How Much Do You Work? An Assistant Prof’s Perspective

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Home office. The quote on the wall is The Man in the Arena.

A few months ago, I was inspired by Cait Flanders’ slow work experiment and decided to try one part of her experiment: tracking my work hours. Some professions have time-keeping built into their jobs (e.g., Xin’s billable hours or my friend who works for a defense contractor and has to charge every 6-minute increment to a project 😮 ). However, as a prof, I have a ton of time flexibility: as long as I don’t have in-person meetings or a class to teach, nobody could care less where I am. There aren’t any vacation days or sick days. I could be in Bora Bora 99% of the time, as long as I bring home the bacon (i.e., research funding).

There’s a whole culture of assistant professors working their butts off. There are legendary stories of very successful young profs working day and night, and I can certainly believe it based on their research output. But I also suspect there’s a bit of exaggeration going on too, akin to college students bragging about all-nighters. Philip Guo is one academic blogger who I like, and he’s written about working hours and estimated 45-60 hours per week. So I wanted to see where I stack up. I hypothesized that I would tend more towards the lower end of the workaholic spectrum, as I’ve observed I’m slightly more relaxed about work compared to my peers.

Number of Hours Worked

So for one month, I kept a spreadsheet of how much I worked, in 1/2 hour increments. I didn’t include lunch, breaks, or just plain ol’ procrastinating – only the hours where actual useful work was being done (including emails – they are useful as long as you can filter efficiently!) After one month, here are the results:Screen Shot 2018-07-24 at 7.50.07 PM.pngSummarizing, the statistics are:

  • Average weekday: 6.95 hours / day
  • Average weekend: 4.7 hours / day
  • Average week: 44.25 hours / week

I seem to have pretty chill weekdays, but make up for it by working on the weekends. Do other people work on weekends? My industry friends look at me like I have three heads if I tell them I worked on the weekend, but I think for academics, working on the weekend (at least a little bit, e.g. checking email) is pretty much the norm. Even senior folks will tend to reply to emails on the weekend or evenings, although nobody would be upset if you didn’t, as long as there wasn’t an impending deadline.

Oh yeah, and the typical academic calendar doesn’t really affect working hours. Finals week? Spring break? That just means fewer teaching responsibilities and more time to focus on research, yay. Right now it’s the summer, and although in general fewer people are in the office due to travels, there’s definitely still the expectation to work on research while there’s more breathing room, before the academic year starts.

In the short term, the time flexibility of academic positions comes in pretty handy. The day after my big deadline (the second Tuesday), I was completely burned out and decided to take the next day off. I cancelled all my meetings and spent the day binging on books, movies, and video games. I guess this wouldn’t have been possible in a regular job. It’s nice to be able relax completely rather than spend the day at the office pretending to work.

Time of Day Worked

For fun, I also plotted the time of day that I worked. Again, people couldn’t care less when I get into the office, as long as overall productivity and bacon-bringing is going well. Here’s that plot (the higher the bar, the more likely to work at that time):

Screen Shot 2018-07-24 at 8.40.42 PM.pngSeems like a bit of a late start most days, heh. About 10:30am-6pm seems to be the usual on weekdays, plus a burst of work around 10pm. I do find that second burst quite helpful. I usually come home, make and eat dinner, digest a bit while vegging out on the couch, then start up another session of work. Usually I’ll leave some easier work for the evening,  like replying to emails or doing boring admin stuff.

On weekends, the time distribution is fairly uniform. I think it’s because I alternated working on mornings/afternoons/evenings, depending on what other errands I had those days.

