work 24/7. Of course, they aren’t working the entire time … they’re playing on the internet or daydreaming or doing whatever you’re doing. But you’ll convince yourself that they’re all working … because they will brag about it (because academics love nothing more than bragging about how much they work), and because we are all conditioned to think that everyone else is doing more work than us, and that the reason we aren’t that successful is because we don’t work hard enough. So if someone else claims to be working more, they will clearly be more successful in their careers in the end. Hence, you are a slacker.

So you’ll beat yourself up mentally again.

And it’s not just what other people are bragging about doing that will get you down. You’ll also feel guilty and terrible about how little you’re working because you have “so much to do.” But you know what? The work on your to-do list is, mostly, all self-created. No one cares if you finish up that revision tonight, or tomorrow, or whenever. You don’t have a patient on the operating room who will die if you don’t do the surgery right then. You don’t have a project report due the next day. You don’t have a client in desperate need of counseling. You have some papers to grade by some undefined deadline, and some research that needs to be done, eventually.

Sure, you have to contend with some deadlines … you need to hand back student papers periodically, and there are deadlines for awards and stuff like that. And ultimately, you want extra lines to add to your CV. But on a daily basis, does it matter if that article gets finished up this week or next? Or if you read five more student papers tonight, or tomorrow? NO.

95% of the time, all of the work you have is self-created, and it only gains importance based on how much emphasis/weight you put on it. Theoretically, you should have little pressure on yourself. But in reality, you will convince yourself that everyone else is working 24/7 and that your work is of utmost important (since that's what everyone tells you). So you will self-impose an insane workload on yourself that will make you crazy. Absolutely crazy. Mark my words.

Pardon me, but that’s bullshit. It’s just work, not life and death.

But you’ll keep convincing yourself that everyone is working harder than you, and that THIS PIECE OF WORK is the most important thing ever, and that you’ll be a failure forever if you don’t finish it. So you’ll give yourself another guilt trip.

Your entire working life will become a cycle (stolen from the comments at 100 Reasons Not to Go):
1. Get no work done on a given day, and do whatever you want. It's great, because you don't have defined work hours! Yayy!!
2. Suffer from a panic attack (or just free-flowing, nondescript feelings of massive anxiety) when you realize you did no work that day. You'll cry, panic, yell at your loved ones, beat yourself up, and ultimately convince yourself that you'll never get a job/fellowship/whatever because you are such a slacker and the worst possible person in the world for taking a day off.
3. Regain your composure, and spent a few hours or possibly one full day at work. You'll get stuff done and feel good about yourself, and accomplished.
4. The next day, you'll reward yourself with a few hours or a full day off. And the cycle will then repeat itself when you realize that that "day off" secretly makes you a SuperSlacker. Cycle, rinse, repeat.

You will do this … most of us do. And it will drive you NUTS. Sure, there are a few people out there who genuinely love this insane work cycle. But for most people, having a massive pile of (mostly pointless) tasks on top of an unending free-space of available work hours with no defined start or end time, in a culture where everyone pretends to work 24/7 (or at least where the people who really do work 24/7 are the most admired)?

It will drive you NUTS. I guarantee, if you take time off, you will feel terrible and guilty about it. But if you work constantly, you will drive yourself crazy because no one can sustain that kind of work cycle endlessly and be mentally healthy. So it’s a lose/lose situation. You’re miserable if you work all the time, and you’re miserable if you take a day or two off.

And any job that takes that kind of mental toll on you is BULLSHIT and is not worth it. NO work is that important – least of all doing research no one will read and teaching apathetic students.


  1. "And any job that takes that kind of mental toll on you is BULLSHIT and is not worth it. NO work is that important – least of all doing research no one will read and teaching apathetic students."

    Yes, yes, yes. Told my PI that I was busy this weekend. Did that stop her/him from emailing me a bunch of giant PDFs of outdated crap? No, and of course grad student/co-author X was at the ready to reply moments later. Email comes in Saturday, I read it Monday and still haven't replied because I'm scared that I'll actually type, "I don't care. This whole thing is crap. Count me out."

  2. Oops--just realized that the quote I pulled out really had little to do with my comment, which was more suited to the overall post in general. But to reiterate:

    "NO work is that important – least of all doing research no one will read and teaching apathetic students."

    Writing things no one reads, unless you enjoy it immensely (I don't) is a waste of time. So is teaching people who don't give a crap. Add 'em together and know what you get? A wasted life. Not for me, thanks...

  3. I should be working now, but I'm tired.

  4. I just recently made the decision that I do not have to answer my emails on the weekends! I don't even have to turn my computer on! I have 5 days of the week for that and no reason to avoid spending lovely weekend days indoors, getting a square ass and becoming blind! No one will care either way...

  5. I realize this post is a couple of years old, but it is still SO TRUE to my experience that I feel the need to comment. Several months ago, grad students in my department were sent an email, from the professor in charge of the grad program, that included gems like this:

    "We have received some questions about how many hours a graduate student is expected to work. There is no easy answer, as what matters is your productivity, particularly in the form of good scientific papers. However, if you informally canvass the faculty (those people for whose jobs you came here to train), most will tell you that they worked 80-100 hours/week in graduate school. No one told us to work those hours, but we enjoyed what we were doing enough to want to do so. We were almost always at the office, including at night and on weekends. Nowadays, with the internet, it is fine to work from home sometimes, but you still miss out on learning from and forming collaborations with other graduate students when everyone does not work in the same place at the same time.

    "We realize that students with families will not have 80-100 hours/week to spend at work. Again, what matters most is productivity. Any faculty member or mentoring/thesis committee will be more than happy to work with any student to develop strategies to maximize productivity, even in those cases where the student is unable to devote more than 60 hours to their work per week."

    I'm not making this up. "Academics love nothing more than bragging about how much they work," indeed!

  6. "...develop strategies to maximize productivity, even in those cases where the student is unable to devote more than 60 hours to their work per week."

    Umm, yeah, academic work is almost never, if ever, life or death and the people (e.g. professors and administrators) that treat it as such are pretentious assholes. I can't reconcile that fact that the pressure in academia is so damn high for stakes that are so f**king low.