Is being a workaholic a condition for success in science?

Some relatives of mine have always been obsessed with the details of my work schedule. They were not really interested in the actual content of my research, but kept asking every time we met at what time I was expected to start working in the mornings, when was I allowed to leave work in the afternoon, how many days of holiday did I have per year, and so on. They were not alone: many of my friends, while I was pursuing my PhD, were also puzzled about what exactly I was doing at the university and how I spent my time there during the day.

So what actually do researchers all day round? How do they distribute their time? What on Earth does actually doing science really mean? Actually, we are pretty busy people, trying carry out at more or less the same time an ever-growing number of activities. To begin with, a researcher, specially if she is embedded into a university, is expected not only to carry out research, write papers, and request and secure external funding, she also has to teach, organise courses, supervise bachelor, master, and PhD thesis students, recruit teaching assistants, contribute to management tasks at the department, faculty, and university level, participate in selection committees of all sorts (hiring, promotion, evaluation, accreditation, curriculum), and one could go on more and more. On top of all this, one needs to add academic travels, participating in workshops and conferences, attending seminars, colloquia, and all kinds of related events. Moreover, note that several of these tasks can be considered on their own full-time jobs. It is thus natural to ask how at all is it possible to juggle all these responsibilities in a minimally efficient way? It would seem almost a mathematical impossibility to fit all of them within a 40-hour week ….

There are quite significant differences between expectation and truth concerning the time management of university professors.

These already tricky boundary conditions are rendered even more stressing by the intrinsic inefficiency of some of the core activities that constitute the everyday life of researchers. A prime example of this is applying for research funding. It is very difficult to be able to carry out your research program without first securing external financial support (and in some countries, like in The Netherlands, literally impossible since all grants are to some extent personal). In addition, one of the most important criteria for the stabilisation of tenure trackers and early career researchers is their demonstrated ability to attract external funding. All this would be very reasonable, if not for the fact that the plummeting success rates imply that most of the sizeable amount of effort that researchers invest in writing grant applications is demonstrably wasted time.

The same considerations apply to other facets of academia. For many of my colleagues, it is not the large workload that represents the most challenging aspect of their job, but rather it is the futility of many parts of it. In other words, it is not the hard work itself, but the pointlessness of some (or many) of our core activities, which is the source of endless frustration. Meetings, needless to say, fall also straight on in this category. It is not uncommon that I have back-to-back meetings the whole day, and I consider myself as someone with a relatively light teaching and management load. While some meetings are useful and productive, and thus necessary, some others are utterly irrelevant – nothing sinks your heart as having to sit through a 2-hour meeting with the certainty that this is time lost forever. Moreover, (many) academics are the kind of people that enjoy listening to themselves, so meetings often become a succession of incoherent interventions rather than a truly productive conversation.

Useless meetings also represent an effective way to wasting our very limited time, specially in academia where many people seriously enjoy listening to themselves.
These days, not even the best trained Artificial Intelligences can tell apart parody academic accounts from the genuine ones …

Given the many pressures of academia, and the limited time available, it is not surprising that one often hears or reads the statement that science cannot be considered as a regular nine-to-five job, and that committed researchers, if they really want to strive for excellence and be successful in their careers, should be able to sustain a workload of say 70 or 80 hours per week during extended period of times. In addition, they should also be able to endure endless travels, attend conferences all over the world for networking and to publicise their results, and accept all possible requests of service and committee memberships that they receive, without forgetting various other important duties such as for example being editors and referees of journals and academic publications. Needless to say again, the same people expect that scientists should also of course check their emails at all times, and reply immediately even late at night or during weekends and holidays. Is it therefore true that only those scientists so devoted to their work that they would deserve the appropriate label of workaholics will attain success and reach the pinnacles of Academia?

On the one hand, It cannot be denied that being successful in academia in general, and in scientific research in particular, requires to work very hard, to be focused and well organised, and to some extent also to make sacrifices in your personal life. On the other hand, it is a demonstrably false statement that success can only be achieved by systematic working overtime evenings, weekends, and even holidays. Sure, there are times when an extra push is required, for example to meet a deadline, or to finalise a publication, but as a general rule keeping a healthy balance between your work and personal life will in the long term make you a more effective (and thus succesful) scientist, and, even more importantly, a happier person. Moreover, while everyone is free to manage their time as they find more appropriate, those PIs (principal investigators) that impose this workaholism viewpoint to the junior members of their groups and expect nothing else from them than complete devotion with immediate replies to their email requests even on weekends and holidays, in addition to violating labor law, are deliberately putting them in a dangerous situation and making them likely to experience burn-out or be affected by the mental health issues that ravage academia.

Though deriving conclusions based on a N=1 sample is not very scientific, I have been basically working “office hours” my whole scientific life and I think I can be reasonably happy with the end result. This means in particular I have never worked on weekends and very seldom on evenings, unless there are deadlines that, procrastinators as we are, we struggle to meet at the last minute. And I don’t think for a minute that I would have been more succesful, productive, and happier had I worked overtime systematically, most likely the opposite would be true (not that I had much choice with childcare duties since the end of my PhD!). This said, this does not mean that I switch off my brain to science while I am outside the office, since I fear that I am well past this point. For example, I start putting together grant proposals or papers when doing household chores: in particular I strongly recommend vacuuming for pumping your imagination in case you need a catchy title for your proposal, in my experience this has worked pretty well 😉

Ok, all this is very nice, but still one has to manage a rather heavy workload. So how does this work in practice? Again speaking from my experience, I would say that they key point is not working more, but in working better and being more efficient and selective. Scientific research is not quite the same as say building a pyramid, where if you spend twice the time you will (hopefully) get twice the job done. There are many cases in which working more leads to diminishing return, and there is plenty of scientific evidence that productivity drops after working a given amount of hours. You simply cannot be productive for 12 hours in a row, no matter how you put it, at least in a systematic way. So with the risk of sounding like a dubious self-help guru, here you have some tips that can help in this respect.

  • Be very selective: attend only the really important seminars and conferences, and drop everything else. Try to ensure as much quality time as possible to write and carry out research, and if this involves not attending every single seminar or colloquia scheduled in your department, then so be it.
  • Say no to things. You don’t need to accept every possible invitation to give a talk abroad, to write an invited chapter or to participate in the organisation of that conference. All these things are important but also time consuming, so prioritise what are the most relevant opportunities and politely decline everything else.
  • Cluster you days in coherent groups of activities. For example, one can have days where all the meetings in the week are scheduled, including student supervision, or the days where one focuses only on writing papers or preparing lectures. You can have “teaching days”, “management days”, “research days”, and likewise, and in those days focus only on that activity and postpone everything else.
  • Do not check email compulsively. Check email maybe every hour or two hours, and only answer the really urgent ones. You can then answer the less urgent emails at a later stage. A very succesful physicists whom I know very well never checks his email during the week and only checks it and replies on Fridays (of course this person has an administrative assistant so please do not take him as example, but you see my point).
  • Choose carefully your research projects and collaborators. Toxic, inefficient, or absent collaborators can delay significantly the completion of a project and the production of scientific results, subtracting that much-needed time from other urgent tasks.
  • Never be afraid of dumping projects if at some point you see that it is leading nowhere. Cut your losses and move on, never get stuck just trying to finish something for the sake of it.

Many more could be said, but you get the idea. Work hard, but also work smart. Be selective and focus on what is important. And never postpone “real life” because of science, since then it might be difficult (or even impossible) to recover the lost time.

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