What I Learned

This was quite a fun little experiment! So what did I learn from all this? Here’re some observations:

  • I work less than I thought. Compared to my defense contractor friend, who usually bills 45-55 hours per week, or other academics, I seem to be on the low side. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. It’s good because I have a decent work-life balance? Or it’s bad because I’m not pushing myself and being as productive as my colleagues?
  • Quality over quanrity. On the days where I logged fewer hours, I was sometimes doing more useful/intense work, resulting in me stopping work earlier due to fatigue. On the days where I logged more hours, it was sometimes because I was stuck in some useless meetings. Number of hours worked isn’t everything.
  • You can’t push yourself too hard. On the day that I worked 11 hours, I was super burned out the next day. In general, on days when I worked a lot, the next day was usually lighter because my brain was tired. You only have a finite number of mentally-awake, productive work hours before you need a break.
  • An early start increases those productive hours. Still, if you want to increase your productivity, getting up early did help. On those mornings where I made myself start working earlier, say 8 or 9am (I know, I know! it’s *relatively* early for me, ok 😛 ), I was able to log more hours.
  • Tracking made me want to work more. I guess I’m a gold star chaser, because every time I logged an hour of work, I got a little adrenaline rush and wanted to improve my “score”. I was almost sad when the experiment was over. These are probably bad tendencies.
  • My gross pay is $64/hour. With taxes and everything taken out (let’s say 50% total), my net pay (salary / hours) is ~$32/hour. That certainly puts random purchases into perspective. A pair of $100 shoes = 3 hours of work? That’s more hours than I was expecting!

What do you think is a reasonable workweek? If you work, how many hours do you work? Do you work on the weekend?

4 thoughts on “How Much Do You Work? An Assistant Prof’s Perspective

  1. As a forty-something academic, my experience is that people exaggerate their hours by either including unproductive hours or by guesstimating based on their level of exhaustion or overwhelmed-ness. (This goes for industry, too.) People feel tired at the end of the week, and they reach for an estimate of hours that matches their feelings, not necessarily the facts. My understanding is that for jobs (like law) with billable hours, there’s inflation going on as well because tasks just don’t take as long as they’re “supposed” to.

    (The exceptions are those areas where the employee doesn’t have control over when they must engage and when they can sneak a quick break – Amazon warehouse workers, preschool teachers, nurses, etc.)

    (Subtext: you’re a hard worker; don’t sell yourself short by being overly credible on others’ self-reports.)

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    • Yeah, it’s so hard to estimate working hours, so that’s why I wanted to do this tracking experiment. I’d never thought about inflation – it makes sense. Although I can’t imagine that people are literally, say, surfing Facebook or something, and counting that as billable hours. I suppose inflation could be done by taking extra time on a particular task. I think I suffer from the opposite problem – I’m usually trying to hurry myself on a particular task, because I would be embarrassed if someone found out how much time I spent, say, crafting the perfect email or thinking about a problem that’s probably trivial but takes me a long time to absorb.

      Thanks for the encouragement 🙂

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  2. Lawyers definitely have an unusually restrictive way of thinking about working/”billable” hours! (I hear that business consultants also sort of “bill” time, even though their fees are project-based rather than based directly on their hours.) The billable hour model isn’t the best, alas, as it doesn’t incentivize “working hard, not smart”, and there’s a fair bit of office time spent doing administrative work or working on our duties to the firm (recruiting, attending firm-mandated training, etc.) that are “lost” because they’re not billable.

    Interesting to know that the academic calendar doesn’t affect working hours much! I think I always imagined that professors would have much more free time during the summer because teaching takes up so many of their hours during the school year (but back when I was in school, I didn’t fully appreciate the demands of their research work and administrative duties!). That flexibility that professors have sounds really lovely, as someone who has less scheduling and telecommuting flexibility now than when I started. (I’d love having the ability to work from home sometimes at my discretion… Someday, hopefully.)

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    • Ha, well to be honest, the summer months are definitely a bit more relaxed 🙂 Some of my colleagues disappear for a month or so, and in general there are fewer external deadlines to put the pressure on. I like the summer because it’s easier to spend more time with the students and the research, whereas during the academic year what with teaching and other responsibilities, I feel more like a manager/ fundraiser than actually working on research ideas. But that might be because of STEM – I think liberal arts fields (or even law?) have different academic lifestyles.

      Yeah, you can’t really put a price on time flexibility, it’s definitely one of the “perks” I appreciate the most! And I don’t really see people abusing it, as I guess we’re all trained to keep on the gas pedal, on average over a longer time period. Luckily my field doesn’t have lab work, as those people tend to more chained to the lab. I’ll keep my computers and remote access, thank you 🙂

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